The Truth Dawns in Fire -Edited-
Helgen had been destroyed. A thick screen of black smoke billowed up to the heavens as the remains of the small town was consumed by unrelenting flames. The wooden houses were either reduced to cinders or still burning, the stables looked as if they had taken a trebuchet's munition, and the inn had caved in on itself like a rotten pumpkin. One of the town's giant stone watchtowers, once having proudly bore the Imperial banner, emblazoned with the Empire's Dragon sigil, lay shattered in the courtyard.
Broken, charred bodies were strewn about the entire town, having been burnt to the point that flesh and bone became very nearly warped into charcoal. The wails of the doomed citizens and the shouts of the town's guards had ceased long ago. No cries of pain nor screams of terror emanated from the ruined settlement now; there were none left alive to utter them. The entire town was a barren wasteland devoid of life.
Ralof ran out of the cavern behind him, clutching his bloodied war axes in both hands, his squinting eyes adjusting themselves to the late-afternoon sun after having spent so much time in the caves. Quickly, almost as if in disbelief, the Nord's icy-blue eyes took in the sight of the beautiful snow-covered landscape that lay beyond the yawning cave entrance, seeing the massive pine forests and mountains in the distance. His blond hair was matted and dirty, and his pale, bearded face was stained with soot and blood. His Stormcloak armor was not much better off, sporting multiple lacerations and tears in the cuirass and fabric as testament to the multiple brushes with death he'd faced within the last hour.
A small gust of wind passed by him, cooling down his hot skin; the caverns he'd just escaped from were cold and damp, but the multiple melees he'd gotten into within them had made him hot. Feeling the cool Skyrim breeze against his skin, Ralof nearly fell to his knees with relief; it was a feeling that he never thought he'd feel again, especially after having survived the ordeal that had destroyed Helgen and taken the lives of so many others. But not his.
Ralof allowed his arms to go limp at his sides, his axes still held tight in his grip. An exhausted sigh blew past his chapped lips. "We've done it... we're alive..." he murmured tiredly, sheathing an axe and running a dirty hand over his tired face.
The Nord waited for a response from his comrade, but he received none. He turned around curiously, wondering about his friend's silence. He was met with the sight of the empty cavern entrance.
"Hey! Are you alright?" he shouted into the cavern. Again, nobody responded. Had the man gotten ambushed behind his back?
His fears were assuaged when he heard the man's voice approaching: "Wait up, Nord! I'm here, I'm here..."
Ralof watched with relief as his newfound friend, the man whom he'd escaped the destruction of Helgen with, stepped into view of the entrance. "I nearly thought you'd gotten ambushed again by another of those giant spiders," he remarked light-heartedly.
"I just had to get my arrows back from the bear we killed," the man replied, stepping out into the sunlight. He stopped once he was out of the cave and took a deep breath, letting it out in a tired sigh, just as Ralof had done. "Never thought I'd see the light of another day..."
The man was an Argonian, a rare sight in Skyrim, being so far to the north from his homeland in the South. Soot and dried blood stained the reptile's dark-green scales. Dark red war-paint ran over his golden-colored eyes, tapering off at his neck. Two horns sprouted out the back of his head in a curving V-shape, and smaller horns lined the crest of his brow, almost like human eyebrows. The man was clad in the standard armor of an Imperial legionary, a mix of leather and chain-mail; a longbow and a half-full quiver of arrows were slung over his shoulder; and sheathed at his side were an Imperial gladius and a steel dagger.
A ground-shaking roar made them both immediately drop into a low crouch. Pressing themselves flat against a large boulder nearby, the two of them lifted their heads, their faces pale with renewed fear, to take in the sight of the Dragon flying above Helgen.
The gigantic firedrake soared over the dead town like a circling vulture to rotting carrion. The beast's charcoal-black body was covered in huge, curving spikes. Two giant, gnarled horns, black like ebony, twisted out of its head almost like the crown of an evil king. Its huge head was craned downward, its blood-red eyes observing the destruction it had left in its wake.
The Dragon roared once more, before flapping its wings and flying off. The Nord and the Argonian watched with wide, frightened eyes as the legendary beast became a diminishing figure on the horizon. Once the black dot had finally receded into Oblivion, the two of them let out a relieved sigh.
Ralof peeled himself away from the rock the two of them had been hiding behind, sheathing his other axe. He took a few steps in the direction the Dragon had flown and stopped, scanning the horizon. The Dragon did not come back. "Looks like the damned thing is finally gone..."
He looked over his shoulder at the Argonian. The trembling man was still hiding behind the rock, his breath still hitched in fear and his eyes still wide with fright. The Dragon was gone, but for some reason, terror still kept him frozen in place, as if any movement he made might catch the Dragon's attention and have it return.
"Hey, you alright?" Ralof asked, concerned.
The Argonian started briefly, and looked back at him. The reptile nodded, taking in a shaky breath. "I-I'm fine," he responded lowly as he stood up, finally seeming to calm down. The reptile let out a sigh, holding his head in a hand. "Gods, what a wretched day this has been..."
"Aye, it has. But at least we may still draw breath to live another day," Ralof responded grimly, thinking about the rest of his squadron, their burning bodies left to rot inside the damned town; it wouldn't take long for the vultures to find them.
"Just barely. Were it not for those caves leading out here, we'd probably be dead now," the Argonian remarked, pulling his hand away from his head. He looked around uncertainly for a moment before looking back at the Nord. "So now what do we do?"
Ralof huffed out a breath as he thought. He turned to look around for any notable landmarks that could help give him a general idea of where the caverns had left them. He spotted Bleak Falls Barrow in the distance. Quickly going over a map of Skyrim in his head, he remembered where Helgen was with respect to the Barrow.
"We're directly North of Helgen right now," Ralof finally said. "We're in luck: Riverwood's the closest town from here, and my sister runs the mill there. She can help us out."
"Are you sure it's alright?" the Argonian asked dubiously.
"Of course," Ralof nodded. "She and I were close, and she's not one to turn a blind eye to someone in need. I'm sure she'll help us out."
The Argonian nodded in relief. "Okay, then. Thank you...?"
"Ralof," the Nord told him. "And you're welcome. Having helped me get out of that place alive, I believe that I should help you find aid in return." The two of them began walking down to the nearest road in sight. From there, they would hopefully be able to make their way towards Riverwood before the day was out.
"You know, I don't think I quite caught your name, Argonian," the Stormcloak remarked casually. Ralof looked over his shoulder at the Argonian, expectant of an answer.
The reptilian man easily replied: "My name is Archer."
"There's Riverwood over there," Ralof said, pointing out the small town in the distance after half an hour of walking. "It's not too far from here now. Come on, let's go."
Archer nodded, and the two of them broke out into a jog towards the town. The air had gotten warmer after the two of them had left the entrance of the caves. Snow no longer capped everything in sight; down at a lower elevation, the land was covered with lush boreal forests, just like the ones that Archer had traversed back at home in Cyrodiil.
"Aside from the cold, this place almost reminds me of home," Archer commented as the two of them jogged down the road.
"Oh really? They have pine trees in Black Marsh?" Ralof asked.
Archer shook his head. "Not Black Marsh. Cyrodiil's where I grew up."
"Cyrodiil, hm? Figures. I didn't think you were from Black Marsh; you've got that Cyrodilic accent for it, anyhow."
"I grew up speaking it all my life. I should hope that I sound like it."
"And you do. I've heard your kind is good at assimilating into human society. Seems to me like it's true, as well... I'm guessing that's why you don't have a native Argonian name either, is that right?"
Archer would have responded, but he was cut short by a pair of feral snarls. The sound sent a shiver down his spine, and forced the two of them to come to a stop and whirl around to face the sound.
Two gray wolves stood a few yards away from the two of them, their ears pressed flat against their skulls as their hungry brown eyes bored into them, their prey. Their lips were pulled back just enough to reveal curved fangs. Archer knew from experience that their jaws could harness enough strength to shatter an elk's femur without struggle — to say nothing of a Man or Argonian's windpipe.
Ralof was quicker to react than Archer and pulled out his two war axes, before the Argonian finally unsheathed the Imperial gladius at his side, being too close to use his longbow. One wolf charged at Ralof, clamping its jaws around the wooden haft of one of his axes, purposefully lowered as a distraction, while he swung the other axe into its flank. The wolf let go of the axe with a snarl and snapped at Ralof's other axe as it backed off, leaving Archer to contend with the second wolf alone.
Archer's wolf barreled towards him recklessly. The Argonian readied himself and swung his Imperial sword overhead, but the wolf pounced Archer, knocking him backwards onto the ground as his blade flew out of his grip. Archer barely had time to raise his hands and grip the predator's throat before it could clamp its jaws down on his neck. The Argonian struggled as the wolf snapped at him furiously, digging his sharp claws into the animal's throat in hopes of pushing him off; but the wolf was stronger than him, and didn't seem to mind the pain as it positioned itself to crush Archer's windpipe.
The next moment, Ralof's boot kicked the wolf in the ribs, causing the animal to yelp in surprise as it was knocked off of Archer. The Nord stepped over the Argonian and sent his war axe into the surprised wolf's skull before it could recover. A spurt of blood reached Archer and smattered across his face as the beast died with one final pained whine.
Ralof panted from his exertions before looking over his shoulder at the Argonian. "You okay?"
"Yeah," Archer assured shakily, standing back up after retrieving his fallen blade. A few feet away lay the second wolf's body. A huge, bleeding laceration notched its neck where Ralof's axe had struck.
"Nothing like a good fight to get your blood pumping, ain't that right?" Ralof asked with a smile, companionably slapping Archer on the back, knocking the Argonian a step forward.
"I'm not much of a fighter. Not like you, anyways," Archer replied after he recovered, sheathing his sword. Ralof subtly raised a finger to his cheek, tapping it. Archer quickly wiped away the wolf's blood off his face, shaking his hand with a disgusted grimace afterward.
"Don't worry about whether you're a fighter or not," Ralof told him. "To me, at least, it doesn't matter if you aren't a warrior; not everybody was meant to be one. A man's true worth doesn't only lay in his sword arm anyways." The Nord briefly scanned the surrounding forest. "Come on, let's keep moving. I've been ambushed enough times today, and I don't want to get jumped again."
The two of them resumed their pace along the road until they finally reached the small town. Archer and Ralof walked under the wooden arch that signaled the entryway into Riverwood. The Argonian looked around, wondering what the town guards would think if they caught sight of him and Ralof walking together, a Nord Stormcloak and an Argonian in Legionary armor. He saw no guards at the moment, but there were plenty of townspeople ambling through, some of them sending Archer and Ralof strange looks their way. Probably never seen an Argonian before, Archer reckoned.
"Doesn't seem as if anybody has gotten word of what happened to Helgen," Ralof observed, looking at the townspeople going about their day.
"Where would we find your sister?" Archer asked, following Ralof across a short wooden bridge that ran over part of a fast-flowing river.
"She runs the mill, so she might still be working at this time," Ralof responded, heading towards a wooden lumber-mill. A stout-looking Nord man was currently hewing a large log with the mill's equally-large saw blade. Down on the ground level, a woman was bent over a working table placed beside the mill. Ralof approached the woman.
"Greetings, sister," Ralof said with warm smile. The woman turned to face them. Archer noted the similarities between her and Ralof: both shared natural blond hair and blue eyes. She started when she suddenly noticed the Stormcloak's presence beside her, but her face lit up in recognition moments later.
"Ralof! Dearest brother, it's you!" she rejoiced, throwing her arms around him in an embrace.
"It is good to see you again, Gerdur," Ralof replied with a smile, patting her on the back.
The Nord woman pulled back. "I heard that your unit had been captured. Was it a rumor, or did you escape? Are you injured?" She immediately began looking Ralof over for any signs of injury. Gerdur's eyes widened as she noticed all the gashes, dried blood, and soot on Ralof's armor.
"Shor's bones, what happened to you?" she asked, appalled.
Ralof tried to wave her off. "Gerdur I'm fine, there's no need to fuss over me. My friend here was adept at healing magic and mended my wounds." Ralof jabbed a thumb at Archer, who stepped forth to make himself known.
It was then that Gerdur finally took notice of Archer. Her eyes widened, and she looked back at her brother as if he were a man gone mad. "You befriended an Imperial?"
"He's not an Imperial, sister; that I can swear to you," Ralof assured her. He looked over his shoulder at Archer, then back to Gerdur. "Sister, can we please sit down somewhere quiet? My friend and I will explain everything, but we need to speak, now."
"Why? Has something happened?" Gerdur asked, concerned.
Ralof's expression turned stony. "Yes. Something big. Very big. Possibly bigger than even the Civil War." Gerdur's blue eyes went wide.
"Very well. We will speak," Gerdur told him, nodding. She turned towards the lumber-mill. "Hod! Come down here!"
The Nord man Archer had seen manning the lumber-mill earlier came into view. "What is it, Gerdur? Is Sven drunk on the job again?" the Nord asked in what sounded like only a half-jest. The man's eyes caught sight of Ralof and Archer, and his eyes flew open. "What in the world...?"
"Hod, just come down here," Gerdur commanded. The Nord man needed no further prodding, and he began to make his way down to their level. The three of them began making their way towards a large tree stump, presumably where they would have their talk.
"Uncle Ralof!" a youthful voice cried out. Archer turned to see a young lad with blond hair running up to them, a large Wolfhound happily lagging behind him, its tongue lolling out its mouth.
Ralof turned to the boy with a smile on his face. "Frodnar! It's good to see you again, nephew," he said, lowering himself to accept the boy's embrace.
"It's good to see you too, uncle!" the boy answered excitedly, pulling away. "Are you gonna stay here with us for a while? Can I see your axe? How many Imperials have you..."
The boy suddenly caught sight of Archer as he came up behind Ralof. The boy's expression immediately turned to one of shock. "Uncle Ralof! It's an Imperial! Kill him!"
Realizing who the child was referring to, Archer let out an annoyed huff; he suspected that this probably was not going to be the last time somebody mistook him for a Legionnaire, as long as he wore their armor. It wasn't as if he had much of a choice; he had nothing else to wear after the Imperials took his clothes.
Ralof shot Archer an amused smirk over his shoulder. "I told you that you should have taken the Stormcloak armor."
"But there was a dead man in it," Archer protested, crossing his arms. Ralof shrugged and turned back to the confused boy.
"Lad, he's not an Imperial soldier," Ralof explained with a smile, "he's a friend. He helped me escape from the Imperials."
The boy looked at Archer donned in the studded Imperial armor, and then turned back to Ralof. "So he isn't an Imperial... then is he a Stormcloak? Is he your comrade, uncle?"
Archer shook his head, but he allowed himself a rueful smile. "No, I'm no Stormcloak, that is for certain... Though after what happened to me today, I might consider it."
The remark was meant in jest — with only basic skills in sword-fighting to fall back on, there was no army recruiter in his right mind who would let someone like him onto the battlefield... Lest it was for target practice. However, from his position behind him Archer noticed Ralof's cheeks turn up slightly in what had to have been a smile. He hoped that the Nord hadn't taken the joke seriously.
Hod finally came into sight, and Ralof looked back to his nephew. "Why don't you go watch the South road, in case any real Imperials come by?" he suggested.
The boy shot up straight and touched a fist to his breast in an army-style salute. "I won't let you down, uncle!" he promised.
As the boy ran off with his Wolfhound, Hod neared the group of people waiting for him. "Ralof! What are you doing here? I thought you were still on campaign," Hod remarked as he neared. The Nord's keen eyes passed over both Ralof and Archer, giving the Argonian an especially strange look upon noticing his armor.
"Who's this? A Legionary?" he asked, looking Archer up and down. The Argonian resisted the temptation to let out yet another annoyed huff.
"My name is Archer," Archer quickly replied, answering before Ralof could do so for him; he didn't want the Nord speaking in his stead all the time. "I helped Ralof evade capture by the Imperials. Please don't mind the armor; it was either this, or wearing a Stormcloak cuirass off a dead body."
The Argonian tentatively offered his hand to shake. Hod looked at him uncertainly, but after a moment's hesitation he shook it. The man's grip was as strong as iron. Hod turned back to Ralof.
"What's going on here? Why have you come to Riverwood looking like you tried to break through an Imperial testudo?" Hod asked, eyeing the numerous gashes in both of their armor.
Hod scented the air briefly, then wrinkled his nose. "And why do you two smell like you burst out of a burning building?"
"Because we did," Archer replied, earning shocked looks from Hod and Gerdur.
"Ralof? What is he talking about?" Gerdur asked worriedly, turning to her brother. Hod looked confused, but evidently even he could tell by the fear in Gerdur's tone that there was something amiss.
Ralof let out a weary sigh. "Come, let's sit. It's about time we told you what happened."
The Stormcloak soldier let himself fall backwards into his seat on the tree stump, and Archer took the opportunity to sit beside him — he hadn't had a chance to rest properly for days, let alone sit down comfortably, and his legs were aching him greatly. With nowhere else to sit, Gerdur and Hod remained standing, looking at the two men expectantly.
"Truth be told, I don't know where to start," Ralof began, running a hand through his dirty hair. "Forgive me if I forget exact details; I haven't slept since my unit had been captured at Darkwater Crossing... and that had been about three days ago."
"That's fine, just take your time, boy," Hod told him.
Ralof continued his story: "Right, so where to begin... We'd been walking for the greater part of the day when Jarl Ulfric ordered a camp to be set up. Not an hour later the Legion attacked us. Those Legionaries cut swaths through our men. They outnumbered us by at least three to one; I suspect that they had known we would be coming. Jarl Ulfric surrendered when it was clear that we were doomed. The Imperials then bound us and sent us to be immediately executed at Helgen."
"Executed? And they didn't even give Ulfric a trial? The cowards," Gerdur hissed, a dark scowl on her face.
"No, they didn't," Ralof replied, with an undertone of bitterness. "Neither did they decide to spare my friend here, innocent though he was," he added, motioning to Archer beside him.
"Why did he get captured?" asked Hod, eyeing Archer suspiciously.
"Hell if I know!" Archer suddenly growled. Hod flinched from the Argonian's heated reply, and Archer winced. He added demurely, "I was just walking through the area. I'm an adventurer from Cyrodiil, I meant no harm; I guess I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time."
"Shows you how just and fair the Empire can be, doesn't it?" Ralof asked, adding a disdainful humph afterward.
"How did you two escape?" Gerdur pressed, attempting to urge an answer out of her brother.
Ralof's expression turned grave once again, his mouth becoming a pale, hard line on his face. "A Dragon attacked Helgen as we were being executed."
Gerdur and Hod's faces twisted with confusion. The two gave each other strange looks, before turning back to Ralof and Archer.
"A Dragon? Is this a jest?" Hod asked, incredulous and clearly not believing a word of it.
"Hod, I do not think he is joking," Gerdur told him with a serious expression. Hod turned to face her with an astonished look. "I saw something flying over the Barrow earlier this afternoon, before these two showed up. Something large. It was certainly no bird."
Hod's eyes widened, and his face turned more pale than normal. "So it's true, isn't it? A real Dragon... just like the myths of old? Powerful, big as an inn?"
"I'd say so," Ralof answered, nodding grimly.
"Heck, you could have probably ridden a horse down its maw," Archer added darkly. "The beast spat out death and destruction on a whim. It attacked everyone without mercy, laying their houses low without effort... I do not know much about the legends myself, but I wouldn't be surprised if what they say about a Dragon's terrible strength proves itself to be accurate."
"Good Gods, that is horrible!" Gerdur uttered, her face even more pale than natural.
"Were none left alive?" Hod asked uncertainly.
"That depends... did anybody come down the South road before us?" Ralof asked him.
Hod shook his head. "No. I've been at work all afternoon and I've not seen another soul pass through this entire day. You two were the first." The response left them in a sullen silence. A dark cloud passed over them as they realized what the answer implied.
"So we're the only ones to make it out, then?" Archer asked bleakly. The Argonian could still remember how the town's exits had all been blocked during the Dragon's attack by the debris of fallen towers or collapsed archways. He'd hoped that the soldiers had managed to find a way to evacuate the townspeople, or at least lead them to someplace safe to wait out the attack; but it seemed that the Dragon had made sure to spare no one.
Ralof put a solicitous hand on Archer's shoulder. "Ours wasn't the only way out; I'm sure there were more survivors than us. And if not... then may they rest easy in Sovngarde." Ralof's voice held confidence that Archer could not seem to match, but the Argonian felt comforted by his companionship regardless.
"How ever did you two survive the Dragon's ire?" Gerdur murmured in wonder.
"While the Imperials were busy attempting to take down the Dragon, Archer and I took the opportunity to escape. We took refuge inside Helgen's keep, armed ourselves, and fought our way out," Ralof replied. "I doubt that I would have gotten out of there alive, were it not for him," he added, nudging his head in Archer's direction.
"This Argonian saved your life?" Gerdur asked, intrigue quickly supplanting suspicion on her expression as she regarded the reptile.
"Aye, that he did," Ralof responded, nodding. "He's remarkable with a bow, even with one as cheap as that longbow he borrowed... but he's not much of a swordsman, I'll admit. I'd reckon he's better off fighting with his hands bare, than with a blade in them."
"Oh really?" Hod snorted, shaking his head with a smirk on his face.
Archer pursed what little amount of lip he had in annoyance; it didn't take long for these Nords to start seeing him as a weakling, it seemed. Before he could make a retort, Ralof hastily added, "Oh, I didn't mean it in a bad way, not at all! I meant it as a compliment."
"Oh?" Hod asked, cocking a brow.
Ralof gave Archer an apologetic look, before looking back at Hod. "I didn't mean to say he is incompetent with a blade — he knows how to attack with a sword properly, at least. What I did mean to say, however, was that he knows how to fight with his bare hands. He disarmed an Imperial without using a weapon at all, then killed him with his own blade!"
Archer could barely suppress his smirk upon seeing the astonished expressions on the two Nords' faces. While his ability to disarm and kill an armed opponent with his bare hands was not one which he was proud of — killing people weighed more heavily on his conscience than killing animals — he still found it amusing how difficult it seemed to be for people to fathom the idea that someone with a frame like his could take down an armed opponent; he was fit enough to use a bow for extended periods of time, but he wasn't exactly muscle-bound, the way these Nords were famed for being.
"Really now?" Hod asked curiously. "I've never heard of someone being able to do that before..."
"Gerdur," Ralof said, refocusing the conversation, "I was hoping that perhaps you would allow me and my friend to stay with you for a bit, to rest and resupply. Is that alright with you?"
"Of course, brother," Gerdur replied, nodding. "I'll be glad to help out in any way I can. To both of you," she added, nodding towards Archer in turn. The Argonian smiled with relief at the first true bit of good news in all day, and bowed his head gratefully.
"Thank you, sister," Ralof said with a smile. "I promise we won't be a burden."
Gerdur looked skyward briefly, though it seemed more like she was checking the time than checking for any Dragons. "Well, I'm glad you returned safely, brother. I wish I could properly greet you, but I should get back to work now. Want to finish up before it gets too dark."
"Don't worry about them; I'll show them to the house," Hod told her.
"And I'll get dinner started while I'm there, then," Ralof remarked. The two Nord men began to make their way to the house in the distance. Archer turned to Gerdur.
"I deeply appreciate your help," he told her, bowing his head once again with gratitude. "I know that all this seems abrupt and spontaneous. I wish the circumstances were more favorable, but—"
"It is no problem," the woman said affably. "Ralof has never befriended someone unworthy, and I trust his judgement; and besides, you seem like the good sort."
Her response evoked a small, barely noticeable smile from the Argonian; perhaps not all these Nords were as suspicious of outsiders as he'd taken them to be. Ralof's family, at least, seemed friendly enough. "If there is anything I could do to repay you, then I'd be glad to help," he offered.
The woman smiled, but she shook her head. "Don't worry about that now; from what I can see you've been through just as much as Ralof. But if something comes up I'll let you know."
As Gerdur was about to walk away, a thought occurred to Archer. "Excuse me, miss?" Gerdur stopped and turned around. "Does this town have any place I can buy supplies from?" he asked.
Gerdur nodded and pointed off to the side. "You'll want the Riverwood Trader, just by the road there."
Archer nodded. He had a few items he'd taken from Helgen that were worth some value; he wagered he could sell them for a tidy sum, now that they were no longer needed nor wanted. "Thank you. I'll take my leave, then."
Archer briskly loped off towards the shop. Once he reached the door, the faint murmur of voices reached his ears. By the sound of it there was an ongoing argument within the shop. Curious, Archer opened the door. Inside there was a young woman standing a few feet away from the shop owner, her hands at her hips in disapproval.
"Is that it, then? Are you just going to allow those villains to make away with our property?" the woman demanded.
"I have to! We cannot go out there and retrieve it ourselves! Those bandits would murder us!" the man argued, adding a swift cutthroat gesture to emphasize his point. "We just have to accept the fact that it's gone, alright?"
"Am I... interrupting something?" Archer asked awkwardly. The two humans swiftly turned their heads to regard him with surprise. "I was just hoping to make a quick transaction, but I can come back later—"
"Oh no, that won't be necessary," the pawnbroker assured. "I'll be glad to help you today."
The woman turned to him. "This isn't over," she told him, pointing a finger in his direction before stalking off to another corner of the room.
Archer carefully made his way to the counter, shooting the woman a curious glance over his shoulder. "Pay my sister no mind, she's just out of sorts this day," the shop owner murmured as Archer approached. Then, in a louder voice, "So, what can I do for you, sir?"
Archer gave him a strange look, but he said, "Well, I was hoping to make a deal here..."
A few transactions later, Archer was grabbing the items he had purchased from the countertop and putting them into a bag. He'd bought a few potions of different types and a new set of clothes to replace the ones that the Imperials had taken from him when he'd been captured; a dark green cotton shirt and tough brown pants.
"So what were you two arguing about earlier?" he asked casually, carefully putting a small red vial into his bag, a healing potion.
As he'd suspected, the shopkeeper immediately fixed Archer with a suspicious glare. "What's it to you?" he asked.
Archer shrugged. "It seemed as if you got hit by thieves, though from what I can see they decided not to sack all your supplies for some reason. I just wanted to know what really happened," he explained, attempting to sound unassuming as possible. "You wouldn't mind indulging in a passerby's curiosity, would you?"
The man seemed reluctant to part with the information regarding the thieves, looking aside uneasily. "Well, I suppose that it makes no difference now," the man eventually sighed. "I held a precious ornament in this shop. It was made of solid gold, shaped like a Dragon's claw. I kept it right here on the countertop..." he patted his table to show where he would have placed it. "The people that pass by have always complimented on how nice it looked."
"And we would still have it if you would let me try and get it back," his sister remarked across the room, just loud enough for both men to hear her.
"Camilla, enough of this," the man groaned in exasperation. "I've already told you that I will not let you go by yourself to that wintry Barrow full of cutthroats!"
"Bandits are no small threat, especially to someone untrained in fighting," Archer put in, regarding the thin Imperial woman who had likely never even swung one of the swords that the Trader held. "Fighting with a sword is a bit more complicated than just making sure you stick them with the pointy end."
"You see? Even he agrees that you shouldn't go," the shopkeeper commented, giving his sister a smug grin. The woman narrowed her eyes at Archer in annoyance.
"On the other hand," Archer suddenly added, seeing her glare, "there's still a chance for you two to retrieve your precious ornament. I could get it back for you."
The shopkeeper and his sister both regarded Archer with intrigue. "You could?" the merchant asked.
Archer nodded genuinely, hoping to seem honest. "I've dealt with bandits before, though not too often, I'll admit. But I was a hunter back in Cyrodiil, and I know how to sneak quietly enough to get within twenty paces of a stag; and my aim with a bow is good, too. They'll never hear or see me coming, and I'll be in and out with your ornament before they notice it missing.
The man nodded appreciatively, and his sister smiled. "So you're also a sellsword too, then? Are you sure your superiors do not mind if you embarked on this task?" he asked Archer.
The Argonian gave him a strange look, wondering what he meant by mention of 'his superiors'. It was then that Archer realized he was still wearing the armor of an Imperial Legionnaire; it wouldn't do to tell them he wasn't a soldier. Thinking quickly, he looked at the man and answered, "Right now, I've got a good deal of leeway; I'm sure they won't mind."
"Excellent!" the man said, clapping his hands together. "I've got a big shipping of coin coming in from my last deal. It's yours if you can return here with the Claw."
This time, Archer smiled. "You've got yourself a deal," the Argonian told him. The two of them shook hands. "I must really be going now. You can give me all the details in the morning, and I'll set off."
"Very well. Have a good night," the man said as Archer departed from the Riverwood Trader.
Archer exited the shop and glanced at the sky, checking the time. It was beginning to grow dark, and he was tired. He made his way over to the building where he last saw Ralof and Hod approach and went inside.
Archer was greeted with the sight of an open fireplace against the opposite wall with a steady flame burning under a stewpot, which was being tended to by Ralof. The inside of Hod and Gerdur's home wasn't too large, but it was comfortable. Large animal pelts hung on the walls and lay on the floor to serve as carpets while goat-horn candle sconces sat on tables and hung from the ceilings in candelabra fashion.
"This is a cozy little place," Archer remarked as he looked around. He briefly admired an impressive-looking Elk trophy mounted on a far wall. "Nice trophy."
"I shot that one myself," Hod remarked from behind a small bar, pulling out the cork stopper from a bottle of mead. "Wanted him for the venison, but the head was a nice trophy worth keeping."
"Hod, can I use one of these rabbits for the stew?" Ralof asked aloud, pointing out a few dead rabbits hanging from a rack.
"Sorry, Ralof. We're saving those to dry for the winter," Hod replied, shaking his head.
"Bummer," Ralof said, his shoulders sagging. "I guess we'll be eating a light stew, then." Archer could see that the Nord had prepared some chopped vegetables on the side to fill the stew.
"If you really want some meat in that stew you can always load it with some slaughterfish, you know," Hod suggested, taking a draw from his drink.
"Yes, I know. It's what we eat all the time while on campaign," Ralof answered tiredly, obviously bored of eating fish so often.
Archer thought for a moment. It wasn't too dark outside, perhaps he could take a moment to shoot a rabbit or pheasant. It wouldn't be too hard; he'd heard that Skyrim's forests were usually wilder than Cyrodiil's.
"Hold that thought, Ralof. I'll get you something," the Argonian told him. He quickly turned and exited the house again before Ralof could reply. Running out of the town, Archer pulled his longbow off his back and trekked into the forest that lay South of Riverwood. The forests here were of sparse vegetation, so he could easily find prey in this location.
Archer looked around as he made his way deeper into the bush, surrounded on all sides by tall pines and evergreens. The forests here were, if possible, more lush and thick than the forests of Cyrodiil. He certainly felt much smaller amongst the huge trees here than he did back at home, though the sounds of nature were still the same; birdsong and the sound of a nearby running river came to his ears. He felt right at home amongst the bushes and foliage, blending in, on the hunt for prey; he barely noticed the fatigue that had been bothering him earlier that afternoon. Skyrim's forests, he decided, were just as beautiful as the ones he'd left behind. Perhaps he'd end up staying in this country for a while.
Luck was on his side this hunt, it seemed; a few minutes into his hunt he found a plump rabbit eating snowberries, unaware of his presence. His shot skewered it through the eye in a clean kill. He quickly grabbed the freshly-killed game and ran back to Riverwood with it just as night began to fall upon the land in earnest. He reached Hod and Gerdur's house and entered.
The house at this time was now full, and the sound of his entrance brought everyone's heads round to look at him. With a proud smile, Archer held up the rabbit he'd shot. "Just a little something to add to the stew," he said.
Ralof smiled as Archer walked up to the table beside him and pulled out his dagger. "Impressive, Archer. I didn't think you'd be able to find anything that quickly; and such a good one, too."
"Yes, he's a plump fellow. I'd say I got lucky this time; but I won't say that luck alone led me to the rabbit," he replied, cutting the animal open.
"Looks like you saved us from eating a light stew this time," Ralof joked, tending to his cooking. "Or at least, you saved me from having to resort to more Slaughterfish. I might not have been able to stomach it again."
Archer smirked. "And from now on I shall be known as the Hero of the Stew," he replied, snorting at the absurdity. His reply was greeted with a hearty laugh from Ralof, and the two continued cooking in silence.
The heavy iron and oak doors that protected Dragonsreach were heaved open, and the Whiterun guards who stood in line before them, clad in blood-stained armor and bearing red-stained weapons, slowly filed in, leaving the cool night air behind them. Donned in her Whiterun guard armor like the rest of her comrades, Lydia was the last to enter the great fortress. She felt the great iron-braced doors thump shut behind her, the sound reverberating within the grand expanse of the castle. Tired though she was after the fierce melee with bandits she and her comrades had found themselves in earlier, Lydia's dignified stride betrayed none of it as she followed her fellow kinsmen into the main chamber of Dragonsreach.
She was greeted by the familiar sight of the fortress's Entrance Chamber, dark though it was. Yellow banners emblazoned with Whiterun's sigil, a Horse's head, hung on the walls and from the ceiling. Large braziers forged with black iron flanked the wooden steps that led to the Grand Hall, providing the only source of light to the dark interior at this late hour. Lydia easily made her way up the steps behind her fellow guards — even in this dusky light she could have traversed the fortress with a blindfold — and followed them to the Grand Hall, where the Jarl would normally hold his Court.
More banners, these bearing horse silhouettes, hung about the carved wooden pillars in the room. Two long feasting tables lined with fine silverware flanked a great burning fire pit in the center. At the far end of the Great Hall, a few short steps from the ground level led up to a slightly raised dais where the Jarl's throne lay. On the throne sat Jarl Balgruuf himself, his keen eyes watching as his returning guardsmen filed into a line in front of him. At the Jarl's side stood Irileth, his Dunmer Housecarl, who inspected the soldiers carefully. Lydia, standing at one end of the line, had always found the Elf's piercing glare to be slightly unsettling, especially with those crimson-red eyes of hers, but she did not so much as shift under the Housecarl's gaze, nor under that of the Jarl himself. She had endured both of their scrutiny before, after all; this was no new sensation to her.
"I trust that the problem with the nearby Bandit Camp was resolved?" Balgruuf queried, the sound of his voice in the stillness making one of the younger men start.
There was a small chorus of assent from the tired, bloodstained guards. Several of the men shifted uneasily, inadvertently drawing attention to themselves with the subtle gesture.
"Where is Ulfgar? Why is he not here?" the Dark Elf Housecarl immediately asked, noticing the absence of the leader of the dispatched task force. Her voice was like a natural whip, her accusatory tone able to cause most men caught off-guard to flinch. She stepped forward, passing a glare over the soldiers. Irileth nearly managed to make Lydia feel as if she'd personally offended the Dunmer.
"Ulfgar was injured in the melee. He's being tended to by the healers right now," one brave guard put in.
Irileth's face snapped towards him, glowering. "What?! What happened?!" she demanded, stomping towards the guard. Though the Dunmer stood a few inches shorter than him, the spitfire Housecarl could be terribly intimidating — which was why Lydia understood why the guard being confronted suddenly seemed hesitant to reply.
"A bandit's greatsword bit into his flank. He's lost some blood," one man spoke up, saving the other guard from further embarrassment. There was a pregnant pause.
"We lost two men. Hulgard and Viguri," the same guard added.
Irileth's eyes widened, then narrowed with rage, seeming to flash red in the dark light. "What?" she uttered, shocked. "I cannot believe... two of Whiterun's finest, two of your kinsmen, fell to Bandits? What is your excuse?" she hissed, glaring angrily at all the guards.
"The bandits, they somehow managed to get men behind our line. They outflanked us," a guard responded.
"I believe that they'd gotten a scout to relay our position beforehand, gave them time to set up an ambush," another guard added, a red cut on his forearm. All the men were injured in some way or another, with Lydia included; her bronze-scaled armor had a few more slash marks than it used to, and she had a new scar on her hip to remember the fight by as well.
Irileth huffed out from her nose in obvious irritation, but it was clear that she seemed resigned to what happened, as was Lydia. Lydia would no longer put it beyond the bandits to begin fighting back against city guards instead of running when given the chance; the brigands had become rather bold as of late, harassing travelers and wreaking havoc on trade passages. Travel had become dangerous as of late because of the Civil War pulling out Imperial soldiers from the cities in order to fight the war. Where Imperial soldiers once patrolled the roads, Hold Guards now took their place, which meant that the task of dealing with nearby bandits now fell to the Hold Guards instead of Imperial soldiers.
"We are sorry for not meeting expectations, Housecarl," apologized the guard that first reported the casualties.
"No, it's not your fault; you couldn't have known about the ambush," the Dunmer replied with a shake of her head. "I am simply glad that the rest of your are still alive... I mean no disrespect to you when I say this, but from what I gather of what happened, I'm more surprised that we didn't suffer more casualties."
"It would have been worse, were it not for Lydia breaking the flanking line that was coming behind us," one guard remarked.
"That's right! Lydia saved us!" another added. "She saw them coming and broke away from the line to fight them; she drove them back by herself!"
Lydia felt pride swell up in her chest when she heard her name's mention. Had she been wearing an open-face helmet, there was no doubt they would have all seen her smile. She turned her head slightly to better gauge what sort of reaction Irileth had. The Nord woman's smile faded when she noticed the Housecarl's stare, as well as that of Jarl Balgruuf to her side.
"So you broke their line?" Irileth asked as she crossed her arms.
Lydia nodded, though she was starting to feel uneasy after seeing the Dunmer's reaction, as well as that of the Jarl. Had she done something wrong?
"Proventus," the Jarl called out loudly. A short Imperial man garbed in noble-quality attire hurried down the steps from the second floor, coming to stand a few feet away from Balgruuf. "Proventus, please prepare grievance letters for the families of the fallen guards. Also, take care to tell Commander Caius about the casualties, so we may recover the bodies tomorrow for a proper burial."
"Yes, milord," the Imperial humbly replied, bowing his head before hurrying back upstairs.
"The rest of you," the Jarl added, facing the line of guards in his hall, "provided you do not need to visit the healer, may retire for the night; you've earned it."
Lydia, along with the rest of the guards in the hall, snapped to attention and saluted with drilled precision, standing ramrod straight and placing a fist over her breast as she bowed her head. "Thank you, liege lord," she replied, her voice almost synchronized in timing with that of the other guards.
"You may go now," Balgruuf dismissed, waving a hand. The guards all broke from their salutes. Those who were still injured went off to see about tending their wounds, while the rest began to file into the hall, where their respective rooms lay. Lydia felt relieved that the day was over, and that she would be able to finally rest.
Jarl Balgruuf's voice reverberated eerily in the vastness of the empty hall. At the sound of it, Lydia froze in her tracks. She turned around to face her Majesty fully, who sat in his throne, regarding her carefully.
"I would have a moment of your time to speak with you," the Jarl said.
He turned his head to look at the mass of huddled guards behind her, who were waiting expectantly to see what would transpire. "I told Lydia to stay; I didn't know we had more than one Lydia."
The guards seemed to finally have recovered their wits, and they quickly filed out of the room, lest they further irritate the Jarl. Lydia watched them go, a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach. What could the Jarl want with her?
She looked back to Jarl Balgruuf, who now bade her closer with a subtle nod of his head. Lydia, feeling confused and a bit nervous, approached him briskly; patience was not one of the Jarl's virtues, and she knew better than to tarry. She came to stand a few yards away, at the bottom of the steps leading to his throne.
The Jarl looked her over with a neutral expression, his eyes failing to betray any emotion he may have felt. It was a gaze with which she was familiar with, though in this situation she felt less than comfortable being subjected to it. Irileth's ever-present, red-eyed gaze was of little comfort as well.
"Why don't you take off your helmet? I much prefer having the benefit of looking into the face of that whom I speak to, and not at a steel mask," the Jarl remarked, his tone softer than she'd expected him to use. She dared think that it was almost... fatherly, even.
Lydia did not hesitate to comply. She reached up to her steel full-face helmet and pulled it off over her head. A small cascade of short, dark hair followed the helm briefly before settling down, coming to brush just above her shoulders. Her green eyes opened to return the Jarl's gaze as she held the helmet under one arm. Her expression was professional as she regarded her superior, hiding any uncertainty about her.
The Jarl and his housecarl inspected her face now, seeing her neutral expression. Lydia found herself wondering briefly about what it was that she'd done to warrant an up-front discussion with Jarl Balgruuf. She received her answer a few moments later.
"What you did for those men back there was a very honorable thing, Lydia," the Jarl remarked, sitting back on his throne.
Lydia bowed her head respectfully. "It had to be done, my Lord. I was only doing my part."
"I'm sure you were," the Jarl replied. "Some of those men owe you their lives, no doubt. I won't forget what you did today, and I don't believe that they'll soon forget it, either. You've done a great service for Whiterun this day, as well as for the families of those guards who are still with us."
"Thank you, my liege," Lydia respectfully answered, bowing her head once more.
"I trust that your commander ordered you to attack the flanking bandits, correct?" the Jarl then asked.
Lydia was briefly caught off-guard by the Jarl's surprisingly specific question. Her eyes flitted to one side, quickly thinking of how to best answer him; he may not appreciate the answer, but she could never bring herself to lie to him. At length, she settled for the truth, saying, "Ulfgar had already been hit, he was hard pressed to maintain our own line, as fragile as it was; too much so for him to notice the bandits coming from behind."
The Dunmer's glare on Lydia intensified suddenly. "So you broke away from the defensive line? You abandoned your fellow guards just to drive off a few bandits from the side, is that it?" Irileth asked, allowing Lydia to realize her implication; but the Housecarl did not give her a chance to speak.
"Lydia, your job was to follow your commander's orders, and instead, you went ahead and abandoned the line! Just for a chance to be the hero?!" Lydia nearly flinched under Irileth's rebuke, but she held her ground and attempted to defend herself.
"I only broke from the line to prevent us from being enveloped. It was the only way—"
"But you abandoned the man who fought in the line beside you, left him to fend off both your opponent and his own! He could have fallen, and the whole line could have folded with him!"
"Irileth, enough," the Jarl commanded. He was now staring at his Housecarl with disapproval, something that Lydia did not often witness being directed towards the Dunmer. "I did not keep Lydia here to be chastised."
"My Jarl, may I have permission to speak?" Lydia requested, preventing Irileth from replying. The Jarl nodded, and Irileth remained silent, regarding Lydia observantly with crossed arms.
"I know that I was supposed to stay and fight with the line — a line-fighter's shield is as much the own soldier's defense as it is for that of the soldier next to him, after all," Lydia admitted, "but I could not stand by and let the bandits out-flank us. I had to abandon my comrades on the line if there were to be any hope of fending off the attack."
Now Lydia took the chance to look at Irileth in the eye. "I assure you, I had only the interests of Whiterun at heart when I did so. I did not fend off the flanking bandits alone because I wanted the glory all for myself — I did it alone because the line could not afford to have more than one soldier pulled out; had I requested help from another of the men, then the line would have become that much weaker. Then, the line would have fallen, and all would have been lost," Lydia finished, before falling silent herself.
The Jarl and Irileth regarded Lydia with interest. The Housecarl seemed to have lost some of her ire, out of all things, and Balgruuf merely seemed pleased, as if a point he'd wanted to make had just been proven for him.
"And that," Jarl Balgruuf said at length, "is why you've risen to your rank, Lydia. You have initiative that the others seemed to have lacked at the moment, and you acted swiftly and decisively, according to your better judgement. Had you not done what you did, it seems likely to me that more good men would indeed have died." He looked to his Housecarl. "Wouldn't you agree, Irileth?"
The Dunmer pursed her lips, but she sighed in resignation. "Alright, I'll admit that what you did, Lydia, was necessary and right; and I believe you should be commended for your actions today. I know you wouldn't have needlessly abandoned your comrades, especially not just for your own glory — you've always held the interests of Whiterun closer to your heart than your own." The Dunmer narrowed her eyes as she regarded Lydia again. "Regardless, I will remind you that the Guards of Whiterun hold our sense of discipline in very high regard. Understood?"
Lydia, surprised at the Dunmer's reaction, simply nodded her head. "Yes, Housecarl," she replied humbly, feeling relief wash over her as she realized that she was not in trouble.
"Good," Jarl Balgruuf said, sitting up in his throne. "That is all I wanted to say. You may retire for the night, Lydia."
"Thank you, My Jarl," the Nord replied, bowing her head with respect. Turning away from the two, Lydia strode quickly out of the hall. Walking down the next hallway she came to a stop a few feet away from the doorway she had just exited. She took a deep, steadying breath which she let out in a long, drawn-out sigh; she had nearly expected to have gotten something worse than a warning from Irileth out of that exchange. Finally satisfied with the events that had transpired, Lydia resumed her path towards her room, smiling with pride.
It was moments like these that reminded Lydia that she'd made the right choice in joining Whiterun's guard. It was not every day that she received a compliment from the Jarl and his Housecarl — in fact, she wasn't sure if she'd ever heard any personal praise from Irileth at all until this point. She'd saved lives today and once again proved her worth to the Jarl and the other guards... while achieving some glory on the side, of course; though such a thing was not the prominent concern in her mind during her moment of... heroism.
As she neared her room she saw a few of the guards laughing and jesting with each other in the hall; she recognized the faces of some of her friends amongst them. She had half a mind to join them and their banter, where she knew that she would be welcomed. When she'd first started working in the Guard years ago, she hadn't had a single friendly face for her — some of the more conservative men believed that a woman's place was in the home, not in the barracks — but over time they had warmed up to her. It had reached the point where the other guards considered her to be just as much a part of them as anyone else, and she was respected by most of them, if not all.
In the end, she decided that she'd had enough of the day; her bedchambers were calling to her. She walked towards her room, giving the small throng of assembled guards a nod in passing. The men's helmeted faces tracked her movement for a few moments before returning to their conversation, their voices now more hushed and low. It was no doubt that they all wondered about what the Jarl had told her about, and they would certainly ask her about what happened back there. Perhaps she would indulge their curiosity on the morrow, she thought.
The door to her room came into sight after a few moments of walking. Entering her room and shutting the door closed behind her, she set about methodically and carefully removing her damaged armor and her sword, setting it on some nearby furniture in a neat pile, taking a mental note of having it fixed as soon as possible and requesting a replacement for the time being.
Finally having divested herself of the bronze scaled armor brought relief to Lydia. She went to her drawer and pulled out some linen nightclothes. They were rather short-cut clothes, but it was usually too warm in her bed to have them longer; she supposed her tolerance for cold was a testament to her Nordic heritage, just as much a part of her as was her warrior's blood. Now dressed in her nightclothes, Lydia stretched her arms, feeling the joints crack in response; the fighting had been taxing on her, and she was only too happy to be able to finally rest. She turned towards her bed, intent on resting for the day to come.
The distant, echoing roar that she heard halfway to her bed froze her in her tracks.
Lydia came to a halt, her hand flying to her hip only to grasp thin air instead of her sword's hilt. She took a moment to recollect herself, reminding herself of where she was; inside of Dragonsreach, in her room, and not in the wild with the beast that had just roared. She was surprised at herself, for she had met many a beast in battle before, yet this one's roar had startled her so greatly... Now that she thought about it, she found herself wondering what manner of creature it had been.
Lydia's brow puckered with confusion as she realized that she did not recognize the sound of the roar, though she considered herself quite knowledgeable concerning the local fauna. The Nord looked at the only window in her chambers and walked towards it. She opened the window and stuck her head outside. The chilly mountain breeze played with her hair as she scanned the surrounding landscape. From her vantage point, the whole world seemed much smaller. The ground, which itself seemed to be miles below, was dotted with bushes and trees, but she saw no animals. What could have made such a sound?
Movement in the corner of her vision took her attention. She looked off into the distance, where the jagged, mountain-lined horizon lay. Lydia squinted her eyes, unsure of what she was seeing. A dark form, infinitesimally small to her at this great distance, fluttered about the very top of the mountains. It gradually descended, like a hawk finding itself a perch, until the tiny dot disappeared behind the peak of the mountain.
Lydia remained standing at the window, awaiting to see if the figure returned. She stood at the window, her hands gripping the sill with anticipation. The mountain air blew past her again, chilling her face. Furrowing her brow with uncertainty, Lydia retreated from the opening and shut the window, keeping out the cold air. She had no idea whatsoever about what that thing she'd seen in the distance had been, nor did she know about what kind of beast had roared so terribly — the sound of which did not fit any creature she knew; but she was not going to bother herself finding out. She had better things to do than lose some sleep over such a trivial-seeming matter.
The room had grown colder after she'd allowed the breeze entry, but no doubt it would be warmer under the covers. The Nord walked over to her bed and climbed inside, settling down under the fur blankets. In spite of herself, she found herself wondering about the mysterious figure she'd seen flying at the mountain peaks. Certainly, it was no condor — and it if were, then it must've been the largest condor she'd seen — but no other bird she knew would ever bother braving the freezing gales up on the mountains. She didn't know much about birds or flying creatures in general, but she had a feeling that nothing that soared in the sky could grow as large as the thing she'd seen. And to be able to roar loudly enough to be heard even from this distance, too, meant that the thing certainly must have been large.
Lydia found herself drifting to sleep. One thought remained on her mind before unconsciousness took her: whatever the creature was, she hoped that it would stay well away from Whiterun.