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Red Diamond Heart

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It was the 198th Year of the Fourth Era and Akaviria Nona Mara Medea, the eighteen-year-old granddaughter of the brutally assassinated Titus Mede II, was meant to be crowned Empress in the Temple of All Gods before the Elder Council, the Primates of the Orders of the Eight, and hundreds of other notables from across Tamriel. There was just one problem. Neither Akaviria or the Imperial Seal were to be found. The Council could limp along without her, Titus Mede I having set up mechanisms for rule in the case of another interregnum, for three or four more years. Some even speculated the Imperial Heir had been spirited off to be seasoned just a little before taking the Ruby Throne. Others, of course, had more dire beliefs on her absence. She wasn’t dead; the mediums of the Order of Arkay confirmed it. But no one could find her by scrying or searching.

            If they’d known the truth, they’d have all squawked like chickens and dispatched the Legion to drag the errant royal home.

            It was early autumn in Skyrim and the dark, dour pine forests of Falkreath had finally opened into the glorious golden plains of Whiterun. Ria rolled her shoulders to ease the aches of carrying a heavy pack and studied the three-tiered city of Whiterun below. It was surrounded by prosperous farms and there was an intriguing sweet-sour scent on the air from one of the buildings at the crossroads. From here, you wouldn’t think Skyrim was in turmoil.

            Skyrim was the literal backbone of the Empire. If the province went ahead and rebelled successfully, the connection between Cyrodiil and High Rock would be broken and the Empire with it. Since so many of the latest troubles came from here, it behoved Ria to understand why they happened and how to counter them. How better to do so than travel incognito to Skyrim and become a Companion of Jorrvaskr, the epitome of Nord honour?

            They’re rebelling because we’re failing them, she thought grimly as she descended the switchback to the crossroads. It isn’t just the White-Gold Concordat and the forbiddance of Talos worship. There has to be other reasons why Skyrim’s unhappy with the Empire.

            She was just past the ‘Black-Briar West Meadery’ when she heard someone scream from the farm next door. A big grey… ogre? Maybe ogre. A big grey ogre was stomping on crops as three warriors – two of them in black-enamelled plate with greatswords and the third a lithe redhead in strategic straps of green leather and tarnished steel wielding a bow – engaged it. The screaming was from a Bosmer womer in the next field over.

            Ria broke into the ground-eating lope of a Legionnaire, shrugging off her pack and dropping it next to the stone fence, then drawing her gladius to attack. How often had she been drilled by her old sword-master? More than she could recall, often until it became second nature to draw a sword on the run.

            She jumped over the stone fence, tumbled into a roll that brought her to her feet, and slashed at the tendons visible at the back of the monster’s knee. They parted with a crimson spray and the ogre fell to one knee with a howl of pain.

            Now half-crippled, the beast was easy prey for the behemoth of a black-haired Nord and his balding silver-ponytailed compatriot, while the redhead blinded him with arrows from a distance before closing in with a keen-edged dagger. They and Ria hacked at the ogre until it died with an ugly rattle.

            Ria’s first impression upon the Companions began with her throwing up at her first kill, the stench of blood and shit from loosened bowels overwhelming. She wiped her mouth with an unsteady hand, expecting to see judgemental disgust in their eyes.

            It was the redhead who spoke. “You handle yourself well. You could make for a decent Shield-Sister.”

            Ria blinked. She’d just vomited in front of them and they were inviting her up to Jorrvaskr?

            “First kill?” the older male Companion asked with gruff kindness.

            “Yes,” she admitted with a flush.

            “How you react after battle doesn’t matter. How you react during battle does.” He studied her keenly. “You’ve had Blades training. I’ve never known any other kind of warrior to do that tumbling roll after a jump.”

            “My sword-master had some Blades training,” she said carefully. “He took religious vows and-“

            “Ha! I knew it was Irkand,” the Companion grinned. Then his expression sobered. “Have you heard from him lately? He went up to Solitude to try and stop the Dark Brotherhood from assassinating Titus Mede, but disappeared shortly after.”

            Ria closed her eyes. “He made it back to Cyrodiil, gave a report to the Elder Council and then went to Hammerfell to deal with his traitorous brother. I haven’t heard anything since.”

            “Damn. I knew Rustem in the Great War too.” The warrior sighed. “I’m guessing you’re Cyrod noble blood?”

            “Yes,” she replied. “I… Well, I’ve always wanted to serve with the Companions of Jorrvaskr ever since I heard about you. Are you Skjor the Scarred?”

            “I am,” Skjor confirmed.

            “Did you really kill a hundred Orcish berserkers with Kodlak Whitemane?”

            “It was more like forty and we killed the commanding officers. The rest wisely broke away and returned to their strongholds.” Skjor sighed again. “I appreciate the news about Irkand. I’ll ask some of my Hammerfell contacts if they’ve got any more details. He could have been a damn fine Companion.”

            Ria nodded. She personally thought Irkand was dead. What a waste of a life because of one man’s grudge against the Empire.

            “We should bring her up to Jorrvaskr,” rumbled the big black-haired man. “We’ve got a few empty beds.”

            “It’ll be up to Kodlak,” Skjor told him. “But… you have a point. It would be heartbreaking to see the Blades fighting style lost to the world.”

            “What’s your name?” the redhead asked Ria.

            “Ria,” she said.

            “No family name?” Skjor asked with a raised eyebrow.

            “I’m… Well, I’m here without their permission,” Ria said softly. “Most noblewomen in Cyrodiil are kept locked up and safe these days. I will command soldiers one day, Sir Skjor; they won’t let me join the Legion or the Fighters Guild, so that leaves the Companions to learn something of war beyond the textbooks and old soldiers’ tales. I truly do want to serve alongside you for the glory, but I need to learn things from you that I can’t learn in Cyrodiil.”

            “We’re champions and warriors, not soldiers,” Skjor said quietly. “One of the whelps is the niece of Ulfric’s right-hand man Galmar Stone-Fist. You come to Jorrvaskr, you leave politics at the door. Is that clear?”

            “I understand. Your political neutrality is legendary.”

            Skjor nodded. “Then you might as well follow me, Aela and Farkas to Jorrvaskr.”

            They collected their pay from the owner of the farm and headed into the city. It was nothing compared to the Imperial City in size, but Whiterun was as cosmopolitan as any town in Cyrodiil, and its people were clad in brightly dyed garments with a hint of comfortable plumpness. Ria looked around with great interest, seeing members of all races, even the odd Orc and Khajiit, though Nords and Redguards dominated the crowd.

            “If you can’t buy it in Whiterun, you’ll have to order it from Solitude,” Farkas said amusedly.

            “Or Winterhold or Riften,” Skjor said over his shoulder. “Jarl Korir has a trade alliance with the Khajiit and Jarl Laila’s new Steward has many contacts.”

            “I thought the Old Holds were full of, ah, isolationists?” Ria asked, choosing her words carefully.

            “Windhelm and Dawnstar are pretty racist,” Farkas said bluntly. “Korir’s wary but Arch-Mage Bjarni’s been advocating for the College’s greater involvement in trade, which is rebuilding Winterhold. The Rift’s next door to Morrowind and eastern Cyrodiil, so they’re not complete arses there.”

            Ria frowned. “The only Bjarni I know of is Ulfric’s son.”

            “Yeah, it’s him. Practically disowned by the rest of his family and got the College equal status as us and the Bards College when it comes to political neutrality,” Skjor confirmed as they turned right in front of a sickly looking tree. “Remember what I said about politics, Ria. It’s left at the door.”

            Jorrvaskr was an overturned ship transformed into a meadhall. On the side, it was warm and welcoming, the epitome of a traditional Nord hall. Banners hung everywhere and on one wall, the fragments of the legendary Wuuthrad were framed. It was said that on the day it was reforged, Ysmir Stormcrown would lead the Companions against the World-Eater at the end of the world. No one was in a hurry to reforge Wuuthrad for obvious reasons.

            “Ugh, what’s with the Legionnaire?” demanded a white-haired Nordic young woman from her place at the table.

            “She’s not with the Legion. She’s actually come to us because ranking noblewomen in Cyrodiil aren’t allowed to join the Legion or the Fighters Guild,” Skjor said calmly. “This is Ria. She’s hoping to become a whelp like you, Njada, so lose the attitude.”

            “She trained under Irkand Aurelius,” Farkas added.

            “And I set him on his arse with a shield-bash,” Njada grinned.

            “Irkand always had trouble adapting to shield-work,” Ria agreed. “Because he either dual-wielded wazikashis or carried a katana in a two-handed Akaviri grip, he relied on his agility to avoid injury. One good whack from a shield or a solid parry and he was in trouble.”

            “Huh,” was all Njada said.

            An old man with silver hair and a dark olive complexion stirred. “We don’t need some Imperial learning the secrets of a Nord warrior and taking them back to the Legion,” he growled.

            “Vignar,” chided another old man in black-enamelled plate. “She has come to us seeking honest learning she can’t get in Cyrodiil. She’ll need it in the future.”

            Kodlak Whitemane rose to his feet. “Come closer, child. Let me see your eyes.”

            Ria obeyed and found herself studied with the steady unblinking gaze of a wolf. Kodlak was old and trembling subtly, but the power of the man was undiminished. “Yes, you are what is needed,” he said quietly. “Vilkas, take her to the courtyard and test her arm.”

            “Wait, so she gets to join just like that?” Njada asked.

            “Yes. I have seen her coming.” Kodlak’s expression forbade any further comment. Ria had the feeling he knew exactly who she was.

            Vilkas, Farkas’ leaner twin, rose to his feet. “Come on, girl,” he told Ria. “Let’s see if you’ve got what it takes.”

            The Companions followed them outside to a circle of pounded dirt outlined by rope. “Just have a few swings at me,” Vilkas encouraged. “Believe me, I can take it.”

            “He’s our arms master for a reason,” Aela said dryly. “The only man to match Irkand Aurelius in a katana duel.”

            Ria knew the Companions arms master couldn’t be a master of one style but master of several at the very least. Or at least an exceptionally talented generalist.

            She paused inside the circle, took a deep breath and offered a prayer to Stendarr. Then she drew her gladius and advanced on Vilkas.

            He matched her every blow lazily, even when she tried to mix it up from standard Legion or Blades training, and then disarmed her with a nonchalant parry. “You’ll do,” he drawled, handing her his sword. “Now take this up to the Skyforge for Eorlund to sharpen.”

            “And grab my shield while you’re up there,” Aela said with a smile. “Every Companion may be their own master in Jorrvaskr, but whelps are still expected to learn and obey during training.”

            Ria picked up her sword, sheathed it, and then ran up to the Skyforge with Vilkas’ blade. She was a Companion of Jorrvaskr! Well, a whelp, but the rest would come in time.

Chapter Text

 

As the newest whelp, Ria discovered that she was responsible for running every petty errand the Companions could think of, expected to wake up an hour before dawn to train with Vilkas, learn the basic maintenance of weapons from Eorlund Grey-Mane, and serve the mead at night. It had been two weeks so far and she hadn’t been given a single job to do. She reminded herself this was in pursuit of a greater goal and that it was an honour to be here. Some days, it took a few times to remember she wanted this.

            “Good news, whelps,” Skjor announced from the porch as the apprentice Companions stretched and walked off the latest bout of training. “We’ve got jobs for you.”

            A ragged cheer greeted his words and the grizzled veteran smiled thinly. “Save it for after you’re briefed. I’m fairly certain most of you will want to punch me afterwards.”

            “Never again,” Athis retorted. “I want to punch you all the time.”

            “You want to punch everyone,” Vilkas drawled. “Well, Skjor, don’t keep them in suspense.”

            “Athis, you’ve got a job in Windhelm. Seems the Dunmer passed the hat along and got enough money together to pay you to teach Rolff Stone-Fist some manners. Njada, you might as well accompany him to make sure the city guards are aware this is a justified chastisement. Farkas will be making sure both of you don’t make us look like idiots.” Skjor held up a hand as Njada went crimson. “Your father’s a racist prick, Stonearm, and the Dunmer of the Grey Quarter are sick of his shit.”

            Years in the court of the Emperor allowed Ria to keep her expression deadpan. Njada was a staunch ‘Stormcloak’ and continuously fought with Athis over the fact he was a Dunmer from the Grey Quarter in Windhelm. The Companions were making a point, though she couldn’t figure out what it was.

            “Don’t grin, Athis, because you’ll be supporting Njada on her job of exterminating bears in the caves outside Ivarstead. Temba Wide-Arm’s getting sick of losing lumber to the beasts and they’ve already eaten two hunters.” Skjor’s smile was thin. “You better pack some sturdy armour and a bow.”

            If looks could kill, Skjor should have dropped dead from the poisonous glare Athis bestowed on him.

            “Torvar, we’ve finally found a job you can do. There’s another skeever infestation at Honning… Black-Briar East Meadery. They’re the poisonous ones that popped up about a year or so ago. I advise you ignore the mead and kill them. Their bites fester.” Skjor smiled slightly. “I strongly advise you remain sober for the rest of the day.”

            Torvar was a drunk who’d stumbled into the Companions by dint of being good with a warhammer. Sobriety would be a novel experience for him. He was already shaking.

            “As for you, Ria, we’ve got a suitable first job for you. Aela will accompany you.” Skjor’s smile could only be described as wolfish. “There’s a cave of trolls that have been eating travellers on the road to Windhelm. Destroy them all and bring back the pelts.”

            “I get skeevers and she gets trolls?” Torvar complained.

            “Ria has been trained by one of the best fighters in Tamriel,” Skjor replied with deceptive mildness. “We wish to test her properly.”

            Trolls. Ria was ready to run screaming back to Bruma and the good little Imperial puppet she was meant to be. Gigantic man-eating monsters that regenerated wounds with the speed of a striking snake.

            She was doomed.

“We found her, Ulfric.”

            Ralof and Yrsarald dragged in the rotting corpse of Sigdrifa Stormsword, still wearing her armour but wrapped in seaweed and worse things from the bottom of the harbour, on a canvas tarp. “One of the Argonian caulkers found her while he was tending to the Northern Maiden,” the former continued. “I gave him the reward you’d promised for telling us on the quiet.”

            Ulfric shuddered at the thought of the news getting out. “Do you know how she wound up there?”

            It was Egil who spoke. “A Volkihar vampire in bat-wing form. Those gashes in the armour can only come from one of those and nothing else could have enthralled Mother. Say what you will about her, but her will was too strong for anything less.”

            “The vampire at the College?” Ulfric mused.

            “Serana? No. She’s not foolish enough. Nor is J’zargo, the other vampire at the College.” Egil swallowed, showing his relative youth for a moment before his expression hardened again. “I’ve heard of a vampire with the Dark Brotherhood. Perhaps someone put out a contract on Mother.”

            “Hmm. But who?” Ulfric knew that Sigdrifa had a contract on him as a failsafe, just as he’d ordered Galmar and Ralof to execute her if he died before her, even an accidental death. They’d used each other for the good of Skyrim and the glory of Talos. Now he was without his finest general and chief motivator. Despite her plans, he honestly mourned her. They were all tools for Talos in the end.

            “It would be easier to say who it wasn’t,” Ralof said flatly. “Ulfric, not to speak ill of the dead, but your wife treated everyone like tools and wondered why they resented her for it. She was a mighty warrior and talented general, devout in all ways, but couldn’t understand why others of lesser faith didn’t match her zeal.”

            “I think it’s safe to say it wasn’t anyone in this room,” Yrsarald said, looking between himself, Ralof, Ulfric, Egil, Jorleif and Galmar. “If I may be frank, my Jarl?”

            “Of course, Yrsarald.” Ulfric looked askance at his son’s huscarl.

            “Digging into this may unearth more than we’d like. As Ralof said, it’s easier to count who wouldn’t want Sigdrifa dead than those who do. Maybe it was the Imperials softening us up, maybe it was a Stormcloak who saw her as a liability to the cause. Either way, we can’t exactly make inquiries without pissing someone off and triggering a war before we’re ready.”

            Galmar sighed heavily. “He’s right. It’s not fair, but it’s the truth. Sigdrifa would want us to focus on the greater good.”

            Egil’s mouth tightened. “So we just let this go?”

            “No,” Ulfric assured his son. “We wait until Skyrim is free of the Legion before we purge the Dark Brotherhood and every tainted Daedric filth in the land. Your mother always quoted Talos on the timing of the strike.”

            “I won’t stand in the way of your decision,” Egil said bitterly. “But I’ve a mind to go down to Riften and see what may be stirred in the shadows.”

            “Why Riften?” Yrsarald asked.

            “Because where the Thieves tread, the Dark Brotherhood follow. Put a few to the question-“

            “No.” Ulfric arched his eyebrow at Egil. “You would start a war with the Rift. Discreet questions may work but Laila won’t take it kindly if you act outside your scope in her Hold.”

            “Justice isn’t something that only matters when it’s convenient,” Egil reminded him through gritted teeth.

            “No, but I won’t throw away Skyrim’s only hope for freedom for the sake of avenging your mother. She would come back from the grave itself to kick your arse if you did.”

            The struggle on Egil’s face reminded Ulfric of his own impulsive youth, when he was certain he knew all that was right in the world.

            “I will still ask questions,” he said grimly.

            “That is your choice.” Ulfric sighed and stared down at the fish-nibbled corpse of his wife. “But first, we will send your mother to Sovngarde as she deserves.”

Ria thrust the torch in the troll’s face, making it flinch away long enough for her to cut into its thick belly with her gladius. Trolls were hulking man-beasts with a solid inch of fat underneath skin tough as boiled bull-hide and fur that made a wonderful winter cloak. They were hard to kill and even the Companions were wary about them.

            Aela had sniped the two other trolls with her bow, leaving this one for Ria to kill. The Companion would only intervene if she was in danger of getting seriously hurt. It was small comfort to Ria as she danced and dodged around the cave, kicking up the bloodied bones of the trolls’ previous victims. If she died here, no one back home would ever know.

            She just avoided its filthy claws and saw an opening. Throwing the torch at the beast, Ria stepped back twice and then broke into a run, leaping at the last moment and shoving her gladius down between the troll’s neck and shoulder. Bright blood spurted out and the monster roared once… before keeling over, half on fire. Decapitation finished it off and Ria fell to one knee in exhaustion.

            “Flashy, but effective,” Aela noted. “Now grab your dagger and skin these beasts.”

            The euphoria of victory was dampened by the messy tedium of skinning the trolls, scraping their fat for the alchemists of Whiterun, and carrying the rank furred hides back to Jorrvaskr. She envied Athis and Njada their simpler jobs.

            “You handle yourself well,” Aela said quietly. “But that move was risky. Acrobatics can be useful in combat, but you should either commit to becoming a skirmisher like myself or fighting like a Blade. Irkand, if you weren’t aware, was first and foremost an assassin. A fine man, an honourable one, but his style was feint and shadow, dodge and weave, striking where the enemy least expected it. You don’t have his natural athleticism. Any competent Stormcloak with a spear or greatsword would spit you like a pig if you tried a move like that on them.”

            “Do you support the Empire?” Ria asked as they trudged along.

            “Whoever rules is irrelevant to me. Jorrvaskr has survived good kings and bad ones, the best of heroes and the worst of villains. The moons will rise, the hunt will call, and the heirs of Ysgramor will abide until the day of reckoning, where we will prove our last best worth under the gaze of Shor Himself as we march to face Alduin World-Eater.”

            “I was once told that when Wuuthrad is reforged, the World-Eater will return, because it’ll be the end of days,” Ria said softly.

            “Yes and no. Irkand told us much of Blades lore, because he didn’t know if he’d live to see the Last Dragonborn, and he wanted someone to be prepared for the return of the World-Eater. The Harbingers have a prescience of sorts, one that alerts them of dangers to Skyrim and their own deaths. It was Askar, Kodlak’s predecessor, who warned us Wuuthrad would be reforged in the time of the Last Dragonborn and that Ysmir Stormcrown might wield it.” Aela sighed and looked sideways at Ria. “That Kodlak foresaw your coming is… troubling.”

            “Prophecy isn’t promise, it’s hope,” Ria whispered.

            “So Irkand used to tell us. He was an extraordinary man.” Aela sighed again. “Kodlak told him if he continued to serve the Empire, he would die for its sins. It appears that has come to pass.”

            “The Aurelii were traitors,” Ria reminded her. “Well, except for Irkand and probably his niece.”

            “Definitely his niece. She lived in Whiterun for many years but… well, when Irkand told us of the political troubles, we decided not to tell him. She deserved better than to be dragged into the muck when she had a good life with a good man. Skjor happens to know something of the Aurelii troubles and… they were betrayed even as they rebelled against the White-Gold Concordat. And in that betrayal lay the seeds of the Emperor’s death, the corruption of Rustem and the rise of the Stormcloaks.”

            “Sigdrifa Stormsword,” Ria said flatly.

            “Probably. Shieldmaidens are… intense. Religious zealots who justify anything for their deity. Jorrvaskr existed before Talos and it will exist after Talos, so the White-Gold Concordat means little to me.” Aela shook her head. “As Vilkas says, ‘Who cares for fighting for what dead god? Give me a real reason to fight’.”

            “If the Nords had just been sensible and worshipped discreetly…” Ria pointed out with a sigh of her own.

            “You think like a Cyrod, who will worship a different god for each day of the week. Nords, rightly or wrongly, are deeply attached to their deities.” They were back on the road to Whiterun. “I’ve heard rumours that the old gods are regaining popularity in the Old Holds, Kyne and Shor and Jhunal and Stuhn… It would be no bad idea to return Skyrim to its old ways. Tiber Septim suppressed a lot of the ancient religion when he became Emperor.”

            Ria made note of that. If the Legion could promote the worshippers of the old gods, presuming they didn’t make human sacrifices and such, it could undermine Ulfric while giving the Nords back some of their pride. The Reclamations and the Tribunal had been tolerated, even respected, after all. There were shrines to Malacath, Boethiah, Azura and Mephala in the Temple of All Gods. The Empire promoted the cult of the Eight Divines, but it didn’t cram the faith down the throats of the provincials either, not after the disaster in Morrowind.

            “So you’re saying thwarted national pride is part of the reason why there’s rebellion brewing?”

            “Tiber Septim, rightly or wrongly, made much of the fact he was Dragonborn – born with a dragon’s soul – and the Stormcrown to bring the Jarls to heel. He did a lot of damage in the process. We still feel it today.” Aela shuddered slightly. “The Talosites are getting a taste of what they dealt to us over the years. I dislike the Thalmor for what they’re doing… but I can’t weep too hard for the Talos worshippers.”

            “Karma,” Ria breathed. The old Akaviri principle that what you put out was returned to you threefold or more.

            “I guess so.” Aela shrugged under her burden of hides. “But if the Thalmor break the Nords too much… we’re doomed.”

            Nothing more was said on the way home but Ria had much to think about.

Chapter Text

 

Ria had been in Whiterun for a month and during that time, she’d travelled across Whiterun, Falkreath and Hjaalmarch Holds hunting beasts, executing bandits, necromancers and even a coven of vampires, and beating up the odd individual who’d broken Skyrim’s unspoken laws. Always she went with one of the senior Companions and sometimes with one of the other whelps. Today, she was being sent up to Halted Stream Camp to reclaim Amren’s lost sword with Farkas and Njada. It appeared bandits had set up shop there, poaching on the nearby mammoths and driving the giants to attack Whiterun’s outlying farms in revenge. The Redguard’s missing sword was peripheral to the job, but they decided to bring it back since they were going to be there anyway. In return, Amren promised to teach them some old Redguard techniques.

            “Purity of style’s a fine thing if you’re a duelist or fencing master,” Vilkas always said, “But a wise warrior learns as many techniques as they possibly can.”

            So that was why Ria was being forced to teach Njada the Akaviri techniques she’d learned from Irkand and the Stonearm supposed to teach the Nine Blocks and Blows of Ysgramor in return. It made for acrimonious training sessions under the arms master’s critical eye.

            It was Ria, the most skilled archer in the trio, who took out the sentries as Aela had taught her. “Speed and stealth have their places in a Companion’s arsenal,” she explained to the whelps. “There is no shame in using such tactics against beasts, be they four-legged or two-legged.”

            Companions were supposed to confront their enemies head-on… but if they were too lazy, too intoxicated or too unobservant, that wasn’t the Companion’s problem.

            “The line between bandit and sellsword is a thin one,” Kodlak lectured. “For some, there is no line.”

            So Farkas crept in, unnervingly light on his feet, and choked the door guard with one burly forearm pressed against the throat. It was almost unnatural to see a man almost as big as Quaestor Harnbjorn, Rikke’s assistant, move so silently in full steel armour. He gestured to the other two and they followed him to the main cavern, where bandits were chopping up a mammoth under the light of hanging lamps.

            “What’s that smell?” Njada asked, wrinkling her nose.

            “Earth tar,” Ria said grimly, unlimbering her bow. “And they’re working under hanging oil lamps. Not the brightest lot.”

            With Aela-honed speed, she unleashed three iron arrows that sent the lamps crashing to the ground, setting the earth tar alight spectacularly. Most of the bandits died then and there, screaming as they were engulfed in flames, but the Orc leader made it to their position despite the burns. He was frothing and Ria understood he’d gone into a berserk fury.

            It was here where Njada shone. The Nord blocked the descending greatsword with her shield, standing still as a deep-rooted oak in the Colovian Highlands, and then retaliated with a vicious bash that sent the Orc sprawling. Before he could rise, she rammed the bottom edge of the shield into his throat, cracking the windpipe and letting him choke on his own blood.

            “Like you, she’s had specialised training,” Farkas rumbled. “Only hers was as a shieldmaiden.”

            “The Stormsword preferred the greatsword, but she was ready to accommodate my preference for a shield,” Njada confirmed as she sheathed her unblooded sword. “There’s a reason why Da and Uncle Galmar are Stone-Fist and I’m the Stonearm.”

            “You’re speaking about her in the past tense,” Ria said carefully. She didn’t like Njada, not by any means, but she could see why the Companions recruited her. She was skilled and honourable.

            “You didn’t hear? She drowned in full armour. Everyone’s claiming the Dark Brotherhood or one of those Volkihar vampires did it. No one else could have overpowered Sigdrifa otherwise.” Njada wiped her shield on the Orc’s canvas cloak. “Maybe the Empire had her killed to soften up the Old Holds.”

            “Do you really think that after Gr- the Emperor was murdered by the Brotherhood, we’d go to them?” Ria retorted flatly. “I’ve heard it was Sigdrifa who made great use of the Brotherhood. She and Astrid trained together at Yngvild.”

            “What would you know?” Njada countered.

            “I had family in the Penitus Oculatus who were murdered by the Dark Brotherhood!” Ria shot back. “You know the guy who supposedly went mad and killed that Priest of Talos and those two guards? That was my brother and the Dark Brotherhood poisoned him with a berserker poison! He was just working on security detail to make sure everything was safe, and the Dark Brotherhood poisoned him, framed him and dragged his reputation through the mud!”

            Njada stepped back, utterly appalled. “By the Nine, I-I’m sorry, Ria.”

            “So am I. Because I’m the last of my family but for a cousin or two, and if I’d stayed in Cyrodiil, I’d be little more than a puppet to them.” Ria blinked back the tears. Companions didn’t cry. “If your little rebellion succeeds, you’ll kill a lot of innocent people whose only crime is to be loyal to the Empire.”

            “Our ‘little rebellion’ will happen because Cyrodiil is bleeding Skyrim dry,” Njada said flatly. “Taxes have increased and if you can’t pay them, you lose your home. You can get relief by sending a member of the family to serve in the Legion. It wasn’t enough to take our god. Your Empire is taking our gold and our young folk, and for what? To let the roads fall into wrack and ruin, to abandon forts for bandits to take over, and to fill the purses of old rich men in Cyrodiil. If it wasn’t for the Nords at Red Ring Road, your precious Emperor wouldn’t have survived to be assassinated by the Dark Brotherhood. I’m sorry about your brother. I know there’s good people on both sides of this fight. But something needs to change and it won’t be the Legion.”

            “I know,” Ria said simply. “That’s in part why I’m here. You’re rebelling because the Empire failed you. Unfortunately, most of the counties and the Elder Council are ruled by those who benefit from the status quo. I can’t do anything yet. But I’ll do what I can when I return home.”

            “We have to act soon or there won’t be a Skyrim left to save,” Njada replied. “Look… If anything happens, I’ll make sure you return to Cyrodiil safely. I have that much sway and Egil Ulfricsson’s a good friend of mine.”

            “If Ulfric manages to break away from the Empire, he’ll break all of Tamriel,” Ria said slowly. “Just remember, the only victor in a civil war would be the Aldmeri Dominion.”

            “That’s a chance we have to take.” Njada deliberately turned away. “Let’s see what’s worth taking back to Jorrvaskr.”

It was no great effort to establish himself as one of the beggars in Riften. An old Redguard, bent and scarred from years of battle, who held out his only hand and beseeched passers-by for a septim or two. Most ignored him, flicking away their blanket-mantles like poverty was a contagious thing, and others could only share a half-loaf of bread or a wedge of the blue-veined cheese produced in the Rift. The Priests of Mara provided breakfast and dinner, thin gruel in the morning and cabbage soup in the evening, with the hidden price of their largesse mandatory attendance at a sermon. That was no great price to pay and allowed him to save the septims given to him by a few kind generous souls.

            It was interesting that most of them were associated in some way with the Thieves Guild and Irkand learned to recognise them all. Sapphire, black-haired and blue-eyed, was reportedly a Dark Sister as well but she always tossed him a septim whenever she went past the marketplace. Rune, a soft-voiced Niben-man, always handed out bread and cheese to the beggars after a sermon at the Benevolence of Mara. Cynric was generous when his gambling cons succeeded and Etienne cleared out the rat-traps in Beggar’s Row once a week. Even beggars paid rent in Riften, at least to the Thieves Guild, and their rights as tenants respected.

            Brynjolf, an auburn-haired Nord with a build more lithe than bulky and a strangely musical lilt to his voice, was the Guildmaster and his wife was Jarl Laila’s new Steward. Only a few clicked their tongues in disapproval at the closeness of the wedding and the subsequent birth of twins; everyone else didn’t care, either out of fear or respect. Irkand snuck into the Temple of Mara for the babe-blessing rites, where the twins would be named and accepted as part of the family. Nords waited a whole month before doing it so that they knew mother and child survived. A pragmatic people, he was beginning to understand.

            Callaina… No, Korli. She was Korli now. A far cry from the flinching sickly anxious child he recalled and mourned for so long, an innocent caught up in the sins and schemes of her adult kin. Now she was a player herself, adeptly guiding the guard away from conflict with the Guild while Brynjolf made certain his people kept their depredations to a reasonable level. The priests always spoke of the land of milk and honey, a purported paradise promised to the faithful; the Rift was slowly becoming that under the rule of Jarl Laila with Korli’s advice as Winterhold was burgeoning under the reign of Korir and the advice of Sigdrifa’s eldest Bjarni. In contrast, the Pale and Eastmarch were desperately poor and troubled.

            If Akaviria was wise, she would reach out to Bjarni and Korli, explaining the benefits of the Empire. Ulfric only promised ruin, poverty and death.

            “And what will you name these children?” Maramal, the High Priest of Mara in Skyrim, asked after anointing both babes with holy water, blue mountain flower and crushed wheat.

            “The lad is Gillam, for my father,” Brynjolf replied before glancing at Korli. “The lass?”

            “Kanda, for my uncle,” Korli said firmly.

            Irkand jammed his stump against his mouth to suppress the involuntary cry. Of all the people in her life, she chose to remember him.

            The ceremony flowed by and as the crowd milled around to celebrate Riften’s power couple and their children, Irkand exited the Temple. For now, his niece was safe. Now to look towards Akaviria in Whiterun, who was the closest thing he had to a daughter.

            And if the tears were running down his face, no one saw them in the gathering twilight gloom. His oldest wound was healed and the pain in his heart a little less.

Chapter Text

 

“Rise and shine, people! We have a run in the fresh winter air for you!”

            Ria cracked open an eyelid and bestowed a malevolent glare on Skjor. “Fuck off.”

            “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Colovian,” the one-eyed Companion said blandly. “Now get up, whelp, or you’ll be gotten up.”

            The only one not grumbling was Njada; everyone else muttered imprecations about Skjor’s ancestry as they struggled to wake up, get dressed and put on armour. Athis in particular, bred to the ashen skies and hot winds of Morrowind, was especially sour and descriptive of Skjor’s relatives back to the Merethic Era.

            Every other day, they ran around the city walls of Whiterun in full armour under the gaze of Farkas and Aela, learning how to move swiftly in the stiff leather and metal. Ria thanked the Eight she wore scaled leather these days instead of the heavier Colovian chainmail she’d arrived in. Athis was no doubt relieved to be wearing dusk-rose chitin instead of the steel plate Njada effortlessly wore while Torvar still staggered along in his studded leather.

            It wasn’t quite dawn as they exited the city, the gates opened by a smirking guard, and began to run clockwise around the walls. Last week, they’d surprised a sneaky band of rogues under the walls themselves, and fought a nasty little skirmish that had them all seeing Danica at the Temple for healing. With all the bandit extermination Balgruuf was paying them to do, Whiterun might just be the most crime-free Hold in Skyrim.

            It was good to stretch out her legs, even if her lungs burned in the icy air. The Jeralls had a cool dryness to them, even in summer, but the storms that rolled in from Falkreath Hold gave Whiterun a sense of heavy moistness. The Pale, Winterhold and Eastmarch were even worse, she’d heard, enduring snow right into summer. No wonder the northern Holds were reliant on the bounty of the sea.

            Aela led them, loping in front like a wolf, and Farkas brought up the rear. Ria and Njada were neck and neck for second position while Athis kept up a steady pace at third. Torvar was generally fourth and miserable from a hangover. Ria didn’t know why he was still around.

            “You’re in better shape,” Njada panted as they ran. “You aren’t puffing like a horker coming to shore.”

            “That wasn’t me, that was Torvar,” Ria countered mildly. “I know it’s not for me to question, but why in the name of the Eight is he a whelp?”

            “I don’t know, but there’s a persistent rumour he’s Balgruuf’s bastard nephew, just like Lydia in the guard is,” Njada replied. “Balgeir from Falkreath and Istgeir seemed to have a competition for who could sire the most bastards before the Great War.”

            “Balgeir… Name’s familiar.”

            “Jarl Siddgeir’s father. Got himself killed by Redguards at a parley. If he was half as obnoxious as Siddgeir is, I can’t exactly fault them.” Njada ran along, not even sweating like everyone else. “Istgeir was meant to be Jarl in Whiterun, but he and the old Jarl got themselves crucified by the Thalmor at Lake Rumare. He died and Balgruuf became Jarl when he was meant to be a Steward.”

            “Balgruuf’s a good ruler,” Ria hazarded.

            “He’s good enough in peace. But wave a few septims under his nose and he’ll sell out almost anything,” Njada said. “Maybe there’s honour underneath the gold-hunger, I don’t know.”

            They’d done half the circuit now. “He’s just trying to take care of his city, Njada.”

            “He’s consolidating power to play kingmaker,” she retorted. “Torygg was voted in by the Imperial Holds and only because Balgruuf controls the trade in Skyrim. It suits him to play the waiting game.”

            “What’s wrong with Torygg? I knew him and Elisif in Cyrodiil.” The next time she was in Solitude, she should probably visit and let them in on the secret of her presence in Skyrim.

            “He’s a Cyrod in Nord clothing and she’s not much better,” Njada said bluntly. “Neither have held anything sharper than a butter knife.”

            That was a fair criticism. “So why don’t they learn to fight?”

            “Pfft, they’d rather wear High Rock silks while the Old Holds starve.”

            Ria shot her a filthy look. “They only starve because that arsehole Ulfric takes the food for his army. Winterhold and the Rift seem to be doing well enough.”

            “Winterhold has the College. Mind you, I’m a little surprised Bjarni’s the Arch-Mage and not the Jarl. I didn’t even know he could do magic until he used it in front of Dengeir.” Njada chuckled. “I have to admit, it was pretty funny. Most of the Kreathling Jarl bloodline are irritating shits.”

            Ria had read Bjarni’s Penitus Oculatus profile. Smarter than he looked, cosmopolitan and politically neutral by design, the Arch-Mage of the College was responsible for Winterhold’s renaissance. He had ties to House Telvanni through his common law marriage to Brelyna Maryon, advised Korir, and helped defeat a Thalmor plot to control an immensely powerful device known as the Eye of Magnus. It was her father’s belief… had been his belief… that Bjarni could be salvaged from the fanatical mess that was his family.

            “Yeah, I’ll drink to that. Siddgeir tried to grab my arse once, before I was confirmed as… my grandfather’s heir. I put him on his back and stomped on his balls for good measure.”

            “Bjarni and Egil managed to escape the worst of the Kreathling bloodline’s faults. The former takes after Ulfric personality wise, an Ulfric who never had a reason to hate the mer. He’s driven, charismatic and a bit of a rowdy.” Njada exhaled heavily as they ran. Three-quarters done now. “Egil’s Sigdrifa’s son. Smart, tough and a bit more tolerant than her, but he wields Dawnbreaker as Champion of Meridia, and that makes him very rigid in his views.”

            Ria glanced askance at Njada. “He can openly wield a Daedric artefact?”

            “We’ve always had respect for Meridia in Skyrim. The folk in the old faith even worship Her, I’m told. Egil helped defeat an entire nest of vampires who were trying to blot out the sun.” Njada’s long white hair swung as she shook her head. “Ulfric’s a war hero and his kids have saved the world twice. What the hell has Torygg done in comparison to that?”

            Ria was silent until they rounded the last corner for the run to the gates. “Heroes don’t always make for great rulers. It’s why Aurelia Northstar refused the Ruby Throne. She knew she wouldn’t make a good ruler, so she allowed Ocanto to become Potentate.”

            “Yeah, and the Thalmor assassinated him in ten years,” Njada said dryly. She was a lot more educated than Ria realised. Most Nords were literate and in Whiterun, most of them had a level of literacy and numeracy comparable to the Imperial City.

            “…True. I always thought that the Northstar’s son Julius Martin Aurelius should have become Emperor. He was a good mage and strong leader. But the Thalmor killed him too and Arius became Grand Master of the Blades.”

            “Was he really as batshit as everyone claims?” Njada asked.

            “Worse. He believed himself to be the descendant of Martin Septim.” Ria smiled sourly. “The Hero of Kvatch became the Madgoddess. She’s revered and feared in Cyrodiil. Arius… well, he was just feared. But he came close to taking the Ruby Throne, closer than you realise. If Jarl Dengeir hadn’t alerted the Emperor-“

            “What?” Njada yelped, stopping dead in her tracks. “Dengeir did what?”

            “Told the Emperor about Arius’ plot. The plan was for them to throttle the Pale Pass and hold both countries to ransom until Arius got the Ruby Throne,” Ria said slowly. “I’ve read the paperwork, Njada. It was definitely a ranking somebody in the Kreathling government and it has the signature and seal of Dengeir on it.”

            “His Steward’s an Altmer,” Njada said. “Maybe she was acting on orders from the Thalmor.”

            “No. Nenya’s a fugitive from the Thalmor herself.” Ria’s mouth tightened. “The Aurelii may have been mad and bad but the Kreathling Jarls are betrayers. If it was politic, the Empire would do better to replace them with someone else.”

            Athis jogged up to them. “Are you two still talking politics?”

            “I just told Njada how the family of her precious Stormsword sold the Aurelii out to the Empire,” Ria told him.

            “Sounds about right,” Athis agreed. “The Stormsword used to take Argonians and use their bodies for the Black Sacrament. Throwing a few people under the cart would be her style.”

            “Maybe she did,” Njada said grimly. “But the Empire put her in a position to have to do it.”

            “No. I think that woman didn’t even love Talos, only her own desire for power. I’m from Windhelm too, Njada, and I saw a good deal in my younger years.” Athis shook his head. “If a victory is achieved without honour, is it a victory worth having?”

            They jogged up to the front gate, where Aela waited for them, and Ria considered Athis’ words.

Chapter Text

 

It was the first day of the New Life Festival, which was to say the first day of the 199th year of the Fourth Era, and around Skyrim everyone was celebrating the chance to start afresh. Snowberry wreaths were ceremonially burned and fresh ones hung from the walls, the adolescents ready to come of age were sent on their ice wraith hunts, and a blot was held to honour the heroic dead of the previous year. The troubles of 198 were left behind like last year’s trash.

            Egil dismounted at the Riften stables and left his dun gelding with the Redguard stable-hand. Ralof accompanied him instead of Yrsarald for this mission, as a measure of diplomacy was required and for all his virtues, the Thrice-Pierced was a blunt instrument compared to the savvy, worldly-wise Storm-Hammer. “Be wary,” Ralof advised as he rested his giant warhammer across his shoulders. “The Thieves Guild hold a lot of sway in the Rift and… well, there’s worse things than them out there.”

            “You’re joking,” Egil said flatly.

            “I’m not. A lot of spies venture into theft for any number of reasons. The Thieves Guild breaks their fingers the first time, takes their dominant hand the second time, and cuts their throat the third. They keep the burglaries and muggings down, facilitate a lot of trade between the Holds, and don’t ask questions when you pay them to retrieve something.” Ralof shifted slightly. “I’ve made use of them a few times where my presence would be a red rag to the Legion’s bull.”

            “The shadows have their place in the scheme of things,” Meridia conceded sourly. “Nocturnal rules over night and luck. In the heart of Her sanctum in the Rift, I will have no power.”

            “Are you saying this is a waste of time?” Egil asked.

            “Not… exactly. The Guild might tell us who put the hit out on your mother when we point out just how disruptive a dusk to dawn curfew would be in Windhelm. They’ve been slowly consolidating power there for several months now.” Ralof’s smile was wry. “There are worse places than a city ruled by the Thieves Guild in the night. You should try Bruma sometime.”

            Ralof was one of the few Skyrim-born Stormcloaks to have crossed the border more than once. “I’ve heard it’s bad.”

            “There’s no honour in that place. The Thalmor crucify a Talos worshipper every other month to remind the Bruma folk of their place. You’re either selling out someone or praying you don’t get sold out.” Old bad memories hardened the agent’s blue eyes. “That’s the future of Skyrim if your father fails.”

            Egil’s mouth tightened. He didn’t always agree with his father’s application of the law in favour of Nords, but it was better than Skyrim being bereft of its soul. “So you’re saying…?”

            “Be diplomatic. The Guildmaster Brynjolf is a survivor of the Markarth Incident. His da apparently held the gates so Madanach could flee.” Ralof sighed and shook his head. “There’s no love lost between the Reach and your father. The Forsworn… Well, when you look at it, they were just doing what we’re trying to do. Regain their homeland and heritage.”

            “You’ve never said any of this around Father,” Egil noted as they walked to the gates.

            “I respect your father. I honour him. I hold him in the highest esteem. But I’m not blind to his faults,” Ralof said slowly. “Unless we remove anyone who isn’t a Nord from Skyrim, we need to deal with other peoples and their ways. How can we support our religious freedom and not that of the Argonians? Even the dark elves should be allowed to worship Azura if they want. And what of the Orcs of Narzulbur and their Malacath?”

            The blond shook his head. “Ah, never mind me. I just believe that we Nords should rebuild the old Empire of the Septims if we’re going to destroy the Mede one. Tamriel will need to stand as one against the Dominion and who better to lead them than the Nords?”

            Egil said nothing more as they entered the gates.

            Riften was still much the same, a maze of rotting wood and cracked stone, but there was a palpable change in the air. Banners hung from all the buildings and garlands of aspen leaves adorned every doorway. The air smelt of mead and meat as they neared the marketplace, where people handed out bottles of Black-Briar mead and meat pasties to everyone heading towards the Temple of Mara. “Jarl’s largesse,” a pretty brown-haired girl explained as she thrust a pasty into Egil’s hands. “The feast’s taking a while, so we’re giving out meat and mead to tide you through.”

            “Laila’s so wealthy as to hold a city-wide feast?” Egil asked as an Argonian handed him some mead.

            “Oh no. The Black-Briars, the Snow-Shods and the Clever-Hands are sponsoring the feast,” the girl grinned. “It’s not exactly a meal worthy of Sovngarde and the mead’s a little sour, but it’s free and after last year, we all need something to hearten ourselves.”

            Egil nodded in curt thanks and made his way to the Benevolence of Mara, the only place big enough to hold a public feast.

            Laila presided over the dozen or so trestle tables from a comfortable chair swathed in tawny furs, flanked by her huscarl Unmid and his wife Ingun on one side, and her new Steward and an auburn-haired Reacher Nord on the other. Her two sons, Maven and the other Black-Briars were at one end of the high table while her court wizard Wylandriah, Nura and Lilija Snow-Shod sat at the other. The Snow-Shods had suffered greatly over the past year and Egil wondered how the remaining clan were coping with Asgeir’s madness and Vulwulf’s death.

            “Egil,” greeted the Jarl from her throne. “Yet again the Stormcloaks come unannounced to the feast.”

            “I was here on other business, Jarl Laila,” Egil admitted. “If my presence is a problem…”

            “Not at all.” Laila waved to the Snow-Shods’ side of the table. “Please, join us.”

            Given no choice, he and Ralof took the last chairs. From here, he could see the riffraff that made up Riften, the most cosmopolitan city in the Old Holds. Argonians, Dunmer, Imperials, Redguards, Bosmer, even the odd Breton, Orc or Khajiit. Earthy-drab Rifters dominated the crowd but Laila’s own court was diverse enough to impress almost anyone. Even the Nords came from a variety of Holds – the Black-Briars’ dark colouring came from Maven’s Eastmarch sire while the auburn-haired Reacher was rosy-fair as all his kind and the Steward was obviously Kreathling despite the olive-bronze skin and Cyrod eagle-beak nose.

            “The Reacher is a Nightingale, an agent of Nocturnal,” Meridia warned. “His shadows are strongest here. Only the Twilight Sepulchre is stronger in Nocturnal’s influence.”

            Egil would be diplomatic despite sharing a table with at least one criminal. “I haven’t seen such an impressive turnout in years,” he said as a servant brought him a goblet for his mead. “The Rift seems to be prospering better than Eastmarch.”

            “Ulfric pours all his taxes into the militia,” Laila pointed out. “I prefer to hire freelance adventurers to handle most threats and Unmid deputises certain nobles to handle the rest.”

            “Took some doing but the bandits of the Rift learned their manners,” the auburn-haired Reacher, who was probably Brynjolf the Guildmaster, drawled in his thick brogue. “We poured their loot back into the economy or sold it to places which could pay a nice sum of gold.”

            “Our new trade deal with Winterhold helps,” Laila said with a smile.

            “What happened to Anuriel?” Egil asked bluntly.

            “After certain irregularities in her tax records were pointed out, she elected to return to Valenwood,” the new Steward replied calmly. “Jarl Laila asked me to step into the job because I knew how to run a business. I keep on trying to find someone else to take it, but they all keep running away from me.”

            “I bet Dagmar’s kicking himself for letting Gorran divorce you,” Ralof said with a grin.

            “Gorran made his choices, so did Dagmar, and so have I,” the Steward replied. “Egil, once the feast’s over, you and I need to talk.”

            “Why is that?” Egil asked. “And why can’t it be brought up now?”

            “Because,” the turquoise-eyed woman with the gently square features said with just a hint of acid to her tone, “What I have to say about a mutual maternal relative of ours isn’t fit for a joyous occasion.”

            Mutual maternal relative-

            “She’s your sister,” Meridia said with similarly acidic tones. “The one Irkand told you about at Bonestrewn Crest.”

            “You shouldn’t speak ill of the dead,” Egil said, nettled by the implications of her words.

            It was Brynjolf who laughed harshly. “We certainly can’t speak well of her!”

            “Did either of you have her killed?” Egil asked bluntly.

            Callaina met his eyes squarely. “No, though her contract was fulfilled after she tried to put one on me. You should look closer to the Stormcloak camp, Egil. I don’t know who exactly ordered our mother’s death, but it was someone high in Ulfric’s councils, someone who saw her contract on your father as a threat.”

            “You-What-“

            “Laila, I apologise. I wanted to discuss this after the feast for a reason.” Callaina reached into her apron pocket and withdrew some yellowed parchments. “Because none of these were contracted under the Black Sacrament, the Brotherhood didn’t see fit to carry them out after Mother’s death, because there’d be no pay. The Imperial ones have already been dispatched to Solitude. These are the Stormcloak ones.”

            “I’m impressed,” Maven said with a hint of admiration. “I didn’t think the Stormsword was capable of thinking that far ahead.”

            Egil glanced at the papers thrust into his hand and reluctantly read them. Ulfric, Galmar, Ralof and half a dozen other prominent Stormcloaks were named on the contracts. “I-I…”

            “I’m sorry,” Callaina said, the compassion in her voice too deep for Egil to bear at the moment. “I knew you’d come asking questions and I’m sick of the lies. If you’re going to start a civil war, know the foundation on which it was built, and understand those who will suffer whether you win or you lose. I remember the Great War, Egil, and there’s precious little justice to be found in battle.”

            She rose to her feet gracefully. “Jarl, if you’d excuse me? I need to check on Gillam and Kanda.”

            Laila waved a hand and the Steward left. “I’m sorry,” the Jarl echoed. “I felt betrayed too when I found out my name was on the list. Ulfric’s cause is just, but it’s built on lies. Where is the honour in that?”

            Where indeed…

Chapter Text

 

The new year came and went, demand for the Companions never slackening over winter, and Ria had graduated from hunting beasts and bandits to being regularly assigned vampires, necromancers or giants. Much to her chagrin, she and Njada made a good team, so they were often sent out together under the eye of a senior Companion. Their politics hadn’t changed but Ria was beginning to get a good idea of the frustrations that drove the Stormcloaks to agitate for independence and Njada was learning just how brutal the Great War’s legacy on Cyrodiil was.

            Today, Skjor beckoned them over just after morning training; Farkas was already waiting, kitted out for a long trip. It was a raw blustery day in the tag-end of winter, the sky grey as steel with clouds scudding from horizon to horizon. “Well, whelps, it’s time,” the senior-most Companion said without preamble. “We’re sending you two out on your Proving.”

            “You’re shitting me,” Njada replied immediately. “Athis has been here ten years, Torvar five, and you’re sending us out?”

            “Just because we don’t play the game doesn’t mean we’re not aware of the rules,” Skjor said bluntly. “Some very discreet descriptions of Ria are circulating around particular circles and Egil Ulfricsson has been investigating his mother’s death. You two have calls of honour outside of the Companions and we won’t have it said we allowed whelps to leave half-trained.”

            “Who’s looking for me?” Ria asked bluntly. “There are things in place to cover my absence-“

            “Which are useless in the face of unrest across half the Empire, Akaviria Nona Mara Medea,” said a familiar oiled-silk tenor from the shadows. “Your cousin Armand is trying to get you declared dead – for obvious reasons. He was the one responsible for your grandfather’s death. Unfortunately, he’s out of my reach, and I’m not so foolish as to call upon the Dark Brotherhood after killing my brother who was part of it.”

            Irkand emerged into the thin grey light, wrapped in a ragged blanket-mantle. He was thinner and paler than she remembered, his hair more white than grey, his face lined with more than years. “I took a little time to make sure Callaina was safe,” he said apologetically. “She and her children are the last of my kin, aside from my brother’s son in Hammerfell.”

            Ria fell on Irkand and gave him a fierce hug as Njada’s jaw dropped. “You’re the…”

            “Imperial Heir,” Skjor finished calmly. “We knew from the first because Irkand told us about her years ago. But Kodlak wanted to see what she was made of, because however things fall out, it’ll be Ria facing the brunt of the next Dominion invasion.”

            “Since we’re revealing things, are you going to tell Irkand you knew his niece was in Whiterun all along?” Ria shot back as she released Irkand from her hug. He’d been the pillar of her youth, an honorary uncle to her.

            “Skjor-“ Irkand’s eyes narrowed but the one-eyed Companion cut him off.

            “She was safe and happy. I made the call. You want a piece of my hide, you can take it in the battle-circle,” he said firmly.

            Irkand laughed sourly. “I can barely fight a mudcrab these days. Rustem damn near killed me.”

            He sighed heavily. “At the most, Ria, I can buy you a month or so. Rikke’s doing a Hold-by-Hold search of Skyrim and Whiterun’s next on her list.”

            Njada took a deep breath and released it slowly. Much of her training had focused on getting her bad temper under control. “So what? You came here to learn our weaknesses so you could reconquer Skyrim?”

            “No, I came here to understand Nords and how the Empire was failing its backbone,” Ria retorted, stung. “That’s beneath you, Njada. I never lied.”

            “But you omitted the truth.” Njada’s jaw rippled with anger. “How like a Cyrod.”

            “Enough.” The rumble came from Farkas. “We got a Proving to do. We’re off to Dustman’s Cairn up near Volunruud and the Hjaalmarch border. One of the scholars we pay to locate shards of Wuuthrad claims to have found a piece there. Get your kit so we can go.”

            “I’ll wait until you come back,” Irkand promised. “Good luck, Ria. You’ll need it.”

The shaggy beast lumbered off to the side and returned in a minute, the gate rising with a clatter. “Hope I didn’t scare you,” Farkas said.

            “What. Was. That?” Njada demanded, fearing the answer.

            “Beast blood. Some of us are werewolves. It was a gift from Hircine to one of the long-ago Companions. We become like beasts but maintain our human intelligence. It’s a secret to everyone.” Farkas scratched the back of his neck. “Kodlak and Vilkas wanna cure us all, but Skjor and Aela are happy as-is. Dunno what’s going to happen.”

            “I thought werewolves were feral,” Ria said, eyes narrowed. The Cyrod woman had her hand on her gladius, ready to draw. Njada herself was fighting the urge to beat down Farkas.

            “We’re unique.” Farkas sighed. “Them arseholes who attacked us are the Silver Hand. They don’t like werewolves so they don’t like us.”

            He turned away. “We still got a piece of Wuuthrad to find. This was a burial place for an old Harbinger, so it’s probably here.”

            More Silver Hand ambushed them in the corridors, a motley array of bandits and petty sellswords, and Njada despised them more with every encounter. The Companions had sold their souls to Hircine, trading the glory of Sovngarde for battle prowess in the present, but most Nords dedicated a bit of each hunt to the Lord of the Man-Beasts. She could even understand such a choice for the power it brought, though she wouldn’t make it herself.

            “So are you going to make us werewolves?” Ria asked.

            “Nope. We been talking and until the Circle makes a decision, no more will be made,” Farkas said calmly. “Besides, a werewolf Empress or Shieldmaiden would be kinda awkward for everyone.”

            Understatement of the Fourth Age.

            They battled through more Silver Hand and draugr until they reached the sanctum. Yes, there was a piece of Wuuthrad and a wall in Dovahzul. Ria walked over and picked up the ebony shard. The draugr in the sanctum came out to play and Njada fell back on the silver sword she’d looted from a Silver Hand to fight them.

            Fighting draugr was simple. Every Shieldmaiden trained against the embalmed dead of their kind at Yngvild and these draugr moved no differently. Njada blocked and swung her silver sword until no more enemies came against her. She wasn’t even hurt, though Ria picked up some minor wounds on her exposed limbs.

            They were walking back to Jorrvaskr under a rainbow-veiled night sky when Ria sighed. “I didn’t want anyone to know,” she said into the darkness. “Imagine growing up knowing you’re responsible for millions of lives and that each of those millions will want something different from you. Being among the Companions was the first time I earned respect for my achievements, not my bloodline. Do you understand?”

            “I suppose so,” Njada conceded. “But can’t you just let Skyrim find its own way?”

            “Skyrim is the literal spine of the Empire that connects Cyrodiil and High Rock,” Ria said quietly. “If you Stormcloaks rebel, I have no choice but to fight you. Can’t you just let go of Talos for the greater good?”

            “Talos is the axle on which the Time Serpent turns,” Njada said softly. “If He dies, the world dies. That’s what the Thalmor want, to kill the world and humanity so they can go back to being gods or whatever.”

            Ria sighed again. “I don’t want to fight you, Njada.”

            “Nor I you. But I guess we don’t have a choice.”

Chapter Text

 

“I see you’ve been allowed to learn some secrets before your time,” Kodlak sighed after Njada pressed him about the Circle being werewolves. “Yes, the Circle but for Vignar are werewolves. Some of us seek a cure and others don’t. I dream of Sovngarde and the presence of Shor.”

            “Farkas said you were trying to find a cure for everyone,” Ria said slowly. “Isn’t making that kind of choice against the Companions’ creed?”

            “Skjor and Aela don’t know themselves,” Kodlak replied. “They revel in the power of the beast form without giving thought to the fate of their souls.”

            “It’s still their choice to make, not yours.” Ria folded her arms. “I don’t like werewolves any more than you do but… well, you aren’t eating people I know about, and the ones you do eat probably deserve it.”

            “How can you be so clearheaded about this and so dense about Skyrim’s freedom?” Njada asked her.

            “Because Skyrim’s ‘freedom’ will mean a slow death for millions at the hand of the Dominion,” Ria retorted with a sigh. “Without Skyrim, the Thalmor will snap up High Rock and Cyrodiil piece by piece.”

            “Well, maybe you should become strong enough to stand on your own,” Njada said firmly. “Skyrim will be.”

            “Yeah, uh huh. Eastmarch is a frozen poverty-stricken shithole, I hear,” Ria countered. “Its independence is working out so well.”

            “Ralof told me what Bruma was like. Everyone turned against their neighbour, no honour for Cyrod or Nord. I would sooner see Skyrim destroyed than suffer a nithing’s fate,” Njada said flatly.

            “What happened in Bruma is wrong. My grandfather failed there,” Ria admitted. “But I can’t throw the rest of the Empire on the pyre for the sake of Skyrim! Work with me to make it a better place, Njada, don’t cut your nose off to spite your face.”

            Kodlak looked between the two whelps, possibility shimmering like silken threads around them. Empress Akaviria reaching out to the Stormcloaks as friends, Njada killing Ria in the bloody ruins of Solitude, the Stonearm writhing on a Thalmor cross as Akaviria watched stone-faced. Then possibility shattered as it always did under the jagged darkness that radiated from Helgen, a lean Redguard youth wielding a sword of misty light cutting through the strands, a turquoise-eyed Nord woman weaving them back together-

            Fate-Breaker and Fate-Maker, he called them. Try as he might, he couldn’t place either of them, their sword and eyes the only things visible in their forms. But he knew that this would be his successor’s problem. He needed to write it down in the chronicles so they knew what to expect.

            The Harbinger struggled to his feet. “Enough. Companions are beyond politics. While you are in this hall, you are Shield-Sisters. Is that clear?”

            “As Alinor crystal,” Ria said. “Kodlak, are you okay?”

            “My illness comes and goes,” he admitted heavily. “I cling to life in hope for a cure.”

            “Do you know how the curse began among the Companions?” she asked.

            “Yes… But as to a cure…” Kodlak chuckled weakly. “I don’t see the Glenmoril Coven relinquishing one without a fight. They cursed us in the first place when we agreed to hunt in the name of their Lord Hircine.”

            “I don’t know,” Njada said. “You have control of the curse. Seems like a fair bargain to me.”

            “Glenmoril… That’s a Reach name,” Ria said slowly.

            “Technically, they’re in Falkreath. But yes, once the Reach-folk ranged down into the pine forests as well as the misty mountains,” Kodlak confirmed.

            “So, why don’t we go ask them? The western Reach-folk have reached – pun intended – accommodations with the Duke of Evermore that let them follow their traditional ways while acknowledging his suzerainty. Grandfather learned from the Markarth Incident in that regards.”

            “They worship the worst kind of Daedra!” Njada repeated. “Hircine’s not so bad, but they consider Namira and Sithis great gods!”

            “It’s more complicated than that. They practiced a form of ritual cannibalism that was meant to honour friends, family and revered enemies around Evermore. Now, they just burn the bodies, plough the ashes into a special field, and eat the crops from that field as a form of respect.” Ria sighed and shook her head. “You Nords could go back to worshipping the old gods Aela’s mentioned several times.”

            “Aela’s lineage comes from the Reach,” Kodlak explained. “To her, being a werewolf is to be a champion of Hircine.”

            “I told you why we can’t abandon Talos,” Njada countered.

            “Njada’s right in this sense. Talos is the axle of the time-wheel…” Kodlak sighed. “Go and celebrate your Proving. And speak to Eorlund about weapons of Skyforge Steel.”

            He watched the two leave and sighed again. So young and certain they were right. Skyrim would be bleeding to death before they realised how wrong they were.

“We found her.”

            Hadvar’s soft voice rang with certainty and Rikke allowed herself a smile. He was so like his father yet polished as only three years at the Legion academy in the Imperial City could do. She missed Harnbjorn like fire in a winter storm but his son was proving to be a more than adequate replacement. “Where?”

            “Whiterun. She joined the Companions and just completed her Proving.” Hadvar smiled as he said it.

            Rikke’s smile broadened into a grin. It had been hard to keep the faith after Titus Mede’s death but his granddaughter was proving to be an Empress worth following. “Is she aiming for the Circle?”

            “Probably not. Explaining her absence for six moons is one thing, but a year would be awkward.”

            “Indeed. The Empire’s unstable enough.” Rikke sighed and pushed back her dark hair. “Any word on how those Dark Brotherhood contracts came into our possession?”

            “I’d say the Thieves Guild, given that Korli Clever-Hands gave the Stormcloak ones to Egil Ulfricsson at the New Life feast in Riften, according to Maven Black-Briar.” Hadvar sighed. “To think, Aurelia Callaina was under our noses all that time.”

            “She was innocent of the Aurelii’s sins and confirmed Immunitas by the Emperor before his death,” Rikke reminded him.

            “Oh, I was just thinking that if I’d made more of an effort, I could have married her. A Legionnaire with solid prospects would have been a better option than Gorran Barley-Beard,” the Quaestor said dryly. “If Laila continues to support Ulfric…”

            “Laila’s a simple, honourable woman. If we can make the case the Empire is the more honourable option – not hard after Sigdrifa Stormsword put a contract out on her – she’ll join us. If not, we’ve got options in Maven Black-Briar or even her daughter Ingun. Hell, if we can float it by the Elder Council, Korli might be a good choice.”

            “Ha. Korli’s a clever woman but it’ll never happen. Arius scared the hell out of the Counts in Cyrodiil.” Hadvar went and poured himself some ale. “We can use Sigdrifa’s alliance with the Dark Brotherhood to undermine Ulfric with Korir and Laila. Maybe he knew, maybe he didn’t. Either way, it’d be a good weapon in our arsenal.”

            “You’re a genius,” Rikke approved. “I think we’ll bring it up in the next Moot.”

            Hadvar nodded. “Aye. But Legate, what are we going to do about Ria?”

            Rikke sighed. “We watch and wait – for now. If she’s in one shred of danger, I’m dragging her back to Solitude. Until then, let her win the hearts and minds of our fellow Nords.”

Chapter Text

 

Solitude was a grand old city with a rich history, built from the native stone and tiled with blue-grey slate, tucked into a warm little nook off the Sea of Ghosts. Bright flowers and banners hung everywhere while goods from every corner of the Empire were sold in the marketplace. The Haafingar Nords were a tall, sturdy breed with a polished exterior that concealed the steel spines within. Beards weren’t as popular here and the furs that a few wore were more decorative than functional, most preferring fine wool and even velvet. Ria found herself quite taken with the city and its people.

            She hadn’t formally left the Companions yet but Irkand’s warning rang clear. He could give her a month. Best to tell Rikke and Torygg now before word got out where she’d been all along.

            Castle Dour lived up to its name. A solemn Nord named Captain Aldis led her to Rikke’s office, which was a cramped room off the chamber reserved for meetings, and slightly too small for the broad-shouldered, wide-hipped brunette stuck behind a narrow desk built for a Breton who wore polished steel plate like a courtier wore silks. “Companion here to see you,” Aldis told the Legate Primus laconically.

            “I’ve been expecting her. Return to your duties.” Rikke returned Aldis’ salute and waited until he left the room before cracking a broad grin. “You wear Skyforge Steel well.”

            Ria found herself smiling in delight. She’d only met the Legate Primus a few times but as the highest-ranking Nord in any of the Legions, her opinion meant more than she expected. “I’m truly honoured to have earned it,” she said sincerely.

            “I’m glad you did. The Imperial presence in Skyrim is tenuous at best. We’re clustered mostly in Haafingar and Falkreath, with lesser garrisons in the Reach and Whiterun, and hidden camps in the Old Holds,” Rikke replied without preamble. “Ulfric and Sigdrifa spent a long time chipping away our control of the east.”

            “I’m getting the impression they’ve been planning this since between the Great War and Markarth Incident,” Ria agreed as she unbuckled her cloak. It was stuffy in this windowless room and two of the corners were filled by small bronze braziers.

            “Easily,” Rikke said with a sigh. “Sigdrifa planned well, planned long and planned hard for this. Of us all, she paid the most attention to the political tactics of T-Tiber Septim as well as the military ones.”

            “So, the Companions know who I am, and that includes Njada Stonearm,” Ria told her. “I’ve been trying to hammer some sense into her but… She’s made some good points about Imperial rule in Skyrim, I’m sad to say.”

            “That’s what gives Ulfric such power,” Rikke said softly. “He is working from a position of truth. The Old Holds have been neglected for far too long and the Legion has treated Skyrim like its personal conscription ground for centuries. There’s justified bitterness, above and beyond the banning of Talos worship.”

            “I know.” Ria tapped her bottom lip thoughtfully. “Track down the prominent members of the old Nord faith and see if they’d be averse to cooperation with the Empire. Aela raised a couple good points about how Tiber Septim suppressed the old gods of the Nords. If we can encourage worship of gods like Jhunal and Stuhn, we could return some pride and culture to your people.”

            “Ironically, that’s what’s happening in Winterhold,” Rikke said. “Most of the coastal Nords worship Kyne and Tsun – the Storm-Goddess and the God of Trials – because life’s so hard there. Korir’s building a Temple of All Gods that includes the old Nord deities, the Reclamations, the Divines and even little shrines to the Khajiit and elven gods and the Hist.”

            Ria exhaled heavily. “I’ve heard a lot of good things about Bjarni Ulfricsson. Even Egil’s apparently a hero.”

            “Bjarni’s taken himself and the College out of the political unrest, probably because he sees the writing on the wall but doesn’t want to be seen abandoning his family,” Rikke explained. “Egil… He’s the Dawnbringer and champion of Meridia, and a fairly devout worshipper of Stendarr. He’s focused on Imperial injustices in Skyrim… Unless certain revelations concerning his mother’s use of the Dark Brotherhood make him realise the hypocrisy the Stormcloaks are built on.”

            “Njada told me that he’s very much the Stormsword’s son, but with honour and lines he won’t cross,” Ria told her. “She also promised to get me back to Cyrodiil if things go wrong.”

            “If we have to retreat, you’ll have no choice,” Rikke said grimly. “I’m good, Ria, but I served with Ulfric and Galmar. They know my tricks and I know theirs. That’s why I can’t be the commander of the Legion in Skyrim. You need someone who can adapt, meet force with force, and match Ulfric’s unrelenting will with one of their own.”

            “You’re saying we need Tullius.”

            “Yes. If this war goes hot, he and the Bruma Fourth will be the only ones able to respond rapidly to an insurgence.”

            General Marcus Tullius was the Imperial Nutcracker or the Emperor’s Hammer, depending on who you spoke to. He’d taken the stolid Bruma Fourth after the Great War and turned it into a rapid-response multipurpose Legion sent to the parts of the Empire which were fracturing. One tour might involve putting down a rebellion while another would consist of repairing roads and forts while clearing a region of bandits. Ria could think of no better General and Legion to handle Skyrim’s many problems.

            Rikke was nodding. “I can work with him. We both served under General Jonna. He’s very parochial though.”

            “That’s where you come in. You’re known to the Jarls of Skyrim and respected by many.” Ria smiled wryly. “You’re more tactful and diplomatic than Tullius. He’s not perfect.”

            Rikke echoed the expression. “Understatement of the Fourth Era. He once seriously asked Harnbjorn if every Nord had to kill and eat a bear as part of adulthood rites.”

            “Oh dear.” Ria stifled a laugh. “Speaking of tact and diplomacy, how quickly can you get me in to see Torygg discreetly as Ria of the Companions?”

            “Don’t you know? Any Companion can claim hospitality at the Blue Palace.”

            Torygg had aged a little since Ria last saw him, growing an auburn beard and almost filling his ornate fur robes with authority. His father had been murdered by the Dark Brotherhood at the first attempt to stop them in the Emperor’s Tower. She smiled and he smiled back.

            “I knew the rumours weren’t true,” he said after clasping her forearms. “Are you truly a Companion of Jorrvaskr?”

            “Not of the Circle, but yes, I earned the Skyforge Steel sword,” Ria told him. “I even found a shard of Wuuthrad with another whelp.”

            She decided not to mention the lycanthropy in Jorrvaskr. It was the Companions’ problem to deal with. “I came here to see how the Empire failed Skyrim and to understand the Nords,” she said instead. “Ulfric’s complaints have some basis to it, I’m sad to admit.”

            “I’m doing what I can but the Elder Council’s tied my hands,” Torygg said with a sigh. “I know Cyrodiil’s still recovering from the Great War, but if it bleeds Skyrim dry in trying to staunch the wound, I…”

            She met his blue eyes. “Speak frankly, Torygg.”

            “I may have no choice but to support Ulfric,” the young king said heavily. “I don’t want to. T-Tsun knows the man is an arse with a taste for power. But if you don’t lower some of the taxes and stop the conscriptions, I’ll have to act to try and preserve Skyrim.”

            “It’s that bad?” Ria asked incredulously.

            “It’s that bad. The only Jarls prospering are Balgruuf, because he’s a canny old bastard who knows how to eke out every septim he can from every Hold, and the two who kowtow to the Thalmor.”

            “Igmund and Siddgeir,” Rikke said flatly.

            Ria took a deep breath. They were both too young to have to deal with this, but it was the way of the world. “Reach out to Laila and Korir. The first has a very clever Steward and the latter is working miracles with his Hold.”

            “Use these,” Rikke said as she handed over some paperwork. “Sigdrifa Stormsword had contracts out on every Jarl in Skyrim, including your father. That’s common ground to work with.”

            “I’ll let Elisif handle that. She’s a lot more charming than I am.” Torygg smiled shyly. “The gods blessed me when my father arranged that match.”

            “If you can, try to get Balgruuf’s advice. Play on his vanity and greed if you must,” Ria suggested. “Maybe marry your cousin Bolgeir to Lydia or something.”

             “That’s no bad idea,” Torygg agreed with a smile. “You’re learning our politics well.”

            “To quote Skjor – ‘just because you don’t play the game doesn’t mean you don’t know the rules’,” Ria said wryly. “The Companions keep their eye on Skyrim in more ways than one.”

            “Thank the Nine… Err…” Torygg flushed.

            “I heard nothing,” she assured him.

            “Thank you. I just wish… I wish Father were here to deal with this. Ulfric respected him.”

            “If it’s any consolation, I have it on the best of authority Rustem Aurelius is dead,” Ria said gently. “Irkand managed to kill him.”

            “It matches with the fact Skald’s wondering where his Redguard Thane went,” Rikke confirmed. “Too many died because Rustem was trying to destabilise everything because of old grudges.”

            “That’s something. The Aurelii… Well, Father said most of them were mad and bad to know.” Torygg swallowed thickly.

            “Irkand’s a good man and his niece is Laila’s Steward,” Ria said. “I’m told she’s a lovely person.”

            “Hadvar was regretting he didn’t make a move for her,” Rikke reported with a smile. “I… was glad to know she survived. She was an innocent.”

            “I don’t blame Irkand for my father’s death,” Torygg said quietly. “Rustem was always the better strategist.”

            “I’ll tell him that,” Ria promised. “Now, before I get back to Whiterun to finish up some things as a Companion, is there anything else I need to know?”

            “Madanach’s contacted the western Reach-folk, they spoke to Elisif’s father, and he sent us a letter,” Torygg said. “Do you think he wants peace?”

            “Well, if the Duke of Evermore can make accommodations with the Reach-folk to let them follow their old ways with a few adjustments, I see no reason why we wouldn’t try the same tactic with the eastern ones,” Ria said.

            “He told me he’d accept nothing less than the Reach as an independent kingdom,” Torygg said heavily. “But if I were willing to consider it, he’d be willing to assist me in removing Ulfric.”

            “Common enemies are a good start to open negotiations,” Rikke said slowly. “But he’d have to offer something to demonstrate good will.”

            Ria bit her lip. “Send word back to Madanach from Akaviria Medea, Torygg. Tell him that if he can arrange a meeting with the Glenmoril Coven, I’d be willing to talk. So long as the Reach stays in the Empire, I don’t give a damn who rules there, frankly.”

            Torygg scratched his bearded chin. “If we could be allowed to put a tariff on Reach silver passing through Skyrim – and a monopoly on its transport to Cyrodiil – we could survive without it. But we’d need to have Ulfric on the rocks before we even breathed a word, or the Moot would dethrone me themselves.”

            Ria nodded. “I understand. Send the message and we’ll see what happens.”

            If she could help two friends at once, that was a good thing.

Chapter Text

 

“She’s dead already.”

            Egil stopped in mid-swing as the red haze of battle-madness cleared. Lu’ah al-Skaven and her raised draugr were little more than body parts on Anvilsund’s floor, the pallid ghosts of Fjori and Holgeir looking at him with a mixture of amusement and relief. It had been Holgeir who spoke, a hint of dry humour to his echoing tenor.

            “Thank you for releasing us,” Fjori said gently. “We can return to Sovngarde now and await the final turning of the Wheel.”

            Holgeir unbuckled the ghostly sword from his belt and laid it across a stand on the dais where their coffins stood. “It will ignore armour and cut through flesh,” he explained. A final gift from us to you.”

            Then they faded into nothing, leaving only their mutilated draugr and the Ghostblade.

            “We did some good here,” Ralof said as he shook his warhammer free of corpse dust and ectoplasm. “But how long are you going to take out your temper on bone-men and necromancers?”

            They hadn’t returned home directly to Windhelm, instead tracking every Nord tomb and necromancer coven in the Old Holds to vent some of Egil’s rage. “Ulfric’s cause is just, but it’s built on lies.” Laila’s words followed the swing of his arm as he plunged Dawnbreaker into undead flesh each time.

            “I can’t kill anything else,” Egil said bitterly. “Mother’s dead and the Dark Brotherhood are nowhere to be found. Why did she have to tell me?”

            Ralof sighed. “Why not? Your sister was known in Whiterun as the child no one wanted, the one who Dagmar was good enough to take in and marry to his own nephew, the landless churl of no known family who owed everything she was to them. No matter how clever or skilled she was, Korli was reminded of how she came from nothing and would be nothing without Dagmar or Gorran. If she’d revealed herself before the Stormsword’s death, you bet the Dark Brotherhood would have had another contract bearing her name.”

            “I understand that. But if she’d made a life for herself, why piss on Mother’s memory?”

            “Because your mother was a ruthless piece of shit who conflated her own desire for power with the will of Talos,” Ralof said bluntly. “Nothing was sacred to your mother. Not kin, not kith. Not even her own children in the end.”

            Egil dropped Dawnbreaker and threw himself into Ralof’s arms with a wail. The man who’d been more of a parent than his own embraced him and let him weep it out, patting his back now and then. When it was over, Egil wiped his snotty nose and teary eyes. It hurt a little less now.

            “I’ve done things for Skyrim that would disappoint you,” Ralof continued gently. “A murder here, a stolen item there… Better a small sin in the service of a greater good than to remain good in the face of evil and do nothing. And believe me, lad, the Thalmor are as evil as you’ll ever face in the flesh.”

            “Where do you draw the line?” Egil asked, hiccupping.

            “I don’t harm children. I don’t deal in drugs. I keep my executions to the deserving.” Ralof sighed. “I accepted a long time ago I wouldn’t be a hero. I may not see Sovngarde. But for Skyrim’s freedom, what is one man’s life and honour?”

            Egil knelt to pick up Dawnbreaker. He’d need to sharpen it once he got his hands on an ebony whetstone. “What do I do now?”

            “You go home and act as your father’s conscience. He and Galmar are shaped by the Great War and sometimes favour expediency over honour. Sigdrifa probably played a part in that too. She was… ruthless.” Ralof sighed. “But we need to act soon. The Empire is reeling, its heir missing. Now would be the best time to strike, while they’re distracted.”

            Egil took a deep shaky breath. “Let’s go home.”

The bee was in the hive and the honey in the comb. Spring was slowly creeping into the Rift, leaf by greening leaf, and the inhabitants stirred like winter-sleepy bears awakening from hibernation. In Riften, the New Life festival had come and gone, the people falling back into their routines. Soon the salty stews of winter would be replaced by the fresh salads and fruits of spring, the goat’s wool mantles replaced with tundra cotton and barkcloth ones, and the round of seasons begin anew. Before the Imperial calendar was imposed on the Nords, they’d celebrated their new year when the dragon’s tongue bloomed, and even now the Rifters and Eastmarchers held festivals when that happened.

            Korli Clever-Hands was spinning in Mistveil Keep’s solar when the High King’s wife came to visit. No matter how far she’d risen, she still remained the weaver and alewife from Whiterun, and part of that included working her own wool. Laila had long since stopped taking offence because she couldn’t stand idly about while talking as other courtiers did. With a bit of practical advice, the Jarl’s failings weren’t as apparent, and she was learning. Slowly, but she was learning.

            “You’ll love the Dragon’s Tongue Festival,” Saerlund was telling Elisif as she was escorted into the solar. Laila was embroidering something while Ingun wove a wreath of snowberries for the Great Hall. “Pink and golden flowers everywhere, the finest mead and honey cake in all of Skyrim…”

            “She’s already married, Saerlund,” the Jarl said dryly, setting aside her embroidery hoop. “Elisif, what a surprise! I wasn’t expecting you.”

            Korli looped the spun thread around the hook on the distaff and turned to face the Queen of Skyrim. Reacher-bred with the fine bones and reddish hair of her people, Elisif was smaller and slimmer than most Nords, with the kind of grace that only years of courtly life could instil. She waved away any attempt at curtsies with a gentle smile. “Please don’t stand on ceremony. This is an unofficial visit.”

            “You’d be surprised how many people come to Riften on ‘unofficial visits’,” Laila said dryly as she led Elisif to a seat. “Saerlund, fetch wine and cakes from the kitchen for our illustrious guest.”

            The young man vanished as Elisif sat down, smoothing her red silk skirts. “I must admit, I was expecting a bit of a colder reception,” she admitted. “Torygg and I aren’t exactly popular in the Old Holds.”

            “Most of that is likely unfamiliarity and concern for your youth,” Laila said frankly. “Both you and Torygg were raised in foreign courts known for their, ah, luxury. The Old Holds are… isolated and poorer than the rest of Skyrim. Even the Rift, and we’re the wealthiest of them.”

            “Ulfric hasn’t changed his robes in four years and the Stormsword probably slept on nettles,” Elisif said tartly. “As for my ‘luxury’, my silks and velvets are from my dowry and various gifts. Why should I have to dress in sackcloth to appease Ulfric and his rabid followers?”

            “The average churl doesn’t know that. They only know their rulers wear velvets while their gold and children are taken as taxes by the Empire,” Laila countered. “I thought much as you did once. My new Steward here, who was raised a churl, informed me why such an attitude would wind up with my head on a pike if the people ever got angry with me.”

            “And rightfully so,” Korli said bluntly. “Though I suspect Ulfric’s attitude towards ‘foreign decadence’ is more political than philosophical. His personal guard wears armour that’s easily worth three or four years of a churl’s wages and the Stormsword’s armour could have purchased a working farm three times over.”

            “You noticed that too? Of course you did.” Elisif’s blue eyes fixed on her. “Do you prefer Korli or Callaina? I don’t want to be rude but…”

            “Korli,” she replied. “I’ve been that most of my life.”

            “Korli,” Elisif repeated. “Well, you don’t need to worry about Imperial retribution for your grandfather’s crimes. Titus Mede confirmed you as Immunitas, like your uncle, before his death. You were a child who had nothing to do with the Aurelii’s treason.”

            “That’s generous.” Korli unlooped the thread and began to spin once again. She hated standing around uselessly. “I doubt you’re here for social purposes.”

            “I’m not.” Elisif sighed. “Torygg has noted how you’ve turned your Hold around, Jarl Laila, and he’d very much like your advice on the matter. I know it doesn’t seem like it, but we are trying to do our best for Skyrim.”

            Laila puffed up a little with pride. “My best piece of advice is get yourself a good Steward. Someone who’s in trade or at least understands how it works. I got lucky with Korli here. She and her husband are important members of my court.”

            “I have a cousin who’s in trade,” Elisif said quietly. “Falk Firebeard.”

            “I’ve heard of him,” Ingun confirmed. “One of the few to outmanoeuvre my mother. Get him now before he’s otherwise occupied.”

            “I will.” Elisif smiled and then the expression faltered. “I… do have another reason why I’m here. I wanted to consult with Ingun on matters of fertility. I’ve been married to Torygg for four years and I haven’t conceived.”

            “I’m not much help,” Ingun confessed. “Most of my alchemical knowledge lies in making mead. Korli?”

            “I was divorced because my then-husband believed I was infertile,” Korli said slowly. “It turned out otherwise. I… have noticed that the people who have trouble conceiving, at least one spouse is often fat or drunk. How much exercise does Torygg do? Or you for that matter?”

            “Exercise?” Elisif said blankly.

            “The body is of a piece. If one bit doesn’t work, it may affect other parts.” Korli sighed. “I’m no great healer. You should talk to the College. Colette Marance is always looking to validate herself and astonishingly, she’s quite a good Restoration mage once you get past the inferiority complex.”

            “You’ve met her?”

            “Brynjolf was injured and we were near Winterhold.” Korli twisted goat’s wool into thread. Her flock was finally recovered from the mistreatment and neglect at Dagmar’s farm. “It couldn’t hurt you to take up some exercise though. Train with the guard or something. It’ll raise your status with the average Nord if it’s known you can defend yourself.”

            “See what I mean by good advice?” Laila said with a smile.

            Elisif nodded slowly. “I think about it. But isn’t there a potion or something…?”

            “Fertility potions can be dangerous,” Ingun said quietly. “I would only use them if I was desperate.”

            “Maybe you could try some Falmer Blood Elixir?” Laila suggested. “I hear it can grow back missing limbs.”

            Korli bit her bottom lip to keep herself from laughing. “It’s a cold infusion of common herbs with some minor health benefits, Laila. The benefits are, ah, exaggerated but it’s become some of a thing to buy for visitors to Riften. You know, like the little stone figurines of the Lucky Old Lady from Bravil.”

            “Oh.” Laila sounded genuinely disappointed. The woman was still gullible in so many ways. “But Brynjolf said-“

            “I love my husband, but he’s from the Reach and as the Reach-folk says, ‘he’s got the gift o’ the gab’,” Korli told her Jarl gently. “He could sell snow to a Paler.”

            “That’s true,” Laila agreed.

            Elisif’s eyes brightened. “You’re married to a Reacher?”

            “Yes. He handles a lot of the, ah, unofficial business of the Rift,” Korli confirmed. It wasn’t even a lie. “He’s up north at the moment.”

            “He’s a good man. I think he used to be with the Thieves Guild until Korli made him an honest man,” Laila said proudly.

            Korli smiled. “Brynjolf’s always been honest. Better an honest Thief than a dishonest taxman.”

            Elisif laughed. “We say that in Evermore.”

            The talk turned to other things and Korli listened as she spun. The Rift was in a dangerous position and it was her duty as Steward to safeguard it, no matter what.

Chapter Text

Matriarch Catriona of the Glenmoril Coven was, of course, a Hagraven. But said Hagraven had wrapped herself in the illusion of a tall, spare-boned Nord woman with long iron-grey hair for their meeting just outside of Dragon Bridge in a little overhang where the local lumbermill owner stashed his booze. Ria chose to believe it was out of courtesy, not for some nefarious purpose. Torygg and Hadvar were with her, as Catriona was accompanied by a wiry white-braided Breton who claimed to be Madanach and a Nord wrapped in leather darker than midnight who didn’t give their name at all.

            “I know Skyforge Steel when I see it, child, and I know why you asked for me specifically. Can’t the Companions ask to change their own bargain themselves?” the Hagraven asked without preamble as Torygg and Madanach spoke quietly not too far away.

            “Kodlak would rather break it by killing you,” Ria admitted bluntly. Catriona was taller and stronger than most Hagravens and she gave the impression of being a Nord, so Ria decided to treat her like a Nord. “He thinks you tricked the Harbinger.”

            “They wanted the power to overcome their enemies no matter what, power that would be available without effort,” Catriona observed dryly. “Only the Left-Hand Gods can give such abilities. My predecessor told him this would bind their souls to Hircine and for five hundred years, it’s been enough and more than enough. There was no trickery in it – unless they tricked themselves.”

            “I know that Vilkas and Farkas were adolescent when they became werewolves,” Ria said quietly. “They couldn’t have known the consequences. Kodlak’s old and regrets his choices. I’m not asking to alter the bargain… I’m asking if there’s a cure for lycanthropy.”

            “It’s true that some are accidentally given the beast blood while others seek it out,” Catriona mused. “The cure’s also relatively simple, but they may die in the taking of it. Hircine doesn’t relinquish his prey lightly.”

            “That’s the risk they can take,” Ria replied. “I also know that you don’t bargain with Matriarchs without a price being paid.”

            “You’d pay it for an old man trying to evade his fate?” Catriona asked, eyebrow arching.

            “He taught me more than I expected to learn. If not for Kodlak letting me join the Companions, I’d be a puppet on the Ruby Throne,” Ria answered frankly. “I owe him.”

            “You’re a good lass. Perhaps too good to pay my asking price.” Catriona’s smile was thin. “Do you know the name Dengeir?”

            “He is… was… the Jarl of Falkreath,” Ria said slowly. “He’s mostly known for being paranoid and fearful of magic.”

            “And well should he be, girl, well should he be. He made a bargain with the Lost Valley Reach-folk, took one of them to wife in return for letting us access certain sacred sites in northern Falkreath and the promise of support when we regained the Reach. He broke it when he gave the Stormsword to Talos, he broke it when he let Ulfric’s people march through Falkreath to attack us from the south, and he broke it when he had every Breton in Falkreath Hold killed, Reacher or not.” Catriona’s face shimmered, showing the twisted creature beneath, before the illusion solidified once more. “So yes, we’ve haunted him these past twenty-odd years, and now I want his head. Give me the head and you’ll have the cure, Akaviria. A simple thing for an Empress, no?”

            There was a trap in her words. “Dengeir’s betrayed many people, Matriarch, but technically he’s broken no law in Skyrim. If we could execute based on premeditated intent before action, you don’t think we would have piked Ulfric’s head by now? The best I can offer is that if you take his head, the Empire will be busy doing other things to investigate the deed.”

            “Technicalities are the soul of the law,” drawled the shadow-wrapped Nord in a lilting brogue.

            Catriona flashed him a glare. “I don’t recall asking for your opinion, mac Gillam.”

            “And yet here I am, giving opinions and advice,” mac Gillam replied blandly. “This one honours the spirit and the letter of the law. A bit tedious, I suppose, but it makes for a good Empress.”

            The Hagraven sighed. “What my granddaughter sees in you, I don’t know.”

            “Better taste than her mother,” mac Gillam said dryly.

            “Not hard.” Catriona favoured the shadowy figure with one more glare before looking back at Ria. “Since you can’t or won’t give me the head of Dengeir, I’ll only give you the recipe for the cure. Mudcrab chitin, skeever charcoal and canis root. Feed it to the werewolf and they’ll bring forth their wolf-soul. Slay the soul with silver and the werewolf is no more. Simple?”

            “It sounds simple,” Ria said slowly. “I know you can make a disease cure from mudcrab and skeever skin, but why the canis root?”

            “Because canis means dog,” Catriona said dryly. “You, a Cyrod, not putting that one together?”

            “I’ve been around Nords too long,” Ria admitted with a grin.

            “Lowlanders can be contagious,” mac Gillam agreed. “And yet I married one.”

            “She’s not a lowlander. She’s a proper Reach-woman raised in the lowlands by heathens,” Catriona said sourly.

            “We aren’t heathens!” Hadvar burst out.

            “No? You forsook the gods of stone, sea and sky for the Many-Headed Talos, who wasn’t even strong enough to hold his own divinity against the Dawn-gods of the goldmer,” Catriona retorted sardonically. “He’s a god, if he’s a prick of a one. Probably not for long though. The Time-Snake’s already shifting restlessly, scales against scales rubbing possibility into being. Darkness comes at the sword of dawn breaking a crown and the sword of light will sever it – and many other things too. But prophecy isn’t certainty, it’s hope.”

            “Umm, thank you for the cure,” Ria said softly.

            “Kodlak may not thank me when he’s in Sovngarde, for there are worse hunters than Hircine, and that one is coming soon.” Catriona hunched, the illusion fading away to reveal the Hagraven within. “Worse than storms have been broken on the stones of the Reach, girl. Set the eagle free and you will keep the eight. Eight Holds, eight gods. A symmetry in all things.”

            “You know my terms,” Torygg said simply.

            “Reasonable ones, I suppose,” Madanach said. “So long as we don’t suffer the silver tariffs, it’s all the same to me.”

            “In return for our own personal army of witches to counter the Thalmor, I’d pay a lot more than a ten percent tariff on Reach silver,” Ria said fervently. “But you know your end of the deal.”

            “Ulfric’s head on a silver platter. Any particular pattern or are you good with a knotwork design?” Madanach drawled.

            “I trust your design sensibilities,” Torygg said with a grin.

            “Wonderful.” Madanach sighed. “I’d rather be independent… but well, we don’t get all what we want, do we?”

            Ria shook her head. “If we did, we’d never have anything to strive for.”

            “I suppose that’s something.” Madanach nodded and joined Catriona. “May we meet again at the next Moot, where the independence of the Reach will be announced.”

            Ria nodded and they faded into the darkness.

            “I hope we haven’t made a deal with the Daedra,” Hadvar said heavily.

            “Same here,” Torygg agreed. “But it had to be done.”

Chapter Text

When Ria returned to Jorrvaskr with the cure to lycanthropy, she was met by an angry Vilkas. “Where have you been?” he demanded. “The Silver Hand attacked us and managed to kill Kodlak, steal all our shards of Wuuthrad, and escape!”

            “I was getting the cure for your curse!” she spat back.

            Vilkas stepped back in shock. “Truly?” he asked.

            “Yes.” She stepped around him. “I need canis root, skeever charcoal, mudcrab chitin and one of the silver swords we took from the Hand.”

            “We need to avenge Kodlak first,” Vilkas said grimly. “The Silver Hand have retreated to Driftshade Refuge up in the Pale.”

            “We should tell her all of it.” That was Farkas from the doorway. “After you left for Solitude, Skjor and Aela decided to take some revenge for the attack at Dustman’s Cairn. They hunted down Krev the Skinner, one of their leaders, and massacred him. Then the Hand ambushed them and we lost Skjor. Aela and Njada been attacking them ever since and they came to end it, once and for all.”

            “So who’s Harbinger?” Ria asked. Skjor had been meant to follow Kodlak.

            “We need Wuuthrad’s shards before we can decide. Even Irkand’s here to lend a hand.” Farkas flushed. “Umm, maybe not the best choice of words there, seeing as he has only one.”

            Ria took a deep breath. “So what, is this an all-out assault on the last of the Silver Hand?”

            “We hope so,” Vilkas grated.

            “Then you and Irkand do it. Kodlak wanted a cure, not vengeance, and that’s what we’re going to do.”

            “We need Wuuthrad first,” Farkas said slowly.

            “You and Vilkas don’t. Do you want to take the chance that you’ll die and go to Hircine?”

            The twins exchanged glances before Vilkas nodded tightly. “Do it.”

            Arcadia had the ingredients to hand and the duo imbibed the dark noxious brew. Their wolf spirits came out as they writhed on the ground while Ria and Irkand cut the cords binding them with silver swords. Even one-handed, the former Blade was better than most men with two.

            “Your technique’s become Nordic,” he noted as they fought.

            “Njada taught me some tricks,” she admitted. “Of course, she learned some Legion tricks too.”

            “It will make any future battles… interesting.” He drove his sword through the head of Vilkas’ wolf spirit, banishing it. “I will stay here, with your permission. It’s as close to a home as I’ve ever had.”

            She ‘killed’ Farkas’ wolf as she nodded. “You can. If anyone’s earned honourable retirement, it’s you.”

            “Thank you.” They helped the twins to stand. “Go and do what you must, Akaviria. We will take care of the rest. When Kodlak’s ready to burn, we’ll send for you.”

            “Thanks.” Ria nodded to them. “Happy hunting.”

The maid’s scream jolted Egil from his sleep. He’d come in late last night, electing to confront his father on the morrow, and had barely slept. But as soon as his eyes closed, practically, he was awakened by the scream.

            He pulled on a robe and followed a running Yrsarald to his father’s bedroom. In the small indoor bathroom just off the main room was Ulfric sitting on the privy… without his head and a sprig of juniper stuck in the stump. Galmar had been murdered too, lying across the bathroom doorway with his heart cut out. Daedric runes had been scrawled everywhere in blood. “For the Reach, from the Reach,” they proclaimed.

            “The Forsworn,” spat Yrsarald.

            Egil felt icily calm. “Maybe. They’d be the easiest suspects to go after. Question the maid and have dogs follow the scents from this room.”

            The murderer had escaped out a window and fallen into the sea. Or flown. Who knew what magics an assassin would use? Egil took a deep shaky breath.

            “Call the Arch-Mage from Winterhold. If anyone can discover what happened, it will be Bjarni.”

            “If it was the Forsworn,” Ralof said grimly, “They took nearly twenty-five years to avenge their dead at Markarth.”

            “Madanach only recently escaped,” Yrsarald reminded him. “Jarl Egil, do you have any other orders?”

            Jarl. Jarl Egil. Oh gods, he was the Jarl of Windhelm.

            “Seal and search the city,” he ordered. “A Forsworn would have been noticed. If not a Forsworn, then they had assistance. Focus on my father’s enemies.”

            “That’ll take a while,” Ralof sighed. “He had many, even here.”

            “Then it takes as long as it takes. Send for the Priest of Arkay. My father and Galmar need to be prepared for burial.”

            “Yes, my Jarl.” Ralof saluted and left.

            Egil sank down on his father’s bed and buried his face in his hands. He never even got the chance to say goodbye.

Chapter Text

 

“So, I’ve been playing unwitting host to the Empress all these months,” Balgruuf drawled. “And to think over a year ago we had Armand Motierre stay here under an assumed name.”

            Ria went still and said quietly, “Around the time of the Emperor’s death, right?”

            “Yes.” Balgruuf was a shrewd politician and his blue eyes immediately narrowed. “Was he…?”

            “Yes. But until I return to Cyrodiil, I can do nothing about him.” She crossed her arms and studied the Jarl of Whiterun. Rangy and golden-haired like all the Plains Nords, he had the muscle of a fighter under the fat of good living and his silks were good quality but subtly mended in places. He rightly put his gold back into his people and Hold, though judging by the amount of gold dripping from him, he was still a vain man. Ria supposed if she’d aged as well as he, she’d be vain too.

            “And what does the Empress think of Skyrim?” Balgruuf asked, leaning against the wall of his personal office.

            “It’s a beautiful land with a great people,” Ria told him sincerely. “If Ulfric gets his way and we lost it, the Empire is doomed.”

            Balgruuf sighed. “Ulfric has his points. But I’ve always been of the mind that the White-Gold Concordat was signed to give us time to recover and that we can continue to worship Talos discreetly. If we leave the Empire, I lose half my trade overnight, and Whiterun won’t do well.”

            “Precisely.”

            She might have said more but Irileth entered the office without leave, a grim expression on her face. “I have word from some of my kin in the Grey Quarter,” she announced. “The Forsworn have assassinated Ulfric and Galmar Stone-Fist.”

            Madanach works fast! Ria was impressed. She hoped the Forsworn would give Torygg until the next Moot to make the announcement of the Reach’s freedom. Two and two would be put together after that and the High King would need assistance to weather the storm.

            Irileth’s red eyes narrowed. “You don’t seem surprised, Companion.”

            “Irileth, this is the Empress Akaviria Nona Mara Medea,” Balgruuf said. “She came to Skyrim to learn about us and try to prevent Ulfric’s rebellion.”

            Ria took a deep breath. “The Reach was in danger of breaking away and much for the same reasons as Skyrim. Madanach agreed to join the Empire as a province – in return for the loss of revenue, Skyrim will charge a ten percent tariff on all Reach products going through Haafingar, Morthal and Whiterun, which will be given directly to the Jarls to maintain Imperial forts and roads.”

            Balgruuf was thoughtful for a moment. “We’ll still take a bit of a hit, but if this means Madanach will stop raiding Rorikstead, we’ll be able to make it up elsewhere.”

            “Whiterun is the grain basket of Skyrim and the Reach doesn’t have a lot of arable land,” Ria pointed out. “I’m sure they’ll happily trade silver for grain.”

            “I was just thinking that, girl.” But Balgruuf was smiling thinly. “It’s a shame about Ulfric though.”

            “I’m hoping this rebellion will falter without its chief motivator.”

            “Ralof and the other commanders are still a danger. It depends on how Egil views this,” Irileth said grimly. “He’ll become Jarl, Balgruuf. Bjarni’s Arch-Mage and won’t trade that job for the thankless task of ruling Eastmarch.”

            “With my understanding of Nord honour, Madanach had every right to avenge his people,” Ria pointed out.

            Irileth’s smile was grim. “The problem is, Empress, that the people of Eastmarch think Nord honour only applies to Nords. They will want blood… and we’re in the way of the blood they’ll want to take.”

Bjarni was wearing the Arch-Mage’s formal robes and accompanied by Brelyna, Onmund and J’zargo. Ulfric and Galmar’s bodies were laid out in the Temple of Talos, Yrsarald and Ralof standing guard over them, and a helmet had been carefully placed where his father’s head should be. Egil was sitting in the front pew, Dawnbreaker laying across his knees, and Bjarni was fairly certain he was trying not to cry. He left the others at the door and went to sit beside his brother.

            “They were soul trapped,” Egil finally said. “They won’t even see Sovngarde.”

            J’zargo had given him quite the description of the purple-skied plane of Oblivion where souls trapped in soul gems went and Bjarni winced. “Harsh,” he finally said. “The Forsworn had some right to vengeance but…”

            “Some right to vengeance?” Egil asked in disbelief.

            Bjarni met his brother’s eyes. It was strange how many blue-greens there were in the world, from his own brown-flecked rock warbler eggshell eyes to their mother’s sea-ice to their sister’s seawater over golden sand to Egil’s volcanic algae hue. “Mother, Father and Galmar committed many atrocities during the Markarth Incident, Egil, simply because the Forsworn wanted the same thing we do – to rule themselves and follow their own faith. As I was saying, the soul trapping was excessive despite their right to vengeance.”

            “Your empathy for our enemies-“

            “Is a natural result of understanding why they did this,” Bjarni interrupted gently. “You can’t make someone blindly ‘the other’ without losing some of your own humanity. When you seek vengeance and I know you will, remember that most of the Reach-folk had nothing to do with this. Just as people like Yrsarald and Ralof were driven to our banner because of Imperial atrocities, so were the Bretons to the Forsworn because of Silver-Blood atrocities.”

            “If not for the soul trapping, I could have been satisfied with a few Forsworn heads,” Egil finally said. “I’m not as ‘blind’, as you call it, as you might think. I know there is natural justice in the world. But for this, for the crime of necromancy, I will hunt down every Forsworn witch, shaman and Briarheart in Skyrim. The people will be better off without them, will come to the Aedra as they should.”

            “I’m sure the Empire feels the same way about us and Talos worship,” Bjarni said grimly. “How will Eastmarch fare if you’re campaigning in the Reach?”

            “I’m setting Ralof up as Regent.” Egil’s mouth flinched in something that might be a smile. “And I don’t intend it to just be me. I’m going to petition the other Jarls for assistance at the next Moot. The death of one Jarl is an attack on them all.”

            “What if they disagree?”

            “Then I must suspect collusion. I’m sure the Empire’s breathing in relief now Father’s dead.”

            Egil rose to his feet. “I know you can’t join me, Bjarni. I understand. You have your duty to the College.”

            “I don’t know if it’s any consolation, but Brelyna’s expecting. There’s going to a Bjarki or Bjarka in a few months.”

            “Congratulations. Dark elf or not, the child will have certain inheritance rights.” Egil heaved a sigh. “I wish our sister hadn’t married that Brynjolf. She and Ralof would have been a good match.”

            “You know, we’re part-Reacher through Mother, and Brynjolf himself is Reach-bred,” Bjarni said carefully. “If this turns into a crusade against the Forsworn, we could be facing kin on the field.”

            “I only intend to kill the Hagravens, witches, shamans and Briarhearts. Probably Madanach too, but that’s because his rule is supported by the Daedra-lovers.” Egil sighed and sheathed Dawnbreaker. “I think the common Reach-folk will thank us when we’re done.”

            Bjarni doubted that greatly. “So this won’t happen until after the Moot?”

            “No. I need to see where the rest of Skyrim stands.” Egil glanced over at their father’s body. “However they feel about Father, they can’t deny that we need to purge the Forsworn darkness from the Reach. It might even unite our people. Torygg’s not a bad man for all his Cyrod upbringing. I’ve no desire to be High King if I can help it.”

            But what will happen when we run out of enemies to unite us? Bjarni thought.

            All he said aloud was, “Talos guide you.”

The plate fell from Korli’s hands and crashed on the stone floor, shattering into a million pieces.

            “The Forsworn have just handed the Stormcloaks a martyr and a compelling reason to unite under Egil’s banner,” she all but whispered in shock. “He’s the Dawnbringer. He just doesn’t have the personal reason to take on Madanach – he has a divine mandate to wipe them out. Moderates like Laila and even Balgruuf will flock to his cause out of disgust with necromancy.”

            “Better men than Egil Ulfricsson have tried to conquer the Reach and failed, lass,” Brynjolf assured her. “You can occupy the land but you can’t occupy the people’s hearts. Besides, the Empire’s agreed to recognise us as a province free of Skyrim. Torygg himself signed off on the deal in return for exclusive tariffs on Reach goods going through Skyrim to Hammerfell, Cyrodiil and Morrowind.”

            Korli shuddered. She could see the war unfolding as he spoke. “Brynjolf, that news will be Torygg’s death warrant. How do you know all this?”

            “I was there to support Matriarch Catriona and High King Madanach. Did you know the Empress Akaviria was in Skyrim the whole time, becoming a Companion of Jorrvaskr?”

            “And she agreed to this?”

            “Aye. If the Empire loses Skyrim, they’re screwed.” Brynjolf sighed. “The Reach would rather be independent, lass, but they’ll take what they can get.”

            “If they’d settled for just killing Ulfric and Galmar, the conflict could have resolved with relatively little bloodshed,” Korli said as she knelt to sweep up the broken plate. In the other room, Iona was watching over Gillam and Kanda as they slept. Her children would grow up, as she did, in a war. “But soul trapping the pair? Egil won’t stop until the last of the Forsworn are a red mess pounded into the soil of the Reach.”

            “That… was a bit excessive,” Brynjolf conceded.

            “Excessive? It was…” Korli throttled down the retort. ‘I can’t imagine what it was like to be torn from your family and sent to Honorhall Orphanage, Bryn, I really can’t. The Reach-folk have every right to hate the Stormcloaks. But this? This is going to grind people like me and the children between two sides until there’s nothing left but dust. People who wouldn’t care if the Empire or the Stormcloaks ruled will join Egil because necromancy is evil. The only winners in this war, my love, are the Thalmor.”

            She shuddered again. “May the gods have mercy on us all, for there will be none to spare in this war.”

Chapter Text

 

Spring truly began with the burning of two great men. In Whiterun, the Skyforge consumed the mortal remains of Kodlak Whitemane and for several days after that, Jorrvaskr was closed to all for the first time since the Great War. When the doors opened once more, the name Farkas was cried as Harbinger, and a quiet, one-handed Redguard known as a hunter of necromancers and friend to Skjor the Scarred began to take requests for intervention on behalf of the Companions.

            In Windhelm, the entire city was leaden with grief and suppressed rage. Ulfric and Galmar had been burned with honour by Bjarni and Egil, the former vowing to save his father and huscarl from the horrors of the Soul Cairn and the latter promising vengeance on the foul Forsworn. His declaration of Ralof as Regent and Jarl-to-be if he fell reassured the city’s nobility they’d not be abandoned in the face of war.

            The forests and fields greened as First Seed turned into the showers of Rain’s Hand and by the time Second Seed came around, the crops had been sown twice over and were ripening satisfactorily, the spring culling had been completed and the surviving livestock permitted to fatten in anticipation of the Frostfall slaughter-season, and traders crisscrossed Skyrim bringing news, rumour and goods to even the most isolated village. By now the entire province knew of Ulfric Stormcloak and his ignoble death, the franklins and Thanes of Holds bordering the Reach eyeing the misty mountainous Hold warily. But the Forsworn had gone silent, retreating to their isolated camps and communing with their dark gods.

            And then, the week before the Spring Moot of 4E 200, they struck in Falkreath to take the head and soul of the deposed Jarl Dengeir of Stuhn. The old man’s paranoid fears of the hill-folk didn’t seem so insane now.

            Ria rode into Solitude, openly wearing a crimson-enamelled breastplate and violet cloak, at the head of a twenty-man squad. Her Skyforge Steel gladius hung from her hip and her horse was one of the finest from Whiterun Hold. That the Empress had risen through the ranks to become a full Companion of Jorrvaskr, fighting beasts and bandits, captured the fancy of the common Nord. Even the Stormcloaks were begrudgingly admitting her honour and valour.

            The Daedra’s bargain she made with Madanach and Catriona had possibly made things worse, but Ria intended to honour it. Better to have the Forsworn with her than against her and… well, both Ulfric and Dengeir were traitors in thought, if not in deed yet. She knew many wouldn’t see it that way. A civil war may yet happen. But now the Bruma Fourth and its commander were in Skyrim. She had the tools to defeat Egil Ulfricsson.

            Tullius was at Castle Dour. Short and stocky, the West Weald man had close-cropped grey hair and a trim body, his brogue the only hint of a Reach-man father. “I’m deciding whether to salute you or kill you,” he said bluntly. “If this works, it’ll be the coup of the Fourth Era. If it fails, I’ll be cleaning up the mess.”

            “If I can be frank, I’d rather have five thousand witch-men at my call when the Dominion decides to push things than ten thousand berserkers,” Ria said with equal frankness. “Madanach is surrounded on two sides by Imperial territory and there’s the whole Alik’r Desert between him and any sympathetic Redguards. If sympathetic Redguards there are. They’ve no love of magic.”

            “Egil’s no fool,” Rikke said with a sigh. “I’m betting he’ll reach out to the Redguards himself. He’s got two reasons to hate us now, Ria. Don’t take it lightly.”

            “I’m not,” Ria promised. “The Empire promised we’d accept the Reach as a province separate to Skyrim, allow reasonable freedom of religion, and look the other way at the death of Dengeir. I intend to keep my word as Madanach has kept his.”

            “I hope Torygg’s still on board,” Rikke said grimly. “If he joins with Egil, we’re in trouble.”

            The next day, Egil Ulfricsson arrived with twenty men – the greatest amount of men-at-arms permitted by Nord law – and the Jarls of the Pale and Winterhold. After him came the Jarl of the Rift, accompanied by her Steward and an auburn-haired Reacher who sounded vaguely familiar. Balgruuf and Idgrod arrived together, Igmund came just before Siddgeir, and the Arch-Mage came last of all. Farkas, as Harbinger, was already in the city.

            On the morning of her third day in Solitude, the Moot was called at the Blue Palace. The Great Hall was cleared of tables, fourteen chairs arranged in a circle, and each of the Jarls took a seat with a huscarl and either a supporter or Steward standing beside them. Ria, Bjarni, Dean Viarmo and Farkas had their own seats. That left one empty.

            Before Torygg could call the meeting to order, the doors opened, and Madanach arrived with Matriarch Catriona and a heavy-shouldered Forsworn warrior, a covered silver platter in his hands.

            “I apologise for my late arrival,” the King in Rags announced in his gravelly baritone. “I wanted to make sure the head was pickled properly.”

            “King Madanach,” Torygg said with a bow of his head. “Welcome to the Moot.”

            Egil, a handsome young man with brown-black hair and craggy features, rose to his feet. “Why. Is. He. Here?”

            “Because I invited him,” Torygg replied flatly. “The Forsworn have the right to the Reach by blood, no less than the Nords have their right to Skyrim. How can we expect to be honoured by the other races of Tamriel if we don’t honour their own laws and rights? Your father was a bloody-handed butcher, Egil, your father and mother both. I don’t agree with the extremes of Madanach’s actions, but I refuse to condemn the man for seeking his right to vengeance.”

            Egil’s supporter was Njada. “Ria,” she called out to her, “Did you know about this?”

            Ria took a deep breath and rose to her feet. “About the trading of the Reach’s freedom for Ulfric’s head? Yes. Did I know he and Galmar were going to be soul trapped? No, and while I intend to honour the bargain I made to recognise the Reach as a separate province of the Empire, I must condemn your choice of action in this, Madanach.”

            “That’s your prerogative, Empress,” the Reach-King said quietly. “But understand, young Egil, that your father left hundreds of Reach-folk, Breton and Nord alike, for the crows and elements. It took the Matriarchs fifteen years to lay them all to rest, and I had kin among them. I returned to Ulfric what he did to my people. Our soul as a people was broken, our holy places desecrated and our religious folk murdered. Our nobles were dispossessed and imprisoned, their lands given to the Silver-Bloods, and too many innocent Reach-folk thrown into Cidhna Mine. Your father wanted religious freedom for his people… yet he butchered ours in the name of Talos. The blood of the Reach is in your veins; your grandmother Catriona is a Matriarch among our people. By our laws and yours, I had the right.”

            “The right to his life, perhaps, but not his soul,” rumbled Farkas.

            “As I said, the soul of the Reach was broken. But I have the sword of the Red Eagle and the following of my people once again. I’m willing to let Igmund mac Hrolfdir leave with as much silver and gold as a wagon can carry, and any Nords who don’t want to live in the Reach can go with him, freely.” Madanach’s eyes blazed across the room. “How many Nords have been drowned or defiled to deny them Sovngarde? More than you’ll admit. If it’s good enough for a Nord to do it to a Nord, it’s good enough for me to do it to an evil son of a bitch whose death improves the world.”

            “And when will it end?” That was Aurelia Callaina. “Egil will kill your people for this and you’ll kill Nords in vengeance and the whole sorry cycle will continue until the World-Eater devours us or the Dominion conquers us, whichever happens first.”

            Catriona sighed. “Granddaughter, the Time-Snake already shifts restlessly. You can no more stop what’s coming than you can the tide. But the gods haven’t abandoned us yet.”

            “What would a Hagraven know of gods?” Egil asked, drawing Dawnbreaker. “I don’t intend to kill all your people, Madanach, only the ones who keep them chained to vile Daedra who demand souls. As for you, Torygg… I can forgive much. I can even understand wanting my father dead. If Madanach had stuck to simply killing him, the heads of the murderers and a wergild would have been enough. Did you know that he planned to deny my father Sovngarde?”

            “I didn’t,” Torygg said heavily.

            “By the Nine, Egil, don’t-“ That was Arch-Mage Bjarni.

            There were people on the balcony who were allowed to observe the Moot. One of them, unseen by Ria, cast a Frenzy spell that struck Egil in the chest with a scarlet burst of light. His rage unleashed, the Dawnbringer swung his sunrise-coloured sword downwards just as someone stepped forward between him and Madanach.

            Torygg crumpled to the ground, bisected by Dawnbreaker, and all Oblivion broke loose in the Great Hall of the Blue Palace.

            The actual fighting was brief as Bjarni, a noted Illusionist, cast a mass Calm spell over the entire room. But the damage, oh the damage, had been done. Torygg was already dead but Jarl Laila Law-Giver had been cut down in Egil’s berserker rage, Siddgeir was breathing his last with a knife in his back, and someone had decapitated Madanach’s Forsworn bodyguard.

            The King in Rags knelt down and closed the warrior’s eyes. “That was the last of my sons,” he said. “I lost the others to your father, Egil mac Ulfric, and now I lost my last boy to you. If it’s annihilation you seek, Dawnbringer, then I will annihilate you, your brother and anyone who calls you kin.”

            “Ard-Ri,” the auburn-haired Reacher said grimly. “Be it the mother’s side or the father’s? My wife is the Dawnbringer’s half-sister through the Stormsword.”

            “Our quarrel with the Kreathling Jarls is finished, Bryn mac Gillam. I will settle for the bloodline descended from Ulfric.” Madanach’s eyes met Ria’s. “Well, Empress, will you stand with the Reach as you promised?”

            “Ria, please. Madanach is a monster and a necromancer.” That was Njada. “I’m asking you as Shield-Sister to stay out of this fight.”

            “A bargain is a bargain and the Old Holds intended to rebel against the Empire anyway,” Ria said heavily. “I’m sorry, Njada. But I have no choice.”

            “Kyne damn you all,” Aurelia Callaina said bitterly. “Do you know what you’ve unleashed? Do you?”

            It was Catriona who spoke last. “The doom comes and even if it should fail, the world will be changed anew. We are in the last days of the old world. May the gods old and new have mercy on us all.”

            And through it all Elisif wailed, cradling the upper torso of her dead husband.