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The Ballad of Thieves

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When Memphius opened his eyes, it was to another unfamiliar sight. The unsteady ground beneath the wagon he was placed on was jolted its occupants all over. There were three men other than himself; two placed on the bench across from him, and the third bound and gagged at his right side.

 

"You're finally awake," His attention was snapped back to the first man across from him. He wore a blue cloth tunic, and his hands were chained together. "You were captured at the border, right? Walked right into that Imperial ambush, same as us. And that thief over there."

 

The man at his side scoffed and chuckle, rolling his eyes as if he were used to such treatment from the blond man. "Damn you, Stormcloaks," He began, his face curling up into a snarl, all evidence of his previous mirth gone. "Skyrim was fine until you came along. Empire was nice and lazy. If they hadn't been looking for you, I could've stolen that horse and been halfway to Hammerfell."

 

His eyes drifted over to the cloaked elf in the midst of their argument. "You there. You and me, we shouldn't be here; it's these Stormcloaks the Empire wants." His eyes bored into the hood of Memphius's cloak.

 

"We're all brothers and sisters in binds now, thief."

 

As they were scolded by the man driving the cart for their conversation, Memphius tried to gather his wits. He had awoken in a strange place, surrounded by strange people. His head ached something fierce, and the blisters on his hands were far from pleased with the rope used to subdue him. It was wrapped tightly around his wrists, his palms pressed together painfully.

 

His knees weren't well off, either. The scabs that had grown over the scrapes had peeled off in his rugged movements, and fresh blood had dripped down his legs, sticky and warm. Parts of it were dried to his ripped trousers, rubbing and pulling painfully with every rock the wagon rolled over.

 

This was not part of the plan. Memphius had little to no idea what the two men were talking about; he most certainly had not been captured at the border; he hadn't ever even seen the border. The one thing he did know, however, was that they spoke of the civil war; the rebellion.

 

He wasn't clear on all the details, things like who did or said what and where it happened. He only knew that the Empire and its supporters had lost rights in a war with another more powerful organization, and that in doing so had outlawed the worship of one of the Nine Divines in the country. The more devoted followers were, understandably, outraged. They should not be told who they can and cannot worship.

 

It appears they call themselves the Stormcloaks and the Imperials, respectively. His head spun and throbbed with the new information. That, and also the unsteady movements of his transportation.

 

He was pulled out of his thoughts by an angry voice coming from the blond man, the Stormcloak. "You watch your tongue! You're speaking to Ulfric Stormcloak, the true High King!"

 

"Ulfric... the Jarl of Windhelm?" The thief asked, all anger being replaced with cold fear. "You're the leader of the rebellion... but if they've captured you... oh gods, where are they taking us?"

 

His voice had raised a few pitches in fear. Memphius felt akin to the thief in rags. If the leader of an entire rebellion had been captured and subdued, and was in the process of being transported to somewhere, what would come of those he was bound beside?

 

Adding to his recently extended list of firsts, for the first time in his life Memphius felt real, unadulterated, fear.

 

"I don't know where we're going," the Stormcloak said. Resolution and sadness tainted his voice. "But Sovngarde awaits."

 

The thief started to babble in fear, his vehement denial of reality was doing nothing to provide comfort for neither himself nor the others in the cart. Especially Memphius; his entire life had led up to this. He spent every day in some sort of distant longing for the outside world, a wish he knew was unlikely to ever come to fruition. When the entire world wants your head, you tend to avoid contact with those wanting to harm you.

 

And now, he was going to die.

 

Memphius looked over to his right, at Ulfric. The man was blond, wearing a similar blue tunic to his follower, this one more decorated and ornate. Chain-mail covered his body down to his knees. His back was swathed in a heavy fur cloak, his mouth gagged with a white cloth tied all the way around his jaw. He looked nothing like the powerful being he was, like he should've been. They achieved their task of stripping him of his pride before his untimely execution.

 

The dread sunk deeper in his stomach as the wagon rolled into the open gates of a settlement. This one was similar to Ivarstead in that it was made up of small wooden houses and little patches of farmland. There were people out on their porches watching, some with disgusting, avid interest. The distant tone of a mother could be heard, explaining to her young son what was occurring, who these people were, how they had gone against the wishes of their leaders.

 

The wagon finally drifted to a stop, the back end falling open. A guard stood at the edge. He was dressed in silver armor, with red accents and weapons strapped at his sides like lifelines. He held a book and quill as he ordered the prisoners off the wagon, one by one.

 

He learned the names of his companions in death; Ralof of Riverwood, the dedicated Stormcloak follower, and Lokir of Rorikstead, the thief who was scared to die. It did not come as a surprise that as soon as his name was called, he took off running toward the gate in a final attempt to escape.

 

Memphius had never seen anyone die before. It wasn't a good feeling at all - the image of Lokir's body falling to the ground as he was shot by arrows seemingly out of the sky was one that he didn't think he'd ever go a day without thinking about again.

 

When they finally got to him, the Imperial soldiers lacked a name for him. After he recited his name, despite it not being on the list of execution orders, they passed him through anyway. It made bile rise up in Memphius's throat even more than it already was.

 

This was beginning to feel like a dream. An Imperial man was telling the silent Ulfric how he had abused his sacred power to murder his king and usurp his throne. A loud, piercing sound echoed through the Hold. A priestess began to read last rites to those losing their lives, asking a blessing from the Eight Divines upon their souls.

 

Eight Divines, Memphius couldn't think straight. I thought there were nine.

 

Someone from the gathering of rebels angrily yelled his displeasure with the hold-up as the first soldier made his way to the block. His last phrase would forever haunt the snow elf - "My ancestors are smiling at me, Imperials. Can you say the same?" - as his head was forcefully severed from his body.

 

He  could barely hear Ralof's voice speak in mourning over the sharp ringing in his ears. "As fearless in death, as he was in life."

 

As the female captain called for the one in the rags to step up to the block, the sound rang out again. Despite the questions as to what it was, she continued to call the next prisoner. The unnamed prisoner.

 

That's me. He thought as tears welled in his eyes. She's calling for me.

 

The soldier that had urged him through the line was soothing him - he was tempting to, at least. A scared, childish part of Memphius thought it was demeaning; he didn't deserve to be coddled as he was forced to his execution, he deserved his freedom, his life. Everyone here did.

 

He barely registered the sharp stinging in his knees as he was forced to the ground. He didn't really feel the painful throb in his head as his temple hit the stone block.

 

He didn't even manage to understand that, from behind his view of the large sentry station, the distant form of a dragon was making its way over. It was coming here.

 

He did, however, manage to comprehend all of this when the headsman staggered to the side as the winged creature landed on the stone safe-house. 

 

It was as if the whole world shuddered as the mighty beast let out the loudest sound Memphius had ever heard. It forced him to sit up and attempt to grasp at his head, his vision blurring in pain and shock and disbelief. So much had happened in such a short time, Memphius had trouble absorbing it all.

 

In less than twenty-four hours, Memphius had managed to get arrested, meet the leader of the rebellion, see the death of two (arguably, in one case) innocent men, almost lose his head, and get attacked by a dragon - a member of the race whom, until about 30 seconds ago, had been thought of as completely extinct to the general population since the late Merethic Era, which took place before the First Era over two thousand years ago. Aside from Paarthurnax, Memphius wasn't aware that the ancient creatures were alive.

 

When his vision finally cleared enough for him to stand up and shake off as much confusion as he could, he took in his present surroundings. There was fire everywhere - the sky was overcast, unlike the endless clear blue that shone earlier in the day. Chaos had ensued; men and women and children were screaming, running for safety from the falling pieces of buildings. Imperials guards attempted to engage the dragon with no luck.

His attention was pulled away when the condescending guard called for him. He quickly followed behind the Nordic man, into what was left of a stone building. They climbed upward, maneuvering their way through the remains of the city through the hellscape as quickly as they could.

 

When they finally reached steady land once more, a blue tunic caught his eye among the flames.

Ralof. He thought vehemently, with a relief that was so strong it brought tears to his eyes and surprised him. Ralof made it out alive.

 

"Come with me!" He screamed out over the ear-splitting noise that engulfed them. "We need to get out of Helgen! Come on, I know another way!"

And with that, Memphius parted ways with the Imperial soldier that had saved his life thus far.

---

Once they made it into Helgen Keep, they could finally stop and take a breath. The moment of peace lasted all but seconds, for this was the first moment since he awoke that Memphius had enough silence to stop and think.

 

His clothes were completely destroyed. His trousers were worse off than they had been before; the scabs on his knees had ripped open, blood running down his shins and soaking what was left of the tattered cloth in blood. Ralof has cut the rope binding his hands once he had free time, and they weren't happy, either. Some of the blisters had popped and were stinging in the hot, dingy air.

 

He threw the remains of his cloak onto the floor. He didn't bother taking anything from the dead Imperial guards that had attacked Ralof and him upon their entry; he felt awful about having to be involved in their death, and it felt horridly disrespectful to be taking from their bodies. He didn't know how to use a sword, anyway.

 

"So you're an elf, huh?" Ralof broke the silence. "I would say something I'd probably regret, but after what we've seen today, I think I can refrain from doing so." He smiled shakily.

 

Memphius let himself exhale a breath, a weak grin following it. "Thank you, I suppose. We have had quite an eventful day, hmm?"

 

Ralof laughed. "You know this is the first time I've seen your face since we've met? There I was, thinking I was ending my life next to two ugly nords and the High King. How wrong I was on that count." He dipped his head, laughing softly as he leaned over to tie his boots.

 

Memphius could feel the tips of his ears begin to redden. "Are you implying that I am not a nord, or not ugly?"

 

"Both, I suppose," He finally looked up, smirking. "As much fun as I'm having, we really have to get out of here. I don't exactly think anyone is winning against the beast, and if we're caught here once things have calmed, we're dead for sure. If there's anyone left to even arrest us. Grab a weapon and follow me."

 

Memphius froze in his tracks. "I'm not proficient in the art of combat," he stuttered, shaking his head fiercely despite all of his body's protests. "I can't use a sword."

 

"You have got to be kidding me," Ralof grumbled. He walked swiftly back into the room, ripping a dagger off of one of the dead guards. He grabbed the bow on the other's back, snatching the last of the arrows along with it. "Then use these. We have to go now."

 

And with that, Ralof and Memphius trekked as silently as possible into the depths of Helgen Hold, through the hidden underground tunnel that lead back outside.

 

---

 

Memphius would never even set eyes on a bear for the rest of his extensive life if he could prevent doing so.

 

"That was..." Ralof looked at a loss for words. "Something. Usually I'm not too scared of bears, but my ma always said I should pick my battles. S'pose she was right, ah?"

 

"If such a thing were possible, I would pick none." Memphius replied.

 

He looked a mess. His clothes were still ripped and bloody, his arms now covered with scraped from the harsh treatment of the caves. The rest of his blistered hands had popped. There was an immeasurable amount of dirt in his hair, and it had shrunk due to the amount of knots it had. It now went from mid-back to the back of his shoulders. He felt disgusting, fragile, and on the verge of tears.

 

I miss Wulfrad.

 

"Unless you have more pressing issues to attend to," Ralof broke the silence, observing the somber look on his new found friend's face. "I believe it would be wise to head to Riverwood. A small settlement, not far from here. My hometown, actually - my sister and her husband run the mill there. She'll have food and shelter for you."

 

They traveled in silence, neither of them feeling a pressing need to speak. The world around them hummed in peace, in some sick, ironic way; a subtle reminder that while chaos ensued elsewhere in the world, life would continue for every other thing. If in fact they had lost their lives today, nothing would have truly changed.

 

Walking into Riverwood was another new experience. As opposed to Ivarstead, Riverwood was nestled in a small clearing in a forest, wheels precariously placed into the adjacent river, spinning around for power. It was calm here. They must have been far enough away to escape the dragon.

 

Ralof's sister Gerdur was a different kind of saint. She and her husband, Hod, were a bit rough around the edges, but they obviously cared for Ralof, asproved by their joy at seeing him returned unharmed. Memphius felt cold looking at the sight of Gerdur embracing her brother upon greeting; she most likely would never know how close to death he was on that fateful day.

 

Ralof explained what had happened; they had been arrested, and before the deadly ax could be placed upon Memphius's neck, the dragon appeared and began attacking. They looked afraid, understandably so. Dragons were ancient beings of legend, worshiped by men during the beginnings of documented history. It was then that Gerdur turned her attention to Memphius, and even more shock prevailed on her face.

 

"Oh Talos!" She gasped, taking him by the shoulder and beginning to lead him up toward a small wooden house, presumably her own. "You're bleeding more than a buck before dinner! Come inside, I'll warm up a cup of mead while I wrap your wounds."

 

---

 

She did just that. They sat in a comfortable silence, her humming a soft tune, and Memphius finally somewhat relaxing in a chair at the table.

 

 "Should be ready." She mumbled, sitting across from Memphius and taking his right leg, pulling his utterly decimated boot off and pulling his pristine white foot into the lap of her dress. "This might hurt a bit."

 

It did. The warm water she had prepared in a wooden bowl slowly turned pink as she wiped a cream colored cloth over his knees and shins, rinsing it into the bowl. Memphius hissed every so often, but tried his best to stop from moving.

 

"I'm surprised you two even survived," She began, holding back her sniffles behind a weak, forced laugh. "Men barely ever manage to escape Imperial arrest, let alone dragons. I mean, you're torn up halfway to Oblivion - I can't imagine what could of happened. I don't want to imagine what could have happened."

 

"Ralof saved me," He replied. This was the first time he had truly spoken since he had met her. "He was the only one showing any kindness to me when I awoke in imprisonment. He led me through Helgen. Without him, I surely would have perished; you needn't worry over him. He will do great things on his own, and if his life is lost, it will be fighting for what he truly believes in."

 

"Wise words, for such a young soul." She wiped her eyes, tying off the wrap around his leg.

 

When she finished cleaning his legs, she moved to his hands; dipping them into the water, then patting them dry and wrapping them tightly. There wasn't much she could do for the cuts on his arms, short of giving him a small health potion. "They don't heal immediately, contrary to popular belief," She explained. "When you wake in the morning, everything should be well on its way to healing nicely."

 

Her and her husband were kind enough to let them stay for the night. Gerdur had prepared a hearty dinner for the group of four. She set up a washtub for Memphius and Ralof, and after seeing them both washed and fed, led them to sleeping places. Before nightfall, Memphius was fast asleep, falling into one of the deepest slumbers he'd ever been in.