The Song of Deirdre – Chap. 20

 

Windhelm

 

Up close, Windhelm was more imposing than when seen from afar, and its great age was even more apparent. While the city’s walls were built of stout blocks of stone, ice had been working for centuries to accomplish what armies could not. Cycles of freeze and thaw had pried blocks loose, leaving gaping holes with hardy shrubs growing in the gaps. Ice clung to every eave and gutter, continuing the demolition. Yet the city somehow retained its impression of strength – its walls had been built of such a height and thickness that even in their decrepit state they seemed impregnable.

Towering mountains protected the city on the north, while the White River, now wide and deep near its mouth, guarded the south. As we crossed the massive walled bridge between the stables on the south bank and the city itself, I thought of the circuitous route I had taken to arrive here. My journey had begun near the headwaters of this very river, in that cart with Ulfric and Ralof. The waters flowing through Helgen on that day must have long since made their way past Windhelm, yet I was just now arriving here. Still, I must have known that my path would lead here one day, no matter how roundabout the route.

By rights, I shouldn’t even be here, I told myself. I should be on my way to High Hrothgar, Horn of Jurgen Windcaller in hand. But the fates and whoever had written that note conspired to bring me here, where it seemed I was destined finally to take the measure of Ulfric Stormcloak. It was with mixed feelings that I watched the guard open the massive iron door to the city. Lydia stood stiffly beside me, the awkward silence of our journey still heavy upon us.

Within the city walls, the buildings were even more decrepit than without. Piles of rubbish lay in the streets and the stone walls were worn with age. Blocks fallen from those walls lay here and there. One featured a carven likeness of a dragon. It rested at an odd angle against the wall of Candlehearth Hall, the inn near the city gate. And now I saw that similar dragon heads topped the ends of every rooftop.

I had been seeing these dragon carvings all my life, yet they had always seemed mere decorations, relics of a long-forgotten, if not legendary, past. Now, the fact that the ancient Nords were dragon worshippers struck me with greater force than ever before. Not for them the divines over whom we fought our wars. They worshipped animals and the forces of nature, with dragons being the most powerful. Their dragon priests ruled the people alongside their kings, until the people rebelled, locking the priests away in ancient tombs at the end of the Dragon Wars, slaying the last of the dragons or driving them into hiding. It was odd to think that this city’s ancient kings had worshipped beings with souls like my own.

My ponderings were interrupted by a man yelling from the steps of the inn. The object of his outrage was a female Dunmer. “You come here where you’re not wanted, you eat our food, you pollute our city with your stink, and you refuse to help the Stormcloaks!”

I looked over at Lydia pointedly. She looked as angry as I felt.

“We haven’t taken a side because it’s not our fight,” said the Dunmer.

Another Nord put in, “Hey, maybe the reason these gray-skins don’t help in the war is because they’re Imperial spies!”

“Imperial spies? Don’t be absurd!” the woman replied.

The first Nord took a step closer to her. “Maybe we’ll pay you a visit tonight, little spy. We got ways of finding out what you really are.”

I couldn’t stand to watch any more. “What’s going on here? Why are you accosting this woman?” I demanded, approaching the Nord who had spoken first. He was dressed in old, dirty clothing, and his companion not much better. Both stank of ale, and it was not yet mid-day.

He turned on me and looked me up and down. “Woman? She’s not a woman, she’s just a gray-skinned she-elf. It’s just like you outlanders to band together. You Bretons are as bad as her lot.” Then he looked at Lydia. “And what are you, a race traitor?”

“That’s no way for a true Nord to behave,” said Lydia. “You’re a disgrace to our kind. And you will not speak to my th… my friend in that manner.” Her hand was on her axe. I tried to calm her with a hand on her arm. This was no way to avoid attracting attention.

“Just leave the woman alone, and go on your way,” I said to the Nord.

“Oh yeah, who’s going to make me? Come on, let’s fight. Bet you a hundred gold you don’t land a punch. And none of that magic, neither.”

I regarded him for a moment, thinking how easy it would be to cast a fear spell that would send him scurrying. But that would certainly draw a crowd.

Lydia stepped in. “She doesn’t fight hand-to-hand, but I do. Let’s make it two hundred gold, if you think you’re man enough. I’ll teach you some manners.”

It wasn’t much of a fight. The Nord looked strong, but the drink must have affected his timing. He went down after throwing a few futile punches. Lydia’s skill was a thing of beauty – dodging and weaving to miss his swings, landing all of her blows – but the results were brutal. It took another minute for his friend to revive him.

“Wha’ happened?” he asked, looking around blearily from his swollen eye.

“You lost the fight,” said Lydia. “Now pay up. And don’t forget you’re not to bother the Dunmer, or it will go worse for you next time.”

While Lydia retrieved her weapons, I went over to the elf and introduced myself, using my new travelling name, Fiona Pure-Spring.

“I’m Suvaris,” she replied. “It looks like you’ve come to the wrong city. Windhelm is a haven of prejudice, narrow thinking, and bullies like those two.”

“I have business here that I couldn’t avoid. Why was that Nord giving you trouble?”

“Nothing new there. Most of the Nords don’t appreciate our presence here, but Rolf is one of the worst. He likes to get drunk and roam the Gray Quarter late at night shouting insults and picking fights.”

“The Gray Quarter?”

“We Dunmer arrived here as refugees after the Red Year. We had nowhere else to go. The Nords confined us to the eastern, lower portion of the city, and named it the Gray Quarter after the color of our skin. Such generosity, don’t you think?”

Lydia spoke up. “Life here is hard for you, then?”

“I have it better than many of my kind. I have a good job with the Shatter-Shield clan’s trading office on the docks, and I am one of the few Dunmer who dare enter the other quarters of the city. Many Dunmer have little or no work and spend their days on the streets or in the New Gnisis Corner Club, and their nights in the gutter. Some of the women make a living catering to the baser needs of men like Rolf.”

“You mean … ?” I couldn’t keep the look of shock off my face.

“Are you surprised at the hypocrisy of a man who will take his pleasure with a Dunmer while seeking to drive us out of Skyrim? Or does it shock you that the Dunmer would stoop to prostitution? That’s just one sign of the depths to which this city has driven us. We do many of the city’s dirtiest jobs, allowing the Nords to live in leisure. Yet still they treat us with contempt. So yes, for many of my kind life here is hard. Many wish they’d never left Morrowind, volcanic ash or no.”

Lydia looked at me and then back at Suvaris. “Here,” she said, holding out the bag of gold pieces Rolf had given her. “I don’t want that lout’s money. You may not be able to use it, but would you see that it goes to help your people?”

Suvaris couldn’t have looked more surprised. “You’re a rare kind of Nord!” she said. “Only Brunwulf Free-Winter has ever lifted a finger to help us, and never like this. Yes, I know two or three families who could desperately use this.”

“I’m glad to be of help,” Lydia said as Suvaris went on her way. She turned to me. “Should we go find the Blade and Dragon?”

“Trying to make amends for this morning are you?” I asked.

She grinned sheepishly. “Only partly. But it just seems unfair to make them live like that after what happened to their homeland. You have to believe me, my thane, those words I shouted earlier were just a battle cry, and I’ve never really thought about what they meant before.”

“Well, I’m impressed, Lydia,” I said. I was already beginning to regret my harsh treatment of her. I feared it would take years of study with the Greybeards to learn to control my anger. “But come, let’s find this inn. We can’t right all of Windhelm’s wrongs, and I’m eager to meet whoever has this horn.”

After asking for directions, we found the Blade and Dragon in the Market Quarter, next to the alchemist’s shop. Its sign bore a katana – a thin, slightly curved type of sword I recognized from an illustration in Mysterious Akavir – crossed over the throat of a rearing dragon. Inside, we found a young Nord tending the bar.

“We’re here for the upstairs room,” I said to him.

He looked surprised. “Upstairs room? We don’t … Ah, yes, the upstairs room! A common mistake. Our second floor is all used for storage. But we do have one room left down here, nice double bed and all. I’m sure travellers such as yourselves won’t mind sharing.”

I just looked at him, but Lydia spoke up. “That will be fine.”

I paid the ten gold and the barkeep led us to the room.

“This is surprising,” I said, closing the door on our host. “I imagined the horn’s thief would be waiting for us.”

“Maybe he’ll show up later,” Lydia suggested. “I know I could use some rest after the night and morning we had.”

We couldn’t have had more than four hours’ sleep out of the last thirty. I could sorely use sleep myself, I thought.

Lydia saw me doubtfully eyeing the bed. “What, you don’t have a problem sharing the bed do you? Are you still cross with me? I’ll sleep on the floor if you insist.”

“No, it’s just that…”

“Ah, I forgot! You’re an only child, you’ve never shared a bed, have you?”

I shook my head.

“It’s fine, once you get used to it. Very common in the army, and in inns like these. I grew up sharing with my sister, so it’s never bothered me. Just give me a shove if I start to snore.” With that she got into the bed, armor, boots and all, and with her axe within easy reach. She slid all the way to one side, leaving plenty of room for me.

I sighed, then took off my boots and bracers and climbed in on my side. We were both soon fast asleep.

 

*~*~*

 

I awoke in mid-afternoon to find Lydia’s arm flung across my shoulders. She was snoring lightly. As instructed, I gave her a push.

“Oh, beg your pardon, my thane,” she said, sitting up. “I didn’t mean to … I must have rolled over in my sleep.”

“It’s all right,” I said. I turned away from her, both to put on my boots and to hide my blushing. “Are you hungry? I’m half-starved.” We had eaten only a couple of apples on the road.

“Yes,” she said. “I wonder what they have here?”

“I was thinking of heading to that club Suvaris told us about in the Gray Quarter.”

“What about Ralof?” she asked. “Don’t you want to find him?”

“I do,” I said, “but I know he’ll ask me about joining the Stormcloaks, and before I have to answer that question, I want to see if what Suvaris said is true. Besides, you made some progress today, but you could use more experience with other peoples.”

We made our way to the New Gnisis Corner Club in the Gray Quarter. As we progressed, descending to lower and lower levels of the city, the buildings became more dilapidated, with beggars loitering here and there, Dunmer women and children, mostly. The higher levels of the city must have had an underground sewage system, but here it emptied into an open ditch running along the street. The stench was awful. A Dunmer woman came out of a building and emptied a night bucket into it.

Surprisingly, the Gray Quarter was the only area of the city making preparations for a dragon attack. We had seen no stores of water or other defenses in the Market Quarter or at the city gate. But here there was a constant stream of Dunmer carrying water in buckets from the docks and emptying them into every barrel and cistern they could find. Rows of buckets stood outside every building, no matter how shabby. The few city guards just looked on with disinterest.

We finally arrived at the club. I was glad to see that it was situated a level above the stench of the street. Inside, we found the barkeep in an animated conversation with a large Nord man in fur-lined battle gear.

“You’re a war hero, Brunwulf,” the Dunmer was saying. “Ulfric will listen to you.”

“I promise you, Malthyr, I will speak with Ulfric,” Brunwulf said. “But I can’t promise it will do any good.”

Then Malthyr looked up to greet his new patrons. “It’s not every day that we have two Nords in the New Gnisis Corner Club at once, unless it’s the guard here to harass us. And a Breton as well!”

“I hope you’re not here to make trouble,” Brunwulf said, eyeing Lydia and her weapons. “Are you one of them ‘Skyrim is for the Nords’ types?”

Lydia looked from Brunwulf to me. “Well, um … no, not really,” she said. “I mean Skyrim is our home, but there’s room for other people too.”

We quickly fell into conversation with Brunwulf as Malthyr went to get our food. Brunwulf questioned us about who we were and where we were from. We were as evasive as possible, using our travelling names, Fiona and Gertrude (Trudi to her friends). Lydia tried to change the subject by turning the questioning on Brunwulf.

“So, you’re a war hero?” She didn’t need to feign her admiration for anyone who had achieved glory in battle.

Brunwulf looked Lydia up and down for a moment, eyeing her armor. “Aye, I fought in the Great War, and I didn’t die. I killed many elves. Some say that makes me a hero, but there was no glory in it. It was just butchery, and what did it gain us? More war.”

“So you atone for what you did in the war by helping the Dunmer?” I asked.

Brunwulf looked at me in surprise. “I suppose that could be it,” he said. “I just think a true Nord should treat all people with honor and respect. That’s a sign of our strength, not weakness.”

“Well spoken,” said Malthyr, bringing our food – hard sausages, fresh cheese and hard-tack bread – along with weak ale. “And Brunwulf’s help is appreciated here in the quarter. He’s the only Nord who will lift a finger to help us.”

Then Malthyr told us the tale of his people’s troubles since leaving Morrowind and of their grim life in the Gray Quarter. But it wasn’t really necessary, since we had seen it for ourselves.

“But why does Ulfric keep you penned down here?” Lydia asked. “In Whiterun the Dark Elves and the Nords don’t mix a lot, but the Dunmer can live where they want.”

“Ulfric prefers that we live in squalor,” Malthyr said. “He doesn’t trust people he calls outsiders, and he thinks we’ll just go away if life here is hard enough. And as hard as life is for us, you should visit the Argonians on the docks. They break their backs for a pittance, and the jarl won’t even allow them into the city proper. Suvaris drives them pretty hard.”

“Not Suvaris Atheron?”

Malthyr nodded.

“We met her when we came into the city this morning, and we stopped two Nords from mistreating her.”

“Surprised that she treats the Argonians just as poorly as the Nords treat us? Excrement flows downhill, as they say. You should see where the sewer empties into the river near the docks. Hits the ice and solidifies into a giant mound of frozen you-know-what. And the Argonians have to live next to that filth. Still, the lizard people are hardly … human.”

Malthyr didn’t seem aware of the irony of his statement. “How do you expect anything to improve if you yourselves won’t change?” I asked.

“Well, you have a point there,” Malthyr said. Then he seemed to realize something. “Wait! Then you must be the ones Suvaris mentioned when she was in for her noon meal. I should have realized! Your generosity will not go amiss in the Gray Quarter!”

“Let’s hope the generosity flows downhill as well as the excrement,” I said. “Come, Trudi, let’s investigate those docks.” With that, we left the Corner Club. Malthyr wouldn’t hear of us paying.

As we walked back up-hill to the dock gate, I reflected on Malthyr and Suvaris. This was Tamriel’s problem – everyone had a complaint against everyone else, grievances that went back thousands of years, if not to the creation of men, mer, and the other peoples. Where would it end, if no one was willing to forgive past wrongs?

Malthyr was right about the docks. We left the city proper through another massive iron door, then descended a long flight of steps to the river side. Here were ships from Solitude and Dawnstar, and even Solstheim to the northeast across the Sea of Ghosts. The docks were heavily guarded, lest the Imperials attempt a surprise attack from warships disguised as trading vessels. Or maybe the guards were keeping an eye on the many Argonians scurrying about the docks, unloading and repairing the ships and the like.

We did not stay long, for it was clear we weren’t welcome. That, and the stench of the nearby sewer outfall didn’t tempt us to linger. The first Argonian we encountered, a male working at a whetstone, accosted us as we passed near.

“Do you need something?” he demanded. His scaled skin was green, and spikes grew from the top of his head, yet he was dressed in Nord fashion, with a simple tunic and boots. Perhaps the oddest thing about the Argonians was that, unlike all other peoples of Tamriel, their eyes were placed on the sides of their heads, allowing them to look in two directions at once.

Lydia looked at him with a mixture of revulsion and anger. I put my hand on her elbow to steer her past.

“Just looking around, friend,” I said.

“I am far from being your friend, stranger,” he replied with a hiss. “Look, we don’t have much love for your kind down here. Probably best if you just left. And be careful – the docks can be slippery, and the water is icy.”

I could feel Lydia tensing, and I guided her away before she could say anything.

“How am I supposed to not judge him by his skin,” Lydia demanded, “when he is so quick to judge us by ours?” I had no answer.

Farther down the dock we came to an old Argonian woman working at scraping a hide. “Greetings, strangers,” she said as we approached.

“Hello,” I said. “It’s nice to find someone who is more friendly than that last fellow we met.”

“You mean Neetrenaza? Yes, he has a large chip on his shoulder. But he is young. He has not yet learned that sometimes Fortune is with you and sometimes against you. It is true that Fortune has not favored us here in Skyrim. Me, I choose to be happy no matter what comes. My name is Shahvee,” and she held out a clawed hand to shake.

“How can you accept conditions here so calmly?” I asked.

“Maybe it is payment for what my people did to the Dunmer of southern Morrowind after the Red Year. And that was payment for centuries of my people being enslaved by the Dunmer. As the saying goes, sometimes you’re the master, sometimes you’re the slave. But I know that happiness is in my own hands, no matter which way Fortune’s wheel turns.”

“That’s remarkably wise,” I said. “I wish I could live with such equanimity.”

“Still,” she said, “I pray that Fortune will shine on my people once again. It seems we have been in the gutter long enough.”

“Best of luck, then,” I said, and we took our leave. “You see, Lydia? People everywhere want the same things – a comfortable life free from fear and hatred.”

“I suppose so,” she said. “Except for those who want wealth and power.”

“Yes, there are those,” I agreed. But what about those who wanted revenge, I couldn’t help thinking. Neetrenaza certainly seemed to want revenge against the Nords and the Dunmer. And was I any better?

“But they just look so strange, these Argonians,” Lydia said as we passed through the city gate once more. “I can’t stop thinking about that whenever I’m around them, and then I get nervous and can’t say anything. It’s hard to believe they can even speak our language. Have you ever heard them talking amongst themselves? It’s little more than grunts, squeaks, and hisses.”

“Yet I’ve heard that their language is as close to pure thought as possible,” I said. “And they probably think we look strange too – no scales, hair on our heads, and we can’t even breathe under water. But I don’t think you’ll find many Nords as wise as Shahvee.”

“No, that’s probably true,” Lydia said. “It was nice, listening to her. I almost felt I could join the conversation … almost. You’re so easy with everyone here. Where did you learn it?”

“It must have been travelling with my father. He dealt with all types and I watched how he treated them. He would try learning their languages, even Argonian. Sometimes they talked with me, too. Argonians, Khajiits, Redguards. They always had wonderful stories of their homelands.”

I stopped and took Lydia by the arm, looking her in the eye. “Look, Lydia, I’m sorry I treated you so harshly this morning. I was tired, and it was only yesterday that I heard those same Nord taunts hurled at my parents. I know you have a good heart, and I shouldn’t blame you for your upbringing, where mine was so different. And I appreciate the effort you’re making to see things my way.”

“And I’m sorry I disappointed you, my thane. I will do whatever it takes to regain your respect and trust.”

“Come,” I said finally. “It’s getting late. Let’s find Ralof. I want to see what he thinks of all this.”

 

*~*~*

 

Back in the city, we checked Candlehearth Hall, as it was the tavern most frequented by the Stormcloaks. They knew Ralof but they hadn’t seen him. One of the drinkers guessed we’d find him in the barracks in the Palace of the Kings. “Or maybe out in the courtyard later tonight. The king … I mean the jarl is supposed to give a big speech.”

We stopped back at the Blade and Dragon to see if we had any visitors. “No,” said the bar-keep, “but I was sure you’d have had one by now.”

“Why?” I asked. “Did you expect someone to come looking for us?”

He looked perplexed. “Can’t say, really. Shouldn’t have said as much as I did.”

I was growing impatient. I should have been halfway to High Hrothgar with the horn by now. “Listen,” I said, placing my hands flat on the bar and leaning forward. “We are here to meet someone on urgent business, and if you know anything about it, you’d best tell me now.”

“All right, all right!” said the bar-keep, looking from me to Lydia and back again. “Someone was going to meet you here. Said you’d ask for the upstairs room. But Del … this person is away, I have no idea where, and that’s the truth.”

“When do you expect him back?” I asked.

“That I don’t know either. You’ll just have to be patient.”

“Well, if this mysterious person comes in, we’ll be up at the palace,” I told him.

We made our way toward the palace through the northwest quarter known as the Valunstrad, with its well appointed houses belonging to the city’s prosperous Nord families. It was quite a contrast from the Gray Quarter. The air was fresh, the snow sparkled white on the rooftops in the last rays of the sun, and the people looked prosperous and content.

Still, as we passed groups in the street, I heard worried talk of the dragon. Apparently, another one had been sighted south of the city just that morning. “We must go to Ulfric,” one man was saying. “He must do something to protect his city.”

“Maybe that’s what tonight’s speech is about,” said another.

“Ach,” said a third. “Just another speech telling us ‘now is the time for war,’ I’ll wager.”

“But this is a travesty! Even the Dunmer are more prepared for the dragon than we are!”

We passed through a long, arched passageway into the courtyard of the Palace of the Kings, once known as the Palace of Ysgramor. The high walls of the castle loomed on all sides. The large iron doors were to our left. Above them the main palace ascended in six tiers constructed from massive stone blocks and arches. It made me feel small. And I had thought Dragonsreach imposing!

To our right, workers scurried back and forth, lighting torches and putting the finishing touches on a speaker’s platform in a gap in the palace’s south wall, the oldest part of the city. Ancient tombs were set within it, bearing the early kings of Skyrim, Harald on one side, Olaf One-Eye on the other. The dates of their reign and the inscriptions were so faded I couldn’t read them. Maybe the first building blocks of this palace had been laid by Ysgramor himself, I thought. Windhelm, not Solitude, had once been the seat of Skyrim’s kings. That same throne – the Throne of Ysgramor – was the one now occupied by Ulfric. And I was about to enter this ancient and imposing building. I hoped we could find Ralof and leave. If I had to meet Ulfric, I wanted to speak with my friend first.

I stated our business to the guard and he opened the large metal-plated doors to the palace. They looked as if they could withstand armies. “Wait here in the hall,” said the guard, “and lay your weapons by the door. I will send a runner to find Ralof. No outsiders are allowed in the barracks.”

Lydia and I took seats near the door. I couldn’t help gaping at the large chamber. This was no mere jarl’s receiving hall, for it had been built for a king. The Throne of Ysgramor stood at one end, empty and seemingly far away. The hall was lined with stone archways, some merely decorative, others leading to passageways beyond. Between each arch was a column with a protruding carven dragon-head. Blue and gold flags hung from the ceiling, with here and there a Stormcloak banner featuring a snarling bear. Even the ceiling bore intricately carved stone laid in a grid pattern and inset with diamond shapes.

The throne itself was a massive affair, more like a hearth and chimney, with a stone seat where the fireplace would be. The throne’s tall stone back bore the graven likeness of swords crossed behind a shield showing the Stormcloak bear sigil. I wondered, did the bear go back to the first kings, or did the Stormcloak line add it when they took power in Eastmarch? One thing was certain – whoever sat on that throne would feel the weight of the ages on his shoulders. It was hard to remember that Ulfric was only a jarl and not a king – not yet.

Long wooden tables stood in the center of the hall. Servants hurried to and fro, readying them for a feast that would no doubt follow the jarl’s speech. Over the bustle, I heard voices coming from a room just off the hall at the far end. I was sure they sounded familiar. They were having some sort of debate.

“Wait here,” I said to Lydia, and I walked casually down the long hall, pretending to admire the intricate stonework and the banners as I went, in case a servant or a guard should question my presence there. When I drew near enough to hear the voices, I slipped into the shadows of a deep archway where I could listen without being noticed.

“I need to go out there and give the people one last rallying cry before we begin.” That was Ulfric speaking, of course. “But they need to know who we’re fighting. And to decide that, I need to know where Balgruuf stands.”

“Balgruuf won’t give us a straight answer,” came the reply. I had heard this voice as well. It was the voice of an older man than Ulfric, gruff and hoarse, with little hint of submission to the jarl. Then I realized – it was Galmar Stone-Fist, Ulfric’s hirth-marshal. I had last seen him in Helgen.

“He’s a true Nord,” said Ulfric. “He’ll come around. That was brave, throwing the Thalmor out of his city. Why would he do such a thing if he doesn’t mean to join us? I still say we should move against Falkreath first. It’s on the main road from Cyrodiil.”

“You know Whiterun is central to our plans,” said Galmar. “And I wouldn’t be so sure about Balgruuf. We’ve intercepted couriers from Solitude. The Imperials are putting immense pressure on Whiterun to let the Thalmor return, to station an Imperial garrison there. And Balgruuf’s steward is Cyrodiili. Which way do you think he’s pushing the jarl?”

“Then what would you have me do?”

“If Balgruuf’s not with us, he’s against us.”

“He knows that. They all know that. You think I need to send him a stronger message?”

“If by ‘message’ you mean shoving a sword through his gullet. I still say you should take them all out, Balgruuf and any other jarl who dares disloyalty, the same way you did Deadking Torygg.”

So this is how the Stormcloaks operated! I had seen and heard enough. Suddenly I was moving from my hiding place. I didn’t stop to think of the wisdom of my actions, or if there was a better way to protect Balgruuf. I knew only that Galmar had just threatened my jarl, who had shown me only kindness.

Drawing a dagger that the door guard had overlooked, I stepped into Ulfric’s war-chamber. Ulfric and Galmar stood on the other side of a large table with a map of Skyrim spread across it. They looked up in surprise as I entered.

I hadn’t counted on the third soldier to the right of the door. He reacted quickly, grasping my wrist and twisting. I was no match for him in strength, and he soon had my own dagger at my throat.

Now Ulfric glared at me from across the table, weighing whether I should live or die.

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