On a warm day early in Sun’s Height, young Danil Bienne made his way through the forest, a bucket of freshly-picked blueberries swinging from hand to hand. He couldn’t wait to turn the gleanings over to his mother in Dragon Bridge, then get back to playing with his best friend, Addvar. Maybe they’d go down to the Karth River and stage twig-boat races. Or better yet, get out the wooden swords and play at being the soldiers they hoped to one day become, defending Skyrim from all its foes. There was no such thing as too much practice if a lad wanted to make it into one of the elite corps.
Just now, the newly independent province offered many paths for a youth filled with dreams of martial glory. Skyrim had just earned its freedom from the Empire, and Nords now had the right to worship their hero-god Talos. A Civil War over a god! That didn’t make much sense. All Danil knew was that his homeland now faced many threats on all sides.
Three months past, the Stormcloaks had marched through town, fresh from liberating Whiterun from the High Elves, and on their way to battle with the Empire’s forces in the great city of Solitude. He’d clambered onto the roof of his family home to get a better look at the ranks of soldiers marching by, led by Jarl Ulfric Stormcloak of Windhelm, his face set and grim. At the jarl’s side rode his supporters and allies: Galmar Stone-Fist, Ulfric’s chief lieutenant, with a scowl to match his leader’s; Ralof of Riverwood, an eager young Stormcloak who jested with his companions even as they rode toward a great siege; Lydia Ravenwood, the Hero of Whiterun, her steel armor and black hair glinting in the spring sunshine. And finally, Deirdre Morningsong, clad in dark mages’ robes with a hood partially hiding her face. Her slight stature and pensive demeanor gave no hint of the power that could defeat a god.
On that day, Danil had been sure that Ulfric was marching to be crowned the new High King of Skyrim, a prospect that had dampened his own hopes of becoming a soldier. It wasn’t likely that he, a Breton, would be welcomed among soldiers who shouted “Skyrim is for the Nords!” every time they picked up a sword.
But the world of adults was confusing for a lad of eleven summers, and nothing had turned out the way he’d expected. There hadn’t even been a battle, or so he’d heard. Ulfric wanted to make an example of the few Imperial soldiers still loyal to their mad general, but Deirdre had pushed to spare them. Then Ulfric and Deirdre had dueled in the ancient Nord way, using the Power of the Voice. Deirdre’s Thu’um had proven the greater.
Now Ulfric was back in Windhelm and Deirdre had been named High Queen by the jarlmoot. Ralof, not Galmar, was general of Skyrim’s new army. And Lydia was the queen’s housecarl, captain of her Royal Guard, and her consort.
Best of all, the queen had proclaimed that from now on Skyrim would be for all peoples, not just the Nords. And since Deirdre herself was half Nord and half Breton, many Breton youths were now volunteering to serve in her army. It was indeed a new day in the province, with many new opportunities.
But now he had another problem: deciding where he’d rather serve, with Ralof’s forces down in Whiterun, or with the Royal Guard under Lydia’s command. He guessed he’d see more action in the regular army, but gain greater glory with the elite guards, not to mention the opportunity to hear Lydia’s tales of battle and of slaying dragons alongside the Dragonborn. It was a thorny question.
He came out of the forest and onto the road leading home. The sun was high, shining down through the opening the road made through the trees, warming him after the chill of standing in the bog where the best berries grew. The bushes on either side of the road were alive with the twittering of birds, while the air carried the fresh scent of pines. After months of his parents keeping him indoors, it felt great to be outside, even on such a boring errand.
His mother had many excuses for the forced confinement. First it was the stupid dragons, and then it was the stupid war. “We’ll not risk losing you to either sword or claw,” she’d said. Alduin World-Eater had returned, the most fearsome dragon ever to soar above Tamriel. And not just a dragon, but a god. Alduin had resurrected an army of fire-, frost-, and blood-dragons, and then Deirdre, the Dragonborn, had vanquished him. Some said she’d chased him all the way down the death-road to Sovngarde to finish him off. Danil hadn’t even seen claw or scale of the countless dragons that had marauded the countryside and towns all through the fall. It didn’t seem fair.
Once the dragons were gone, his parents still kept him inside, even though the great battles of the war were all far away in Falkreath, Riften, and the two great sieges of Whiterun. He’d counted himself lucky to be let outside to watch the Stormcloaks march through town on their way to victory.
But the freedom promised by that day turned out to be short-lived. The dragons were gone, the war was over, and his parents were finally considering whether conditions were safe enough for him to roam free. And then troubles broke out between the town’s Nord majority and its Breton minority. Danil didn’t know what it was about, only that Addvar could no longer visit his house, and then his parents had taken him to visit Aunt Francine down in Rorikstead.
That had been over a month before, at the end of Second Seed. Even after returning to town to find the atmosphere more relaxed, and Addvar’s parents apologetic, it was well into the month of Midyear before he’d been given his freedom. He’d hardly been indoors since.
On such a pleasant day, with neither dragon to be glimpsed nor clash of shields to be heard, he’d scoffed at the worried looks his mother gave him as he headed out the door. What did she think could happen to him, a future brave soldier of Skyrim?
He was still pondering his prospects when he heard a wagon approaching fast from around a bend in the road ahead. He stepped to one side as the wagon appeared, pulled by a pair of horses straining to make it go even faster. Their eyes bulged and their mouths foamed as they thundered past. He didn’t see a driver, not in the seat, not in the back laden with goods, nor even chasing after it down the road. The wagon looked like the one belonging to Heimvar Snow-mane, a trader who passed through Dragon Bridge every couple of weeks. Danil continued up the road, planning to tell the first town guard or other adult what he’d seen.
He’d walked a quarter-hour or so when he spotted a lump off to the side of the road. The lump moved as he got closer — a man, lying on his side, with his back to Danil. He looked as if he could be sleeping, curled up the way he was, save for his head pointing downhill into the ditch. That couldn’t be too comfortable. He had blond hair just like Heimvar’s.
The head moved as Danil approached and now the boy saw blood splattering the man’s tan tunic. One sleeve was partly torn away to reveal a shoulder and arm slick with more blood. And this wasn’t the worst. The man was cradling his abdomen. Danil didn’t want to look at what he was holding there. He concentrated on the man’s face, trying to fight down the sick feeling growing in his stomach.
Heimvar’s face was deathly pale, save for two bright red claw marks on his cheek. The blue eyes, wide at first with fright, relaxed when he recognized the boy.
“Lad,” he said, though even that single syllable seemed to be a struggle. “Help… please…”
Danil stood there, not knowing what to do.
“Go…” the man pleaded. “Get… help…” He closed his eyes against the pain.
With that instruction, Danil dropped his bucket and ran as fast as his feet would carry him toward Dragon Bridge.
[Chapter 2 coming tomorrow. I’ll post a chapter every day or so.]