No, not that closet! The fantasy/gaming/fanfiction closet.
You see, I’ve spent the last two years writing a 780-page novel set in the universe of Skyrim, the wildly popular game by Bethesda Softworks. Have I lost my mind? Maybe. Or perhaps this project has helped keep me sane. Since today is the release of the next game in the series, Elder Scrolls Online, it seems an appropriate time to ‘fess up. (And this is aimed mainly at those who know me as a nature writer. If you’re a gamer or fan of the fantasy genre who has happened across this post, feel free to skip straight to the novel itself.)
It all started with our move to Michigan in 2011, when Diane took a job at Wharton Center for the Performing Arts in East Lansing. I had never even been to Michigan. We didn’t know a single person here. And we drove our older son up to San Jose for his freshman year in college in the middle of packing for the big move. So that was a lot of culture and family shock to absorb all at once. Not to mention that my work as a writer and conservationist had focused mainly on the deserts of California. Hard to keep doing that from the Midwest.
So there I was, that first six months in Michigan, and the kids were playing this game called Skyrim. (And I would blame it on the kids, except for the fact that anyone who knew me well in college also knows that I spent way too much time in the game room playing Asteroids. Also, I had already played Oblivion, the precursor to Skyrim in the Elder Scrolls Series. The virtual has always had an appeal for me.)
I soon found myself obsessed with the game, as many were. It had the most realistic character interactions of any game I had played. An amazing soundtrack by Jeremy Soule. The scenery was stunning: lofty peaks, grassy plains, vast glaciers, and ruins in the middle distance to lend a Romantic, picturesque quality. (No deserts, unfortunately.) There were birds singing in the trees, hawks soaring overhead, and lots of other wildlife, including some that would eat those not well-armored or ready with a dual-wielded firebolt spell (or a calming spell if you happen to be a pacifist or a vegetarian).
Skyrim is an “open world” game, so you can do whatever you like. You can slay the dragons, fight in the Civil War, and follow the other quest lines. Or you can just walk around exploring the scenery, doing favors for people, and listening to their stories. You can even be a pacifist and complete many of the quests using only stealth and cunning. You can get married (to a person of either sex). You can sit down in the Arcanaeum and read books on the lore of Tamriel (the continent of which Skyrim is just one region), the creation of Mundus (the Elder Scrolls universe), and the various gods (nine by some counts, not to mention a variety of “Daedric lords”). Or you can sit in a tavern, listening to a bard and drinking an ale (this is where the virtual nature of the game falls seriously short).
I know, I know. We “nature writers” are supposed to prefer real nature to simulacra of nature. Last Child in the Woods and all that. But my opinions about nature and the “environmental movement” have grown so dour that they’re best kept to myself.
Ironically, this novel began with a nature-y idea: it would be funny to write a “Natural History of Skyrim.” It would be told in the voice of the character I played, a Breton woman. (At the beginning of the game, you choose the features of the character you’ll play: race or nationality, gender – only two; the game’s not that progressive! – and other physical attributes. And, what’s that you say, a man playing as a woman? Only non-gamers will be surprised by that.) She would be a bit of a 19th-century naturalist, sketching flowers, pressing them in her notebook, figuring out how the different varieties are related. She might look at the landforms, which sometimes make no geological sense, and wonder how they got that way. Living in a universe where the gods were present in daily life, she might ascribe it to their whims, but maybe also begin to wonder about the natural processes that could shape the land. She would look at the stars and wonder if they really are the light of Aetherius shining through tiny holes in the plane of Oblivion that surrounds Mundus – or something else? (In that sense, maybe she’s more of a 10th-century naturalist.)
That idea quickly morphed into the one of writing a novel telling her story as Deirdre, now a half-Breton/half-Nord orphan, who goes through the adventures of the game, discovering that she’s the Dragonborn, fated to do battle with the dragon-god Alduin, deciding whether to become involved with Ulfric Stormcloak’s rebellion against Imperial tyranny, and discovering who she is at the deepest level. In the end, it would correct what many players saw as a problem with the ending of the game’s main story lines. It would also retain that 19th-century quality, complete with a stodgy Editor’s Introduction that makes it a story-within-a-story.
As I was forming the idea for this work, the gaming community’s horrible treatment of Anita Sarkeesian and her feminist analysis of video games was coming to light. Major White Knight time! One of her worst online abusers was in Toronto. I actually found myself thinking, “Toronto’s not that far away, and I own a stout crowbar.” Instead, I channeled that outrage into this story. In a way, the frustrated teenage boys (of whatever numerical age) who responded with such vehemence to Sarkeesian are the target audience for this work. How better to practice white-knighting than in a fantasy story? It’s a criticism I’ll gladly accept.
Like much of our own world, Skyrim is a contested territory, with occupying Imperial forces oppressing the native Nords, who just want to be free to worship their own gods. But the Nords aren’t really natives, because thousands of years in the past they arrived in Tamriel from their native Atmora, pushing out the elves who already inhabited the place. Now, distant cousins of those elves, styling themselves the High Elves or Altmer, want to control all of Tamriel, and even to wipe out or enslave humans and all the other races of the continent. Looking at Syria, Darfur, Russia, and our own behavior on various continents (including North America), it seems these real world problems have no solutions. Perhaps they can only be worked out in a fantasy world, as Deirdre attempts to do. And she has her own hatreds to deal with, mainly for the Nords who killed her parents out of their ignorance and bigotry. Can compassion for all beings possibly exist in such a world?
So I set out to write a big, baggy, 19th-century-style novel tackling big themes based on a video game. Two years and 780 pages later, here it is, The Song of Deirdre: A Memoir of Skyrim. In that time, other writers of Skyrim fan-fiction, like Erica North/Jenny Melzer, have gone on to publish their own novels. The singer known as Malukah has become famous for her covers and arrangements of Skyrim’s tavern songs, both as a solo artist and with other artists. Who spends two years on a fanfiction (or novelization, as I like to think of it)? Apparently, that’s just how I roll.
Diane has already served as my alpha reader (and, thank the Nine, she enjoyed it, or I never would have carried on). Now you can serve as my beta readers, if you’re willing. I’ve tried to write it in a way that will appeal to non-gamers who aren’t familiar with Skyrim, and I’d love to get feedback on whether or not I succeeded.
If you’ve played the game, all the better, because I’m also eager to hear how it goes over with you. The story does follow the events of the game, but I hope you’ll enjoy the twists I’ve put on them, and there are a few in-jokes that only gamers will get.
If this proves popular, perhaps I’ll go on and write Books II and III, which will help to explain some of the mystery expressed by the tome’s editor, Laurentius Aaronius, in the introduction.
Here is the Editor’s Introduction. Those who don’t prefer introductions can skip right to Chapter One here. I’ll be posting one chapter a day, on average. Looking forward to hearing your comments!
The discovery of the collection of scrolls that have come to be known within the Imperial Palace Library as the Deirdre Manuscripts, but which I have chosen to title The Song of Deirdre: A Memoir of Skyrim, has ignited great controversy in scholarly circles. Apparently preserved for decades in several potion bottles adrift on the Sea of Ghosts, and discovered at various points on the shores of Skyrim in and around Dawnstar by one Lars Ice-Beard and other fisher-folk of those northern regions, the purported provenance of the manuscripts raises several questions. Are these authentic documents attributable to the hand of that historical personage known as Deirdre Morningsong, widely famed throughout Skyrim and beyond? Or is this all a clever fake, weaving bits of history and the protagonist’s own extant writings with strands of rumor, myth, and outright fancy? None can know for certain, which explains the years-long delay in the manuscripts’ publication – and the fact that even now they are being published without the permission of the Imperial Palace Library, and at great personal risk to this editor.
But whatever their provenance and ownership, and whether fact or fiction, this is a story too important to go untold. (And indeed, should you find this academic introduction a bit tedious, feel free to jump ahead to Chapter 1. You will find Deirdre Morningsong’s writing style much more vivid and lively than anything this dusty old scholar can conjure.)
The central question, of course, is why one such as Deirdre Morningsong should ever have felt the need to scribble her story in cramped handwriting on whatever scraps of paper came to hand, some of them already used and erased many times over, then roll them tightly, stuff them into the largest potion or wine bottles she could find, and finally cast them adrift on the Sea of Ghosts? And, assuming all of this to be true and not some hoax, from whence were they cast onto those waters? (Studies are ongoing of currents in that sea, correlated with the spots where the bottles were found. The research so far suggests a location far north and west of Solitude, which, of course, is absurd, as that part of the sea features nothing but a few uninhabited bits of ice-covered rock.)
Another possibility – to which this editor does not ascribe – is that these manuscripts are indeed the creations of Lars Ice-Beard and the other “discoverers,” whether working as co-authors or as co-conspirators in this hoax, with Ice-Beard as the scribe. That Nord, a fisherman out of Dawnstar – a hideously bleak and desolate little burg if ever this editor saw one – does have some small skill with the Common Tongue, having penned the little-known tome, A Natural and Personal History of the Fishes of the Skyrim Coast (Complete with a Dozen Recipes for both Hearth and Campfire). But for that author to go from such a humble volume to the present work? No, it is not to be credited. In the first place, the author of the Deirdre Manuscripts clearly had access to the major libraries of the land, the Arcanaeum at the College of Winterhold, the shelves of High Hrothgar, the Mystic Archives of the Arcane University, even the Imperial Palace Library itself, while there is no evidence that Ice-Beard has ever gone farther from Dawnstar than his tiny feræringr would take him. As well, Ice-Beard and his co-discoverers – the rest of whom are coarse Nords even less familiar with their letters than Ice-Beard – have asked for little in return for passing these discoveries on to the Imperial Palace Library. Indeed, they want no more than the present acknowledgment upon publication. Who ever heard of authors so disinterested in receiving acclaim for their works, not to mention gold?
And now to the work itself. Fiction or nonfiction, The Song of Deirdre is quite a tale, combining adventure, warfare, and swordplay; the arcane arts; dragons; bold deeds and harrowing escapes; a celebration of the natural beauties of Skyrim; histories natural, human, and merish; discourses on religion and the mystery of existence; meditations on the nature of power in a land governed by the might of the sword and the Power of the Voice; and not a little romance. The story centers on those momentous events just after the turn of the third century of the Fourth Era – or the Dawn of the Fifth Era, as the Council for a New Age would have it – when the dragons returned to Skyrim, Civil War raged, and the World Eater sought to destroy all of Mundus.
There is something in these pages to delight both those already familiar with this history and those completely unaware of it (and, I must ask the latter, have you been hiding under a standing stone of the Druadach Redoubt? Or perhaps you inhabit a plane of Mundus other than our own?). In a remarkable achievement, the author has taken great pains to appeal to both camps. Those familiar with the story will find much to appreciate in this fresh perspective, as it provides twists both humorous and dramatic on the accepted version of history. For those who are new to this material, I will not spoil the story by saying more than that you are in for a treat.
This editor is in possession of the complete First Manuscript, which arrived on Skyrim’s shores in four separate bottles, neatly dividing the tale into four separate parts. The second of these is the longest, perhaps not only because the author happened to have a larger wine bottle at hand at the time. (If further proof of the factual nature of these documents is needed, surely an author of fiction would have trimmed some of the more excessive digressions, speeding the story along for the impatient reader. But such license with events is not possible in a factual account. Thus the four parts of the manuscript comprise 780 closely written pages, or some 350,000 words, rivaling the most compendious tomes of our age.) Part II was also the first to be discovered, causing not a little confusion when it was delivered to Skyrim’s College of Winterhold and thence to the Palace Library in the Imperial City in Cyrodiil. Eventually the other three parts came to light and all was put in a semblance of order, though much remains to be done.
A fifth part of the manuscripts exists in a very sketchy state, hinting at further chapters remaining to be found that would comprise a Second Manuscript. Cursory as it is, this glimpse goes beyond the events in Skyrim to those that took place in other provinces of Tamriel, when the one we know as Deirdre Morningsong began her … but no, I must say no more for fear of spoiling the story. Suffice to say, if taken as fact, this account does much to bolster the arguments of the Council for a New Age, which holds that Deirdre’s deeds and achievements should mark a new era, the Fifth Era, beginning in or about the year 203 of the present one.
Finally, it is almost a requirement in these days to warn readers of content that might be found objectionable by this or that segment of society. While this editor believes in the salutary and broadening effect of reading widely and without prejudice, learning of those whose beliefs and practices differ from our own, neither does he wish to offend. So heed these warnings – herein you will find considerable blood and gore, though none of it presented in the heedless manner so common in today’s tales of high adventure and suspense. Indeed, putting an end to the necessity of such bloody events is central to the narrator’s purpose. As the world once more teeters on the brink of war, with barbarism of a variety of stripes arising throughout Mundus, Deirdre Morningsong’s is a voice that must be heard.
As for romance, while the author depicts loving relationships regardless of racial or gender boundaries, it is all done in the utmost taste, appropriate for any reader who has attained to his or her middle teens (and who younger than that would be interested in such a voluminous history?). Of course, each reader will respond in their own way. Devotees of Dibella may find the scenes of romance so tame as to entice a yawn, while Vigilants of Stendarr may find themselves reaching for their flint and tinder. The editor trusts that a wide audience exists between these extremes.
And so, without further ado, and at considerable risk to his own head – quite literally, if the warrior-scribes of the Imperial Library catch up to me! – the editor presents The Song of Deirdre: A Memoir of Skyrim, appending only the following epigraph, taken from an unknown poet of another time and place:
… Behaviour that’s admired
is the path to power among people everywhere.
Silverhome on the Water, Bravil
late of the Imperial Palace Library
P.S.: Readers unfamiliar with the geography of Tamriel may benefit from this map of that continent, and also this map of Skyrim. Those who would like more detail may find these interactive maps more helpful. (Since publication, the manuscript enchantment which allows readers to easily navigate between chapters has been upgraded to require more magicka than this poor editor possesses. Until a better solution can be found, readers will have to resort to the Table of Contents to move from chapter to chapter.)
Acknowledgments are here. The Editor’s Introduction is here. The Table of Contents is here. (To navigate between chapters, use the arrows at the bottom of each post.) You can also read it over at fanfiction.net, where you’ll find many fan reviews, and AO3.
“So, what do you think they’ll do with this one?” The voice was male, Nord by the accent.
Another Nord responded, closer this time. “A slip of a lass like her? It’s some mistake. They’ll let her go when they realize she’s not with us.”
I realized they were talking about me. I tried to open my eyes, but it was like trying to wake from a dream – all remained dark, and the dream went on. Yet the swaying of the wagon was real enough, every bump in the road sending a pulse of pain through my temple. I tried to remember where I should be, how I got into a moving cart, but couldn’t. I felt cords cutting into my wrists. I couldn’t explain that either. I remembered a deer. I was chasing it after my arrow missed its mark, then there was some confused movement off to my left, the glint of sunlight on metal. But what did that have to do with me? Was that part of the dream?
“Ach, I’m not with you either,” the first voice said, “but the damned Imperials haven’t shown any sign of releasing me.”
“Quiet back there!” came a rough voice up ahead. That one spoke in the accents of Cyrodiil.
With an effort, I opened my eyes, then quickly shut them against the glare of harsh sunlight off granite.
“Hey, lass, you’re finally awake.”
Awake? I didn’t feel awake. I tried opening my eyes again, slowly this time. We were in a forest now, and the sunlight wasn’t quite so harsh. Across from me sat a Nord fighter in a uniform I didn’t recognize. His hands were bound in front of him. With his red hair, square jaw, and well muscled arms, he reminded me of a boy I once knew. He wore his hair in the Nord fashion, like mine, but with just a single braid at the temple. His clear blue eyes regarded me with concern.
“You were unlucky,” he was saying. “You stumbled right into that Imperial ambush along with the rest of us, and that thief there.” He nodded toward the man sitting next to him.
I stumbled? I hadn’t survived three years on my own by stumbling into squads of Imperial soldiers. They had never come near me before – I was far too stealthy for that.
It was the hunger, I decided. Two hard days of cold and starvation on the high passes between Cyrodiil and Skyrim, no game, not a berry or a leaf to eat. I didn’t usually go after quarry as large as deer, but when a yearling presented itself, I took my shot. Hunger must have made me rush, the arrow missing high. It all came back to me now. Need drove me blindly into that willow thicket where the Imperial soldiers lay in wait. It must have been easy for them to knock me out then, if only to silence me as their true quarry approached.
The man sitting next to the Nord soldier turned to us. He wore a ragged tunic much like my own. “Hey, you and me, we’re not supposed to be here,” he said. He had a panicked look. “We’re not with these Stormcloaks. We have to tell them.”
Stormcloaks – so that explained the strange uniform. Last I’d heard, the Stormcloaks were a few ragged followers of Ulfric, one of Skyrim’s nine jarls. He had been agitating against the Empire for years, to no avail. But this fighter was well outfitted in mail and a padded cuirass wrapped in a blue surcoat, as if Ulfric’s hirth had grown into a full-fledged army. I could see that much had changed in my time away from Skyrim. Living on my own in the woods of Cyrodiil, I didn’t get much news.
“We’re all brothers and sisters in binds now, thief,” said the soldier. Then they began arguing about who was at fault for our predicament.
With the pounding in my head, it was hard to pay attention. I started working at the cords around my wrists, trying to stretch them and wriggle free. What I’d do after that I had no idea. Up ahead was another cart, filled with more Stormcloak rebels in identical uniforms, Nords all. Mounted soldiers of the Imperial Legion surrounded the carts – those uniforms I did recognize. They were a more diverse lot, Nords, Cyrodiilians, and several Redguards from Hammerfell.
At the head of the column rode an officer in more elaborate regalia with his own guard. All were armed with stout Legion swords, and some with bows. Which made me wonder, where was my bow? My dagger? My knapsack with all my possessions, few as they were?
“What’s wrong with him, huh?” The thief nodded toward the man seated next to me. This one was not only bound but gagged.
“Watch your tongue, thief,” the Stormcloak snapped. “You’re speaking to Ulfric Stormcloak, the true High King.”
The thief didn’t take this revelation well. “Ulfric? The Jarl of Windhelm? You’re the leader of the rebellion!” Ulfric just looked at him impassively.
So this was Ulfric Stormcloak? The name raised dim echoes from my childhood. I would sometimes overhear my parents talking about Ulfric and something terrible that happened in Markarth before I was born. I remembered the fear in their voices, and the way they changed the subject when they realized I was listening. Later, we would hear of Ulfric’s speeches advocating the rights of Nords to worship their own gods. My father was a Nord too, and he kept a secret shrine to Talos in our cellar. He said that giving up the Nord religion was too great a price for peace with the High Elves of the Aldmeri Dominion. Yet he wouldn’t take up arms against his own brethren over it, nor against the Empire in Cyrodiil. Whenever there was talk of Ulfric, my father would shake his head and look into the distance, lost in thought.
Ulfric didn’t look so fearsome, sitting next to me in that cart. He was older than the rest of us, with long, silver-streaked hair and a dark beard. I thought there was something wolfish about him. He wore a mud-stained cloak of fur over chainmail. Now he went back to staring dejectedly at his boots. Maybe the Stormcloak soldier was right – we were all equals now, jarls, warriors, thieves, and half-wild girls like me.
The thief went on, growing more agitated. “But if they’ve captured you… Oh, gods, where are they taking us?”
“I don’t know where we’re going,” replied the rebel, “but Sovngarde awaits.”
With this news the thief began calling to the gods. “Shor, Mara, Kynareth, Akatosh… help me!” There was no answer, though the thief kept scanning the skies as if expecting one.
We rode in silence for a moment, each of us lost in our own thoughts. Then the Stormcloak looked at me again. “That’s some fearsome warpaint you have there,” he said.
Reaching up with my bound hands, I touched the spot over my left eye. The tattoo was new, but I had almost forgotten it. I had it done just before returning to Skyrim. I had asked for a thick vertical stripe above my eye, and two curving strokes below it. I had hoped to look fierce for my homecoming, but when it was done the two curving stripes reminded me of tears.
“Why would you mar such a pretty face, lass?” the Nord asked. I shrugged.
“Flirting! That’s just what we need,” said the thief.
The gates of a walled village appeared ahead. Beyond the gray ramparts I could see several towers – they were bringing us to an Imperial keep. “This is Helgen,” the Stormcloak said. “I once knew a girl from Helgen.” Then he said something about juniper berries in their mead, but that was nothing to me. I’d never tasted mead in my life. My father wouldn’t allow it because I was too young, and then … after… I was more interested in laying hands on solid food, eggs from hen houses, cheeses from dairy barns, a hung fowl when I could get it.
As we passed through the gates, the officer at the head of the column broke off, joining a group of Imperial soldiers who had been waiting for us. Three High Elves were there as well, two of them resplendent in gold-colored armor, the third wearing dark mage robes.
The Stormcloak cursed them as we rolled past. “Damn Thalmor, I bet they had something to do with this.” The Thalmor of the Aldmeri Dominion had free run of Skyrim since the war, their justiciars patrolling the province, snuffing out any hint of Talos worship. My parents had taught me to avoid them, and never to mention Talos outside our home.
“General Tullius, sir!” one of the soldiers greeted the officer. “The headsman is waiting!”
“Good, let’s get this over with,” Tullius replied.
The Stormcloaks must have known this was our fate all along, but the gravity of our situation was just dawning on the thief and me. “Gods, no!” the thief screamed. “It was just a horse! Put me in jail if you want, but don’t kill me!” Then he turned to the Stormcloaks. “This is your fault! You deserve the axe, not us!”
“Calm yourself, thief,” said the Stormcloak. “Sovngarde is the only place we’re going. You don’t want your last thoughts on Nirn to be ones of fear and cowardice do you? Meet your end like a man.” Typical Nord – steady as the stones they use to build their keeps.
I struggled with my bonds with greater urgency, but the truth was sinking in. All of the running and hiding of the last three years would be for naught. My parents would go unavenged, their story untold. I might as well have died with them in that burning house.
As the carts came to a stop, I vowed I wouldn’t let them take me without a fight. Maybe I could take out one of these Imperial soldiers, if not escape entirely. Leave the stoicism to these Stormcloaks. What kind of fighters were they anyway? But for all my bravado, the cords around my wrists seemed all the tighter.
A Nord soldier was calling our names off lists now. He was tall and blonde, the classic son of Skyrim. He called Ulfric first, and another soldier led him down from our cart.
“What kind of a Nord are you, Hadvar?” the Stormcloak opposite me demanded. “You should be standing here with us!”
The soldier ignored him.
“Ach, the Imperials and their damned lists!” the rebel muttered. “Hadvar and I used to be friends, grew up in Riverwood together. But now look at him, crossing names off lists like a damned scribe. I’ll gladly die a Stormcloak rather than sink so low.”
Then Hadvar called his name – Ralof of Riverwood. True to his advice to the thief, Ralof marched proudly to the lineup in front of the block, head held high. The thief acted according to type as well, running as soon as his feet hit the cobblestones. “Archers,” called the female captain, and they shot him down before he had gone twenty paces. I stared in surprise – he had fallen just like the rabbits and squirrels I had killed over the years. I thought watching a man die would be different somehow.
“Anyone else want to try running?” barked the captain, a Redguard. “Next, the Breton!” Ah yes, Nord, Cyrodiili, or Redguard, they always noticed the Breton features and small stature I inherited from my mother, remnants of the mingling of elves and men long ago. Never the blonde hair and fair skin that came from my Nord father. “Breton, get down from the cart, now!” This captain certainly was used to giving commands.
I glared at her and gripped the rail at the back of the cart with both hands. At that moment I must have looked more like a wild animal than a young woman. Finally one of the soldiers climbed into the cart to pull me out, while the tall one tapped the list impatiently with his quill. But this one underestimated me, grabbing me by the shoulders instead of the wrists. Maybe he thought one good pull would loosen my grip. Instead, I swung my body back and forth, pulling him off balance. Then I jammed my shoulder into his chest. In the second it took him to regain his footing, I grasped at the knife he kept in his belt. Then I looped my hands over his head and swung up onto his back. Stealth and agility – without them, I never would have survived three years on my own in the forest. I had the knife nearly to his throat, but with bound hands it was awkward. He grabbed at my wrists, trying to keep the blade from his flesh.
“Free me or I’ll kill him,” I shouted.
“Fine,” the captain replied with a grim chuckle. “There are plenty more Nord soldiers where he came from.”
That gave us both pause. I could feel the soldier’s arms relax as he turned to stare at his superior.
“Kill him and we’ll shoot you down like the thief,” the captain went on. “Oh look, he’s still twitching. A painful way to die, arrow through the back. Wouldn’t you rather a good quick death at the hands of our headsman? I can promise he keeps his blade sharp.”
Another soldier must have climbed over the back of the cart while she talked, because now I felt arms grabbing me from behind. In a moment I was disarmed and the two soldiers grappled with me, the one cursing at the nick I had made in his neck. He had his arm around my leg as I struggled and kicked, his hand grinding up into my crotch as he lifted me off the cart. The other had me from behind, arms encircling my chest. I felt him squeezing me through my course tunic. I wondered if they’d laugh about that tonight in the inn, a good joke to end the day of killing.
Then it struck me that this was how it all started – the murder of my parents, the flight from Dragon Bridge, the three years of fear and loneliness while living on my own – with a Nord boy who I thought was my friend, his hands on my body and a hardness in his breeches. Then I had to wonder at the strange symmetry of events. Did time move forward, or was life just a series of experiences repeating in perpetual cycles? Strange thoughts to have when meeting one’s death.
The soldiers dumped me on the ground in front of the officers. “This one’s not on the list, Captain,” said Hadvar. “You, Breton, what’s your name?”
I looked around at the soldiers and my fellow captives, at the general and the headsman, at the elves and the priestess standing nearby, at the villagers looking on from their porches. They might as well know who they’re killing this day, I thought, though I was a girl of no renown.
“My name is Deirdre Morningsong,” I said in as strong a voice as I could muster. “My mother was Fiona Morningsong, a Breton from Jehanna. My father was a Nord, Sven Silver-Tongue, a trader of goods between the provinces of Tamriel. We lived in Dragon Bridge, where Nord and Breton alike hated us as mixed bloods. The filthy Nord bigots burned our house with my parents in it.” I left out the other reason they’d burned our house: their superstitious, ignorant fear of things they couldn’t understand. “I fled to Cyrodiil under my mother’s name. Now I have returned to Skyrim seeking justice, but I see there is none under the Empire. May Oblivion take all Nords, and the Empire as well!”
This speech elicited chuckles from the soldiers and sarcastic clapping from the elf wearing the hooded mage robes. “My good General,” she said, “Why don’t we just leave Skyrim to the Nords? Let them tear each other apart like the wild beasts they are.”
“What should we do with her, Captain?” asked Hadvar. “She’s not on the list.”
“Damn the list, Hadvar. She’s a threat to Skyrim’s peace, just as much as these Stormcloaks. Take her with the others.”
“I’m sorry, Deirdre,” said the soldier, and he really did seem sympathetic. “We’ll make sure your remains are taken back to High Rock.”
“I told you, Dragon Bridge, here in Skyrim. But there’s no one there to bury me.”
As another soldier dragged me over to the line of Stormcloaks waiting for death, the general began a speech. “Ulfric Stormcloak. Some here in Helgen call you a hero. But a hero doesn’t use a power like the Voice to murder his king and usurp his throne.” Ulfric had murdered High King Torygg? So that was how he had started his rebellion! The Voice was a power that took years to master, and few could stand against it – it hardly seemed a fair match. Still, what did I care for the high king’s death? Hadn’t I been one of his subjects? Where was he when my parents and I needed his protection?
Ulfric tried to make some response through his gag, but no defense would be heard this day. “You started this war,” Tullius continued, “plunged Skyrim into chaos, and now the Empire is going to put you down and restore the peace.” He motioned for the executions to begin.
The first Stormcloak marched bravely to the block, not even waiting for the priestess of Arkay’s benediction. He said some words about Talos and Sovngarde, then his head rolled and the ring of the axe echoed across the keep and his blood gushed onto the ground in great pulsing spurts. In one instant he was a person and in the next a mere object – two objects – lifeless, lying in the dust. The captain used the heel of her boot to shove the body aside and called, “Next, the Breton!”
My mind went numb then. I had been through much in my young life, but this was the first beheading I’d witnessed. And I was next. I couldn’t think. I had been saving one more trick for the last, desperate moment. I wasn’t even sure it would work. But before I could act, they had dragged me to the headsman’s block, forcing me to kneel with my neck across it, ready for the axe. The smell of blood was strong, and I began to feel nauseated. If only I could turn over, I thought. But I knew I had missed my chance. I would go like the rest of them.
I turned my head to the side, watching the headsman. The axe was rising…
And that’s when the dragon attacked.
Many stories have been told of that day, when Alduin swept down upon Helgen out of the clear blue sky of a summer’s morning. But most of them get it wrong. Some say I summoned Alduin to Helgen, that I called him down on my captors. Or worse, that I brought the World Eater back to Skyrim to wreak my revenge on the Nords. But no one called Alduin – he just came. And the truth is, no one in Helgen was more surprised or frightened than I.
Now, you may find it strange that at one minute I could be nearly resigned to my death, and in the next fear for my life with greater intensity than at any time before or since. But in that moment, I could do nothing. I could not move. I could not scream. My mouth was suddenly dry and my limbs numb. I could only watch, sprawled there on the executioner’s block, as an immense winged shape lit on the keep’s central tower. The monster was so huge it could barely find purchase on a platform made to hold a dozen archers. Its hide was intricately scaled, and two massive horns curved in S-shapes from the back of its head. Now that head was swinging back and forth on its long neck, blood-red eyes searching for its first victim.
In that instant I knew it was a dragon – though of course I didn’t know it was Alduin, that would come later – a dragon come to life out of the books of myth and legend my father read to me as a child. Many were the stories of the sky-serpents, winged corpse-makers that haunted Nords’ dreams. The ancient Nords even worshipped them, it was said. They had certainly left enough of their dragon carvings all across Skyrim. Indeed, how could I not recognize this beast, having grown up in Dragon Bridge, walking under the bridge’s two fierce dragon heads every time we crossed the river? Yet, as ominous as those carven images had seemed, they were mere effigies in stone, while this one was irrefutably alive. And now it was looking directly at me.
The courtyard had gone silent, the soldiers and prisoners and villagers too stunned to move. No dragon had been seen in Skyrim in thousands of years. Many thought they were a myth, creations of the dragon priests to keep the ancient Nords in thrall. Yet here was a beast as mighty as those in legend. How could any of us know what to do next?
Then it spoke. It didn’t breathe fire or frost, it just shouted a word so powerful that the blast made the ground roll underneath me, knocking soldiers and captives alike to their knees. Suddenly people were running and screaming all around me, while I could only lie there, helpless.
So you see, it’s absurd to think that I called Alduin down on Helgen. Although, if I dig deeply in my memory, there was something strangely familiar in that word he spoke. Of course I didn’t understand it, but I felt as if I should have. Why had he returned at the exact time and place appointed for my own death? Only Akatosh, Master of Time, can know. And though events worked in my favor that day, it was a touch-and-go thing. Scores of innocent people, and some not so innocent, lost their lives. Even had it been in my power to make such a thing happen, would I have traded all those lives to save my own? Perhaps on that day I would have. I had come to wreak my vengeance on the Nords, hadn’t I?
When the ground finally stopped shaking and I regained a portion of my wits, I heard Ralof, the Stormcloak, calling me. “Hey, Breton. Get up! Come on, the gods won’t give us another chance!”
I struggled to my feet and followed him as well as I could. The dragon had begun blasting everything in its path with fire. Everywhere it breathed, homes and shops and fortress walls exploded in blazing ruin. But more than the destruction wrought by the dragon, the sky itself rained fireballs down all around us. What kind of beast was this, that could command Nirn itself to do its bidding?
With my hands tied in front of me, I waddled more than ran to keep up with Ralof. He reached the south tower first. Yet he waited at the door, holding it open for me as I dashed inside. I had never been so glad to enter a building, Imperial keep though it was. I looked thankfully at Ralof as he slammed the door shut on the destruction taking place outside.
And then I caught myself. I had just vowed my revenge on all Nords, hadn’t I? And wasn’t Ralof a Nord? It didn’t help that he reminded me so much of that other boy, the one I thought was my friend. How long before this one also betrayed me?
Ulfric and several Stormcloaks were already inside, two of them wounded and burned. Two more had freed themselves from their bonds and were helping the others.
“By Ysmir, what is that thing?” Ralof demanded. “Could the legends be true?”
“Legends don’t burn down villages,” said Ulfric. Then he nodded toward me. “Why did you bring the lass?”
“She was helpless out there, my jarl.” Ralof had his hands free now. “I couldn’t leave a defenseless girl to die all alone.”
“She’s as like to knife us in the back as help us get out of here,” Ulfric replied. “Or maybe she’s an Imperial spy.”
“Come now, Ulfric,” said one of his warriors. “She’s just a lass.”
“That’s right. What help could she be, anyway?”
“Untie my hands and I’ll prove my use,” I said, meeting Ulfric’s gaze. Nords or no, I’d show them I was no defenseless girl.
Ulfric looked at me doubtfully. “All right, you can come with us, but your hands stay bound.”
The sounds of screams and rending wood and shattering stone suddenly grew louder outside the door. We weren’t going back out that way. “We’ve got to get out of this tower before that thing brings it down on our heads,” Ulfric yelled.
There was just one other way out – up the circular stairway to the top of the tower, then somehow down the other side. Ralof had the same idea. “Quick, up the stairs!” I followed him.
Another fighter was farther up the stairwell, trying to clear some rubble. He was there above us at one moment, and then the wall exploded inwards and he was gone. Fire filled the empty space, its heat forcing Ralof backward into the Stormcloaks below. Yet while the blast set Ralof’s cuirass to smoldering and singed his eyebrows, it had less effect on me. I felt warmth and that was all.
When the flame and smoke cleared I found myself looking through a hole in the tower wall, directly at the dragon. For the second time, it seemed as if he had singled me out. We held that gaze for a long moment, and I felt a sense of recognition. Deep in my memory there seemed to be something about dragons, and not from the books I had read as a child. The dragon seemed to recognize something about me too. Or maybe I was just imagining that. By all rights, that was the second time I should have died that day. It could have easily reached in with its powerful jaws and snapped me in two. Yet the dragon just flew away, off to find other prey.
The way upward was now blocked. “Through the hole, lass,” Ralof shouted. “Jump down through that gap in the roof of the inn.” I looked doubtfully below me. It was a dozen-foot drop through broken rafters onto the inn’s second floor – that was dangerous enough in itself. But worse, flames licked here and there at its timbers. There was no telling what I would find on the ground floor – a way out or a wall of flames.
I stepped into the opening in the wall and did my best to aim my jump into the hole in the roof. I dropped through the rafters, then tucked and rolled as I hit the floor. I came to rest against a shattered wall and lay there for a moment, expecting the Stormcloaks to follow. But when I looked back at the tower, everything was obscured by smoke. Fool, I thought. That was just their way of getting you out of the way. They didn’t want a lass slowing them down. They had probably found some way out of the tower and over the wall by now.
I began to cough, and I knew I had to get out of the building. The stairs leading down to the first floor were a blasted tangle of splinters and protruding nails. I roamed the second floor, looking for an escape as the smoke grew worse. Finally I found a wide opening in the floorboards with clear space below. Another drop and roll and I was running outside, onto the roadway where we had entered the village.
Helgen had become a scene of carnage. Broken, charred bodies lay scattered amid the wreckage of houses and carts. The gray stone walls of the town and much of the keep were still standing, but the dragon was doing its best to smash it all to bits. From somewhere behind me the dragon was roaring, then he swooped down, scooping up a fleeing Imperial soldier in his talons. Like a giant cat playing with a mouse, the dragon threw the soldier into the air. The man screamed as he cartwheeled through space, then went silent as he hit a buttress with a clank of armor and dropped to the ground.
“Prisoner, over here!” It was Hadvar, shouting at me from across the village street. I noticed he no longer had his list. “Run for it! You won’t get another chance.” I hesitated. It seemed ludicrous to follow one of the people who had almost killed me, but I saw no other choice. I didn’t know Helgen, and I was disoriented. Hadvar at least seemed to know where he was going. “This way! We have to get into the tunnels below the keep!” I followed.
As we passed through an alley between two buildings, the dragon landed on the wall above us. His body blotted out the sky, and one great talon clasped the wall not a yard in front of me. It looked razor-sharp, the skin around it ornately scaled. But he paid no attention to us, aiming a blast of fire at someone beyond us on the other side of the building. Then he flew off. As we rounded the building, I saw his victim, an unfortunate soldier lying crumpled and burnt.
Death – in half an hour I had seen more than most would in a lifetime, and the dragon showed no sign of ending its reign of carnage any time soon. But our way forward was clear.
Stepping over the fallen soldier, we found ourselves in the space in front of the town gate. It was closed. General Tullius was there, along with several Imperial soldiers. One of them was a mage, and he was aiming fireball spells at the dragon, to little effect. “Into the keep, soldier,” Tullius yelled. “We’ll regroup there for another assault on this monster.” Once again, I had no choice but to follow Hadvar, much as I had hoped the gate would lead to freedom.
I tried to keep up with Hadvar as we passed through an archway into the north courtyard of the keep, but it was difficult with my hands still bound in front of me. Now Ralof, the Stormcloak, came running up, making for the keep as well. He had found an axe somewhere.
Hadvar confronted him. “Ralof, you damned traitor, drop that axe and get into the keep!”
Ralof brandished his weapon. “You’re not taking me prisoner again, Hadvar. We’re escaping.”
For one foolish moment I thought these two might put aside their differences and work together to escape the dragon. But it was not to be. “Fine,” said Hadvar, “may the dragon gnaw your bones.” He seemed resigned to letting Ralof go. “Prisoner, the barracks are through here.”
Ralof headed to a different door, beckoning me to follow. “Come on, this way, into the keep!”
Just then, the dragon landed in the courtyard near us and spoke in a language none of us could understand. “Pahlok joorre!” His voice rumbled and shook the ground, and he snapped his razor-sharp fangs at us as he spoke. “Hin kah fen kos bonaar.”
We stood there, speechless, for a moment. Then the dragon was drawing breath and Ralof and Hadvar were running for different doors. There was no time to choose between them, yet I found myself running after Ralof, the one who hadn’t tried to kill me that day.