Several days later, I walked with Rynhildr down the road heading North, as that was the way we would get to the island Rynhildr had mentioned would be safe. “All we’ve got to do is get to Dragonbridge. Then we can have as much food as you want, how does that sound?” she said after I told her I was hungry.
“How much farther is Dragonbridge?” I asked.
“We’ll be there before dark, probably. Hopefully,” she said, though she didn’t sound very hopeful. It was late in the afternoon, then, and my the growls emanating from by stomach were beginning to feel uncomfortable.
As my stomach made its nagging presence felt once more, I asked Rynhildr in an overly whiny voice, “How much farther is it?”
“Do you want me to carry you? Is that it? Or are you genuinely tired,” she said, stopping.
“I’m sorry,” I said meekly at her irritated tone. Her voice just made me want to stop complaining.
“It’s alright. C’mon. Let’s get moving; we’re almost there.” Rynhildr grabbed my hand and led me at an easy run down the paved road a bit more. We ran for a couple minutes before we rounded a bend and Rynhildr shouted, “There it is! The dragon bridge!” pointing at said bridge.
“Yay!” I shouted, too, and Rynhildr chuckled for a moment. I took off running for the impressive stone bridge. “It’s so amazing!” I called, looking back at her, gesturing at the dragon shaped stone canopy overhead while she walked towards me. I looked over at her and saw her smile, but it seemed wrong. As though she wasn’t truly happy. When she was a few feet away from me I said, “What’s wrong.”
“I’m just missing someone is all,” she said. “Look,” she said, pointing at the river below. The sunset glittered on the water while she said, “Isn’t that beautiful?”
“It’s pretty,” I said. I kept staring at the light dance across the water for another couple minutes, nearly forgetting my hunger before my stomach growled, painfully this time.
Rynhildr tugged at my ragged shirt and led me into town, saying, “Let’s get some food in that complaining belly.”
“Sounds great,” I said and held her hand as she and I walked warily past the Stormcloak guards toward the inn.
“Just came from the Reach, hm?” one of the guards asked Rynhildr. She kept her head down and nodded. “Yeah, we’ve had a pretty big influx of refugees from the hold lately. Though, there haven’t been any in around a month. What happened?”
“You know exactly what happened,” Rynhildr growled and brushed past him. She sounded surprisingly frightening as I was used to hearing a seemingly magically beautiful voice from her. “Come on,” she said and tugged my arm, leading me to the inn. We left the helmeted guard behind and somewhat confused. As Rynhildr pushed open the door to the inn, the warm smell of baking bread gusted out, comforting me from the frigid air. We walked in and Rynhildr shut the door quickly while I gazed in amazement at the huge hearthfire in the center of the commons. “Why don’t you go take a seat by the fire?” she told me and headed to the bar. I obediently took a seat by an greying man holding his hands out to the fire. His forearms were laced with scars and the odd shape and broken veins in his nose suggested that his nose had been broken more than once. The notches on the axe on his waist and the suggested that he was a regular fighter as well.
“You hungry, boy?” he asked, glancing in my direction.
“Yes,” I said.
“Well, I’m not giving any handouts,” he said and returned to his silence. Several moments later he turned sharply towards me, making me jump out of my chair instinctively. “Aren’t you going to beg?” he said.
“No. I don’t beg, and Rynhildr - my mom - is getting me some food. So you don’t need to be rude,” I said. It felt awkward calling Rynhildr mother, but it was what she had told me to do. She had said that it would keep us safer.
“Well, it’s good that you’ll be getting some food. Which one’s your mother?”
“The woman in purple,” I said. “In fact, she’s bringing some food over now.”
He looked over his shoulder to where I had nodded, seeing Rynhildr striding over carrying bread and cheese. Her face was covered in shadow by her hood and he said darkly, “What does she do for money?”
“I hunt,” she said, stepping forward.
“If you’re a hunter, why the cloak?” he asked skeptically.
“Skyrim’s a dangerous place, and I’m good with magic. This helps, not to mention it usually keeps people from asking too many questions,” Rynhildr said.
“I’m sorry. I like asking questions. Why are you being so standoffish towards them?” he asked, standing. He drummed his fingers on the shaft of his axe. I saw that he was a couple inches taller than her, but only a couple, and while I had seen Rynhildr both angry and frightened, I didn’t want some poor stranger to meet a stupid, sticky end.
“Hey, settle down, sir,” I said, and the man looked at me. It was apparent that he was trying to intimidate me, and so his gaze wasn’t as frightening as the prey he was used to. “It really might be in your best interest to take a seat,” I said deliberately. He sighed and sat.
“I apologize. I’ve had a bad time lately,” he said.
“Well, that we’ve both had,” she said and sat down next to me, on the other side of the scarred man. She handed me a heel of bread and a chunk of cheese. I thanked her and started eating ravenously. I glanced over and saw that the man was still fuming beneath his brow.
“So, what’s your name?” I asked him, trying to put him more at ease.
“Why must you know?” he asked.
“I just thought that, since we got off on the wrong foot, we can try to make conversation a bit less tense.” I glanced over to Rynhildr while saying this, seeing her nodding.
“I’d prefer to leave my name alone,” he said, stretching his hands back towards the fire.
“Why are you being standoffish to my questions now?” I asked.
“Look, I’m not going to tell you my name. I’ve got a bit of a reputation.”
“I understand that sentiment,” Rynhildr said. “I knew someone that everyone knew. He would wear a disguise a lot,” Rynhildr said, her tone sounding bittersweet.
“Yeah? Who?” the man asked.
“It doesn’t matter. He’s dead now.” I stopped chewing for a moment, surprised at how forthright my friend was being.
We sat in silence for several minutes more before the man began speaking again, saying, “You two are from the Reach? I don’t mean to say you’re Forsworn, but you were staying there for a while?”
“How do you know?” I asked.
“Well, you look tired, and it was pretty obvious that you hadn’t eaten in a while, so you’re either refugees or travellers with poor planning ability. I’ve got a room if you don’t have the money to pay for one,” the old man said.
“Well, if we’re going to sleep your same room you’ve got to tell us your name,” Rynhildr said.
“If you insist, it’s Vorstag. Just don’t go spreading it around,” the old man said.
“Thank you, sir,” Rynhildr said before looking to me and saying, “Are you still hungry?”
“No,” I said, though I felt hungry, I knew in a couple of minutes I wouldn’t be anymore. “Are you?” I asked her.
“No, but thanks,” Rynhildr said.
“What are your names? Now that I know yours.”
“I’m Alrend,” I told him. Rynhildr glanced at me a moment, and told him her name.
Vorstag showed us to his bedroom after we had said this to each other. It was a small room, with a single bed against one wall, and a chair pushed up against the small table on the other side. “Welcome,” he said in a sarcastic tone, opening his arms wide. “If you want, your boy can sleep with me. Or you can share the floor.”
“It’s up to you, Alrend,” Rynhildr told me. I looked to Vorstag and found him scowling. I looked to Rynhildr and found that I couldn’t read what she was thinking, save that her brows were knitted, as much as they could be.
“I’m going to sleep with mother,” I said and the man relaxed his shoulders a bit. The floor was hard and cold, but with Rynhildr next to me in her robe, it wasn’t as bad as it could have been, as she wrapped me in her arms and held me close. It was very difficult to fall asleep, especially as I could see Vorstag watching us, even though I couldn’t tell if his eyes were open or not.
I awoke before anyone else, and when I stirred to get up, Rynhildr pulled me tight. I tried to squirm my way out of her arms, but I saw her good eye open before the other one and she said, “No, no, no, no, no, not again.” At the time I thought it was my heart beating in my ears, but I heard a sound similar to the sound Rynhildr’s blade made when she fought the Hagraven, but impossibly loud.
Rynhildr gulped and stood up, and I heard screams outside through the wall. “What’s going on?” Vorstag muttered from the bed. I sat against the bed as Rynhildr took off her cloak wrapped around her, revealing the roughspun and scars underneath. She laid it spread out on the table by the wall, and I saw several pockets sewn into the inside. I saw the sheath that she kept her long knife in as well, but the thing that stood out was the sheathed sword strapped into the inside of the back of the cloak. As Rynhildr unclasped the straps holding it there, I saw that the handle was longer than most swords I had seen before, and the crossguard was circular around the handle. It was made of something a similar color to tarnished gold and had ornate dragons etched into it. The handle had leather crisscrossing it in a manner that was unusual to me. The sheath was simple black leather wrapped around wood, and judging from the sheath the blade was about four feet in length.
Outside, I heard muffled shouts from people, followed by a screech like a sword against a grindstone, but so loud that I fell to my knees and covered my ears, though I saw that Rynhildr seemed unaffected. She placed the blade on the table beside her cloak before wrapped herself up in it again as the screeching continued. By the time it stopped, Rynhildr had it around herself again. When the screech stopped, she said, “A dragon is attacking Dragonbridge,” in a humorless tone. She grabbed the sword by the scabbard just below the hilt and left the room in a few quick strides. I followed her, and I heard Vorstag curse before he did the same.
We both followed Rynhildr outside where we found a terrifying scene. A huge plume of black smoke was rising from the watchtower to the north, as well as the little guards’ hut in the town. I saw someone that looked like they had been dropped from several hundred feet in the air on the ground, and several buildings were collapsed entirely. The great, bronze dragon was perched on top of the grand stone bridge, five foot long jaw chewing lazily and dripping blood. The wings were folded up against its body, and thick scales covered the entirety of its body. Its eyes were a half a foot across, and arrows slammed into it from a couple of guards in the street, but it didn’t notice. Rynhildr ran past them, saying, “Run, you fools!” in a commanding voice. They didn’t hesitate in looping their bows around their bodies and bolting in the opposite direction, though Vorstag and I continued following her. The screams were more clear to be heard out there, and hundreds of people were running in the street in front of the inn. Rynhildr bulled through them with a strength that I didn’t know she had, and it was all I could do to stay in her wake to avoid being trampled. In truth, I was frightened out of my wits, and I wanted to stay out of the river of people, as that was the most immediate threat. I tried to cast mage armor about myself whilst running, but found that I couldn’t focus enough to do so.
Rynhildr, Vorstag and I ran for perhaps fifty yards before the dragon unfurled its wings to their two hundred foot length and craned its neck. The beast itself couldn’t have been more than sixty feet long, but the wings made it far more massive than I could have known. All the same, Rynhildr pushed on fearlessly. With a massive whirlwind of sound, the dragon leapt into the air, and Rynhildr stopped dead in her tracks so that I almost ran into her. Then, she Shouted, saying, “MUL QAH DIIV,” impossibly loud. I stepped back, startled, and watched a glowing gold light surround her, giving her scales and horns in the shape of a glowing cuirass and helmet.
The dragon above us looked down sharply and Shouted three words, like the words Rynhildr shouted, though by the third word it had turned into a piercing shriek, and fire rained down from its mouth. Rynhildr reached behind her and pulled me close to her before saying in a voice that resonated with power to cover my ears. Then she wrapped her cloak around me and I did as I was told, leaning my head down so that my injured arm might cover my ear more easily. Heat bore down on me, intensity growing by the second until it was painful, then grew further. I screamed, in fear more than in pain, and it subsided all at once. Through my covered ears, I heard screams from all around me, blood curdling noises, and I smelled charred flesh. Then the screams stopped, and I no longer heard the stampeding feet of the crowd running around us.
I uncovered my ears and opened my squeezed shut eyes slowly, and, only seeing the dark inside of Rynhildr’s cloak, for a moment I thought myself dead. Then Rynhildr leaned down and said in that same, frightening voice, “Don’t look, child.” I heard her Shout again, this time saying the words, “JOOR ZAH FRUL,” in that impossibly loud voice of hers. I felt her let go of me then, but I didn’t look, just as she had asked. I both wanted to watch her fight, and at the same time was scared of what I would find when I did open my eyes. My sense of smell was scaring me enough.
I stayed curled in a ball as I felt the vibrations of the dragon landing, and the heat of the dragonflame. I heard Rynhildr shouting and Shouting as she fought, and the screeching of the dragon breathing flame, but I didn’t look. I heard the dragon’s wings whip around, but they didn’t beat as they did when he was taking off. The dragon’s jaws snapped, and it bellowed so loud that I pressed my hands into my ears, and by the time the dragon was done screeching, my right ear was ringing. My head stopped vibrating a moment later. I took my hands gingerly off my ears and the sounds of battle stopped all at once before a chilly wind blew through. All this happened over the span of perhaps a minute, though it could not have been more than two. All I heard afterward was crunching footsteps approaching me and crackling flames. “Alrend, do not be frightened. The dragon is dead,” I heard Rynhildr say in her normal, calming voice, though it was hoarse. I started to relax my squeezed shut eyes and she said, “Stop. Don’t open your eyes yet; there are still horrors around us.” She picked me up with an arm and started walking away.
As we walked for a minute, I opened my eyes a bit and saw first the sword that Rynhildr was hanging in her hand by her side. The blade was caked in gore, but even through that I could feel the power it radiated. The sheath was nowhere to be seen, but I wasn’t concerned with that as there were horrifically burned people all around us, as well as piles of simple ash. The buildings on either side of the street were either razed entirely or ablaze with a fire more intense than a fire had any right to be. I saw the bones of the dragon, and the blood splashed on the ground all around it. There were scratches on the skull where Rynhildr’s sword had cut. I had only opened my eyes for a split second before I closed them again, tighter than I knew I could.
I felt tears rising in my eyes, and as I told myself that a true Nord doesn’t cry, I thought of my dead parents and a sob escaped from my throat. I tried to keep my face from turning into that dumb shape that it always did when I cried and I tried to forget the way my father carried me like this, one armed, when I twisted my knee falling off the wagon to the city. I tried to forget the way my mother felt warm against me when I was smaller and I slept in her bed. I tried to forget the way that the soreness in my arms from squeezing my ear shut felt like how it had holding up a makeshift shield when practicing with my father. Most of all I tried to forget how the scent of burnt flesh smelled almost exactly how my father had burnt the bacon the day of my sixth birthday.
I must have sobbed silently with my eyes squeezed shut for a half hour before I tried to speak, but I couldn’t even produce a whisper. Rynhildr must have seen my mouth moving, though, and she said in a small voice, “What is it, Alrend?”
“Did you open your eyes?” I nodded and she squeezed me lightly. “I’m sorry. No child should have to see that, but we aren’t done yet. We’re out of Dragonbridge, but we need to keep moving.”
I let my eyes open and saw that we were on the road. I looked around, squinting in the light. “Where’s Vorstag?” I asked.
Rynhildr’s mouth opened slightly and a kind of choking sound came out. I blinked out another tear for the gruff, old man that had let us share a room with him. “I don’t think he made it out,” she whispered and I gulped back the pain in my throat that would precede a sob.
“I think I can walk, now,” I told her and she stopped before slowly letting me down. I looked behind her and said, “Rynhildr, are we being chased?”
“Yes, we are. If they catch us, I don’t want you to fight them.”
“Why not? We could kill all of them,” I said.
“I don’t want you to get hurt, and they think that what they’re doing is justice. Maybe it is.”
“Rynhildr? There’s something wrong with your neck,” I said, seeing an angry red mark across it. She sucked in her lips.
“Yes, there is.” We walked in silence for a moment. I looked around again and saw pines all around us, blanketing either side of the road. I remembered the symbol of Haafingar, the border of which we were crossing now, the wolf. I imagined wolves waiting in those woods to pounce out on us at any moment. I thought about wolves for perhaps another half hour, then we rounded a bend in the road and stopped dead.
A group of eight Thalmor in their ornate, golden armor was marching in our direction, a group of about ten. I could only imagine how we might have looked, a woman in a shadowy cloak wielding a bloody sword and a crippled boy with a splotchy, teary face. Rynhildr cursed, but I bared my teeth and focused. One of them didn’t hesitate to fling a bolt of green magic my way, but I had enough of a ward up by then to stop it. With my deadened arm at my hip, I cast a blast of fire their way, but they were unaffected as it dissipated against a golden breastplate. They had all bared their blades by then and five were charging with wards up while three hung back and cast spells at Rynhildr, who was a whirlwind of purple and blood. She had dispatched of three with her sword, cutting through their armor as though it were butter, decapitating one, cutting another near in half and spitting a third on her sword. Then the fourth elf smacked her shoulder with a mace and she cried out, clutching it.
She was slowed, then, and I could scarcely focus enough to keep up my ward. She kept their blades off of her, but only scarcely, and her hood was knocked off her head by the exertion. Then one of them was swinging an axe at her now exposed head and I felt what I knew to be magic surging through me. It didn’t feel emotional, as the fire did, but cold, and lightning extended from my fingertips and stretched out to the elf swinging the axe. I saw the elf scream and spasm wildly, and I felt pity for him. It made me lose my focus, and the ward I had up vanished. Then I felt a blast hit my chest and a frightening cold instantly began to spread to my fingertips. I collapsed, and before I hit the ground, the feeling was gone. My eyes were frozen open, and I couldn’t feel the flow of magicka through my body. When I hit the ground, the wind was knocked out of me by a cobblestone in the road and I thought that I was dying. Then Rynhildr Shouted, “FUS RO DAH,” and I watched elves fly over my head where I lay.
I did nothing, but I heard the sounds of battle as well as the bloodcurdling screams of the other Thalmor and nausea filled my head, though my stomach couldn’t give action to my urge. Air filled my lungs again and I would have gasped, but my breath was moving as though I was asleep. It took me a moment before that pace of breathing was comfortable again, and by then the curses of the Thalmor being fought had all been turned into whimpers and screams of pain. I listened to the quiet sound of Rynhildr’s blade go through the dying elves before I heard her walk over to me. A couple minutes later I gasped air in again. I sat up and noticed the resistance of my crusty, dirty tunic against my chest and belly.
I looked around at the carnage around me, and immediately retched on the cobblestone. It was acidic, as I hadn’t eaten anything recently, so I didn’t vomit again. I struggled to my feet before I noticed Rynhildr lying in a crumpled, purple heap ten feet away from me, her sword on the ground a couple feet away from her. I approached her as quickly as I dared with my weak stomach. I turned her face up and found her scarred face contorted in pain as she clutched her belly underneath her cloak, her shallow breaths mixed with whimpers. I pulled the many folds of her cloak aside and found her hand covered in blood that was still spilling out. “Move your hands. I can’t help you unless you move your hand,” I said, pulling at it. She moved it shakily, and I swallowed back my bile at the sight of her intestines spilling out of her, black blood inside. I squeezed my eyes shut as tight as I possibly could, knowing that if I looked too long, I would faint.
I opened my eyes again and, before I could think about it, pushed in the guts that were coming out. She screamed and swung at me with a backhanded blow that I let hit me, though I did turn my face so that I wouldn’t be injured. It still stung, but it may have been worse if I hadn’t moved. I turned back to the wound that was little more than a slit across her belly now and summoned magic to my hands. I urged it out of my own body and into hers and watched as the flesh knitted itself together. Rynhildr screamed again and arched her back, but only for a moment and I continued healing her again. It was a horrible injury, and it took a couple minutes to heal, and by the time it was over, tears were running out of my eyes and Rynhildr had almost screamed herself hoarse. When it was done, I could feel her shivering as I wiped the blood away. “Thank you,” she said softly and I smiled at the sound of her voice.
“I’m tired,” I told her.
“We can’t stop now, though,” she said and sat up. her roughspun was rent apart and wet with blood now, and she wrapped her cloak around herself again. She shivered once more and I stood up. She looked at her bloody sword on the ground and frowned. She knelt and picked it up before saying, “I don’t think I’ll be able to keep it anymore. I left the scabbard back in Dragonbridge, and carrying a bloody sword up to the Solitude gate won’t look good.” She wiped it on the grass by the road before sticking it upright in the dirt. She took one of the daggers from one of the dead Elves and handed it to me in the sheath. “It’ll be good for you to have one. Just in case.” I took it from her with my left hand and nodded while struggling to attach it to my belt.
“Rynhildr, why didn’t you heal yourself?” I asked her, anxious to know.
She hesitated a moment before saying, “When you’re in enough pain, you can’t focus on magic enough to do anything with it. I’m truly lucky to have you with me, Alrend.”
“What would you have done if I wasn’t there?”
“I would have died.” It was this stark truth that she left me with as we continued on our walk in silence.
“So what are we going to do?”
“We are in Haafingar, and the guards from Dragonbridge are Haafingar guards. They will have sent a runner to Solitude, and the Legion will be combing the roads looking for us. Our best bet is to get to the island in the north of Haafingar.”
“How are we to do that?”
“There’s an old ferry that we can row. It is well north of Haafingar to get there, so we will need ample provisions. Furs, food, good water.”
“Right, seawater will make you mad.”
“Yes. We will have to get into Solitude to get these provisions. So we need to move quickly and get there before the runner, so they don’t know who we are.”
“Unless he’s already there. We might not have noticed him, or he might have stayed a little off the road.”
“If that’s the case, then I’m not sure what will happen. I’m never completely sure of what will happen.”
“We could sneak into Solitude. Pose as refugees from the Reach, like in Dragonbridge.”
“No, that won’t work. If the runner’s already gotten there, they’ll have descriptions of us, but you… You might be able to get in. I’m distinctive, but you’re only a ragged boy. If you play off the blood on you as a few scrapes gotten in running from Markarth. You’ll have to come up with a good story as to how you survived for this long.”“Don’t worry. I’m a good storyteller.”