Ingvar was right; Helgen was the place to sell all the salvaged armor pieces and even the ancient Akaviri stuff. Risky business, Tariq thought. The Dominion hated the Blades and would probably make trouble for anybody showing up in their armor unless the armor was extensively reworked into another style. But that wasn't his problem to worry about. Helgen was a military town, military families. It was neat, orderly, and the food and drink were better than in Falkreath. He was delighted to find one of the small eateries had some Redguard dishes and even a beer. Not the most exotic, high-end of dishes and drink, but hearty, distinctive street food fare. The chatty proprietor's wife was a junior officer who'd lived a time in Sentinel when her parents were stationed there before the Great War — and before relations between the Empire and Hammerfell soured. She liked the food, and he'd learned how to make it for her. The eatery was his business, offering delicious dishes for those who could afford an alternative to the bulk-cooked meals by the military cooks. Besides, his wife's junior officer's pay couldn't adequately cover for three ever-hungry teenage boys.
"Is there some sort of holy day festival to come?" asked Tariq. "There seems to be a lot of activity."
"Nope, no festival. Looks like new deployment orders." The man frowned, worried. "Or something coming in. You might want to finish your meal quickly. If we have to lock down in case of trouble …" Three boys ran in, babbling that a large column of soldiers was heading in, flying the standards of the 2nd Legion.
Obviously, not a scheduled visit. Tariq reluctantly gobbled down the meal he'd been looking forward to savoring. He and other patrons were soon on the street. Shops and other businesses around them were closing up. He spotted the proprietor exiting out a back way dressed in light leather armor. No weapons beyond a knife, so he was a civilian auxiliary.
He returned to the inn. They'd booked rooms on the second floor, and that level had a narrow balcony. Inn patrons were already gathering there. He found Argis and Ingvar there also.
"That's General Tullius's Legion," said Ingvar. "Must be important if he's left Solitude."
"Tullius?" asked Tariq.
"Knight-Protector Markus Cicero Tullius, General of the Third Legion. Assigned as the military governor after the death of High King Torygg. Torygg's widow, Elisif the Fair, has no ruling experience. Skyrim's High King is supposed to have a seat on the Elder Council, but, again, no experience — they'd eat her alive. And it's also too dangerous for her to leave Solitude. She's not even Skyrim born. High Rock. The Emperor sent him up here because he's one of the few Great War generals that can be trusted to maintain a civil, cooperative front with the Thalmor. And whom they can't buy. The Thalmor have invoked the Concordat and established a fortress outside of Solitude and an embassy within the city. Skyrim's his last assignment before retirement.
"Hope it doesn't break him," he added. "It surely ain't easy to keep peace in Skyrim while wearing the spiked choke collar of the Concordat. He's from Colovia, was a senior legate under General Decianus, served in Hammerfell until the Legions were called back, distinguished himself when Decianus's forces hid in the Colovial Highlands, promoted to general, and given his own command after the Battle of Red Ring.
"As far as Talos worship, Talos has been the patron of the Legion since his elevation to godhood. I don't know what god Tullius follows, but my impression is that he doesn't care what a legionnaire worships so long as it doesn't interfere with one's duty to the Legion."
This should be interesting; he was curious about this military governor. In another two hours, the gates of Helgen were opened wide to a column. Foot soldiers flooded in first. Most of the mounted forces milled outside, dismounting, before marching in. The ones that rode in were the top officers then. He saw the general in red and gold armor.
A group of four riders chased after the general. A Thalmor justiciar in black and gold robes and three glass-armored officers. They pushed their way to the general, who had already dismounted, forcing him to look up. And from her greater height, the justiciar appeared to be haranguing him.
"Yet he enforces the rule," he said.
Ingvar shrugged. "Aye. If people are stupid enough to worship openly and continue to do so even after being warned, he has no choice otherwise. A lot of my thick-headed countrymen can't seem to grasp that simple fact. A Thalmor catching a Talos worshiper gives no warning; it's immediate capture and, once they're out of sight of any witnesses, torture and execution."
An area was being cleared of market stalls. A headsman's block was put down. A large and hooded legionnaire set himself beside it, planting the butt of his massive ax between his feet. So, there were to be executions today. Ingvar was scowling at that.
"Ingvar?" Tariq prompted.
"This is not standard procedure. Summary executions aren't unusual in the midst of war. But I didn't think… Are we at that level already? I didn't think so. But if the foe surrenders… I don't like it. It feels rushed."
Tariq contemplated the presence of Thalmor. "The Thalmor aren't happy. It seems to me he's doing something that isn't making them happy. Strange. The elves are usually delighted to see any opposition mercilessly wiped out of existence."
Three wagons eventually entered, each hauling a half-dozen of warriors draped in blue colors. Ingvar tersely identified the color belonging to Eastmarch Hold. These were then Stormcloak rebels, Stormcloak being the name of the current prince of Eastmarch. Tariq recalled the gossip in Markarth and in Granite Hills about this prince. So, the Legion had captured this "Bear of Eastmarch."
A memory tricked from that elf Calcelmo's lecture from a Dwemer writing. Some fanciful phrase about the "roaring, snow-throated kings of Mora." That well explained the gag. So it wasn't a legend if the Legion was taking precautions. He also vaguely recalled someone saying that this prince could claim direct descent from their founding hero-king. Was this to be the end of a dynasty?
The inventory and arranging of the prisoners were dull to watch. The general's speech to Jarl Ulfric was a straightforward condemnation of the jarl's slaying of the high king. Tariq was feeling uneasy now. Something in the air? Strange. He could hear the horses outside the town making a racket. That wasn't natural. He ordered Argis to go see to their horses, lead them away from the Legion's stock. Some ignorant soldier might push other horses into the stall Cairo and Nimat shared, setting off Cairo's deadly temper. Argis wasn't happy to leave the viewing, but he obeyed.
Ingvar growled that proper protocol was not being followed. The jarl of a major hold should be brought to the Imperial City to face trial before the Emperor. But, for some reason, Tullius was invoking his ultimate authority as military governor and ordering immediate execution of royalty. Provincial, distant royalty, but royalty nonetheless. There would be repercussions; he would face personal penalties even if he could justify his actions before a judging panel of Elder Councilors.
The first prisoner was executed. Tariq was struck by the certainty of feeling that he'd seen all of this before. Tall Papa set markers for lost souls to follow to find their way to the Far Shores — inevitable events that the soul had to choose a direction. Most people ignored such feelings, and that was their choice. There was always the next winding of Satakal and, maybe, the opportunity to choose again; if the soul survived.
So, what was he going to do about this feeling, this premonition? The air seemed to vibrate.
No, not seemed; it was. He saw it gliding down from the surrounding mountains. Its roar cracked the winds and its form shimmered like it was ripping in from Oblivion.
After that, it was chaos. The prisoners escaped, the general ordered the town evacuated, and legionnaires put up valiant but ultimately ineffective resistance to the monster. This wasn't a simple animal. It breathed flames. It roared distinct words that summoned fiery rocks from the heavens that destroyed walls, houses, crushed and burned bodies. It gloated over the dying yet did not feed. Its words lingered in his mind, half-familiar, just out of understanding.
Tariq didn't have much time to think, just react. It was only much later that he could contemplate and assign his best guess of intentions.
He heard legionnaires repeating the general's orders for civilians and most forces to go into the tunnels beneath the city/fort. The general was leaving with the mounted troops, trying to draw the monster's attention away from the city, hoping the sight of fleeing prey would trigger a predator's chase instinct. The beast amused itself by giving chase, raising the hopes of those still above ground, but it all too soon circled back to Helgen. It went as far as to crash through the streets and partway into the tunnels. This was deliberate. This was unnatural.
Stormcloak prisoners were mixed in, but survival instincts against a common danger kept legionnaires and rebels from stupidly fighting. What few idiots they came across — primarily in the section through the torture cells — Ingvar and he separated with blows and curses.
Tariq recognized one of the young boys among the children being herded through. He didn't see the boy's siblings; he didn't see their father. A handful of elves were mixed in — escorted by their friends from any rebels with bad attitudes. He lost sight of them until he'd reached the large, last cavern where people were regrouping, and legionnaires were taking a rough role call of survivors. The elven group and two Legion medics had set up a hasty healing area.
Tariq saw one elf woman whose coat had the Falkreath badge on her shoulders. Was this the Falkreath steward?
"Nenya, how can I help?" he asked boldly, kneeling beside her. Her weary eyes blinked at him, trying to focus. She frowned. He was a stranger to her and rude to address her so familiarly.
"If you have medical skills, see to that lot over there," she said, jerking her chin to point to a group of visibly injured. "Wrap injuries. There are medicinal herbs in those barrels and boxes that we managed to save from our trade wagons but use sparingly, so we don't run out too quickly."
"Falkreath trade wagons?"
"No. As if it's any of your concern. My family had just brought them up from Bruma. Now, are you going to help or waste my time by asking me stupid questions?"
Ingvar also had medic training, so he and Ingvar wrapped up gashes, sewing where needed. Aligned and wrapped broken bones. Aside from the herbs, they had to create bandages from clothing and capes surrendered for that purpose, make splints from broken weapons or anything that others could scavenge. Others took care of the shocky ones and the hysterical ones. The Altmers and Legion healers took on the critical ones with massive bleeds and/or crushed organs, saving who they could or easing the last moments of the dying.
The cave entrance was roughly hidden by a clump of bushes. The rebels rushed out, and no one bothered to stop them. The legionnaires mustered volunteers to go out and try to find survivors in the surroundings and bring them in if they were injured. Some braved going back into the town above to gather who they could find. Tariq volunteered to go above ground. There were now other noncombatants present to treat the injured, and he and Ingvar felt they could be of more help searching for survivors. And tools. A villager led them to a collapsed smithy to salvage tools so that those in the cavern could begin trying to dig a hole back through the collapsed section to those trapped on the other side.
Argis found him once he was outside. It had been wise to send him to see to the horses. Cairo was about to be killed by the legionnaires because it had injured horses stabled too close and the soldiers who had tried to subdue it. Argis left the horses where he thought they would be safe. He had come back with Tariq's Dwemer armor, intuiting his thane would probably try to rescue people and needing his heavy armor for protection. Tariq borrowed a legion officer's helmet, thinking its crest would serve like the crest of a Dwemer helmet, which served to deflect overhead falling rubble. He wrapped three layers of a water-soaked cloth around his head helm to filter smoke and other particles. The helm helped to hold the barrier a little off his face for easier breathing. Then he went into the burning buildings with a sturdy shaft to use as a lever and began creating a passage for others with shovels and buckets of water.
More volunteers were permitted out to help when the dragon had finally left.
The Legion officers planned to take all the survivors to Falkreath, but met surprising resistance by the steward of Falkreath.
"Go ahead and alert Legate Skulnar, but don't expect much. His people are already stretched thin doing basic hold security. And don't expect much from the jarl," she told the appalled civilians. "I hate to say this, but if you can make it, go to Riverwood and in Whiterun's territory. Send a runner to Whiterun and beg protection. Jarl Balgruuf will send troops and aid. You'll also be safer from all the robber bands that will be gathering to loot everything they can from Helgen once they figure it's empty enough. Tribune Andretti?" she appealed to an officer whose broken shoulder Tariq had set.
"She's right," said Andretti to the officers from Solitude. "I have to report to Legate Skulnar. But I'd appreciate your help in escorting our civilians, our families, into Whiterun or to Pale Pass. Maybe Legate Varo at Pale Pass might be able to muster any spare men to help us dig out the rubble."
"What's wrong with Falkreath?"
Nenya sighed, looking ashamed. "There will be no charity offered. Instead, any food or clothing received from the jarl will be considered a debt. Those who are fit to work will be put to work, receiving nothing until they repay this debt."
"You must be jesting," accused the Solitude officers.
"Most in Falkreath have only enough to support themselves. But many will willingly help with what little they have. It will take me longer to solicit such charity from the few nobles that still live in the hold. Most are absentee landowners who prefer to live in Whiterun, Solitude, or Bruma. There will be no help from them."
"All right. We'll help escort, but then we must immediately report back to Solitude."
But by morning, a squadron from the 3rd Legion returned to look for survivors. A smaller group with all the unit's mages and healers, and on foot. General Tullius had doubled back after the luring attempted had failed. He'd dispersed most of the mounted troops to try to follow the dragon and to warn the neighboring holds of this attack. Another force was scouring the surrounding area to try to recapture the rebels and Jarl Ulfric. And another was already at Fort Pale Pass to draw equipment and extra men and supplies. That helped. The Legion set up tents in the mustering yard and the town center. Three days, and already patrols were reporting a gathering of robbers in the surrounding forest. Ingvar reported in for duty as an auxiliary legionnaire. Tariq and Argis joined him and his patrol to engage the more aggressive robbers, and Tariq tracked the bolder necromancers.
There was a pleasant surprise for Ingvar. On one of the patrols, they met up with Companions who started traveling to Falkreath as soon as word of the attack had reached Whiterun. There was his cousin Aela, a senior warrior Skjor, and Ria, who squealed happily at the sight of Tariq and held her arms wide for a hug. He laughed as he caught her up. She flooded him with questions about the dragon; where was Vorstag? How were the horses? … until Skjor barked at her to settle down. Tariq was quite aware of the appraising study of Aela and Skjor. He was making his own judgments as he stared back at them. His eyes did narrow a bit as he wondered why Aela wore the armor he'd seen on draugrs. She was an archer and probably didn't need the full, heavy armor that Skjor wore. Still, why draugr?
An escort took the Helgen legion officers to report to Legate Skulnar. Nenya went with them to report to the jarl and then muster what funds she could from Falkreath villagers. The escort came back the next day with Runil, who immediately set to his duties as a priest of Arkay; Lod and his apprentice, who took over the remains of the smithy and began making repairs to broken tools; and Thadgeir, who brought fresh supplies purchased with funds he and his brother had on hand.
Thadgeir dryly confirmed that Siddgeir was eager to take in refugees so that they could immediately begin mining silver to repay his generosity. He had no plans to rebuild Helgen. Though he'd collected land taxes and mercantile taxes from the town, he saw it as a Legion post and, therefore, Legion's responsibility to rebuild it. Helgen was a dead town, destined to be another robbers' den. It was short-sighted of him, but he had already decreed that Helgen was to be abandoned. Perhaps the nobility might override him if they cared to come back to Falkreath, but it would take time to contact them all and convince them to act. And even if they did override the jarl, they knew the jarl would do nothing, and one or more of them would have to sacrifice their comfort to stay and do all the work of trying to organize the hold's resources, which would be near impossible with the jarl refusing support. Not unless someone wanted to challenge the jarl for his station, and no one wanted to be saddled with the mess the jarl had made of the hold, nor sacrifice their personal wealth to provide the seed money to finance all the improvements that had to be made.
In old times of chaos before the Septims, a nearby hold could have conquered Falkreath. But in this era, such a war for land would not be permitted. And right now, the only neighboring hold with the resources to take and govern Falkreath would be Whiterun.
"This is a fucking embarrassment," said Ingvar when Tariq found him later. He'd stormed off after hearing all Thadgeir had to say about Falkreath. "How? How could the lords be so lazy, so indifferent as to let a greedy, backstabbing, rapacious coward ascend to become jarl?"
"Thalmor needed easy access, so they bought a worm of a candidate and eased his way in with copious gold and promoted a smear campaign to undermine Jarl Dengeir's authority and sanity," said Tariq, shrugging. Nenya had been quite informative once she'd learned he'd earned the trust of Calcelmo of Markarth, and he also knew Runil's secret and was keeping it confidential."
"Any challengers will probably be assassinated. Accidents will be arranged, or the Thalmor may send their own shadow blades. This means any serious challengers will need to build wealth and reputation and travel about to court the support of the major landholders. They won't be of any substantive support except for their votes. But, then, as Nenya explained it to me, their verbal support is all that's needed for the High King, or Queen, to legitimize and clear the way for the challenger to fight Siddgeir and take his crown away from him."
"Huh," said Ingvar. He got to his second tankard and choked halfway through it. "Why are you telling me this? You thinking I should … I'm a minor land holder, not even a thane."
"Ah," said Tariq blandly. "Well, if there's a Falkreath after the Second Great War, the next puppet jarl might have the motivation to beg funds from the Dominion masters."
Ingvar resumed drinking. Two more swallows. "Right. And you said you came to Skyrim to learn more sword techniques and to see what the Dominion was up to."
"It might not be too hard to make thane. Just ditch my pride and morals under rock somewhere and suck up to him, make it seem I'm willing to do his dirty work."
"You do have a useful advantage," said Tariq. "Legion. I'm sure Legate Skulnar has a list of dangers he can't afford to take care of because he is already stretched to do security patrols and mandatory escort of major trade or diplomats traveling in and out of Falkreath. The jarl won't hire mercenaries or bounty hunters or people like your cousin, the Companions, to deal with these dangers. Offer to take care of these things. If no fee is offered, ask the jarl for indulgences. You have returned, after all, to rebuild your family's homestead. You'll take care of problems if your taxes will be considered paid for the year or however many years you can negotiate. And like the Bloodlet throne, you be allowed to take payment with the right to take as much as you can carry, and the rest for him as his after-pickers can find.
"I'm sure some of these problems are on the properties of absentee landholders. That gives you the opportunity and introduction you need to contact them, tell them who you are, tell them what problems you are taking care of for them. Get your name known to them as a loyal son of Falkreath who wants to see the hold bettered. If some of them are cronies of the jarl, and they report you to him, say that you're used to Cyrodiil landowners, who like their paperwork and reports as much as the Legion."
"You make it sound damn simple. I think I'm a good fighter, but I'm not good enough to take on large robber bands and necromancers and other monsters by myself."
"I'll help you. And why not see if your cousin is willing to help for the sake of family ties. She's told us she doesn't have much to do with the family property because she's happier in Whiterun and with the Companions, and she's dedicated to them. But you care for the land and for family. Is there something left? And it's not as if she also won't have the opportunity to pick up something for her payment."
"You'll have better success to make thane if you sweeten the deal," Thadgeir said gruffly, coming up behind them with another pitcher of mead. The two men scooted closer together to make room for him. He looked hard at Tariq.
"News about you has caught up to us in Falkreath. News from the Granite Hills legion post, your participation in driving out the Forsworn. Also, your title as Thane of Markarth for other daring actions against the Forsworn and cult cannibals. He'll be delighted to have you exercise your craft if it costs him nothing but an empty title or two titles. Two idealistic fools he can use to solve problems and who demand no payments because they have ideals. And you won't cause him trouble because you, Ingvar, are such an idealistic Legion soldier that you're helping Legate Skulnar out with problems he's been pestering the jarl to do something about. And you, Tariq, you're just helping a friend. It's not like you want any political power or other responsibility beyond something practice your sword skills on, according to rumors from Markarth. Any glory the two of you achieve will reflect well on him for finding two champions." His grin had a bitter edge to it. "If he has any worries, it would be you, Ingvar. A Nord idealist. But if he thinks you're pro-Legion, then surely you wouldn't become so ambitious. You respect hierarchy, right? Chain of command. He's officially a pro-Empire man, unlike his uncle, the former jarl, a sad old man going senile and praising the rebellion of Jarl Ufric. That must mean you support his authority."
Thadgeir abruptly stood up. "You can have the rest of the pitcher. It's been a long day for an old man like me, so I'll seek an early bed. I'm sure you young bucks have more interesting things to discuss."
"This is utter madness," pronounced Ingvar, pouring out the last of the pitcher.
"I've done worse," admitted Tariq.
… … … … … … …
Jarl Siddgeir wanted a robber band eliminated. They hadn't been paying the cut of the spoils they owed him. They were beyond tardy with their rent. Whatever the facade of a reason, he wanted them gone so that another more properly appreciative tenant could move in and set up and start making a profit.
Legate Skulnar would also appreciate it if something could be done about the necromancers in Sunderstone Gorge. In particular, he suspected a Legion courier had been captured along with vital reports the legate needed.
Ingvar had persuaded his cousin Aela to help him. It didn't hurt that Ria was willing to throw her talents in free of charge. And the old veteran Skjor also joined in. He made it clear he was evaluating Tariq. Ria had been telling everyone, as soon as she and Njada had gotten back from their Markarth assignment, about the tall Redguard claiming to be a sword-singer hero interested in joining the Companions.
The jarl's late-paying robbers were barely a problem for the six of them. They each took a few choice items and let the jarl's men, who followed them and then hidden outside until the fighting was done, take the rest.
On the way to Sunderstone Gorge, Tariq shared experiences with the Companions on successful strategies with mages and necromancers and undead. Skjor remarked that Ash'abah methods seemed unnecessarily elaborate. Solid steel was good enough, preferably Skyforge steel, and no fancy prayers or limp-wristed tricks with spells.
Tariq smiled tightly and agreed that a good weapon and technique were the necessary basis for winning battles. "But do not disparage the Ash'abah in my hearing again," he warned Skjor in gentle tones. "Every magic, except necromancy, has its place in creation."
"You didn't beat your Left-Hand Elves with magic alone, sword-singer" Skjor retorted.
"The ultimate goal of any sword-singer is to become Ansei," he said. "No steel, but spirit alone." They didn't understand, and he wasn't of a mind to try to explain it to them. They didn't want to understand anyway.
"You mean strength of spirit," said Skjor in a strangely self-satisfied tone. "Yes, a highly desirable goal. No magic, not even a sword, just your strength alone." He shared a grin with Aela.
Aela's skill with the bow made her a deadly sneak assassin, although Tariq would never phrase it that way to her. It was still vague dishonorable, though, to strike from afar like that, giving a warrior no chance at defense. But, then, these were necromancers and didn't warrant honorable warfare. She took out who she could and set off oil-pot firetraps or triggered pressure plate traps. Once traps were revealed, the rest of them would rush in and cut down anything still moving.
He had to admit Skjor seemed to have an unusual resistance to the destructive magics flung at him. His full-plate armor with the wolf motif did not seem to be enchanted with any resistances as Tariq's own Dwemer armor was. Something else he noticed. The Nords had that racial gift of Warcry, a sort of fear or route spell. The three Nords had agreed on timing since it was a gift that could only be used once a day. Ingvar used his shout in one chamber to route spellswords out of hiding. Skjor and Aela used theirs in later areas with necromancers. Tariq heard a distinct difference between Ingvar and the Companions, the latter sounding more powerful, more drawn out. Ingvar was the roar of an angry bear and the Companions, the howls of hungry wolves.
Interesting. But then, people that fought together often started sounding and/or moving alike — a pack mentality that overtook any tight-knit unit. The type of invaluable bonding that made a ragtag group of soldiers into a unit animal. Skjor and Aela were senior members of the Companions and moved alike. Young Ria had only two years' experience, and she hadn't yet assimilated the same flow of movement. Of course, as an Imperial, her voice would never reverberate as theirs did. The Imperial talent was for calm. Voice of the Emperor, it was called, a voice of reason.
In the final grand chamber, there was another strange wall with writing that drew Tariq's attention. There was that same chanting, that same inexplicable momentary loss of time, loss of awareness. He visibly shook in irritation. What was it about these edifices that bewitched him? He was minded of a Breton phrase: "Toor de force," meaning some sort of impressive or overwhelming display. Now, why was he thinking of that?
"This is pretty," commented Ingvar, picking up a golden box with a large, pretty pink gem. Many treasures lay about as well as in a large chest. There was also an enchantments table here. Off to the left, behind iron bars, was another room with a potions table, a supply of alchemy ingredients, and a sizable stack of silver ingots. That made sense. As they'd come through these tunnels, they'd seen the veins of silver and signs of active mining. The amount of silver here was more than enough to cover the fees of three Companions, enough for Ingvar to start on repairing his property. And Tariq would send his share back to Markarth.
Tariq suggested collapsing the Sunderstone entrance. The jarl already had conscripts slaving away at the Bloodlet Throne; no need to send more poor people to labor in the depths of this cave. Ingvar agreed. The Companions shrugged and took their leave. They were warriors, after all, not miners. They wouldn't be telling Jarl Siddgeir of the silver still inside.
Getting himself and Ingvar declared Falkreath's newest thanes was easy enough once they'd presented the jarl with the robber leader's head. And they had Skulnar's support after giving him the missing packet of reports. And then there were the approvals of Nenya, Runil, Argis's family, and the jarl's uncle Thadgeir. Jarl Siddgeir smugly declared them his thanes and offered them the opportunity to purchase more land. There was only one housecarl currently available, which Tariq insisted be assigned to Ingvar as he already had a housecarl and didn't need another.
Whom he would be sending back to Markarth to deliver his share of silver to Vlindrel Hall. He didn't trust anybody else to do it. And while Argis was traveling, he'd stay in Falkreath and go along with Ingvar to look over the land the jarl was offering for sale.