Chapter 15

"Dragonborn. I see. Not interested."

The Nord took that as an insult, calling him ignorant of the honor the gods had bestowed on him. But when he was called a coward for shirking his duty, Tariq roared back, "You dare? I am not a Nord. I owe nothing to your gods or your Ysgramor or your Talos!"

This Nord, who resembled Jarl Balgruuf, looked ready to attack him, but the Dunmer housecarl was suddenly between them. The sudden flare of fire in both their faces from the palms of her hands made them step back. "Calm down!" she snapped. "We cannot afford to misunderstand each other."

"Irileth is right," said the jarl, standing. "Hrongar, my brother, he is not a Nord, and he has no duty or obligation to our history. Tariq ibn Zayad, it is true you owe nothing to the Nords, but the gods gave you power against a demi-god destined to destroy the world regardless of your race or your faith. And by that, you have a duty. I do not know what a 'sword-singer' is exactly, but would I be wrong to say you are a hero?"

"I've been called that," admitted Tariq. "It's more correct to say I am a student of the sword, and those of my calling must wander to find ever strong foes against which to test our skills. Sometimes I ask payment; more often, I do not because the challenge is what matters. And if I live, I have gained in skills and now must find another to test me."

The jarl cocked his head to his right. "And what is your ultimate goal?"

"To be able to cast aside my swords. To become Ansei; the ultimate weapon itself."

"And you said you came to join the Companions. Why?"

"I was told they could offer me challenges. I was also told they can do the work of finding such challenges that do not embroil me in your civil war politics. I am new to Skyrim, and already I've gotten involved in petty politics more than I can stomach. You will find out eventually that I am a named thane in Markarth. It is a title I only accepted because I was guaranteed that I would have no duties. My man here, Argis, is technically my housecarl from Markarth. It is the same with Falkreath. Name only. The other man named thane with me accepted the housecarl and land and duties, freeing me from any further obligation. I met some Companions who had come to the Reach to do a job. One of them impressed me with the spirit of the Companions. I also received counsel that joining the Companions would not only benefit my battle skills but afford me a chance to learn of the culture and politics of Skyrim without accidentally committing myself to any party. So here I am. As soon as I'm done here, I am going to their hall to see for myself if they are the company I wish to keep."

"Wise counsel," said the jarl, nodding. "We have all heard the Greybeards calling for the Dragonborn, the 'Dovakin.' The word's more literal translation, according to my court mage, is 'dragon slayer.' You did not hear this call since you were still unconscious. The last time the Greybeards called for the Dragonborn, it was Tiber Septim who answered. Although, when he was called, the dragon had all disappeared. Most will dismiss this event as an aberration. The ones who do not are the ones you must be wary of. Even if they do not believe the legend, they will scheme to warp the symbolism to their own cause."

He relaxed back onto his throne. "Since you are collecting empty titles, I think I will grant you one for Whiterun. It wouldn't hurt to have a future hero's name associated with my hold. I have heard of you from the refugees of Helgen. I have heard of you from the Falkreath nobles who live in my city. Legion Commander Caius has also shared reports he's received from the commanders in the Reach and Falkreath. There was no mistaking that the dragon was after you. Thank you for leading it away from my city. You saved many from a terrifying, unnecessary death.

"So, by my right as Jarl of Whiterun, I name you thane. This is an honorary title, granting you certain rights within this hold. You also have the right to buy property within the city if you choose and to have a housecarl." He laughed at Tariq's frown. "At least meet him or her. Irileth, who is the senior candidate?"

"Lydia of Riften, my jarl." She looked to Tariq. "She is combat tested and knowledgeable of the areas of the Rift and Eastmarch. She is not trained in magic, but she will not shy from combat with magic users or magical beasts. She originally came to us as a trade caravan guard, so she has practical travel experience."

Tariq was shaking his head. "You honor me, jarl, but it is unwarranted. What I did was trivial. I was merely a decoy. Your housecarl and your cavalry would have made the kill without my help. And even if this is, hm, political expediency, how is this different from those you have counseled me to be wary of?"

The jarl grinned with sly humor. "Perhaps there isn't any difference. Perhaps you should think what we jarls, who have given you the title — and entrusted you with our reputation as jarls — can do for you. Do you accept?"

Tariq was taken aback. He hadn't thought of the titles in that way.

"This is an honorary title, yes? There are no duties attached to it?"

The jarl shrugged. "That is 'honorary' is it not? An acknowledgment of a service rendered. A title and station that cannot be inherited. I offer the title without any pre-defined duties. Any future duties, any pledges, are only between you and me."

He studied this noble. Balgruuf was past his prime. He slouched, the casual way he rested his cheek against his left fist as if he were bored. But those half-closed eyes were still sharp and calculating. Something else tickled Tariq's memory. He'd seen Jarl Siddgeir take that same pose, but in opposite fashion — leaning to his right and with a large wine cup in his left hand. Balgruuf had no wine nearby. Instead, his right hand rested on this throne's other arm, just barely touching the hilt of the shortsword hooked to the chair arm. Was Whiterun that dangerous? Or was it an old warrior's habit to keep weapons close to hand? He was of the right generation to have fought in the Great War.

His eyes glanced up to the purported dragon skull hanging over the throne. The namesake of Dragonsreach. He glanced around at the hall. Massive timbers. The smell of old-growth wood and centuries of wood smoke. Wax. Markarth was stone and steel. Fire would never bring it down. Centuries of neglect were doing that. Falkreath's hall, much the same smell of wood and woodsmoke, There had been many luxurious furs on the floors and walls, but the wood was cracking and many signs of burrowing. It was also showing long neglect. This Dragonsreach was vulnerable to fire by the nature of the materials used, but the seasonal changes of dryness and damp, heat and cold were not permitted to warp and crack or rot the wood. That took care and dedication. A great deal of wealth, too.

"I must decline the honor at this moment, Jarl Balgruuf. I've just arrived, and all I've seen of Whiterun is a dragon, a destroyed watchtower, and a few rooms of Dragonsreach. I do not wish to be seen as ungrateful; bringing me here to recover here in Dragonsreach was generous, but I would like to see more of this city before I decide."

"As you like. I prefer thanes who can think on their own. Speak to Avenicci here. He will see to giving you your reward money. My brother will escort you to my personal armory where you may choose any item you like. You may also stay in your room in my hall until you find somewhere else in Whiterun."

He was tired. Strangely so. Getting tossed off a dying dragon had cracked a couple ribs and done something to his spine, but the priestess-healer had done an excellent job. Something else was troubling him. There was a strange confusion in his mind and a general feeling of dread. His father and Mehmet would say that Satakal was twisting, and Sep's tail was twitching, its thundering rattle a warning that change was coming.

His dreams were cluttered with all those strange word walls. Certain characters from each wall blazed with intense light. Chants in an unknown language pounded loud enough to constantly wake him from sleep. Why was it haunting him now? Did it have to do with this Nord Dragonborn legend? They tell him he had absorbed the soul of the slain dragon, and that gave him the ability to "shout" in the dragon language. Shouts of power. He had the strangest notion that he needed to pick one of the three words that glowed, seemingly demanding to be recognized.

He didn't want to. The restlessness in him growled. "Be still, O Serpent. I will learn when I am ready," he told it.

He lay down in the soft, wide bed, staring up at the dark blue canopy and not bothering to close the heavy drapes. He didn't fear rats dropping from the ceiling. The drapes looked to be more a warmth measure during the snow season when a room this size couldn't help but get cold. The bed was big enough for two, and Tariq wouldn't have begrudged the man if he wanted a soft mattress to sleep on, but Argis preferred to sleep on the floor on a thick pallet provided for him. The room was big for just two people. It was clearly a noble's room, having the luxury of a small privy closet that servants emptied every day and an iron basket brazier to warm the room if needed. He just needed a nap. Argis promised to wake him when he got back from checking on the horses.

All too soon Argis was back. "No rest again, my thane?"

"None," Tariq grunted, cursing as he sat up and swung his legs to the floor. "How is Cairo behaving?"

"Well enough. The hands know how to handle a war horse like him. There's a couple cavalry trainers eager to speak with you when you feel up to it. They'd like to learn more about Cairo and Redguard techniques for training war mounts."

"Yes, I would imagine so. The Yokudan Charger is the finest that ever existed in Tamriel. I do not like to disappoint them, but I can only provide scraps of the art. Cairo was halfway trained when he was gifted to me, and I spent weeks under the guidance of the horse masters learning the signals and ways they trained him to respond and bonding with him to complete the training. I only have vague ideas of the initial work they do to prepare a horse."

"If they're worth all the tack gold Jarl Balgruuf gives them, they should be able to figure it out. Now, you've missed the noontime meal, but I take it you're not hungry."

"No."

"Right. Well, the steward and the jarl's brother are still waiting to see you. I've also spoken with the court mage. He's willing to see you also."

"And what business do I have with him?" asked Tariq.

"I approached him, sir. I overheard him talking to the jarl about recovering the bones and scales of the dragon for his research. I asked him what he knew of the dragons and the dragon walls. He tells me the jarl has ordered him to find out where the dragons are coming from. He claims there is some relic —"

"He needs fetching from some obscure place or tomb or bandit's den or obstinate lord's possession?"

Argis shrugged.

"All right, lead me to this mage. What is his name?"

"Farengar."

… … …

The wench who'd run off when they'd entered the court mage's study was the same one running the inn in Riverwood. Tariq recognized the voice, the angry stance, and those long, toned legs and tight ass. She was a war mare playing at domestic cart horse.

She was angrily pounding herb in the pestle at the alchemy table. Tariq sidled up behind her as quietly as he could, but she sensed him and turned to face him, her hand on the hilt of her dagger. "What do you know about this stone tablet up there?" he asked her.

"What are you talking about?"

"I don't know. But you do. You're the one telling Court Mage Farengar that stone was the key." He looked her up and down. "But you look fit and able to do the job yourself. Why do you need others to do the work, O mysterious lady in black leather armor?"

"I have no idea what you're talking about," she insisted frostily. "I own this inn, and leather armor is not anything I usually wear. And what business would such as I have with any court mage? Now, unless you're looking to buy a meal or to rent a room, go away."

"What, this swill?" He pushed his mug under her nose. "Then give me my money back, innkeeper. This isn't fit for drinking."

She sniffed, scowled, took his mug and sipped, then she yelled at the man sweeping up the ashes around the central firepit. "Orgnar! The ale has gone bad."

Tariq took his new mug and wandered out to the porch. Riverwood was a small town with probably only a couple hundred townsfolk, most of them hauling trees or hunting out in the surrounding woods. Primary occupation seemed to be centered around the lumbermill and side industry of fishing the White River that flowed from Lake Ilinalta. He saw Argis walking out from the nearby trade store with a pretty young woman. She talked animatedly with many arm and hand gestures. By the looks of it, she had plenty to say about the ruins one could see the top of on the mountain looming over the village.

Argis saw him and led the young woman over. "My thane, this is Camilla Valerius. She and her brother own the trade store. She's been telling me of a recent break in. An unusual one."

"Pleased to meet you, Thane Tariq," said the young woman. "Yes! Thieves broke in three nights ago. The only thing they took — well, aside from some minor food stock — was the golden claw ornament that my brother owned, something he got when he was trading in Bruma. It was our store's good-luck piece."

"And tell him why is was a good luck piece," urged Argis.

"According to Lucas, the man who traded it to him claims his family was originally from Falkreath, and the claw was a family keepsake. The man wanted to sell it because he needed the gold to add to the funds he already had to buy a big piece of land in Chorral. He told Lucas the claw was the key to great wealth in some ancient vault of an ancient tomb. Lucas did some asking around and found that Falkreath had any number of ancient tombs and that the town already had a general goods store. We were both tired of selling for other people and wanted our own store, and he found that Riverwood was lacking its own store. So we came here. And trade has been good from the very day we opened our door, so already the claw was bringing us luck. Now someone has stolen it! We believe they're taking to Bleakfalls Barrow. My brother did try to venture there, but he's no warrior, so he didn't get very far.

"Argis says you're going up there. If you find the claw, please bring it back to us. We'll make it worth the trouble, and you'll get a discount for anything you buy through us."

"That is quite a generous reward," said Tariq, smiling. "How far did your brother get in exploring the tomb?"

"Now very far by his account. He only went as far as the first challenge room. He says the solution is easy, just look at the wall plaques, and you'd have to have tomb dust for brains not to figure it out. But he had such a bad feeling about going any further than he turned back."

"A wise man who knows his limits," said Tariq. "Thank you, Camilla."

"As my brother says, do enough bad trades, and you either develop the sense of it, or you go bankrupt. And he's done enough that he knows when to cut his losses."

The Nords built their tomb to discourage thieves and to keep the draugr contained. That much was obvious. The robbers were easily dealt with, having numbers and weapons but little group discipline and training. That made it easy to divide and conquer. The last robber with the claw was the last of the living foes. Once they recovered the golden claw, the three symbols embossed on the underside were the visual clues to the final puzzle, likely the final burial chamber with the greatest amassed wealth.

And another damn word wall. That same pounding of power, roaring just beyond the range of hearing. He understood why the Akaviri left their isle to conquer this continent the dragons had migrated to if ancient texts were correct that the dragon originated in the Akaviri isles. They wanted the dragons' powers. They managed to subvert and kill the first Dragonborn imperial line. But the snakes had overreached and overextended themselves and had their heads cut off. The last Akiviri Potentate died in his bathhouse in the graveyard of dragon worshipers.

And here was the word Tall Papa's signs had been guiding him to. FUS.

Make Way. I AM the Unstoppable Force, the dragon soul whispered, naming its freedom and leaving him with the power and, more importantly, the understanding. The king draugr roared. Tariq roared back and was the stronger. Argis removed the head from the fallen body and collected the large, flat stone from the coffin, which he presented to Tariq.

They studied it. A map of Skyrim. The places marked were not cities or towns. Finding these marked places had to be intuited by the clues of lakes and rivers and mountains. Tariq's knowledge of Skyrim's geography wasn't sufficient, and he'd left the map he'd purchased in Markarth in Cairo's saddle pouch. He decided to make a rubbing of the stone before they handed it over to Farengar. He found the mage's attitude insulting and didn't care to ask that one any questions.

The back entrance of the tomb — absurd really, so short and void of traps or draugrs — was high on a slope overlooking the east end of Lake Ilinalta, where it drained out to become White River. "We'll have to backtrack through the tomb," said Tariq. "It's faster and easier reclimbing the mountain to get back to the front entrance."

"It'll be dark by the time we get there. Guess we're staying the night."

They brought the horses into the entrance chamber. It had started snowing on that peak. The bandits had a large stockpile of food, likely what they'd taken from the Riverwood merchants. Enough fruits and grains to feed the horses.

"We'll drop off the claw to the traders, get some paper there for a rubbing. But before we head back to Whiterun, I want to head back into Falkreath. I think I recognize this place as the Bloodlet Throne area where this symbol is."

Argis frowned as he studied that location. "That strange clearing with the old menhirs around it that we rode over when we were chasing Hircine?"

"Yes. Worth another look at, I think."

Camilla and her brother were ecstatic at the claw's return and made the reward that quarter's net profit. Tariq also let them know that the claw was, indeed, the secret to a great treasure, provided one was able to pass all the traps and the draugr and the king draugr in the treasure chamber. He showed them the treasures (all except for the map stone). Now, if they still had the funds even after paying out the reward for the claw, he would let them have the first pick. But if they didn't, and they were willing to sell on commission …

No hesitation there. The two knew the claw was a lucky one, and they could foresee a profitable relationship with this adventurer. Lucas would take the bulk of the cleaned-up polished treasure and the map stone to Whiterun. He'd deliver the map stone, and then he'd go to the priests at the Temple of Kynareth to have the treasure checked for curses. And then he'd start selling or drum up interest for an auction. Meanwhile, Tariq and Argis would go back to Falkreath and work out this mystery of the dragon map.

On their way out of town, they heard fighting. Whiterun soldiers and Riverwood locals were clearing bandits out of the local iron mine. They lent some aid, riding down the more fleet-footed bandits. One of the bandits they chased they caught at a curious stone platform overlooking Lake Ilinalta. There were three carved menhirs. Tariq recognized the astrological signs of the wizard, the thief, and the warrior. "Those are all over Skyrim," said Argis. "We have the Lover stone somewhere in the mountains around Markarth. They say if you find one and touch it, if the stars or gods favor you, you will receive the blessing of the sign even if it is not your birth sign." He dismounted and touched the warrior. "Ah, well, no blessing. But that doesn't mean I'm not a warrior."

Tariq contemplated these markers. His birth sign was the Warrior. Should he choose the Warrior? But … the Thief was also guardian-class like the Warrior. The Thief protected the Lover, the Shadow, and the Tower. Well, he was Dibella's champion. He also robbed the power from the souls of dying dragons. That was as good a sign as any for his path. He dismounted and touched the Thief. "I am Tariq. I ask your blessing," he whispered.

Light sparked in the round hole of the stone. The eye of the needle. Power trickled along the lines between the star points. Flowed into him. Agility, Speed, Luck — beware, thief, when your luck runs out, came the whisper from behind, from the Warrior. He glanced back and politely answered. Even so, Black Knight, ever does it come last to endurance and strength when all has been exhausted. Stand with me to the end, and may your ravens guide me to the Far Shores. The Mage also offered words: Beware having a favorite weapon. To become over-familiar with one weapon is as much a fault as not knowing it sufficiently well. Tariq bowed his head politely to the stone sage. I hear and will contemplate your words, O Guardian of the Mysteries of Power, he told it.

He looked back to the Thief, wondering what she had to say. It was a she, of course, Dibella's gift of sense told him so. Fickle Lady Luck, masked, cloaked, yet androgynous to the eyes. She said nothing, but her eyes sparkled for a moment, then the power faded away.

Argis said nothing but couldn't hide his disappointment. He didn't understand why a warrior would want to be a thief. Tariq smiled tightly. "Let's get this bandit back to the guards," he said, tying a leash around the miscreant's neck and led him back to the mine.

They continued onto Falkreath and stopped by Shriekwind Bastion to see how the work was going. All of the bodies had been carried out. Whiterun's temples had sent a newly graduated priest of Arkay and two junior restorations priests of Kynareth. The priest of Zenithar, the only priest of a small out-of-the-way chapel in Whiterun, had come himself to smith enchanted iron sigils and lamps under the guidance of the other priests to banish or suppress evil spirits. He had help from the Falkreath blacksmith and his apprentices, but the priest was an expert enchanter and performed the final touches and infusion of power.

They stopped at Pinewatch, but Ingvar wasn't around. He and Rayya were out on another problem-solving mission. Ingvar had put a cousin in charge of the property and had people building a low wall around the property and clearing woods and earth for a large garden. Once that was done, "planting" would begin. The cousin insisted they come inside for a drink, so they did and found Runil waiting for them. He thanked them for delivering the messages. It was still a monstrous amount of work that could use many more priests and mages, and the magic in Shriekwind was fighting back. Tariq didn't like hearing that. He recalled Calcelmo's fears about the rising levels of magic. He'd said something was coming. Well, the avatar of Sep had manifested. The dead were rising again.

They showed Runil the map copy. He'd sighed and marked a location near the Bloodlet Throne. "They call it Ancient's Ascent. There is a wall there. If your fears are correct and the dragon has resurrected, it will likely roost there. Two ways to get there. Here is an entrance to an icy tunnel likely used by ancient dragon cultists to get to their dragonlord and its wall. It's not a good place, full of trolls and ice wraiths. Or, you can scramble down the cliff from Bloodlet and come behind the wall."

"Monsters I can handle," said Tariq. "But I am not yet ready to face a dragon without an army behind me."

"Only the Dragonborn can handle it," said Runil. He looked away from Tariq's hard smile. "Even a dense forest could not block them out. We heard the Whiterun cavalry handily dealt with the dragon that attacked their city."

"Yes. All the refugees from Helgen gave them a good idea of what to expect. They had time to make preparations. It was an admirable show of force." He finished the cake and tea Runil had served them. "Time to go, Argis. Let's find that accursed mound."

The mound they were looking for was empty. The previous dome of earth and rock had been clawed open. Tariq wasn't shocked to see it. They'd had to hide from a dragon while they were looking for the mound. They went to Bloodlet and over to the cliff's edge to look down at the dragon word wall. The dragon appeared to be away at the moment. The scramble down was dangerous, and they didn't have the pulley gear and ropes like they'd used in rescuing little Fjotra. Tariq didn't feel the overwhelming urge to find out what the thu'um word was down there. After all, he already had three; he had yet to find more souls to empower them.

"Shall we head to High Hrothgar or back to Whiterun?" asked Argis.

"Whiterun. Let's see if we can borrow Lydia on a trial basis to guide us there. I also want to talk to the Companions. If I join them, perhaps they will have some insight to this Dragonborn business and the Greybeards."

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