Chapter 19

"Of course, Dragonborn, I hope all the changes made to Breezehome have met your expectations?"

"They have, my lord Avenicci," replied Tariq, nodding. They were meeting on the porch level of the palace. This open chamber was almost as large as the entire palace. It had walkways on either side, presumably for guards. It appeared to be used as a weapons training yard for guards and castle occupants. The roof of this chamber was, curiously for a palace, of massive wooden beams. There were spools of chains with links as thick as his arm, and they suspended near the ceiling a yoke.

This place was designed as a mousetrap. "Dragonsreach" this palace was called. It was a dragon trap. Did it trap the dragon whose skull over the Jarl of Whiterun's throne?

Tariq was here to collect a sizable bounty for a group of robbers.

Outwardly they seemed to be robbers. Though, going through their camp for salvageable equipment that could be resold and miscellaneous treasures, he'd come across carefully packed blue and gray uniforms. The two whelps with him identified them as Stormcloak colors. One speculated that some of the outlying rebel troops might have resorted to banditry if they weren't getting the supplies they needed. Most of the robbery targets were farms and grazing herds.

The Steward Avenicci was lingering over the breakfast table set out on the open porch area. The servants hadn't yet cleaned off the dishes from the long table. The jarl customarily let the leftovers remain so that the palace guards who came up to the great porch, their training ground, could help themselves to the food and drink. The steward offered him a lightly alcoholic fruit drink, a sweet, bubbly refreshment popular with children and women.

"And you are sure the Tundra estate would not suit you better, especially considering it has a stable and yard for your horses. And it also has a smithy, although admittedly one not as fine as the Skyforge. Nowhere in Skyrim is there a forge to match the Skyforge."

"The Tundra estate is a fine one. I have looked it over, but it does not suit me at all."

"As you wish, Dragonborn."

"My lord Avenicci, tell me something —"

"What do you wish to know?"

"You seem overly fascinated with this 'Dragonborn' title, why is that?"

The Imperial frowned as if something smelled offensive, but then he sighed and rubbed the top of his balding head, his expression fading to vague confusion. "I know I badly reacted when Hrongar declared you the Dragonborn but understand in the Empire, the Dragonborns have exclusively meant the Emperors — the Remans and Septims. It has been widely taught within the Empire that only the Dragonborns, the favored of Akatosh, could wear the Amulet of Kings and thus rule the Empire. Only they had the pact with Akatosh. That was proven when the last Septim Emperor was assassinated, and the Amulet of Kings was lost. The pact with Akatosh was broken, and Mehrunes Dagon invaded. We were only saved when a bastard Septim recovered the Amulet and called upon the blood pact to bring Akatosh to Tamriel to battle the Daedra Prince. Now, there is no Amulet of Kings, and St. Alessia's blood pact with Akatosh is over.

"In that light, the Mede Emperors are illegitimate usurpers upon the Ruby Throne. Once you go to High Hrothgar, and if you are confirmed as Dragonborn — well, you're not a Septim, are you? Yet if you can get Skyrim's backing, you could theoretically declare yourself the true emperor. This … could be a problem. Obviously, the Dominion would object, and then there would be so many other factions within the empire."

"I see. Worry not. I don't believe in Akatosh, I don't believe in the elven Divines, and I am not a worshiper of Talos. I follow as best I can in the steps of Tall Papa, and I practice the ways of HoonDing."

"I understand. You do not care about the Divine gods or the fate of the Empire," said Lord Avenicci. "Both could burn in the fires of the Worldskin's immolation as far as you're concerned," he said tonelessly.

"I wouldn't go that far," Tariq said sullenly.

"Then forgive me, Dragonborn, for a moment, I wondered if you were Ansei or Hiradirge."

Tariq shot to his feet, shaking with rage. The Hiradirge were Ansei and masters of stone magic. They had tried to conquer all of Yokuda, but were defeated. And in their defeat, they worked the magic that had doomed Yokuda, causing it to sink into the ocean. "How dare you?" he snarled.

Avenicci shrank back, blanching. His mouth fluttered open a couple of times, but there were no words. His nerve broke, and he fled. Tariq took a step to follow but dashing across the room to block him was Adrianne. She had her dagger in hand. The warmaiden's expression was furious and resolute. "Back off, Tariq! Back off! You will not harm him."

Tariq sucked a deep breath in and forced himself still until his temper had cooled. "One would think an experienced courtier would know how not to give insult."

"My father does have a fault of sometimes speaking before he thinks. It's not a good trait in Imperial courts. It's gotten him in trouble before. Why do you think my family's in Skyrim? But Nords value honesty when speaking one's mind. My father's honesty is often blunt and tactless. This isn't enough to bar him from serving in Whiterun's court."

"Even so, to insult me —"

"How did he insult you?"

"To call me a hiradirge, that is —"

"I don't believe he called you that. Tell me exactly what he said and what you said, and maybe we can settle this without our blades."

Tariq couldn't help but grin. This Imperial was as feisty as the Nord women in the Companions. And he'd inspected her weapons. If not for Gray-Mane and the Skyforge, she would be the top weaponsmith and armorer in Whiterun. Seeing that he was no longer angry, she relaxed and resheathed her dagger.

He repeated the conversation he had with her father.

"He didn't call you a Hiradirge. He was just wondering if you were like them, powerful wizards that would rather see the world destroyed because they couldn't get their way." Her smile was humorless and unapologetic. "It's what's printed in the Pocket Guide to the Empire, Third Edition. It's what people in the Empire find if they looked in popular references for Redguard history at a bookseller. Is it inaccurate? We don't know that unless someone who's an authority tells us. If you ask any shopkeeper or bookseller in Whiterun, that book is in popular demand since it became known that a Redguard is the Dragonborn and a Companion. People want to know what a sword-singer is, what the walkabout is. That's what people are reading about you. My father is an educated man, yet he appears to have misconceptions. What do you think the common reader is thinking? What have you, yourself, been promoting? Have you been trying to listen and understand the Nords? If not, then leave Skyrim and this inconvenient Dragonborn destiny. Go HoonDing somewhere else and make way for someone who wants to be the Dragonborn. Go sharpen your blade skills with other playmates."

Tariq frowned. "Have I offered you offense in some way, madam? If I have ever said or insinuated anything inappropriate to you or your husband, I abjectly apologize."

"Hmph." Adrianne Avenicci smiled wryly. "No, you've never insulted me. I get plenty of crude blade and hammer insinuations. You flirt as casually as most men as handsome as you do, but I've never called you on it because you are easy on the eyes, you flirt amusingly well, and you don't mistake word gaming for passion. And if you had an ill-intentions, my husband would have shown you how well he uses that hammer he wears, putting you out of your misery after I'd finished with you."

They both laughed.

"Let us find your father. If you can convince him not to run from me, I shall apologize and explain why his comments had me reacting as Hrongar did when he called the Dragonborn 'Nord nonsense.'"

Adrianne sighed. "That's my father. He's a master at budgets and financial planning but constantly miscalculates his diplomatic skills. Fortunately, the jarl has that mastered."

Tariq was reminded of the jarl's skill as he reached the bottom of the stairs of Dragonsreach and stepped into the garden heart of the Wind District. The Skyforge and Jorrvaskr were to the left. Between the palace steps and the Companion's hall was the statue of Talos. A forbidden object, a discredited god since the signing of the unholy Concordat. If the Dominion had been allowed within the city, they would have immediately declared this a violation of the Concordat and demanded the Emperor have his Legions discipline Whiterun, destroy the statue, and execute all the priests and suspected worshipers. But Balgruuf had forbidden the Dominion to enter. He had enough influence that the Emperor ignored the Dominion's demand to have the Legion force Whiterun open and chain it down for their gloating inspection.

If all his talks with Calcelmo in Markarth had any use, it only bolstered his certainty that Jarl Ulfric was a Dominion plant meant to foment division in Skyrim. The Dominion failed to gain a decisive win in the Great War, so they had planted seeds to ensure their victory in the future Second Great War. As they were doing in Hammerfell, they were doing in Skyrim — re-igniting the class division in Hammerfell between Crowns and Forebears. And for Skyrim, they twisted their captured Stormcloak prince, breaking him and whipping him to a mindless frenzy of hatred against the Dominion and anyone siding with the Dominion. The Empire suing for peace with the Dominion was siding with them. Holds failing to reject the Empire were siding with the Dominion.

Not his problem. This was Skyrim's politics. Besides, Jarl Balgruuf was fully aware of the time-tested "divide-and-conquer" tactic, though Tariq still thought he was taking extreme risks by allowing both pro-Stormcloak and pro-Empire factions within his city.

"Tariq!" He looked around and saw Priestess Danica waiving at him.

"Greeting, O Holy One," he said, bowing.

She laughed and rapped the back of his lowered head. "I told you, such flattery makes me suspicious. Are you trying to wrangle for more Restorations lessons?"

He straightened and grinned impudently down at her. "No, O Light of Kynareth. I am still practicing my mastery of what you have already shown me. Now, how may I serve you?"

"A Falkreath soldier was brought in recently, part of a patrol that keeping watch on the bandits that were settling into Helgen. She was caught between a Legion patrol and a Stormcloak patrol near Orphan Rock. She avoided that but ran into the witches living there, the ones I'm sure that have the Nettlebane. She has recovered enough to talk, so she might have the most current information you wanted about the area and dangers."

"That is most excellent, Holy One. I have time now. Can she talk now?"

"Perhaps in another hour. She was being fed lunch when I left and is likely sleeping."

"Then I shall return in an hour."

He went to Breezehome to have lunch and to hide his reward money in the enchanted bag beneath the stones of the burning hearth fire. Argis came stumping down from the second level. The upper level had the master bedroom and a smaller room. On the lower level, a third room had been built. The master bedroom, the largest, was turned into a small armory and tack room. Tariq took the newly built ground floor room, the second largest. And Argis had the smallest room on the second level.

Argis had Cairo's saddle in his arms and Nimat's harness flung over his shoulders. "The stablemaster said the farrier will be there the morning the day after tomorrow. Do you need Cairo's and Nimat's shoes checked?"

"Both of them need new shoes. I shall do Cairo's set while the farrier handles Nimat." He smiled. "I'll be creating the shoes this evening at the Skyforge."

"Skyforge steel instead of Dwemer brass?"

"Yes. Light and thin, like racing shoes, but because they're Skyforge, they should wear as good as the Dwemer brass."

... ... ...

The farrier's apprentice cursed as he stumbled and water sloshed out of the bucket he carried and soaked Tariq's head and Cairo's left front leg, the leg Tariq currently had between his legs as he was trimming the hoof.

"Ho! Tariq!" called out Aela at the gate entrance to the stables.

Cairo screamed as the water hit it. It seemed to go mad, rearing up. Its hoof knocked hard against Tariq's balls as it pulled free. Tariq collapsed upon the straw and muddied floor, fighting to stay conscious. Cairo was screaming, a lot of yelling, Nimat's uneasy whinnying, the horses in the other stalls waiting for their shoes also whinnying their unease, the farrier cursing — he didn't have time for this.

He forced himself up and grabbed Cairo's mane. He pulled his whistle out, fumbled it to the right setting, and blew. Four tones — heel, guard, off-guard, away. He set it to "away" so that Cairo would distance itself from whatever was agitating it here, giving it time to calm down. He staggered over to Nimat, who was easier to calm.

Although ... a little splash of water shouldn't have scared ... Gods, his balls still hurt ...

"Quite a blow you took there, Tariq. Today was for shoeing, not gelding, right?" Aela joked as she helped him up and to the nearest hay bale to sit on. She shoved the small traveling jug she usually kept full of strong mead into his hands. He drained it. It took the edge off, and he was able to focus and do a little self-healing magic.

The farrier's apprentice came up to him to apologize for being so clumsy. Tariq assured him that he wasn't angry. Still, he wondered what set Cairo into attack mode. A sudden splashing of water shouldn't have done it. His horse had been trained to be steady in battlefield conditions. Chaos, sudden movements, getting jostled by strangers had not been reasons in the past to lose control. Well, it had been an uneventful week for Cairo, confined to a stall and just eating. He had been neglecting Cairo. The warhorse was not made to stand around doing nothing, and there was no one here who could exercise him, and he couldn't be allowed to run around unsupervised in the pasture behind the stables. A warhorse like Cairo needed daily exercise. It had finally come to trust Argis to feed it, brush it, and lead it to places, but that wasn't enough. No, Tariq admitted that he was to blame for this incident.

Once he was up and walking, Aela went on her way back to Jorrvaskr, and Tariq whistled Cairo to come back so he could complete the shoeing. Then he took the warhorse out on a good run. The distance Cairo covered before it got tired was proof of its restlessness from enforced idleness.

... ... ...

They stopped at Riverwood for lunch. Tariq went to the Valerius shop and was greeted enthusiastically by Lucan and Camilla. Lucan showed him the money and inventory ledger from his latest successful sales of the gemstones from Bleak Falls Barrow. He had taken the risk to travel to Solitude to sell the gems and ornaments because the people that had that kind of money were there. Tariq was pleased. If he'd had to sell the treasure himself, he'd probably have just gone to Belethor's Shop and wasted time haggling the price up. The cut Lucan took was more than fair, especially if he had to risk traveling to a distant city carrying the items and then the gold back without guards and on a public wagon.

Tariq told Lucan he'd pick up the funds on his way back, then he went to the inn where the rest of the party waited. Aela was supposed to have traveled with them but decided she didn't want to travel so slowly since Tariq's party was transporting the injured Falkreath soldier. Her condition didn't allow for fast travel, so they borrowed a small wagon for her to ride in. Aela went hunting in Falkreath while she waited for them to catch up.

As soon as Tariq joined them, the innkeeper showed up to take their food orders. The look the Breton woman gave Tariq was outwardly indifferent and her tone courteous, but there was just the slightest lingering of a frustrated glare. He returned her a look of non-recognition and indifference.

"You should try to eat more, Delia," Tariq said to the Falkreath woman.

"You're right, of course, sir," she replied. "I know I need to."

"A full belly will also help you sleep during the wagon trip," said Lydia. "You need sleep to heal. The bumping of the wagon has kept you awake, I know, but once you have a full belly, that's just one demand too many, so your mind shuts down, and you'll sleep whether you hurt or not. All we'll have to do is put a board and some hay in a sack and prop it up at the front end, and you sleep against that sack. That way, you won't choke if your food comes back up from the jostling. I learned that from Khajiit traders who helped transport injured soldiers back to Riften. You'll probably have a sore tailbone when you wake up even if we put a pillow under your butt, but at least you'll have had some sleep. I should have remembered that from the start. Sorry, Delia."

"If it works, I'll be happy. Thanks, Lydia. So I'd better concentrate on finishing this fish stew and bread."

It was dark by the time they came to Ingvar's home. Tariq was impressed at how fast the homestead had grown. Now it was a proper compound with a sturdy, defensible wall of logs. Tariq gave his name, and they were allowed inside. The original cottage was still there, looking innocently simple. It was taller, though, with two floors added to it. There was a tiered garden dense with vegetables and herbs. There was a small smithy, a tool and tack shed, and a smaller, one-room house with flower boxes under the windows. It appeared to be a group kitchen because they could see people sitting around it, eating, and people going in empty-handed and coming out with food. There were pens holding cows, goats, and chickens, a stable large enough for five horses. There was a walkway that allowed patrols to see over the fence. Under the walkway were small tents and hammocks.

Roald, the cousin Ingvar had made his steward, came out to greet them. Ingvar and Rayya were at the Akaviri ruins clearing out any unsavory group trying to make it their territory because Siddgeir had heard of the heated pools and had decided the ancient Akaviri bathhouse was fitting for his ownership. He wanted the area cleared and people to begin cleaning the place up. He was having dreams of turning it into a vacation spot for nobility. He had attempted to siphon funds from the Shriekwind Bastion project, but Ingvar had managed to get some absentee Falkreath nobility support, so the funds were out of his reach. Still, Ingvar was charged with making the area safe for the jarl. Tariq could only shake his head in sympathy.

The steward escorted them into the cottage and showed the ladies to the newly added upper level where the master bedroom and smaller guest bedrooms were. The guest bedrooms were all occupied, so the ladies would share the master bedroom. Rodina and Delia would share the bed while Lydia and Ria were fine with cushions on the floor. Tariq and Argis laid their sleeping rolls by the fireplace on the main floor. Tariq asked if Aela was nearby and was told she'd stopped by but was probably camping somewhere by the lake.

Once the ladies appeared to be asleep, Tariq and Argis followed the steward underground. The walkways were being replaced with a floor to make it seem the old crypt was only a one-level. There was no concealing from the jarl and his spies that the Pinewood cottage was a cover for an ancient burial site, and Ingvar was rebuilding it to house his guards and servants underground. It would be his own little hidden manor with a feast hall where he promised to hold a grand party to thank the jarl for his generosity and patronage once renovations were completed. Tariq resigned himself to attending; after all, he was a thane of Falkreath, and he had been the one to shove this burden onto Ingvar's back. The least he could do was show support for the beleaguered man.

"And you are sure that the jarl's spies are unaware of the lower level?"

"Yes. Steward Nenya has a nephew who recently graduated from Winterhold College. He's trained in Illusions, and she sent him to work for us. He laid traps so that anyone without special amulets —" Roald pulled the silver amulet from beneath his shirt to show them "— gets confused or sees horrific illusions of draugr once they get to the lower level. The spies we get aren't magic-users, so they can't tell which draugr are air and light and which are disguised guards, so they always get knocked out. Spies usually wake up with a hangover and are convinced they just heard one too many ghost stories. We re-assign them to a Shriekwind work party."

They toured the lower level. The floors were still rough, and the rubble and the stake traps were gone. New pillars had been built to support the upper floor. The draugr had been returned to their crypts, and the original barrow was reconsecrated and sealed off. The victims, robbed of anything that would identify them, had prayers said for them, and their bodies were brought to the mountains and burned, their ashes given to the high winds. The bodies of the robbers were separated. Those that had families in the area, their kin were quietly contacted and given the option of having the body returned to them. If not, they went with the others to be burned with invocations to go to their deserved fates. Their ashes were used to fertilize the garden.

"Our thane's intent is that the lower floor is to store food, weapons, armor, and other supplies. Siege supplies, although we all pray it never comes to that. Also, we have dug two wells, one to supply upstairs and one for this level," said Roald. "If you look up, you will see runes of silence and anti-magic detection carved into the stones. There are also plans to dig two tunnels for escaping or attacking."

This was one hell of an undertaking, but Ingvar had no dearth of willing hands. Too many, in fact. He had to be careful to not appear too popular. Tariq being acclaimed the Dragonborn had been a great help. Ingvar had used that to Jarl Siddgeir as the reason people flocked to him; the glamour of association, he explained.

Sep's fangs. He'd better pay his respects to Siddgeir, then, to keep up that lie. He'd also ask Rodina, Whiterun's respected court bard, to do free performances at Dead Man's Drink and at the Jarl's hall and sing as many Dragonborn songs as she could think of. And perhaps she could quickly compose a ballad of how Tariq and Ingvar met; the meeting of two heroes, or some such fateful nonsense. It amused Tariq to think how Ingvar would groan and roll his eyes.

... ... ...

A sizable band of outlaws had settled in at Helgen, and they had rejected the jarl's offer of partnership. Delia had been part of the guards assigned to spy on the Helgen robbers. It was the jarl's way of getting rid of troublesome guards or guards too honest to be trusted.

Delia gave Tariq a rough estimate of the number of outlaws in Helgen. She said the underground entrance was lightly guarded and that the outlaws had continued the rubble clearing, so the primary hall and chambers under the keep were in use and where most of the outlaws lived. The topside was still in ruins with only the gates repaired, and sentries wandered around in random patterns. The only real sentry to worry about were the ones posted on the remaining watchtower that had an overhead view of the entire compound. Still, it was possible to sneak through by keeping close to any ruined building to quickly hide in.

There were always the paths outside the walls of Helgen used by patrols back in the day. They could easily ride that and kill any outlaws they encountered. Delia hadn't seen any horses last time she was at Helgen, so it was unlikely they'd be pursued.

Another way was the ancient Skybound Watch ruin that ran through the mountain. The entrance near Helgen was known as South Skybound Watch. It looked like a ruined watchtower. Somewhere in there was the entrance to an underground passage. The other end, North Skybound Watch, looked like a barrow in front with a back balcony. From that balcony, one could see Riverwood and Bleak Falls Barrow. Head south from North Skybound Watch to go to Orphan Rock.

She had no idea what dangers were in the Skybound passage or if it still connected the two points. However, she did know that the South entrance usually had a small group of outlaws there. They avoided the witches. Also, south of the Rock and not far from the road was a Stormcloak camp. Not an overtly hostile group, willing to trade as long as one wasn't wearing any uniform. They likely wouldn't be friendly to Tariq's group.

The rumored vampire cave Tariq had heard about had to be Haemar's Shame. The legend is that a noted warrior named Haemar got infected by vampirism and hid there. Eventually, he was tracked down and slain. Delia didn't know much more, except for vague rumors she heard from drunks about a talking dog looking for warriors to help him find his master in that cave. Still, it was dangerous, and travelers should never pass there at night or at dawn or dusk. Once past the cave, you were in the Rift Hold.

She also warned them of infrequent Thalmor patrols. And there was a Legion camp sound of the road near the ruins of Bthalft. Ivarstead was north, just across the river.

"The gods guide your travels, sir. Thank you for bringing me home. It's been my honor to know you," said Delia. "I hope what little information I had helps you."

Tariq thought exploring the Skybound Watch corridor through the mountain sounded interesting, but he wouldn't be able to take the horses. Another day then. And Aela had shown up early that morning. Again, she declined to travel with them. Besides, Tariq was obligated to breakfast with the jarl, so his party would be getting a late start. Once he decided upon the Helgen route, she told him she'd go on ahead and scout a good sniping position so that when they rode through, she'd quickly and quietly take out any outlaws that tried to make trouble for them.

The ride past Helgen was uneventful. The two archers who initially tried them were quickly shot down by Aela. And these outlaws weren't stupid when confronted by five armored and mounted warriors. Five, because Rodina wore light leather armor and a bow. The last impression she wanted to give was a lady being escorted anywhere.

They came to Orphan Rock, a bedrock pillar in the center of a bowl ringed by high hillsides. The horses and Rodina stayed on the road while Tariq, Lydia, Argis, Ria, and Aela approached Orphan Rock from different directions, taking out the witch followers of the hagraven. The witches had a camp on a piece of high ground. A felled tree made the bridge connecting the high ground to the top of the pillar where the hagraven had her tent and her magic works. Beneath the tree bridge were sharpened stakes. Around the pillar, at climbable points, were destructive runes. That hagraven had already revealed her ability to cast fireballs, fruitlessly trying to hit them as they hid behind trees.

"Bah. Simplicity itself," said Tariq. "Aela, behind me. Ria, Lydia, crossfire positions. I shall draw her attention. Take her."

Nettlebane was a crudely shaped ebony knife. Using the hagraven's enchantments table, he discovered it did spiritual damage to magical creatures like spriggans. Whoever, or whatever, created it wasn't a skilled smith; the overall design made no sense, the weight was unbalanced. It was nothing more than a dagger-shaped gardening knife.

... ... ...

Aela and Ria separated from their party. They were going to North Skybound Watch. The bandits there had a stolen pricey shipment from a delivery caravan, and Companions had been hired to recover the stuff. This was a violent group and had at least two mages.

This was also Ria's trial to advance from whelp to full Companion.

"You do remember about using the Imperial Voice?" he asked Ria.

"Oh, yes. And thanks again for sending me to Belam and Claudius," she said, referring to the young Imperial Legion soldiers loaned from Legate Skulnar's command to help out at the Bleakwind Bastion project. While he had been wasting time playing nice with Jarl Siddgeir, he had told Ria to go over to Shriekwind Bastion to meet with the soldiers and ask them about the Imperial Voice. She knew nothing about her racial ability, and they could show her. "I never knew Imperials could do that, regular people, that is. The Voice of Peace that's not something we're taught about. All we know is the thu'um that comes from the Nord blood in the Septim Emperors, the Voice of War."

"Fanciful words you use," Tariq said.

"It's the description Claudius first found in the book he was reading. The Voice of War and the Voice of Peace." She looked down, toeing the dirt contemplatively. "I tried it, but it's weak in me. Belam and Claudius both say it does take time and a certain mindset. They have to pretend they're generals on a battlefield. 'It takes a level of arrogance to think to command peace and submission,' and, 'It can't come from a place of bloodlust like the Nord Voice of War.' At least, that's what the book they read says. I did ask if they thought to get a copy of the book, but Claudius says it was already just deteriorating scraps. He'd gotten it from the library of a noble whose mansion was being confiscated by the crown for taxes. He saved it from the garbage pile, but it finally crumbled away because he didn't know how to preserve something so fragile. Being carried around in a soldier's rucksack isn't good for a relic, no matter how thick you wrap it."

"Why do you look so discouraged?" Tariq asked.

"Because the Companions, the others ..."

"Are Nords who stand at the forefront of battle," said Tariq, completing the thought.

"Well, yes."

"Let me tell you, Ria, when you told me you desired to be a Companion, I thought it was fitting. Do you want to know why? Because, when I think of 'Companions,' I think of those who stand beside you both in war and peace. You are the ones who must not only bring battle but order. Are you a pureblood Imperial? Are you primarily Nedic blood, not a mongrel mix?"

"I think so, at least as far as my grandparents. I don't know much beyond them."

"Then, theoretically, there is no dilution of your inherent ability. You just need practice and confidence. I saw Claudius stop a draugr in full charge by issuing a command. 'By Akatosh, cease hostilities,' he said as if commanding rioters or bar brawlers. It was quite amazing. I think, in time, he could even stop me, if but for a moment."

"Unbelievable. Stop the Dragonborn?" Ria grinned, going back to her cheerful self. "I see. I'll just have to find ways to practice."

"Yes," agreed Tariq. "Your voice may be weak now, but I have no doubt you'll get stronger. Just remember, as a weapon, it's not enough to just brandish it; you must use it at the right time because you can only use it once per day."

"Oh, I see. A word in the right place." She laughed.

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