Those few seconds after the question were painful and Elana stupidly opened her mouth then snapped it shut again, torn between her name and nothing. There was still a piece of her that thought there might be escape. Maybe if she told her story-
The woman beside the list caller smirked. "Ah yes. The mute bandit. Too bad the Dark Brotherhood is nearly dead like you. You would have been a good assassin."
"Captain, what do we do? He's not on the list."
There would be no escape now. At the captain's words, the whole world suddenly changed. The condolences of the soldier were precious jewels. Every color was something bright to be cherished. Her eyes wandered desperately over the scene, trying to memorize every detail. When she thought she might burst from new memories, she recalled old ones, old faces and lands that hadn't mattered so much then.
Her heart and blood were desperately clawing at her skin, begging her to run. But she would face this with dignity, like a true Nord. Like the prisoner before her, who still mocked the Imperials before the fatal strike.
Divines, why wouldn't this headache go away? It only seemed to grow with the tension of desperately loving the world before leaving it.
Some iron inside her desperate for Sovngarde moved her feet to the block. What little of her mind could focus made her face death with head high, like the Stormcloak whose blood stained the ground.
She stared at the axeman, not really focusing as the headache grew. Her focus snapped above him as the earth shook and her would-be executioner fell over.
A dragon perched on the nearby tower, looking like death itself and the end of the world.
Her headache gone, Elana sprung to her feet and raced towards an intact building. From there she would figure things out, but getting cover was most important.
Surprise. Of course this would be the same keep Ulfric Stormclock would choose.
In that brief moment flying through the air out of the keep, Elana questioned her sanity.
Then she hit the wood floor and she rolled like Gonnstar taught her, springing to her feet with only a few aches. She darted from the ruined building, twisting and turning and somehow finding herself following the list caller through the city as it fell apart.
Together, they dodged the claws and wings of the dragon sweeping down. A part of her began to hope he might lead her to safety.
But when it came time to choose between him, Hadvar she learned, and Ralof, Elana ran with the Stormcloak. No battle-born camaraderie could erase the sting of being taken to death by the Empire that had sworn to protect.
Iron, cold steel began to form in her heart as she pulled on the dead man's armor and strap his sword at his waist. Elana didn't notice until she drove the sword into the Imperial who came running down the hall.
It seems there was more to her the Gonnstar had seen.
She and Ralof quickly looted the bodies for the needed key and went running down the tunnel, dragon attacks collapsing tunnels all the way. And through the fighting, looting, lockpicking, and general insanity, Elana said not one word, not a sound.
Finally, after Elana killed a bear Ralof wouldn't, the two climbed out to see the sky, and a last glimpse of the dragon.
"It's probably best we split up, but if you like, you can follow me to Riverwood. My sister Gerdur, who works at the mill, will give us some help."
The Stormcloak turned and sauntered off as if death hadn't almost claimed him several times over. It was all Elana could do to re-align her packs and hurry after the similarly burdened man. With no idea of where she was, she had no choice but to follow.
She listened to him pleasantly chatter about the land and road they walked down. But she swiftly tuned him out when she saw the stones.
"The Guardian Stones. There are thirteen of them scattered over Skyrim. Divines know where the other ten are. They bestow blessings, if you seek one."
She was no chit; she knew of the stones. Something deep inside her pulled Elana to the warrior stone. She gently brushed the rock, feeling strength pool within her.
"Warrior, good! Those stars will guide you to honor and glory."
Almost like another sign, a lone wolf prowled out of the woods. It was dead without a chance to land a blow.
"If only I had time to skin it. Alvor would appreciate some new skins. If he'll still speak to me. He and his son, Hadvar, support the Empire."
Civil wars turn brother against brother, towns and nations against themselves. Maybe one day the two men would find it in their hearts to forgive each other, to sew Skyrim back together one man at a time. But likely not.
She slowly followed after Ralof, who was amicably talking again. She weighed the sword in her hands, thinking over how to sharpen it, make it more powerful. However, for all her knowledge, she didn't know a way to make a one-handed sword require two.
After the past two days (at least), she would not be weak again. At least, not by her own fault.
"Sister, this man helped me escape Helgen. He doesn't speak, but he's proved his mettle. I think there might be steel in his blood."
"That's all well and good. And we welcome you, stranger. Please, we do not have much, but we'll share what we have for a survivor of Helgen and battle-brother to Ralof."
Elana inclined her head in thanks. She didn't like the look Gerdur gave her, but no matter. She had offered food. Who would be fool enough to bite the hand that would freely feed them?
"Brother, the Thane must know of this."
"I know. But I can't go. I have to get back to Ulfric. Jarl Balgruuf remains neutral; an Imperial could grab me at any moment."
Everyone turned to Elana. She had finally broken her vow of silence with a rasp to disguise her lack of low notes.
"You speak?" Ralof seemed awed and impressed while Gerdur's eyes narrowed. "You can speak and that whole time you kept silent? When you walked to the block? Through the mess with the dragon? And each fight?" He let out a low, long, and impressed whistle.
Gerdur motioned to Elana. "Come with me, warrior. I'll give you something for that throat and more information for the Jarl." Elana reluctantly followed the woman while Ralof kept talking at his brother-in-law. She stepped slowly through the opened door.
"Take a seat." She placed a pot over the fire and reached for a wheel of cheese. "Isn't it dangerous for a woman to travel alone."
"I can take care of myself and I'll-" Elana froze mid-outburst. Gerdur merely smiled and sliced two wedges of cheese. Handing one to Elana, the lady of the house took a seat across from the warrior. "Your secret is safe with me, girl. All I want to know is why travel alone and why the Imperials grabbed you."
"I was a merchant. My friend Gunnstar and I travelled between Skyrim and Cyrodill, legally when possible. He played the front man with a big, charismatic mouth. I was his little, mute brother who was good with numbers and unflinchingly good with a knife.
"He got sick though, too sick to move. All I had to do was drop orders off. I had done it solo before, but with Gunnstar still as a travel companion. So I packed the orders up and rode it out. All was fine, until I was driving the cart back with our gold and some objects to hold onto until their worth increased. Only my silence kept the bandits from robbing me of life as well as cart and horse. The Imperials took me for the very men who had stolen nearly everything from me."
Gerdur placed a mug of tea before Elana. "You'll have an open hearth here anytime you seek it. What will do you about your identity before the Jarl?"
Elana shrugged and took a sip. "I've gotten good at judging when to fold."
"Except for just now."
"Don't remind me."
At that, the door opened and the two men walked in.
"Now friend, until that throat heals don't talk unless you must. Which, admittedly, will be before the Jarl but even he must excuse a sore throat."
"Friend," began Ralof, "Hod and I were discussing things, and if you don't mind we'll call you Brandr." Elana just shrugged. "I was hoping that was actually your name, but I guess not. You don't mind though?"
Ralof smiled. "Take care of that throat, and should I see you again, you can tell me your real name then."
Elana cracked a smile as she rose to her feet. Gerdur pushed a pack of food into the traveler's arms. "If you have anything to sell, see Lucan at the Riverwood Trader. He'll give you decent prices."
"Go with the blessing of Talos," Ralof added as Elana stepped out the door. She stopped to give him a grateful, respectful nod and shut the door behind her with a click.