A new chapter will be posted every other Saturday unless otherwise noted here.

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Saturday, June 7, 2014

IV - High Hrothgar

It had grown dark by the time Merill had scrubbed the mud from her skin and hair and exchanged her rain-soaked cloth armour for a drier tunic she found in the wardrobe of her tiny attic room in The Bannered Mare. She’d spent the past two weeks living out of the dark, shadowy room, and while it was far away from the bustle of the bar and a bit drafty, it was exponentially warmer than outside. In the south it only rained, and in Markarth there was barely ever snow, just bitter wind. But here, nearing the end of the year, the wind carried in a dusting of snow that rattled the windowpane, the swirling flakes dancing past her window until she rose from the bed and yanked the faded curtains over it.

V - The Greybeards

For being a temple of the Voice, High Hrothgar was very silent. Merill found herself in a high-ceilinged room lit by a single great fireplace between the two doors and melted candles pooled on stone. The wall and pillars were intricately carved, great swirling designs of ancient warriors with the Thu’um radiating from their jaws, archaic dragons clawing their way up to the shadowy ceiling. Merill let the great bronze doors fall closed behind her, creating a loud clang that resonated through the hall. She slowly stepped into the room, staring up at the shadows that danced on the walls, making the dragons there look alive. Her boots clicked on the stone and she could hear the wind howling outside.
Merill did not see anyone, so she moved slowly along the walls, running her fingers over the faded carvings there, staring at the eyes of the dragons that seemed to follow her as she moved.
You don’t know if there’s any truth to this whole thing, she told herself firmly, her fingers rising and falling gently as they brushed over the ridges and crevices of the carvings. You’re just here for the truth.
“At last.”
Merill’s head turned sharply, started by the calm voice echoing along the stone walls, and saw a hooded man had appeared there, his face thrown into shadow, but a long, knotted grey beard just visible. He clasped his hands before him, lost in the great folds of his ancient-looking robe, and there was an overwhelming aura of peace about him.
“A Dragonborn appears, at this point in the turning of the age.” Merill let her hand fall from the stonework, turning fully to face him.
“I’m here because you called me,” she said shortly, crossing her arms.
“We will see if you truly have the gift,” the man said quietly, and Merill realized other hooded men were moving silently into the room, pausing to stand motionless around its edges. “Show us, Dragonborn. Let us taste of your voice.” He stepped back to join his comrades, and they stared expectantly at her.
“I…I don’t know what you mean,” she told them, her resolve faltering.
“Focus your energies,” the first man told her calmly. “I can sense the Voice on you. You know the word, Fus, and all you must do is pour your will into it, let it become a sharpened stone within your mind. Use it. Feel the Thu’um vibrating within you, anxious to be heard.”
Merill looked from him to the other men, standing silently, waiting. She took a heavy breath and let her eyes fall closed. I’m only here for answers. She found the word, Fus, and tried to close off the rest of her mind, letting all else fall away to leave it there alone, as if perched on a precipice in the darkness. And suddenly, as if time had slowed, Merill felt that raw, primal feeling growing in her gut and rising up through her chest, then her throat, till it rested upon her tongue and her jaw stretched forward to let it out, the word flying from her lips as she suddenly understood how to free it.
Merill’s eyes snapped open in time to see a great wave flowing away from her, sending pots flying and causing the flames on the candles to snuff out, making the monks that stood before her stumble and throw up their arms to shield their faces. She straightened, breathing hard as the energy of the shout slowly left her, leaving her shoulders rising and falling heavily as though she had just run the length of the Reach. Dust floated down from the ceiling, settling on the dark stone.
The men slowly straightened, and the first took a few steps forward, moving back his hood just slightly so she could see his face, worn, yet alive with a fresh sort of exuberance.
“Dragonborn. It is you. Welcome to High Hrothgar.” He inclined his head in a gesture of welcome, and the three monks behind him did the same. “I am Master Arngeir. I speak for the Greybeards. Now tell me, Dragonborn, why have you come here?”
If you’re Dragonborn, you may be the only one who would truly be able to understand what this is all about.
“I just want answers.”
“We are honoured to welcome a Dragonborn to High Hrothgar,” Arngeir told her solemnly. “We will do our best to teach you how to use your gift in fulfillment of your destiny.”
“Which is what, exactly?”
“That is for you to discover. We can show you the way, but not the destination.” Arngeir folded his hands once more. “You have shown that you are Dragonborn. You have the inborn gift. But do you have the discipline and temperament to follow the path laid out for you? That remains to be seen.” Arngeir swept past Merill, barely making a sound as his robes fluttered on the stone floor. “Without training, you have already taken the first steps toward projecting your Voice into a Thu’um, a Shout,” he said, raising his arms in invitation for the other monks to stand around a diamond panel in the floor of square stones surrounded by a simple darkstone border. “Now let us see if you are willing and able to learn.
“When you shout, you speak in the language of dragons. Thus, your Dragon Blood gives you an inborn ability to learn Words of Power.” One of the monks stepped forward and raised his hand, his eyes trained downward on the stone as he did so. “Ro means ‘Balance’ in the dragon tongue. Combine it with Fus – ‘Force’ – to focus your Thu’um more sharply.”
Merill watched as words appeared on the square stones, carved in the dragon-tongue and burning a fierce red fire. She stared into the flames and felt a familiar sensation of all else darkening and fading, leaving just the words crackling bright as day until they began to fade again.
“You learn a new word like a master,” Arngeir muttered, the astonishment clear in his voice. “You truly do have the gift.”
I’d hardly call it a gift.
“But learning a Word of Power is only the first step,” Arngeir continued, stepping back from the square stones and motioning for the others to do the same. Only the one that had burned the words upon the stone remained. “You must unlock its meaning through constant practice in order to use it in a shout. At least, that is how the rest of us learn Shouts. As Dragonborn, you can absorb a slain dragon’s life force and knowledge directly. As part of your initiation, Master Einarth will allow you to tap into his understanding of Ro.”
The one who had burned the words into the floor raised his arms, and Merill felt a similar sensation as when they had killed the dragon, the weightlessness and light and the sound of wind rushing past her ears. Her knees felt weak, but she did not fall this time, and when the light faded Master Einath was stepping away.
“Now let us see how quickly you can master your new Thu’um,” Arngeir was saying. Merill felt the force building in her gut again, and she threw her mouth open to scream out the first two words of the shout.
FUS RO!” Once again, the candles flickered out and the monks stumbled as the force of the shout boomed throughout the hall. Merill felt gooseflesh rising on her arms and she dug her nails into the heels of her hands. The sheer force and energy of the Shout swelled within her.
“Impressive,” Arngeir said again, regaining his balance. The other monks followed suit and began to file up the stairs at the back of the hall, nodding as they passed her.
“Why don’t they speak?” Merill asked, watching them disappear into shadow.
“They have mastered the Thu’um, but they cannot yet speak without it. If they were to try to converse as we do now, they would likely kill you. I have studied the Thu’um long enough to be able to talk as all men do.” He studied her for a moment, his bright eyes gazing deeply into hers. “We will conduct our next test in the courtyard. Come.”
The process was much the same, with another of the Greybeards leaning forward to teach her the words and the monks watching intently as she used the shout and sped forward, faster than air itself. When the ribbon of the aurora began to fade from the sky, Arngeir declared their tests done, and the Greybeards began to ascend the stairs to return inside.
“Your quick mastery of a new Thu’um is…astonishing,” he told her, curling his hands inside fur-lined sleeves. “I’d heard the stories of the abilities of a Dragonborn, but to see it for myself…” he shook his head, a faint smile on his lips.
“I don’t know how I do it,” Merill said defensively. “It just…happens.”
“You were given this gift by the gods for a reason,” Arngeir told her, and there it was again. Her gift. Merill raised her hands, freckled and scarred, and studied them, as if she might be able to see the dragon blood coursing through her. “It is up to you to learn how to best use it. But now…you are now ready for your last trial.” He walked with her to the precipice that stared out over Skyrim and pointed with an ancient, gnarled hand to the far north, past the plains of Whiterun and the smaller mountains of The Pale. “You must retrieve the Horn of Jurgen Windcaller, our founder, from his tomb in the ancient fane of Ustengrav. Remain true to the Way of the Voice, and you will return.” Arngeir lowered his hand, and Merill stared into the distance where he had pointed. Frustration still reigned within her. You came here for answers. Get them.
“Why are the dragons returning?” she asked, crossing her arms. “Does it have something to do with…with me?”
“No doubt,” Arngeir said at once. “The appearance of a Dragonborn at this time is not an accident. Your destiny is surely bound up with the return of the dragons. You should focus on honing your Voice, and soon your path will be made clear.” Merill narrowed her eye.
“There’s got to be more you can tell me,” she told him skeptically.
“There is indeed much we know that you do not,” Arngeir admitted, his eyes shining in the light from the stars winking overhead. “That does not mean that you are ready to understand it.” Now it was his turn to cast a glance at her. “Normally I would caution you to avoid the arrogance that comes with your quick mastery of the voice, but I can sense unrest in you.”
“I’m not a hero,” Merill said shortly, keeping her gaze firmly trained on the dark horizon. “The gods made a mistake.” The powerful feeling was fading now, relaxing like unclenching muscles. “I don’t know why I have this, but I don’t want it. I was getting on fine without it.”
“I see,” Arngeir replied quietly. “Now I understand your reluctance. I could feel your Thu’um holding back on itself.” There was silence for a time. “How did you lose your eye?” Arngeir asked suddenly, and Merill’s gaze snapped to him, shocked. Nobody had ever asked her about her eye. People often stared, sometimes pointed and laughed or whispered behind their hands, but nobody ever asked.
“Somebody cut it out,” she told him sharply, burying her nails in the heels of her hands again. He gazed at her expectantly. “I was…running from somebody. And he caught me and…cut it out. When I was fourteen.” Why are you telling him this? You barely know him, she scolded herself. She’d promised herself to never trust again, not even in Markarth. She had learned quickly that trust got you killed. There was no room for trust in this world.
“The ancient Nords sometimes believed that the gods would take one’s sight, if that person had something deeper they needed to see,” Arngeir told her sagely, the icy wind rustling the heavy fabric of his robe. “Do you hold by the Nord gods?”
“I hold by Talos.”

“Then perhaps He means to show you something,” he replied simply. “What matters is not the weapon, but how you use it. You were given this power, be it a gift or a curse, to do with as you please. You can do as Ulfric Stormcloak has and Shout chaos across the land. Or you can forge your own path, use your Thu’um to help us understand why the dragons are returning and help to stop it, if need be. It is for you to decide, dragon-child.” Arngeir rested his hand upon Merill’s shoulder for one brief moment, then turned to retreat back inside, leaving her alone on the dark, windy mountain.