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Saturday, May 9, 2015

XVII - Paarthurnax

Hi all - I'm truly very sorry about the recent delay. This past month there was a death in my family followed almost immediately by a wedding and heaps of other work for me to finish. I'm expecting smoother sailing for this summer. Thanks for your patience. -C

Their journey to Ivarstead took them most of the day, and they reached the small mountainside village when the moon had risen high into the sky. Merill, not keen on climbing the precarious slopes of High Hrothgar in the blustery darkness, suggested they stay the night at the inn, and Nalimir and Silronwe agreed. They paid for two rooms, one with two beds, and Silronwe pleasantly suggested she and Merill share a room, pretending not to notice Merill’s grimace at the suggestion.

Ivarstead was a quiet, placid town and the inn was nearly empty, barely any noise filtering through from the bar’s main room beneath their door. Merill sat cross-legged on her bed, flipping through the book of dragon words Farengar had given her, studying the long columns of words and determinately ignoring Silronwe, who was propped up against her pillows on the other bed reading a small red-leather bound volume barely bigger than her hands. A thick silence stretched between them.
“You don’t like me much, do you Merill?” Silronwe asked suddenly, shattering the quiet. Silronwe glanced up to see that Silronwe had closed her book on her lap, gazing at her from across the room.
“I never said that,” Merill muttered, lowering her eyes to her book again.
“It’s all right,” Silronwe told her simply. “Not many people here like me. An Altmer in Skyrim, I don’t blame you for not trusting me.” Merill didn’t respond. “But I promise you,” Silronwe said again, her voice firm now. “I’m not with the Thalmor. I was once, but not anymore.” This got her attention. Merill looked up sharply, her eyes narrowed.
“You didn’t tell me you used to be one of them,” she told Silronwe cautiously. The Altmer crossed her legs, turning to face Merill, a long-fingered hand reaching up to fiddle with the end of one of her gold braids.
“I don’t talk about it much,” she said softly. “It didn’t last long. And I’m not proud of it.” Merill studied her for a moment, her brassy eyes downcast, shaded by thick, dark lashes.
“Why did you leave Alinor?” she asked finally, her curiosity nagging at her too strongly for her to ignore. Silronwe smiled sadly, still not looking Merill in the eye.
“When the war broke out,” she began quietly, her voice barely louder than the distant chatter from the bar outside, “my mother was asked to join our provincial council and my father was called up as an officer in the ground army.” A sour look crossed her face. “We were the ideal nationalist Altmer family, and that was important in Sunhold. If you didn’t offer the Thalmor everything you had…” She bit her lip, finally looking Merill in the eye. “I have a younger brother. Tainaril. He was never much good at magic, and in Alinor, that’s about the worst thing to be bad at. He already caused enough embarrassment for my parents.” She looked bitter. “But he was wicked good with a sword, the best of anyone I’ve ever seen, so he enlisted as soon as the Great War started.”
“And you didn’t?” Silronwe smiled wryly.
“I fancied myself dreadfully romantic,” she replied. “All my friends were joining up, but I thought the Healing Corps would be more of an adventure. You can see how a girl would picture it all in her head, falling in love whilst saving someone’s life in the midst of battle…” She trailed off. “But it wasn’t at all like I imagined.” There was silence for a time before Silronwe spoke again, broken only by the muffled chatter and clink of glasses in the bar. “We had orders to only heal those that were from our own army, but I broke off with a few others and we helped every wounded soldier we saw. When the officers found out we were stripped of our status as Thalmor. My parents were livid, and when I returned home my brother had gone and they wouldn’t tell me where he was. So I went to find him. That was…twenty-six years ago.”
“How old are you?” Merill asked in disbelief, and Silronwe smiled a little.
“Fifty-two,” she replied simply. “Altmer age much slower than Nords, though. I’m still considered rather young.”
“And you’ve been…looking for your brother all this time?” Silronwe tugged on the end of her braid, looking uncomfortable for the first time since Merill had met her. A small voice in the back of her head told her not to pry, but her curiosity kept her from backing down.
“Yes,” Silronwe answered finally. “Yes, when you live in Alinor, ‘north’ means the entire world, really. And that was the only direction my parents would give me. So I went north. I know he’s out here somewhere,” she added, her voice full of fresh hope. “Tainaril’s a survivor. He’s somewhere. I’ll find him.”
“So…how long have you been in Skyrim?”
“Let’s see…” she muttered, counting on her long fingers. “I left Cyrodiil…must have been about three years ago. So, since then, I suppose.”
“And no luck since then?” Silronwe grinned wryly.
“It’s a big province. I still have a lot of ground to cover.”
“Sorry we’re sidetracking you,” Merill said, and she was surprised to hear the Altmer laugh – a high, gorgeous laugh, but a laugh all the same. Did I just make a joke to her?
“It’s a welcome diversion!” she replied lightly. “I’m usually so busy dealing with contracts that it’s impossible to do any searching at all.”
“So how did you get caught up in the Dark Brotherhood?” Merill asked, and Silronwe launched into the story of how she accidentally stole a Brotherhood contract and managed to charm her way out of getting killed.
Merill woke early the following morning, slipping out of the inn before anyone else woke to begin the icy descent up the seven thousand steps. She moved slowly, distracted – she had dreamt of Silronwe, kneeling in a field of mutilated bodies, her gold braids streaked with blood, her brassy eyes filled with tears. Merill still could not bring herself to trust the Altmer, but…maybe. Someday. Nalimir certainly trusts her. He hadn’t expressed any more frustration with Merill since they left the temple, but frustration still filled the pit of her stomach when he spoke to Silronwe, their words carefree.
I grew up with him, that’s all, she told herself as she carefully mounted the icy stone stairs cut into the mountain’s side. I ought to be a bit protective.
Most of the day was gone by the time she reached High Hrothgar. The temple was silent as ever, the only sound coming from the flames in the sconces and the howling wind outside. Wulfgar knelt in the entry hall, praying, and he stood when she entered, her hair wild and snow-laden and her face windburned.
Drem, Dovahkiin,” he greeted her, nodding.
Lost tinvaak los se Arngeir,” she responded, and Wulfgar looked impressed at the dragon-words she had learned by candlelight during sleepless nights. He led her to the dimly-lit living quarters of the temple, where Arngeir sat reading.
Lok, Thu’um,” Arngeir said in greeting.
“I need to learn the Shout used to defeat Alduin,” Merill said at once, too impatient to try to muddle through the sentence in dragon-speech. The monk’s face darkened.
“Where did you learn of that?” he said darkly. “Who have you been talking to?”
“Does it matter?” Merill snapped, frustration festering.
“Of course it matters. For things of this gravity, we need to know where you stand.” He paused. “Or who you stand with.” Merill crossed her arms.
“I have nothing to hide. The Blades helped me find out about it.”
“The Blades,” Arngeir spat. “Of course. They specialize in meddling in matters they barely understand. Their reckless arrogance knows no bounds. They have always sought to turn the Dovahkiin from the path of wisdom.” Arngeir passed her, pacing in irritation. “Have you learned nothing from us?” he snapped, turning. “Would you simply be a tool in the hands of the Blades, to be used for their own purposes?”
“The Blades are just a resource,” Merill replied shortly. “I’m not their bloody puppet.”
“This Shout was used before, was it not?” Arngeir went on, frustrated. “And here we are again. Have you considered that Alduin was not meant to be defeated? Don’t you see? Those who overthrew him in ancient times only postponed the day of reckoning, they did not stop it! If the world is meant to end, so be it. Let it end and be reborn.”
“So you won’t help me?” Merill snapped, and Arngeir crossed his arms.
“No. Not now. Not until you return to the path of wisdom.”
Arngeir,” someone cut in suddenly, and Merill saw that Einarth had joined them in the chamber. Dust showered down from the ceiling as he spoke. “Rek los Dovahkiin, Strundu’ul. Rek fen tinvaak Paarthurnax.” Arngeir and Einarth gave one another a long look before the Greybeard turned back to her.
“Forgive me,” he said softly. “I was…intemperate. I allowed my emotions to cloud my judgment. Master Einarth –”
“I know what he said,” Merill interjected. “He wants me to talk to Paarthurnax. Your leader, right?”
“Yes. I cannot teach you the Shout to defeat Alduin because I do not know it. It is called Dragonrend, but its Words of Power are unknown to us. We do not regret this loss. Dragonrend holds no place within the Way of the Voice.”
“I can’t follow the Way of the Voice,” Merill told him. “I’m not a Greybeard. I’m Dovahkiin.” The words still sounded strange on her tongue, no matter how many times she said them.
“I know that now,” Arngeir said softly, the dim light from the candles melted into the stone floor throwing spiky shadows across his age-spotted face. “Only Paarthurnax can teach you how to defeat Alduin, if he so chooses.”
“Then I need to speak to him. Now.”
“You weren’t ready. You still aren’t ready,” Arngeir said doggedly. “But thanks to the Blades, you now have questions that only Paarthurnax can answer. He lives in seclusion on the very peak of the mountain. He speaks to us only rarely, and never to outsiders. Being allowed to see him is a great privilege.”
“Just tell me how to get to the peak, then.”
“Only those whose Voice is strong can find the path. Come,” he went on, passing her and heading for the door. “We will teach you a Shout to open the way to Paarthurnax.” Merill followed Arngeir and the other Greybeards out into the courtyard, where they bypassed the gate they’d used to train her and went straight to a tall carved portal at the yard’s end. The aurora ribboned through the early evening sky, and icy air hissed down from the mountain’s peak. Merill stared up at it, her eyes narrowed against the wind.
“The path to Paarthurnax lies through this gate,” Arngeir said, and Merill saw opaque wind blocking the way through. “I will show you how to open the way.” Argneir burned the words lok, vah, and koor into the snow-covered stones, where they burned like fire into Merill’s mind. Sky, spring, summer, she thought. The sky of spring and summer. A shout to clear the skies. “I will grant you my understanding of Clear Skies,” Arngeir said, funneling the energy into her. “This is your final gift from us, Dovahkiin. Use it well.” Arngeir gestured to the stairs that led up to the portal. “Clear Skies will blow away the mist, but only for a time. The path to Paarthurnax is perilous, not to be embarked upon lightly.” He rested a hand on her shoulder. “Keep moving, stay focused on your goal, and you will reach the summit.”
Slowly, Merill stepped up to the great portal blocked by wind. The sky of spring and summer, she thought, and the Shout grew in her gut, clawing up to her mouth and springing free.
At once, the swirling mist cleared, and Merill stepped through the gate and onto the path, thick with snow and ice-covered rock. Merill began to climb, carefully placing one boot in front of the other and pulling herself up the slick, ice-covered path. Remembering Arngeir’s words, she refused to let her mind wander, keeping it trained on moving up the steepening trail. Overhead, the aurora lit the sky, burnished copper and gold and green swirling among the stars.
Merill’s hood had blown down, but she could not risk freeing a hand to raise it again. She let her orange curls blow freely in the cruel wind that shot down from the mountain, feeling it burn her cheeks like icy daggers. She had spent years climbing trees in Falkreath and craggy walls in Markarth, but the rocks were slippery and thickly coated in ice, and she moved slowly, trying to concentrate on moving forward. Dragon-words began to float into her mind as she moved, and she reached a sort of rhythm with them.
Kril. Brave.
There were no animals on this trail. The path was too steep and perilous even for the most agile of them. Not even birds flew among these peaks.
Fen. Will.
Her shout had swept the clouds from the sky, and if she looked out Merill could see all of Skyrim arrayed below her. But she did not look out, and focused only on pulling herself up through the snow and wind that beat her back.
Bahlaan. Worthy.
Her fingers had long since grown numb, and she felt tears of cold freezing on her face. When the path grew too dark with wind, she would find a secure a place as she could and use the Shout to clear the way once more.
Faasnu. Fearless.
Ice-Wraiths crept along the trails, ethereal begins that looked like floating snakes carved from ice. Merill called them down with Shouts, unable to free her freezing hands to reach her bow.
Ahkrin. Courage.
The cold grew so intense that Merill felt blinded. Her vision blurred as the wind blew straight down into her eyes, and she squeezed them shut, tying to feel her way up.
Amativ. Onward. Amativ. Amativ.
The aurora was fading now, and the sky was turning from inky black to a paler grey, the stars on the horizon beginning to fade.
Morah. Focus.
Then, suddenly, there was nowhere left to climb. Merill dragged herself up off the precipice and rolled into the snow, breathing hard. The wind here had lessened, and she moved her toes and fingers willing the numbness out of them. She forced herself to rise and stared around. A familiar shape stood in the snow ahead…Merill rubbed her eyes, blinking the cold out of them, and saw it was an ancient Word Wall, crumbling and almost worn to illegibility from the wind. The sky was unbelievably clear here, pink with dawn.
Merill shook the snow from her hair and began to crunch through the snow toward the word wall, feeling the familiar sense of peace as she watched it.
Then, before she was close enough to see the words, a great wind rushed down upon her, sending her stumbling back. Merill heard the familiar beating of wings on air, and she drew her bow, nocking an arrow as quickly as she could and turning her eyes skyward.
Drem Yol Lok, wunduniik.” At once, a great shadow fell across the snow, and Merill lowered her bow in disbelief as an enormous, gold-scaled dragon spiraled down and landed in the snow before her, shaking the earth. The Dragon turned its pale eyes on her, and Merill saw how incredibly ancient it looked, its scales weather-beaten and its eyes deep with age. “I am Paarthurnax.”
Merill lowered her bow in disbelief.
You’re Paarthurnax?”
“Who are you? What brings you to my strunmah…my mountain?” His voice was low and gravelly, and it seemed to echo in the wind that blew across the mountain peak.
Lostni mindok him kopraani dovah,” Merill replied, and the dragon raised its head, a light in its pale eyes. It was different from the angry fire that had burned into her when Alduin gazed upon her. It was calmer, wiser. Almost…peaceful.
Bormah Akatosh wahlaan dovah kopraani…as are you, Dovahkiin,” the dragon replied. “Tell me, why do you come here, volaan? Why do you intrude upon my meditation?”
“I need to learn the Dragonrend Shout,” Merill told him. “Can you teach me?”
Drem, Dovahkiin,” the great beast told her. “There are formalities which must be observed at the first meeting of two dovah.
“You consider me a dragon?” Merill replied, crossing her arms. Paarthurnax raised his head again, a knowing look in his eyes.
Tinvaak voth dovah rot. Him kopraani ru voth dovah sos. Him dovah.” Paarthurnax wheeled himself around, moving with great dragon-steps and turning his long neck to look at her. “By long tradition, the elder speaks first. Hon Thu’umi, Dovahkiin!” he called. “Feel it in your bones. Match it, if you are Dovahkiin!” The dragon turned to the ancient word wall and raised his great head.
Flames burst forth from Paarthurnax’s jaw, melting the snow along the ground there and swirling into the curve of the word wall. Merill looked to the wall and saw a flaming word had appeared there, calling to her. Yol. Flame.
“I sense fire in you. So call this a gift, Dovahkiin,” Paarthurnax said as Merill felt the word melt into her bones. “Understand fire as your brother dovah do. Test your Thu’um against mine, Dovahkiin. Greet me not as a mortal, but as a dovah!”
Merill felt the word in her gut, and this time it felt like fire, burning sharply as it roiled up and sprang forth from her lips.
To Merill’s surprise, pure flame burst forth from her shout, glittering on Paarthurnax’s gold scales and searing the very earth below them, the heat lingering like spice upon her lips.
“Yes!” Paarthurnax called, raising his neck again. “Sossedov los mul! It is long since I had the pleasure of speech with one of my own kind. You have made your way here, to me. No easy task for a mortal. Even for one of Dovah Sos.Dragonblood.
“I need to learn the Dragonrend Shout,” Merill said, and Paarthurnax nodded his great head.
“I have expected you. Prodah. You would not come all his way for tinvaak with an old dovah. No. You seek your weapon against Alduin.”
“So you know it?”
Krosis, no. It cannot be known to me. Mortals created it as a weapon against the dovah. Our hadrimme cannot even…comprehend its concepts.”
“How can I learn it, then?” Merill pushed.
Drem, Dovahkiin. All in good time. First, a question for you. Why do you want to learn this Thu’um?”
“I like this world,” Merill told him, crossing her arms. “I’d like to keep living in it.”
Pruzah. As good a reason as any. There are many who feel as you do, although not all. Some would say that all things must end, so that the next can come to pass.”
“Then I’ll get rid of them too,” Merill pressed on. “I don’t like people threatening my home. The ones that stand in my way will regret it.” The dragon raised its great head, letting out a deep, earth-shaking laughter.
Grik krin rot, Dovahkiin! None may doubt that you are of the dovah! I bow before your certainty,” he went on, dipping his scaly head to her. “In a way I envy you. The curse of much knowledge is often indecision. But…” he went on, peering down at her. “I sense great unrest in you. Will you tell me your troubles?” Merill gave a short, humorless laugh. Where to start?
“I don’t know what any of this means,” she told the old dragon bitterly. “I know I’ve been born with dragon blood and a dragon soul, but I don’t understand it. I don’t understand any of it.” Paarthurnax turned his great head skyward, letting his eyes fall closed, and Merill saw the scales on his chest heave as he breathed deeply, as if he were drinking in the stars.
“I wish that there was one in this world who was like you,” he told her slowly. “There have been many before, but you are the only one that I know lives now. If there were others, perhaps they could help you understand your plight. But I will help best I can.” He beat his great wings, rising suddenly into the sky and sending snow spraying up and into Merill’s face. She stumbled backward as Paarthurnax rose up and landed, heavily, in the snow before her. “Put yourself at ease, Dovahkiin,” he told her, and Merill sat in the snowy drifts before him, tucking her curls out of her eyes.
“Your sight is gone from one side, is it not?” he asked her, and Merill nodded. “What would that eye see, if it could?” She paused, taken aback.
“…the same as what the other one sees, I guess,” she responded, wondering if she was wrong to ask an old dragon about the mystery of her existence.
“Perhaps,” Paarthurnax replied. “Or perhaps not. Close your eyes, Dovahkiin.” Merill did. She listened to the icy wind off the mountain’s peak, felt the cold seeping into her skin through the cloth of her leggings, the icy bite of winter on her nose and ears and the lingering fire on her lips. “Do you feel the dragon blood in your veins?” She did. It was there, spiraling out from her heart and racing through her, funneling through every finger and toe, filling her eyes and feeding the fire that danced in her stomach.
“When you speak dragon-words, feel the blood that gives you life, the blood that once gave life to dov. Feel the soul that feeds your mind, that makes you who you are. Feel it in your bones and your dead eye and your live one. Feel it in your hair and your skin and every ray of sunlight that touches your face. Let it feed you as it once fed your ancestors.” Merill’s eyes fluttered open, and she squinted at the sudden light. Paarthurnax gazed at her, his expression unreadable.
“I don’t understand.”
“Your body may be human, but your soul is dov, Paarthurnax told her. “You must never forget that. Others may have you believe something different, but I am only here to speak the truth to you, Dovahkiin. No-one can explain what you are. That is something you must discover for yourself.” They gazed at one another for a long while, and Merill felt curiously at ease, metres away from an enormous, heaving golden dragon. But she felt safe. Up here, at the highest place in the world, she knew she was safe. The heavens could come crashing down around her and she would remain, still and safe and gazing into Paarthurnax’s cloudy eyes.
“Now, Dovahkiin, you have indulged my weakness for speech long enough. I will answer your question.” Paarthurnax beat his wings, sending up a spray of snow, and flew low circles around the peak, shouting down to her. “Do you know why I live here, at the peak of the Monahven – what you name the Throat of the World?” He landed upon the broken side of the Word Wall, powerful legs with talons longer than her arm gripping the stone, his great head bowed to look down at her.
“I never thought about it,” Merill answered, standing and joining him by the Wall.
“This is the most sacred mountain in Skyrim,” Paarthurnax told her. “Zok revak strunmah. Here the ancient Tongues, the first mortal masters of the Voice, brought Alduin to battle and defeated him.”
“Using the Dragonrend shout?”
“Yes and no,” Paarthurnax replied. “Alduin was not truly defeated. If he was, you would not be here today seeking to…defeat him. The Nords of those days used the Dragonrend Shout to cripple Alduin. But this was not enough. Ok mulaag unslaad. It was the Kel – the Elder Scroll. They used it to…cast him adrift on the currents of Time.”
“An Elder Scroll?” Merill repeated in disbelief. She’d only heard stories of the things – the papers that foretold the great triumphs and sorrows of generations that rendered you blind if you tried to read them that were all but lost to civilization. She remembered the court mage telling her a story about a great thief hundreds of years ago who broke into the Imperial Palace in Cyrodiil and managed to steal the only Elder Scroll they had. “Are you saying that the ancient Nords sent Alduin forward in time?”
“Not intentionally,” Paarthurnax answered, looking up at the brightening sky. “Some hoped he would be gone forever, forever lost. I knew better. Time flows ever onward. One day he would surface – which is why I have lived here. For thousands of mortal years I have waited. I knew where he would emerge, but not when.”
“How does any of this help me?”
“Time was…shattered here because of what the ancient Nords did to Alduin,” he replied, gesturing with his great head to a place beside the Word Wall where the air was distorted slightly, as if wind blew straight up from the ground there and into the sky. “If you brought that Kel, that Elder Scroll back here, to the Time-Wound…with the Elder Scroll that was used to break Time, you may be able to…cast yourself back. To the other end of the break. You could learn Dragonrend from those who created it.”
“Then I suppose all I need to know is where to find an Elder Scroll,” Merill said, aware of how wretchedly impossible the task sounded.
“I know little of what has passed below in the long years I have lived here,” Paarthurnax told her. “You are likely better informed than I.”
“Arngeir might know,” Merill said, and Paarthurnax nodded.
“Trust your instincts, Dovahkiin. Your blood will show you the way.” The great dragon beat his wings once more, raising himself into the brightening sky. “Pruzah grind, Dovahkiin,” Paarthurnax shouted down to her. “Hindi fent tinvaak sul fod lokni vul voth vokul.
Lok, Thu’um,” Merill called up to him in reply, and the dragon nodded once before returning to his solitary place at the mountain’s peak.

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