“What is the meaning of this?”
I flinch away. “No need to get up, Jenassa.”
The dunmer sits back down and stares at me coldly. Her voice drops to little more than a whisper that I must strain to hear. “I swear to Boethiah that I shall not hesitate to strike you down where you stand if you dare try anything stupid.”
I fidget nervously. “I haven’t come for the claw.”
Jenassa blinks. The statement seems to have caught her completely off-guard. “You haven’t,” she says as if not quite understanding.
“I haven’t, I swear! I need your help.”
“What-…” She clamps her mouth shut and glances at the tavernkeep behind the counter, ensuring he’s out of earshot. She starts over in a more controlled tone of voice. “What has possessed you to think it wise to ask for my aid?”
“There’s a dragon at the western watchtower.”
The mer turns an interesting shade of ashy white. “A dragon?”
I nod. The fear I have stirred within her is oddly satisfying to witness. That one word frightened her more than anything we had faced within Bleak Falls. “A dragon.”
“And why is this of any concern of yours, McGonian?”
“They’re sending me with the housecarl and a band of guardsmen to help deal with it because I ‘have experience’ with dragons having come from Helgen.”
“That hardly qualifies you for dragonslaying.”
“That’s what I told them! They didn’t listen!”
“Mm. Why is this of any concern of mine?”
I scoff. “Do you jest?” The look she gives me causes a cold chill to run up my spine. “Ah – I apologize. That was uncalled for. But, you see, unless you flee the city now, it will be a concern of yours very soon.”
“I am safe behind the walls. The guards will take care of it, I’m sure.” She turns away as if our business has concluded.
“Helgen had walls. Had. I don’t know if they still stand. You see, dragons have wings. They tend to fly over walls.”
Jenassa stares into her drink. She looks troubled. “I’ll take my chances in here.”
I groan and pace back and forth. “What is wrong with you? Are you afraid?”
She flings her flagon at me. It strikes me in the snout with such force I fall to the floor. She stands so suddenly her chair topples over. The tavernkeep pretends not to notice and moves to the back room. “I fear nothing! Why should I risk my life for this miserable city?”
I let out a pained moan from the floor. “How flammable is mead? I’m going to be at such a disadvantage, now.”
“You are insufferable!” She kicks me in the side then plants her boot on my chest. “Out of all of the capable hands in this city, you ask me – me! – for aid. What, precisely, were you expecting?”
She must be aiming for the ribs she knows have been bruised badly during my time with her. With effort I stammer out an answer. “I ask you because I’ve seen that you can handle yourself.” She hesitates, then steps off of me. I stay where I am on the floor practicing the utter submission she seems to admire. “I’d feel better about my chances with you on the front lines rather than halfway to Riften.”
She smirks. “If you must have my aid, I suppose I can’t say no if you pay my usual rate.”
“I don’t have your usual rate.”
“The tavernkeep has it in the back room.” She rights the chair she had knocked over and seats herself. “Why don’t you get it for me?”
“It would be rude to keep Irileth waiting.”
“Then be quick about it.” She waves at me dismissively. “Go. Before he comes back.”
I have been finding and purchasing lockpicks here and there. I suppose it wasn’t too much to ask for me to finally use them. If the tavernkeep had heard Jenassa urging me to rob him, he did not act on that information. It was a simple matter to find his strongbox on the table next to his open ledger. I couldn’t help but marvel at this man’s idea of security. It figures that the only patron of his I have ever seen is a murderer with no moral compass to speak of. I pilfer his gold and leave the rest. I return to Jenassa and set a bulging pouch of septims on the table in front of her. She arches an eyebrow.
“Take it. We’ll count it later.”
She looks me in the eye, saying nothing. I’m afraid she’s going to insist on counting it with a dragon poised to burn the city to ash. Finally, she takes the pouch and nods.
Minutes later Jenassa and I are running along the tundra with a band of five guardsmen led by Irileth. I am unsure of what they are planning on doing with their heavy melee weaponry. A bow or spell would have been more useful against a flying fire-breathing beast. I know this because I am evidently the one with the most experience with battling dragons. If that has dragged me into this awful situation, then it gives me the liberty to acknowledge their impropriety. I will not do so out loud, however. They have very large swords.
The western watchtower looms in the distance. Above it a column of inky black smoke rises twice as tall as the tower itself. The sight gives credence to the guardsman’s claim that a dragon had torched the tower. For the site of a dragon attack, it was eerily quiet. There was no sign that the dragon was still in the area. Irileth pauses behind a large rock and gazes at the tower, deep in thought.
“I see no dragon,” she says.
“Would you like my expertise?” I ask.
“Is it sarcasm?”
“What else would it be?”
She sighs. “That shall not be required.” She gestures to the guards. “Fan out and search for survivors. You too, McGonian.”
Jenassa stops me as the guardsmen and the housecarl move to investigate the tower.
“What was it like?” she asks. “Helgen, I mean.”
“It was like this, only noisier,” I say, gesturing to the burning tower. “Lots of smoke and fire. Also, the dragon was there creating more smoke and fire. Ah, and there was screaming. Can’t forget the screaming.”
“Be sincere, for once in your life,” she snaps.
“To tell the truth, it all happened so fast I cannot say. It felt like a dream. The dragon was fast, as the guard had said. There was light, noise…explosions. Plenty of explosions. And then I went underground. I have not seen what has become of Helgen since its destruction.”
She looks to the tower. “Aren’t you afraid?”
“I’m terrified. But, I have no choice but to do as Irileth and Balgruuf ask. It has yet to show its ugly visage. I’m hoping it stays that way.”
Jenassa nods. “And I as well.” She pauses. “You had a choice. You know that. You had with me as well. You could have never set foot in Bleak Falls Barrow.”
I nod. “I know.”
At the foot of the tower we find Irileth attempting to glean what has happened from a survivor of the dragon’s attack. The guard is stammering out an explanation when Irileth holds up a hand for silence and looks to the skies. Jenassa freezes and follows the other dunmer’s eyes.
I hear nothing, but my heart jumps into my throat all the same. “It’s here, isn’t it?” I ask. Irileth nods and draws her sword.
I hear a distant roar. “It sounds as if it is miles away,” I say. “Should we take cover in-”
I am interrupted by a number of ground-shaking booms. The beating of massive, leathery wings. It’s coming closer. I turn to face the source of the noise. “Oh, no.”
I am nearly knocked off my feet when the thing lands a scant few yards away. Irileth shouts something to her guardsmen but I’m already tearing off into the tower.
I throw myself against the wall just as the tall doorway becomes a portal for an enormous gout of flame that licks the inner wall opposite the entry before vanishing. Divines, did Jenassa and Irileth fall that fast? I sink to the floor and try to think. The roaring dragon outside and the acrid scent of smoke in the air prevent coherent thoughts from forming. Instead, I sprint up the tower’s stair to gain a relatively safe vantage point above the battle.
At the top of the tower I look down and take in the scene below me. The dragon has been severely bloodied, but there are dead guardsmen strewn about and at least two figures below have been set alight. I hear screams. I grip my bow tightly, nock an arrow and draw the string taut. The smoke stings my eyes and clouds my vision. The bow creaks in protest of the tension. I am unsure of what to aim for. What would an arrow do to a creature that size? I take a deep breath and release the string. The arrow embeds itself in the creature’s shoulder near the base of its neck. The dragon rears back and roars in anger, allowing a tiny figure on the ground to take a swipe at its neck. There’s a spray of crimson on the ground and the dragon swings its head at its attacker, knocking him or her aside.
I hurt a dragon.
I hurt a dragon.
I hurt a dragon.
I pound my chest and cackle in glee. “Ysmir never fought a dragon, did he?! I am -” I raise my bow. “-Billy McGonian-” I nock an arrow. “-The Fifth-” I draw the bowstring taut. “-Maybe the Sixth-” I release the string. “-Dragonslayer!” The arrow sails far to the left of its intended target and breaks upon impact with a rock. All goes quiet. I count four heartbeats before the dragon swings its great head in my direction, then takes wing.
“What? No, no, no no no! You aren’t supposed to be able to fly! No!” I step back from the edge. It circles the tower, slowly gaining altitude. I look to the stairs leading back down to the tower’s interior but don’t get the chance to leap for them when the dragon’s great scaly mass comes into view directly in front of me. Its roar shatters my hearing. Before I can get my bearings it beats its powerful wings a scant few yards from where I stand. My bow goes flying as I am blown over the edge of the tower. I see it swoop to the ground below to deal with the others.
I feel a weightlessness as my body pitches in midair to align my delicate skull on a crash course with the ground. I refuse to lose control of my body to something as inconsequential as gravity. I flail my arms wildly in an attempt to grab onto something solid. My hands come into contact with something that I immediately latch onto. My body’s inertia continues despite my catching myself and I slam hard into the side of the tower. Several feet below the top of the tower, an inexplicably placed shelf of stone juts out just far enough for me to gain purchase. I silently thank the Divines and the architect’s odd impulse of placing this useless ledge here during construction. The dragon still circles the tower, breathing fire on the tiny humanoid dots running about below. Beyond the cries of anger and agony below and the bellowing of the dragon I hear the occasional whoosh of an arrow sailing through the air.
I try to pull myself up, but it’s no use. Even if I raise myself onto the ledge, there is hardly enough room to place my feet and there is no way up or down. I realize that if the dragon doesn’t kill me, the fall likely will. All I can do is cling to the tower for dear life and wait for my strength to give out. “Akatosh, save me!” I wail. “Is there anyone down there? Please! I need you to stand right below me, and, ah-” The dragon lands with a crash and begins to snap at its attackers. “-Break my fall, ah, if you can! Is anyone coming for me? Jenassa? Jenassa! Where are you? You owe me!” The strain of hanging on is quickly becoming too much to bear. My arms begin to tremble and I feel my fingers slipping. “That claw was mine!” Where will I go in the afterlife? “Gah! Balgruuf can take his title and shove it up his arse! Dragonslaying, crypt-delving, I never wanted any of it!” My fingers slip further. In moments, I will fall. With one final shriek of “Milk-drinkers!” I fall.
The feeling of impact was not unlike a jolt of electricity. The pain followed momentarily after. I lie near the body of a guard, his eyes still open yet unseeing. “I’m not there yet,” I murmur to myself. Any attempt to move sends a jolt of pain through my body. In this moment of desperation I invoke the Hist to mend myself enough to regain the use of my limbs. It is an ability inherent to any of my kind, though it must be used sparingly. I spot my bow – or someone’s bow – on the ground near where I lay. With great effort I grab hold of it, take an arrow from the deceased guard’s quiver and prop myself up against the stone of the tower.
I raise my head over a short wall of stone running along the stairs. I see nothing but fire. Moments later, the dragon comes into view. It’s moving slowly. Great gouges have been cut into its flesh in several places. It can’t take much more. Without thinking, I raise my bow, ignore the pain of drawing back the arrow, and fire.
I feel as if I am falling, and then everything fades into black.