We passed by Helgen on our way to Falkreath. I stopped my horse to look at the still abandoned town. As I looked at its ruined walls, I convinced myself that I could still smell Alduin’s burning fire, the burning flesh of innocents, wood and stone. I sat transfixed, still hearing the screams of confusion and fear as the ancient dragon assaulted the town and its people. There was Ralof’s voice urging me to follow him to safety. With my hands still bound I ran to him. Only when Sterek touched my shoulder, did I snap out of my memories. The two rangers both seemed concerned. I pushed forward, wordlessly. It was over, it was the past, but it at times it was still very real to me.
I never did like Falkreath. The surrounding mountains and pine trees were always lovely. It was abundant with life old and new. I was offered a plot of land to build a house on before facing Alduin, but couldn’t take it from jarl Siddgeir. I wanted to get away from death. I wanted to get away from his hold, and his ever-sly touches. I had added too much to its cold embrace already. No matter how I loved the wilderness and the soothing silence, I couldn’t make myself settle there. I remained in the cities, where I could be distracted; where my dreams and memories wouldn’t bother me so much.
Just a little way before we rode into the town, we were ambushed by bandits. I was out of practice and only had a dagger with me, but I managed to wound one’s leg enough for Sterek to finish off with one swoop of his great sword. I stalled for a moment, looking over all the blood that we spilt over the cobbled path. I had imagined that I would always have to see a lot of blood when I was with Arcadia, but there was never more than a nose bleed or an accidental cut to take care of.
The rest of the way to town was very uneventful after that. Falkreath really was seasonless. The fine mist that covered the town not only added to the mental image of decay I had conjured, but to its timelessness. It hadn’t changed at all since I last saw it. The villagers were still suspicious of anyone new and we were met with hard stares as soon as we passed through the gate. We ended up in the Dead man’s drink with several pitchers of mead.
“You mentioned that we were going to Haafingar,” I said. It was too late to talk to Sterek. He was passed out on the floor, drunk. The inn’s name seemed very funny then. “But where exactly are we going?”
“I’m not supposed to say. Balgruuf will have my head.”
“I’ll just leave and go on my own. Then the two of you can go back to whatever it is you do.”
His drink stopped mid-way to his mouth, his eyes went wide. It made me suspicious. “You’ll get killed.”
“I’m not a helpless woman.”
“You’re also not who you used to be.” He grabbed Narri as she walked past, asking for more mead and food. She looked at me for a moment, recognizing who I was. I turned my head away until she left the table. “When’s the last time you held a sword?”
“I don’t remember,” I said.
“How am I in good conscience supposed to let you go by yourself knowing you might not make it?”
“What does it matter if I make it or not?”
“It matters to Skyrim. It matters to her people. You might just be a legend to some now, but there are those who remember who you are and what you did. It matters. And with this damned civil war looming, Skyrim will need you again.”
I thought over his words. “But why take me to Haafingar? Why not away from Skyrim if Baalgruf wants me away from Ulfric?” I closed my eyes. The civil war.
“He hopes you would join the Imperial legion,” Magnus began. “to put a stop to Ulfric once and for all.”
“And if I refuse?” This was too much. I never agreed to join a side in the war. Not when I was under Ulfric’s thumb and not now while I was in debt to Balgruuf.
Magnus slammed down his goblet. “Then you leave Skyrim to the wolves.”
We were all pushed into one small room where an extra cot had been brought in for me. I preferred the horrible stiff leather to sleeping on hay. I lied on my back, staring up at the wooden ceiling unable to fall asleep. Scenes of what had happened at Helgen flashed in my mind like a restoration mage conjuring up light. Coupled with the snoring from the two rangers, I struggled to find enough peace to drift away.
I pulled on my boots and tip-toed out of the room to get some fresh air. There were a few lamps lit but Masser and Secunda sat high above my head, illuminating the night with soft shadows. It wasn’t so bad to be outside then. I pulled my cloak tighter around my shoulders before walking down toward the cemetery. I counted the grave markers until seven. Then I walked down seven more and sat down by his grave. Stenvar’s grave. He was a good man and friend. A mercenary I had only hired out of necessity because of a broken rib. And I only had the broken rib because I slipped while taking care of a bandit. He hit me with his shield and I rolled down the steps. But the two of us soon became friends, and he followed me until his death in Falkreath. It only took one drunken brawl and one hit to the side of his head for him to stagger backwards and hit his head against the small wall of the fire pit. He was dead. It wasn’t by a bandit’s blade, or even the deadly bite of a dragon like he had wanted. It took me a long time to process what had happened. I was angry with him for so long, for leaving me alone and for picking the fight in the first place. Then I blamed myself for not stopping him, for not speaking out against the amount of mead he was drinking. Not that he would have listened to me.
I placed my hand on the stone, and said a silent prayer. I walked back to the Dead man’s drink after telling him of what happened to me. I knew he couldn’t hear me. He would have scolded me for being a milk drinker. While I climbed the steps to the door, I stopped and looked at the two guards at the gate that stared at me. They looked away quickly. My stomach twisted and I knew that something wasn’t right.
Before I could open the door, there was a sharp pain on the back of my head. My vision blurred and I stumbled forward. Strong arms took hold of my arms, pulling me up and away from the wooden planks. I thought it was Magnus or Sterek there to help me, but I was being dragged away down the steps, further and further away from the door. I tried to scream, but a leather clad hand covered my mouth and the guards by the gate pretended not to notice what was happening. I was dragged some distance away to behind some houses, where I was dropped onto the grass. I lifted my head, anger was boiling like water within me.
He bent down on one knee and handed me a water skin. I threw it to the grass as I got to my feet. Surprise overtook me for a moment. “This was the only way I could speak to you without your two bodyguards around.”
My stomach twisted, anger returning. How dare he? I looked around at every one of the Stormcloak men that stood around us. How did they find me? “You knew I was here? Did you follow us?”
“Honestly,” he said. “This is all a happy coincidence. One of my men, Olaf, said he had seen you on the road. We bribed some of the gate guards to let us in so that I could talk to you. We only have a few moments.”
“What do you want?” I didn’t mean to bark at him, but I was kicking myself. They had found me so easily.
He watched me quietly for a moment, taking me in. We hadn’t met again since our drunken night in Windhelm before I set out to kill Alduin.
“I want you to come with me, Olsa, back to Ulfric. The war was paused so that you could do what needed to be done, but it’s time to take Skyrim back. It’s time.”
“You want Ulfric to give you more recognition and promotion for finally bringing him the dragonborn.”
His head whipped back at my words, and his brow furrowed. “I don’t know what happened to you, but you have always fought for what is right. You know Skyrim belongs to us.”
“I won’t follow you blindly, Ralof. I’m on no one’s side, and I refuse to choose.”
“You followed me once,” he said, stepping closer. He wanted to take hold of my hand, but I pulled away and turned my body to face the high wall that surrounded Falkreath. “You chose to come with me when we escaped Helgen, Olsa. You followed me blindly then.”
“Don’t call me that.”
“It’s your name, is it not?” Laughter bellowed from his chest. “Do I have the wrong woman?”
I looked him in the eye. “It’s not my name anymore.”
He breathed out against my ear. The hair on my arms and neck stood on end. No more goose bumps, warm caresses and old memories. “No, you are not her. You are just wearing her face.”
Before I walked away, I turned back to look at him. He met my gaze.
“You know where I’ll be,” he said.