Arian’s heart pounded in her throat as she climbed the icy stone steps. Night was beginning to fall, the dark clouds slowly chewing away at the stars. She felt as though a stone was dropped in her stomach for each step she took until she was so heavy with dread that she wasn’t sure if she could raise her foot another inch. She looked to the sky, saw the smoke mingling with the clouds, and shivered.
For months the village had been plagued by the dragon. No one ever saw it, but the smoke flooding from the mountain’s cave and the charred farmland was proof enough. Farmers and shepherds alike were furious at the loss of their crops and sheep, but the village was much too poor to afford a slayer. Cross words were exchanged, but that was it--no action was taken.
It was all a mistake. She hadn’t been the one to slay the dragon in Whiterun. It was the jarl’s guards who had fought it, and her hireling who dealt the final blow. Arian had been at the tower when the beast had approached, but soon fled like the coward she was once she realized that her puny sword was no match for its flaming maw and metallic scales. But once the dust and ash had settled, she had shamefully returned to gaze upon the dragon’s corpse.
Then it happened. The moment her hand rested upon its warm scales a massive roar exploded in her ears. Ethereal fire danced across her skin, yet did not burn. A rush of euphoria and adrenaline overcame her and her very marrow seemed to shake with the leaping flames, absorbing their heat.
And just like that, it was over. The flames disappeared, leaving Arian on shaky feet and soul-achingly cold. It took her a minute to realize that the guards were gaping at her. As her hireling, Marcurio, helped her walk, she caught snatches of their whispers.
She absorbed its soul!
By the Divines, did you see that?
Could she be... dragonborn?
Dragonborn. That was what Jarl Balgruuf called her when they returned to Whiterun, what the people hailed her as when she emerged from Castle Dragonsreach. Dovahkiin, dragonborn, one who was born with the soul of a dragon, a mortal who could absorb a dragon’s soul and knowledge, who could utilize the Thu’um, or Shouts, of their ancient language.
“What’s the matter?” Marcurio said glibly when she stumbled back to her room, having narrowly escaped the crowd at the bar. “Are your adoring fans too much for you to handle? How do you expect to slay another dragon if mere mortals wear you down, dragonborn?”
She didn’t have to face him to see the jealousy brewing in the mage’s eyes. Worst of all, Arian knew that he had the right to be jealous. He had been the one to slay the dragon--he should have been the one to receive the jarl’s praise and gold.
The moment they left Whiterun, he demanded a pay raise: 1000 gold, 500 more than his starting price. Arian paid him.
She didn’t have any particular destination in mind. She just needed to escape from the crowds, the suffocating attention. So she saddled up her horse and rode out into the wild, seeking solace. She stumbled upon the village of Rorikstead, thinking that her troubles were over. But she had underestimated the speed of rumors. The villagers recognized her on sight and clamored for her help to their problem.
Now here she was, climbing a mountain to face a dragon and her certain death. Marcurio rode beside her silently, keeping an eye on the sky. He offered little comfort for the majority of their journey and answered her questions tersely.
She could see the rocky crown of the mountain now. It jutted toward the skyward like a gnarled obsidian hand, beckoning her toward her doom. A shadow darted over the snowy ground and Arian stopped, breath hitching. Was that a growl she heard?
“See something in the shadows, miss?” Marcurio said. When she looked at him he smirked. “No need to be frightened. I’ll gladly slay the dragon for you while you hide. It’s what you hired me for, after all.”
Arian wanted badly to toss down her sword, to declare herself a coward. To admit to everyone that the gods had made the wrong decision in bestowing this curse upon her, that it should have been someone like Marcurio, cocky and arrogant and, most importantly, brave. She was no hero, much less the dragonborn.
Instead, she told Marcurio to shut up and to get off his high horse, literally. He had hogged the steed long enough. The mage willingly switched places, the damnable smirk still on his face. He knew that she was trying to scrape what little pride she had together to keep up her appearance. Just to rub salt into the wound he hummed a merry bar tune, the notes annoyingly carefree and light.
Snow began to fall, smothering the landscape. They were running out of stairs. Atop the horse, Arian could smell the acrid stink of the smoke. The inclined slope was beginning to level out. Her throat became dry. They had crossed the path of no return. There was no turning back now, much to her regret.
The dragon’s cave was a graveyard. Bones of past adventurers and animals were strewn before the entrance, some skeletons still smoldering. The charred ground smoked, puddles of water outlining them. She could smell the putrid stench of burning flesh flowing out from the cave’s depths and blanched. Arian began to dismount, but Marcurio held out a hand. “I’ll check it first. Stay here.”
She nodded timidly. No longer singing, the mage edged toward the cave’s entrance, readying his spells. Soon enough, he vanished into the cave. Arian anxiously waited, trying her best not to fidget or to run after him. A small part of her whispered that perhaps there was no dragon, that the problem had taken care of itself somehow. It was an impossible hope, but it brought up her spirits. Maybe the dragon had grown tired of hunting around Rorikstead and had decided to move on. She could return to the village without shame, as there was no dragon for her to run from. Fate had decided for her and it was all entirely out of her hands. Maybe, afterwards, she could dismiss Marcurio and travel on her lonesome, wait until this whole dragonborn craze dies down. It would be lonely to live as a hermit, but preferable to the overwhelming pressure to become a dragonslayer.
Arian couldn’t help but smile, then, when Marcurio returned, coughing but unscathed. “No sign of the beast,” he said, raising an eyebrow at her expression. “It must’ve went out to catch a cow or two. We should probably camp out. Wait for it to return.”
Back in the town, she wanted desperately to say. And she was about to say it when a deafening thunder exploded in her ears, followed quickly by a windstorm.
One minute she’s clinging to the bucking horse for life, the next she’s tumbling down the stairs when a strong hand grabbed her. Forcibly she was dragged to her feet, dizzy and swaying. Marcurio’s face waved wildly before her, blurry and unfocused. “Move!” he ordered. Arian stared at him, uncomprehending until a dark shadow visible even in the veil of night fell over them.
She rolled behind a rock just as the dragon crashed into the ground. Its Thu’um blasted the air like a hurricane, sending the snow into a whirling storm. Arian heard the crackling of spells and the roar of the dragon that drowned out Marcurio’s swears. Her breath came in short, quick gasps as she unsheathed her sword. This was it. This was her battle to the death, Divines help her.
She could not stand. Her chest tightened upon itself and she squeezed her eyes shut. She couldn’t do this. She might as well just curl up and pray for a fast death.
A blast of hot wind basted her face. Arian’s eyes snapped open and she found herself face-to-face with the dragon. Dumbstruck, she stared. Her brain shut down as the dragon reared back its mighty head. So this was how her life was going to end: a charred splatter on the ground. Her shoulders sagged and her head dropped. Let it be, then. She deserved it.
She heard the thundering flames and the searing heat but felt no pain. Arian lifted her head and saw a shimmering blue wall before her, holding back the flames. From behind, Marcurio’s face was creased in concentration, his hands glowing like stars as he struggled to keep the ward together.
“I hope you’re done gaping like an idiot,” he shouted, “because I can’t keep this up much longer! Ready yourself!”
The dragon snapped its jaws shut, cutting off the stream of fire. At the same time, Marcurio dropped his hands, dispelling the ward in a brilliant flash of light, leaving Arian standing before the beast, alone and defenceless.
Gazing into the fiery suns before her, Arian’s heart began to beat madly. I don’t want to die, she realized. I don’t want to die not this way no no no--
She raised her sword and Shouted. The force of the Thu’um nearly knocked the dragon over the edge, forcing it to claw for a solid footing. It snarled, smoke spilling from its maw, a deep rumbling filling the air as it readied to return her Shout. At that split moment, everything became clear. She could see the blood splashed across the bronze scales like streaks of paint, could make out every scar carved into its snout, could feel the warmth of the fire brewing in its throat. The birds overhead flew sluggishly, as if they were fish swimming upriver, and from the corner of her vision she could see Marcurio’s calloused fingers sparking with lightning and fire, sparks and embers thrown into the air like sparkling faerie dust. Everything was so vibrant and beautiful that she was amazed that it had taken her so long to realize it.
“Slay the dragon! Slay it!” Marcurio screamed.
As the dragon opened its jaws to reveal the swirling fire within, Arian was amazed at how slowly it moved. She could see now, truly see, as the flames leaped from its mouth like a graceful panther. She merely side-stepped and watched the fire dance past her, briefly caressing her face with heat. When the dragon turned its head toward her, she nimbly jumped, unbound by gravity, and landed upon its neck. Every fiber of her being shook with the echoes of its furious scream as she clung onto its spikes.
“I am the dragonborn,” Arian whispered to herself, and stabbed.