“Father Abbot,” said Brother Pavel, “I have discovered another way of protecting the Key. There is an organization that might be more capable of ensuring its safety than even the Slayer.”
“If you mean the Knights of Byzantium,” said the abbot, “they would keep it from the Beast by destroying it. That would negate the whole point of our Order, remove any possibility of using the Key’s powers for the benefit of mankind, and could put the very world in jeopardy if those powers were unleashed without proper wards. Little, if any, better than allowing it to fall into the hands of the Beast.”
“Fear not, Father,” said Brother Pavel, “this is a warrior order with no connections to the Knights. An organization, dedicated to protection of the innocent, which seems to be almost predestined for the task. And they are far from here indeed, in another world, and if they failed and the Beast seized the Key the damage she would cause might not reach us here. The Earth would be saved.”
The abbot pursed his lips. “Hmm,” he said. “That is not certain. It is quite possible that the entire universe would be destroyed. Still, it is equally possible that the Beast will not be able to follow the Key to the other world. It is not the ideal solution, as it puts the Key out of reach of the people of Earth, but it may be the only choice open to us. I shall have to think upon this for a while.”
At that moment another monk rushed into the abbot’s chamber. “Father,” he cried, “I bring dire news. The Beast has landed at Prague-Ruzyně and is on her way here at this very moment.”
The abbot grimaced. “And so there will be no time for further thought,” he said. “Very well, Brother Pavel, we will put your plan into action. The Key shall go to this… other world. What world is it? Not one of the planets circling our sun, I presume, as surely none of them could sustain human life.”
“Indeed so, Father,” Brother Pavel agreed. “It is a world called Nirn, where there is a continent named Tamriel, and a country called Skyrim.”- - - - - -
I stood in the circular chamber, just inside the entrance of the keep, and listened as Isran spoke about his organization and its purpose. The veteran Redguard warrior’s voice was so low and gravelly that it would have sounded ominous, carrying a note of doom, even if he had been telling me about something as innocuous as the dishes that were to be served at dinner.
And, in fact, the content of his words matched his tone. “The vampires have been gathering strength in the shadows,” Isran said, “ready to strike. They have attacked the Hall of the Vigilant and destroyed it. If we slip up, even for a moment, we’ll be next. Watch your back. Be on your guard at all times. Avoid sleep if you can. Sleep is for the weak.”
I nodded. “I understand,” I said. “We’ve fought vampires before, at Pinemoon Cave and in Morvarth’s lair near Morthal, and I found that the best way to deal with them was to put flaming shafts through their backs from fifty paces. I’ve no desire to wake up and find one at my throat.”
“There is no enemy more to be feared than a vampire,” Jenassa chimed in. “They are as cunning as they are cruel.” She gave one of her wolfish little smiles and added “Yet they fall before the Dragonborn like all other foes.”
“You have gained quite a reputation as a formidable warrior, Dovahkiin,” Isran agreed.
I shrugged. “A lot of that is due to me having Jenassa to watch my back,” I said. When I hired the deadly Dunmer woman I had been influenced by my admiration for Irileth, Jarl Balgruuf’s supremely competent Housecarl of the same race, and it was a decision I had never regretted. No longer were we Mistress and Hireling, although most people in Skyrim continued to regard us in that light; we were sword-sisters, battle-comrades, a partnership far deadlier than either of us would be alone.
Isran nodded. “I counsel all who come here to trust no-one,” he said, “but the exception to that rule would be a sworn sword-brother – sword-sister, in your case. I would welcome both of you to my cause and feel privileged to gain two such warriors.”
I smiled at him. It was good that he recognized Jenassa’s worth; many in Skyrim were contemptuous of hireling warriors. Ulfric Stormcloak had treated her as if she’d been little more than a pack animal and that was one reason why I had given my allegiance to the Empire, fighting against the Stormcloak rebellion, even though my first encounter with Imperial forces in Skyrim had been when they sought to behead me. “We would hear more of your organization before we make our decision,” I said, using ‘we’ just to emphasize that I regarded Jenassa as an equal. In fact, I knew, Jenassa did not care who we worked for and was content to leave all such decisions to me.
Isran began to speak but before he’d uttered more than a few words there was an interruption. A young woman, or rather a girl for she was short of marriageable age by perhaps two or three years, entered the hall and approached Isran.
“Hey, dad, I’m…” the girl began, and then her gaze fell on me and she stopped in her tracks. “Wow!” she exclaimed. “Is that dragon-scale armor? That is so totally cool!”
I raised my eyebrows. “It is dragon-scale armor, indeed, and cooler in the summer sun than steel. Yet it keeps me warm enough in the snowy wastes that I do not freeze and, therefore, I would not describe it as ‘totally cool’.”
“My daughter uses idioms strange to our ears, at times,” Isran explained. “I gather that ‘totally cool’ is an expression of envious approval.”
His daughter? I felt my eyebrows climb higher. The girl was tall for her age and sapling-slim, as fair of skin as a typical Nord, and had big blue eyes and the red-brown hair often seen in Nords who perhaps had a touch of Breton or Forsworn blood. She reminded me a little of Ysolda of Whiterun but was, if anything, even prettier. Her father Isran was of average height, broad of shoulder, and – the most obvious difference – had skin as brown as my own. I wasn’t going to count his bald head and long greying beard as differences, of course, but even discounting that they looked nothing alike. She must be adopted, a custom not unknown in Skyrim, although from what I had seen in the Honorhall Orphanage the practice seemed to be rare. And the stern Isran didn’t seem the type to adopt a child.
“This is my daughter Doren,” Isran went on, bestowing a fond smile upon the girl and surprising me yet again. Up until that moment I hadn’t believed that the grim warrior was capable of smiling. “Doren, these are the warriors Rhash’kem and Jenassa. I hope that I can persuade them to join us.”
“That would be way cool,” Doren said, flashing a brilliant smile at us. “It would be great to have more ladies around the place. There’s pretty much nobody here who I can talk clothes and shoes with.”
I can talk about clothes,” Isran corrected her, his tone one of gentle chiding – or at least as gentle as his gruff voice could manage. “And I suspect they will know more about armor than ladies’ fashions.”
“Actually I’m a good friend of Taarie and Endarie of Radiant Raiment in Solitude,” I said, stretching the truth a little. I wasn’t sure Endarie was capable of having friends but she seemed to dislike me less than any of her other customers. “And I modeled a gown for them in front of Jarl Elisif the Fair.”
“Cool!” Doren exclaimed. “You so have to tell me about it.”
“Later, dear one,” Isran said. “I have not yet completed my business with them.”
Doren pouted. “Oh, right. I’ll just go for a walk then. That’s what I was coming to tell you.”
“Very well,” Isran said, “but do not go beyond the first palisade unless you take a guard with you. And don’t walk in front of the archery targets.”
The girl rolled her eyes. “Yes, dad, I’ll be careful,” she said, and strolled off. She was extremely pretty; in a couple of years she’d be beautiful and swarms of suitors would seek her out. Then Isran would glower at them, no doubt, and all but the very bravest would suddenly remember urgent business at the far side of the province.
“There is need for her to take care,” Isran said, once she had departed. “She is, as you may have guessed, my adopted daughter. Years ago, not long after my family was slaughtered by vampires, I came upon a small girl-child, lost and speaking an unfamiliar dialect, accompanied only by a dying priest. Before he died the priest pleaded with me to take care of her, as I have done, but he gave me a warning also. She is sought by a Daedric Prince from another world, who seeks to use her blood in a dark sacrificial ritual, and should that Daedra succeed then ruin will be unleashed upon all Tamriel and beyond. She is a target for vampires, too, as they would use her to strike at me.”
I could guess what he was going to say next and I pre-empted him. “If you desire us to share in watching over her, we shall do so. No foe shall get to her except by going through us.”
“And the Forsworn have a word for those who try to go through Rhash’kem the Dragonborn and her shadow Jenassa,” my companion chimed in. “It is ‘corpse’.”
“I thank you both,” said Isran. “I expect that for the most part, if you join us, I shall be sending you on missions the length and breadth of Skyrim; gathering allies, retrieving artefacts, and seeking out and destroying vampires. Yet while you are here your assistance in protecting Doren will be greatly valued.” He permitted himself a tight little smile. “I had not thought to hear of the Dragonborn modeling a gown. You wear armor as if born to it.”
“I was,” I said. “My father was a sell-sword, as was my mother before their marriage, and I came to Skyrim to follow that profession. And indeed I have spent much of my time clad in armor. Yet I like fine gowns as much as the next girl and I have been told that, when I am bathed and properly attired, I am passable enough that at least I do not scare the horses.”
Isran gave a grunt that could have been a smothered laugh. “Indeed. Well, Dovahkiin, will you join us? I cannot promise to pay you well; our finances are adequate, but no more. The food is plentiful, and well cooked, but otherwise I have little to offer but hard marches, perilous combat, and the knowledge that you will be fighting in a cause that is just.”
“Combat is our art,” Jenassa said, “and we live to practice it.” The moral side of things had never bothered her; as long as it was technically legal she was happy to fight against anyone or anything.
“We have riches enough, the plunder of a score of tombs, and need no pay,” I told him. I didn’t mention the spell to transmute iron into gold that had made me one of the richest people in all Skyrim. “Freeing the land from the scourge of the vampires is a worthy aim. We shall be happy to pledge our swords to your cause.”
“I thank you both, and am honored to have you join us,” said Isran. “Welcome to the Dawnguard.”