Funny thing about destiny. Sometimes fate has other plans.
– Philip J. Fry, “Law and Oracle” (2011)
Elspeth could see High Hrothgar rising above them as they rounded the end of mountain path—the culmination of the 7000 steps. To her right, she could hear Trygve nattering on about Kyne and creation. Although his voice broke up the uncomfortable silence that had plagued their journey from Whiterun, she paid him little attention, certain that he wasn’t saying anything she hadn’t already learned from Runa. Kyne created the Nords, the children of the sky, when she breathed life onto the land.
The etched tablets along the path were more a little more interesting, offering a chronology of the Dragon War and the events leading to the founding of the first empire. Trygve had them read every single one and from these she learned the names of the dragons, Alduin and Parthunaax, and of Jurgen Windcaller who built High Hrothgar after his seven-year meditation.
For years all silent, the Greybeards spoke one name
Tiber Septim, stripling then, was summoned to Hrothgar
They blessed and named him Dovahkiin
“Dovahkiin,” whispered Trygve at the ninth tablet. “They may bless you as such.”
Dovahkiin. Like Tiber Septim. The thought filled her with dread. All her life, she assumed that the revelation of Xeri’s vision would bring clarity and relief, a sense of purpose and certainty. But it didn’t. She could barely conceive of herself as Dragonborn and if her destiny was to be tied to the likes of Talos, she was terrified. She looked back at Lydia who had, once again, fallen behind. Her heartbroken friend had barely spoken since the morning after the Western Watchtower and her silence made Elspeth uncomfortable. On the ride to Ivarstead, she attempted to distract her by discussing her concerns and fears over being Dragonborn, but Lydia just looked at her blankly.
“I can’t,” she’d said weakly. “Elspeth I’m sorry, but I can’t deal with you right now.”
It hurt, but what hurt more was not being able to help. At the Vilemyr Inn, where they spent the night before starting the 7000-step trek, she encouraged Lydia to confide her feelings over warm mead and sweet rolls, but all she got for her effort was another vacant stare and a slow headshake. In their rented room they shared a bed and as they lay there Lydia held on to her like a scared child holds a rag doll and cried into the back of her neck. The best Elspeth could do was offer a silent prayer to Mara. The next morning, Lydia was silent again and remained aloof as they made their way up the mountain.
Trygve walked ahead of them and Elspeth waited, but Lydia barely acknowledged her when she caught up. She had never seen her so despondent and she was worried, but she didn’t know what to do. She tried to keep pace with her, in the hopes that being physically close to might help, but Lydia didn’t even seem to notice.
From a slight elevation to the right, Trygve called out and beckoned them to the final tablet, which caused Lydia’s face to brighten a tiny bit. He told them that reading all the tablets would yield a powerful blessing and magic was a distraction that she desperately needed.
The Voice is worship
Follow the Inner path
Speak only in True Need
Elspeth was ruminating on this last line while Trygve explained the blessing to Lydia. “It’s called Voice of the Sky,” he said. “For a full day, animals won’t attack or flee.” Trygve mused on this for several moments. He had the utmost respect for nature. And as a Nord hunter and healer, he believed that he had a unique perspective on the cycle of life and death. The ability to walk in the wild, as neither prey nor predator, astonished him. “Imagine the potential of this power,” he said.
“Are you fucking kidding me?” asked Lydia angrily. “That might be the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”
“Lydia!” Trygve was horrified and even Elspeth was shocked. Lydia was not particularly religious and she had confided her past disillusionment with the likes of Mara and Dibella after the incident with Vipir, but she had never heard her complain so brazenly following a blessing from one of the Divines.
But Lydia rolled her eyes and kept going. “We’re going to be spending more than a day in High Hrothgar. What animals aren’t going to flee in there?”
“Fine. If Kyne’s divine grace is so offensive to you, I think it might be best if you remained outside.” Elspeth thought Trygve was being sarcastic, but when she looked at him, he was seething. Lydia simply stared, her lip quivering angrily. Elspeth expected that she would tell him to shut the fuck up and they could move along, but she didn’t. Instead she grunted and stomped across the steps to the edge of the mountain.
Elspeth glowered at him as she walked past and sat with Lydia. From there they could see Whiterun, Bleak Falls Barrow, and the mountains far past the tundra. The world below them was vast and yet, everything looked so small.
“This is the first time I’ve made this pilgrimage,” Lydia said sadly as she wiped her face and inhaled deeply. “I’ve always wanted to see Whiterun from here. It’s supposed to be a huge spiritual experience for a Nord. And as I look at Jorrvaskr and Dragonsreach, all I can think about is whether or not Hrongar is fucking Njada out of spite.” She gripped her head between her bent arms and squeezed her eyes shut, as if restraining an onslaught of anguish. “Trygve is right. I can’t go in there. Not like this.”
Elspeth had no idea how to respond. Her heart ached for Lydia and the thought of walking into High Hrothgar without her made her stomach wrench. “Maybe it will help,” she suggested. “Balgruuf says it’s peaceful.”
“I can’t even imagine where my thoughts would go without something to distract me,” she said. “I want to kill another frost troll.”
“Please come,” she said quietly. “I really want you with me.” Elspeth was trying not to sound desperate but she wanted her to know that it was important.
“Gods Elspeth,” Lydia was pleading. “Don’t do this to me….” Her voice trailed off. Then after a few moments she took a deep breath. “If you command it, I will do it.”
Elspeth’s eyes widened at this suggestion. At no point did she ever consider asserting authority over Lydia. She put her hand on Lydia’s arm and squeezed it cautiously. “I don’t want you to come out of duty,” she said, hoping that Lydia wouldn’t sense her disappointment.
“I’m sorry,” said Lydia. “I’ve just never felt like this before. With Vipir I knew where to put all the anger and grief but with this I…I just can’t. I feel like part of me is missing.”
“You were together for a long time,” said Elspeth. “Not only that, but you had this huge secret and now you don’t.” She took Lydia’s hand. “I understand if you can’t do this.”
Lydia nodded. “I suppose I could go back Ivarstead and find some work. At least them I could stay busy…make some coin.” She stood and stretched her arms behind her. Would she really be distracted back in town or would she be consumed with guilt once she arrived? She was pondering this when she turned around and looked back toward High Hrothgar. Trygve was standing on the steps by the entrance with his arms folded across his chest and one leg up on the stone rail as he breathed in deeply and scanned the sky. His posture was valiant to the point of absurdity.
“Look how noble he looks,” whispered Elspeth. “Do you suppose he’s doing that on purpose?”
Lydia let out an uncomfortable chuckle as she considered the contrast between his dignified stature and her wretched behavior. When she looked back at Elspeth, she realized that she couldn’t let either heartbreak or the criticism of a pretentious Nord get in the way of her duty— and not her duty as housecarl to Thane, or of a Nord on a spiritual journey. It was simply her obligation as a friend and for that she did not require the purity of spirit that Trygve seemed to think she lacked. She just needed to push her sorrow aside for a bit.
“I can’t leave you alone with him,” she said suddenly. “Let’s go.” And before Elspeth could ask if she was certain, Lydia was pulling her toward the steps.
Trygve furrowed his brow as they approached but didn’t say anything. He stepped away to allow Elspeth to enter the building first. She held her breath as she opened the doors and stepped quietly along the narrow alcove that led to a large open room, where four elderly men in grey robes stood silently. Her heart started racing as one of them came toward her. She wondered if he knew, instinctively, that she was the one who absorbed the dragon’s soul. His gaze first met Trygve, who nodded and gestured toward Elspeth. The old man’s eyes widened a bit as if, perhaps, he was not expecting a Breton. But his quietly imposing demeanor soon returned.
“Dragonborn,” he said and she couldn’t quite believe he was addressing her. “We’ve been waiting for you.”
The way he regarded her was so unlike the reverence and awe that had been demonstrated toward her in Whiterun. His tone, though gentle, was somber and it tugged at her already heavy heart. High Hrothgar, with its quiet stillness so high above the world, was indeed tranquil but Elspeth was beginning to think that she would not find peace here.
“Yes,” said Elspeth softly, her voice trembling. “People have been calling me that.” It still didn’t feel right, to think of herself as that.
“Have they now? And what would you call yourself?”
“Elspeth,” she replied and paused, wondering if she should reveal her real name. Nerussa had warned her not to tell anyone—not even the Psijic Order. She had to assume that the Greybeards would have been included in her instruction. “Elspeth Aurilie,” she said. “And these are my companions, Lydia of Whiterun and Trygve Wartooth of Riften.”
The old man’s lips twitched into a very slight smile. She seemed terribly anxious, but her apparent modesty pleased him. Without the years of meditation that it took a typical person to learn the Voice, he was concerned that the Dragonborn would be impatient, all too eager to use the power without giving it due respect. Still, he was wary of her. In her armor, she looked more like a warrior than pilgrim. She carried several weapons and he would be most displeased if she came seeking another one.
“Very well,” he said. “I am Master Arngeir. I speak for the Greybeards. We will see if you truly have the gift.” He led her toward the center of the room and stood in front of her. “Show us Elspeth, let us taste of your voice.”
She looked up at Master Arngeir who gestured for her to speak at him. After taking a deep breath, she attempted to focus her thoughts on the thu’um but she found that the power sort of grew within her, forcing itself up and out.
The shout felt stronger this time and nearly knocked Argnier off his feet. Elspeth gasped as he recovered. “Well,” he said, “it would seem that you have the natural inclination.” He studied her face some more. She looked a bit bewildered. “Is something the matter?” he asked.
She pursed her lips and looked at him intently, praying to the gods that what she was about to say would not sound stupid or make her seem unworthy of this new power or skill, or whatever it was. “It doesn’t feel right,” she said. “It feels familiar but uncomfortable.” Master Arngeir didn’t respond. He simply looked at her intently. His silence was awkward and so she continued, stumbling over her words. “I’m a Breton and magic feels very natural to me. But this is different and…I am not certain that I— ” she struggled to think of an appropriate thing to say. “I don’t know if like it,” she whispered, swallowing against the anxiety in her throat. She hadn’t told anyone this.
Arngeir nodded approvingly. “That is good,” he said. “For Nords who come to learn the way of the Voice, it can take years and years of deep, mindful meditation to learn what has come so easily and so suddenly to you. Your discomfort is important; it will give you something on which to meditate. Are you ready to learn?”
This affirmation helped ease Elspeth’s mind somewhat and she nodded. Master Arngeir beckoned another Greybeard, Master Einarth, who proceeded to teach her RO the second word in the Unrelenting Force shout. The dragon language came so easily; the word simply echoed in her head as if she had known it all along. But she didn’t feel strong enough to use it just yet. Master Arngeir expected as much.
“While you meditate, Master Einarth will share with you his power so that you will be able to utilize the word you just learned. I show your companions where you will be staying.” Elspeth watched as they wandered off toward the back of the building before she turned to kneel with Master Einarth. Then she closed her eyes and attempted what she hoped was meditating, but her mind kept wandering. She had little experience with this sort of thing. Xeri never cared for it. She made Elspeth do specific breathing and focusing exercises as a way to help control her fear. She supposed that was similar to meditating, but the point was never to get inside her own mind or expand her knowledge. The point was to avoid being killed.
When she opened her eyes she saw Master Einarth staring at her sternly. She looked down uncomfortably and cleared her throat before trying again. Master Arngeir mentioned her discomfort as something she could meditate on and she thought back to that, the peculiar feel that was simultaneously familiar and strange. Eventually she found herself slipping into a meditative state and felt it again: a sensation similar to when she absorbed the dragon soul. It caused her to tense up, but she held herself still until it was over. When she opened her eyes again, Master Einarth was leaving, and Master Arngeir and Lydia were waiting for her.
Master Arngeir nodded as she approached them. “And how did that go?” he asked.
“I couldn’t focus at first,” she confessed. “But I thought about what you said, about the discomfort. And then I focused on that and felt something like when I took the dragon’s soul. Did I do it correctly?”
Lydia chuckled. For all her self-reliance, Elspeth was still very much the student, seeking approval from her mentor. Master Arngeir too let out a gentle laugh. “What you felt was Master Einarth sharing his power with you,” he explained. “As to your meditation, starting with your discomfort is good. Get some rest now. Tomorrow you will demonstrate the word you learned today and then Master Borri will teach you a word for a new shout. Do you have any questions for me?”
Elspeth thought for a moment. Finally, she looked at him and asked, “Master Arngeir, what do the Greybeards want from me?”
“We don’t want anything from you,” he replied. “The Greybeards are here to guide you, to help bring you to your destiny.”
“You know about my destiny?” she asked, her voice rising slightly. “Can you tell me what it is? What I need to do?”
Master Arngeir smiled again and shook his head. “No, we cannot tell you what to do. We summoned you here, but all we can offer is the knowledge and wisdom we’ve gained over the years.” Elspeth nodded. She was disappointed though not surprised to hear this.
“Let’s get you to bed,” said Lydia, reaching out and gently steering Elspeth toward their quarters.
Elspeth smiled and pulled closer to Lydia. “Are you feeling any better?”
“A bit,” she said as they walked back toward their sleeping quarters. “Still having some wretched thoughts but I feel calmer now.”
“Good,” said Elspeth as they entered the room where Trygve was already sleeping.
Lydia fell asleep almost immediately, while Elspeth lay awake on the uncomfortable bed, staring up into the darkness. Dragonborn, she thought. I am the…. But she couldn’t even complete the thought. She let out a deep breath. Trygve’s light snoring disrupted the otherwise heavy stillness that pervaded High Hrothgar and to quell the anxious thoughts starting to creep back into her mind, she focused on the steady rhythm of his breathing, letting it lull her into a deep sleep.
The shout came out with a fury that, had they not summoned ethereal targets, would have knocked the Greybeards over. Master Arngeir was astonished at the sheer strength and precision of her thu’um while Elspeth remained ambivalent.
“We will perform your next trial in the courtyard where Master Borri will teach you the first word of a new shout called Whirlwind Sprint,” said Master Arngeir. “Come this way Dragonborn.”
Dragonborn. It just sounded wrong. She wanted to correct him, like when her temple and guild instructors used to call her Elsbeth or worse, Beth,* but it seemed inappropriate to do so.
As they passed through the building, Elspeth wondered where Trygve and Lydia had wandered. Trygve had been gone all morning and Lydia seemed to disappear some time after breakfast. As it happened, they were both in the courtyard. Lydia was wandering around aimlessly by a large fire on the eastern side of the yard, but hurried back when the Greybeards and Elspeth emerged from the building. Trygve was meditating on the far edge of the courtyard steps. Elspeth observed him intently for a moment. He looked very mindful and at ease with the practice. She wondered if it came naturally to him or if it was a skill he’d honed over the years.
Master Borri nodded for Elspeth to stand in front of him and he taught her WULD. After meditating and sharing Borri’s power, Master Wulfgar demonstrated the shout, which propelled his body forward so swiftly she lost sight of the man until he appeared by the large iron gate on the other end of the yard.
The goal of the trial was to use the thu’um to clear the gate at the end of the courtyard before Borri closed it. Elspeth stepped forward, steadied herself, and shouted.
She felt her body propel through the air. The movement itself was some how both exhilarating and disorienting and so swift that the snow in the air felt like icy-pricks against her skin. And when she stopped, she fell with a hard smack on the icy, stone path and smashed her shoulder against the metal gate as it came crashing shut. The fall sent painful jolts up her spine and down her arm. She quickly scrambled to her feet and walked back to where the Greybeards and Lydia were waiting.
“Try again,” said Master Arngeir. “The thu’um is perfect. You just need to figure out how to stop.”
Elspeth was perfectly comfortable with constant, diligent training and began to enjoy the act of repeating the thu’um over and over. It brought to mind her training days, which, although harsh, were familiar. However, as she approached her 50th attempt at WULD that day, she feared everyone was becoming impatient. With the Greybeards it was almost impossible to tell. Masters Einarth and Wulfgar remained expressionless. Master Borri nodded a lot, and seemed to offer more gentle encouragement, while Master Arngeir was baffled by her inability to stop and told her to be more mindful. “Breath and focus,” he urged. Over and over, she tried to shift her concentration as she shouted, but she always wound up on the ground. She was becoming frustrated and tired.
By then Trygve had ended his meditation and joined the group, observing quietly with everyone. Elspeth felt awkward, assuming he was there, not simply to watch but rather to scrutinize and judge. When he spoke up, she shot him a terrible look.
“Elspeth,” he said calmly, ignoring her obvious irritation. “When you start, you pull the weight of your upper body backwards, like when you pull back to cast your spells. Stop doing that. Loosen up and shift your weight a little more to the front. Then shout.”
She wanted to ignore him. He had made the pilgrimage twice before, but had never studied the Voice. What could he possibly know? But her backside was frozen and sore and he had a point; she had been so focused on her mind that she had given little consideration to her bearing. Once again, she stepped up but this time steadied herself as Trygve instructed, and shouted.
For the umpteenth time, she felt the surge as she was propelled through the air, icy-prickles stinging her face, and when she stopped, she gasped. She was on her feet. Not on bottom or her hip. The gate crashed behind her, not against her shoulder or back.
When she approached, the Greybeards nodded solemnly but approvingly. She looked at Trygve and took a deep breath and paused, feeling rather embarrassed at her annoyance. “Thank you,” she said finally.
“Any time,” he said and offered a quick grin before he turned around and walked back to the building with Master Wulfgar and Master Einerth, while Master Borri and Master Arngeir stayed behind. Borri held out his hand and when Elspeth took it, he squeezed it gently. His affectionate gesture took Elspeth by surprise. She smiled in kind and looked back at Master Arngeir.
“You have done very well here Dragonborn,” he said.
“Thank you, Master Arngeir,” she said. She wasn’t certain if it was her weariness or if she was genuinely warming up to it, but being addressed by Dragonborn didn’t seem quite so awkward now.
“We have one final test for you,” he continued. “A task if you will.” He grinned as he noticed her face brighten at the word task. “You may stay and continue to meditate and practice as you need. After that, you are to retrieve the Horn of Jurgen Windcaller from his temple in the ancient fane of Ustengrav. Remain true to the Way of the Voice and you will return.”
After he left, Lydia slung her arm through Elspeth’s and they walked to the edge of the yard together. It was getting late and the view was obscured by fog. “I can’t believe I almost missed this.” She looked intently at Elspeth who appeared somewhat relaxed. It was an unusual look for her. “Are you all right?” she asked.
Elspeth nodded and as she gazed out over the cloudy dimness, she felt an eerie calm over take her. It wasn’t particularly soothing; it simply held her suspended in the moment, without the weight of the past or the fear of the future. Then she what could only be described as a moment of clarity.
I am Dragonborn, she thought. It wasn’t comfortable, but it was no longer strange.
It was simply true.
* This is an Easter egg referencing my childhood. Beth is a perfectly acceptable name, but it wasn’t mine and teachers used it anyway. Drove me crazy.