My head hurt.
This was, in itself, not an unusual occurrence. I've had some spectacular hangovers over the years, often amplified by various illicit substances I experimented with in my youth - and just as often I had been given do-overs by large, brutish thugs whose employers took a dislike to some of my article.
As my vision cleared, I realized that I was sitting bound on a carriage surrounded by Imperial soldiers, and concluded that the latter was more likely. But what was the reason this time? Not that certain officers needed all that much reason, given my reporting on their conduct in the Great War. Then I focused an attention on the prisoner sitting opposite to me. His uniform seemed familiar.
A Stormcloak. The reason why I was sent to Skyrim - and the reason (well, one of them) why I never wanted to return to this cold, troll-infested wasteland. But in the eyes of my editor, curse his furry hide, this made me perfect for the job since I had experience.
The Stormcloak spotted I was regaining consciousness, and filled me in that I had walked into an Imperial ambush while I was crossing the border - one intended to catch his merry band of revolutionaries. But I was not the only bystander caught in the net, as a loudly complaining horse thief sitting next to him confirmed.
Then the thief turned his attention to the last prisoner in our carriage, who was not only bound but gagged. "What's wrong with him, huh?" With a start, I realized that I could answer that.
"That is Ulfric Stormcloak, the so-called Bear of Markarth and leader of the Stormcloaks."
"I have seen him before. I was in Markarth, 25 years ago. I've seen him shout surrendering Forsworn, men and women alike, off the city walls and watched their brains splatter on the ground far below. I've seen his goons torture and kill prisoners - harmless bystanders, including old people who were too weak to raise a sword anymore - because they deemed them traitors to their cause. I was were, and I wish I could forget."
The Stormcloak stared at me with hatred. "Watch your tongue! You are speaking about the true High King of Skyrim!"
The thief began to panic. "You are the leader of the rebellion! But if they've captured you... Oh gods, where are they taking us?"
"I don't know where we are going, but Sovngarde awaits."
With that, the Stormcloak changed topic and asked the thief about his home, perhaps to avoid thinking about what was to come. But at that point, for some inexplicable reason, the carriages in our little wagon train began to veer to the left, away from the road and the nearby Helgen town gate and rammed into a small copse of trees.
I will never know whether this was just fatigue on the part of our drivers, the usual efficiency which we can expect from the Empire's Finest, or some last-ditch effort to free Ulfric from his impending doom - but the fact that both my carriage and the carriage ahead of us moved to the left at the same time and thus maximized the chaos leads me to strongly suspect magical mind control, not that it will ever be proven now. That the Helgen gate closed after only a single rider from our group passed through was another nice touch, thus cutting the carriage guards off from reinforcements.
But if this was sabotage, it was wasted - I hit my head again at the impact, and the other prisoners likewise seemed to be too concussed to make a break for it. In a few moments the opportunity was gone, the gate reopened, and we were carried into town to meet our doom.
Immediately to the right, we saw General Tullius himself, the military governor of Skyrim, astride on his horse and talking to a group of Altner.
"And it looks like the Thalmor are with him. Damn elves. I bet they had something to do with this!" voiced the Stormcloak - and I suspect that he may be right, although not for the ambush that caught us but the accident right outside of the gates.
"But Araneus!", you interject. "Hasn't Ulfric Stormcloak always loudly stated how much he hates the Aldmeri Dominion and everything it stands for? Why then would they attempt to free him?"
Because nobody profits as much from the Stormcloak Rebellion as the Aldmeri Dominion. Think about it - after the Great War, the Empire was reduced to Cyrodiil, High Rock, and Skyrim, with Morrowind being largely abandoned by Imperial forces and Hammerfell becoming outright independent. But everyone knows that the Thalmor have not abandoned their doctrine of Elven Supremacy, and as long as that's the case a rematch is inevitable.
And if the Stormcloaks succeed in making Skyrim independent, the Empire will be broken. High Rock will be isolated from Cyrodiil, which means that High Rock will likely become independent sooner or later as well - and then the rest of Tamriel becomes easy pickings for the Dominion. And even if the Stormcloaks fail, the Empire will have wasted lots of men and resources putting them down and created a lot of resentment to keep further rebellions going for decades. So the worst thing that could happen, from the perspective of the Thalmor, is that Ulfric is captured and taken out in some surgical strike, and it looked like precisely that had just happened.
But I am only now able to write these thoughts to paper - at the time, I was preoccupied with other matters, such as a call to Tullius that the headsman was waiting. I did note that one of the Thalmor seemed familiar - one of the representatives who came to the signing of the White-Gold Concordant?
When we arrived at the executioner's block and stepped out of the carriage, the thief attempted to protest his innocence, but a captain of the Legion just told everyone: "Step towards the block when we call your name. One at a time!"
After her aide started with "Ulfric Stormcloak, Jarl of Windhelm", the next on the list was the other Stormcloak - "Ralof of Riverwood" - and then the thief, "Lokir of Rorikstead", who then decided to make a break for it and was promptly shot down by archers.
"Anyone else feel like running?" the captain asked in a smug tone, and then it was my turn. "Wait. You there. Step forward. Who are you?"
"I am Araneus Venator, writer for the Black Horse Courier. I was sent to Skyrim to report on the Stormcloak Rebellion. My credentials should be in the backpack you have confiscated."
"From the Black Horse Courier? Captain, what should we do? He is not on the list. Have you seen that backpack?"
"Indeed I have, soldier. But I saw no papers of any kind - but instead I found large a large supply of skooma."
"That skooma is for purely personal use!" I protested, but to no avail.
"Yes, I bet that's what they all say. No, solider, I suspect that we have caught one of the skooma smugglers who have been funding Ulfric's little rebellion, and I am sure the good folks of Skyrim will be interested in just how Ulfric was able to pay his troops.
So forget the list. He goes to the block."
The soldier looked skeptical, but they don't train the Empire's Finest to argue with superiors." By your orders, Captain." He turned to me: "I'm sorry. We will make sure your remains are returned to Cyrodiil. Follow the Captain, prisoner!"
Even in this situation, my mind raced. The skooma was real enough, but there were only three flasks (like I say, for purely personal use) - hardly enough to mark me as a serious "smuggler", and something that would only result in a fine back in Cyrodiil. And I didn't buy for a moment that nobody found my credentials. I suspect that someone - either the Captain or someone in her chain of command - had the bright idea to smear Ulfric Stormcloak's reputation in order to make him less of a martyr - from the perspective of the Empire, "Drug Lord of Windhelm" sounded like a better epitaph than "Folk Hero of Skyrim". And like said, I do have enemies in the Imperial Legions who would love to get me out of the picture - did they have friends among the officers involved in this operation?
General Tullius, meanwhile, couldn't resist the opportunity to gloat in front of Ulfric, now that the latter was bound and gagged. To his credit, he didn't use the "Drug Lord" line (that might have come later, if events hadn't turned out like this), but as said "...and now the Empire is going to put you down and restore the peace!" a sound echoed from beyond the nearby mountains which still sends a chill down my spine, and which I hope to never hear again.
Imagine a great bird of prey calling out - and then imagine it much deeper and louder, but from a long way off and echoing so much that you cannot tell from where it comes. "You are prey," this call says "run and hide if you can and pray that I am hunting other prey today."
Now the soldiers became nervous. Tullius claimed "It's nothing. Carry on.", but he was clearly rattled as well and stopped his ranting. The Captain called on a priestess to do our Last Rites, but as the priestess started with:
"As we commend your souls to Aetherius, blessings of the Eight Divines upon you..."
One of the other Stormcloak soliders, visibly upset about the omission of his favorite culture-hero from the ranks of the Divines, interrupted her. "For the love of Talos, shut up and let's get this over with." He stepped forward to the block, exclaiming: "Come on, I haven't got all morning!"
As was pushed down to the block, his last words before his head was cut off was: "My ancestors are smiling at me, Imperials. Can you say the same?"
As the crowd jeered either him or the Empire's Finest, I was called out and I raced to think of some good insults expressing my disdain for the Stormcloaks, the officer corps of the Imperial Legions, my editor and everyone else who has wronged me over the years - but that list was long and my time was short, and my train of thoughts was interrupted by that horrible sound again, leaving me at a loss for words for only the fourth time in my life.
I was called again and numbly walked towards the block. The Captain pushed me down and the headsman towered above me with his enormous, blood-encrusted axe. I saw my life flashing before me and cursed the fate - and more specifically, the editor - that had sent me here.
And that's when the dragon attacked.