Pilgrimage: An Elder Scrolls Tale

Editors, Short Stories

Written by Grayson Schrader and Josh Johnson

He was here. He had made it. There before him were the steps he so long dreamed of. The very steps his father always told stories of. The path to High Hrothgar; the Seven Thousand Steps; the path to the Throat of the World- it had many names. They were more intimidating than he had imagined, but that wouldn’t stop him.

“I will make you proud, Father,” Agnar muttered to himself.

“Ya gonna go, boy? Yeh’ve been standing there forever. You didn’t come all that way from Hammerfell to just gape, didja?” shouted a nearby voice. A man leaned against the stone bridge laden with vines, chewing a root. His shoulders and patchy white beard were strewn with sawdust. Must be a lumber worker, Agnar thought. He was closer to sixty than fifty, his hair receded farther than any man Agnar had ever seen and a milky eye followed him as he stood gawking at the mountain.

“Oh no sir, I’m uh, well I’m not from Hammerfell. I was born in Bruma,” Agnar said. 

“Bruma, eh? A chilly little place isn’t it?” He paused, thinking. “Once I… well, I thought I might settle there in a different life.” His milky eye roved foggy peaks caressed by the sun’s touch. “Ivarstead became my home instead.” He bit deep into the root between his teeth, coating his lips in a deep purple. “Why is it that all you pilgrims gawk? Is it you’re afraid one of those dusty ‘ole twats will come flying down the mountain and kill ye?” the geezer chuckled.

Agnar grasped his sack tighter against his shoulder, “Have you ever met a Greybeard?”

“Can’t say I have. Some of the delivery boys have but… last two we sent, Raxler and Erron, they didn’t make it back. Hope the gods made sure they rested easy,” the beggar mused. “Myself, though? Never thought to make the hike. Too old for that. Sure, I might have when these knees didn’t wobble.” He gestured violently as he spoke. “So, uh, ain’t it cold here for you and your people? Skyrim is a harsh land.”

Agnar chuckled. He had always received these comments throughout his life, but it still never failed to humor him. People always thought because of his dark skin that he was naturally from the province of Hammerfell. It never really bothered him or his mother. Truth be told, it always made him feel a little unique, even though sometimes the Nords could be, well, condescending people, to put it kindly. 

“Well, for my mom sir, yes. She was born in the deserts but eventually, she came to Skyrim and met my father. They moved up some ways to Bruma.” 

The elderly man gazed at Agnar for a bit and smirked. “Guess ya don’t hear that much do ya? A Redguard and a Nord having a kid- who woulda thought… Well boy, best of luck to ya. From what I know, that hike ain’t easy.”

“Thank you, sir. Truly.”

“Best be heading off, boy. Don’t wanna burn any more daylight. When ya get back, a pint of mead is on me.”

Agnar nodded with a smirk, looking back at the steps. The time had come.

The elderly man chimed in one final time, “Aye, boy- before you go, what’s your name? ”

Agnar smiled broadly and responded, “How about I tell you over that drink?” He waved before he turned back, taking his first step of the thousands that lay ahead.

#

Some ways up the mountain, Agnar arrived at another wayshrine.

What is this, the fourth, fifth, maybe even the sixth one? He had lost count. It was hard to remember in this raging blizzard. His thoughts were blurring together in his mind.

Every part of his body was freezing: his fingertips were frostbitten, ice accumulated on his untamed beard, and no sensation was left in his toes. He was running low on rations and water. He had wanted to pack light for the trip. Talos above, Father would have prepared, Father would have packed light. He sat down next to the simple shrine. The wind swept softly through it, flickering the little candles placed by passing worshippers. 

‘They tell the story of High Hrothgar- how it came to be,’ his father had told him. It was Njoll who taught Agnar how to worship as a boy. He built him a little shrine in their home and taught him all the prayers. 

Agnar looked at the little tablet in the center of the sanctuary. Little letters had been hewn into the rock; harsh letters, letters that were as close to art as Agnar’s father to heaven.

“Man prevailed, shouting Alduin out of the world; Proving for all that their Voice too was strong; Although their sacrifices were many-fold.”

Njoll’s face seemed to hover in Agnar’s mind, those bright eyes, once full of joy and love, now darkened by the spring sickness. That was what Count Osvaldur had called it; a spring sickness, as if it was a time come and gone, left to the pages of history. 

He felt for the little box in his sack, the one mother had made. Slaved over, more like, he thought. He took a piece of bread from his sack and a swig of water, letting the calm sweep down his throat and into his bosom. He could feel him, on the wind, in the shrine. Njoll was with him, he was always with him.

Agnar rose, allowing the crisp mountain air to billow his roughspun cloak. High Hrothgar was waiting, Talos was waiting. Njoll would smile today.

#

Agnar’s legs had grown weak; his lips had chapped like streambeds of the Alik’r desert, How much more is there? Agnar wondered. He felt like he had been climbing for days, yet he knew it had only been hours. That old man was right; he shouldn’t have wasted so much time, but he was close, he could feel it.

“Talos, give me strength,” Agnar prayed aloud as he reached yet another snow-covered landing.

“You’re gonna need it, kid.” said a low, raspy voice from behind. Chills went down Agnar’s spine, even worse than the snowstorm that engulfed him. 

Agnar turned around and stared down the tip of an ebony dagger. Its obsidian blade appeared dark and haggard. Agnar could almost hear the screams of the lives it had taken. Rust caked it–or maybe that was thickly swathed blood. 

Agnar’s eyes followed the blade to its hilt, then up the arm that held it to a sickly grey face. Dark elven eyes met Agnar’s. They darted to the right and left in the lazy fashion one might associate with nonchalant strength. Three shadows became flesh in the smog behind the elf. Two orcs walked to his side, clad in furs and rags. The third figure knelt on a low rocky outcrop and knocked an arrow in his bow. 

“Listen, friends, I don’t want any trouble,” Agnar said sheepishly, trying to diffuse the situation.

The dark elf laughed condescendingly. “That’s what they all say innit, Makur?” the elf elbowed one of the orcs with his off hand.

The orc nodded. His tongue lolled halfway out of his mouth and weeping wounds covered his cheek.

“Listen, we’ll just make this quick. Give us your food and weapons and we’ll make it easy for you. No need for things to get messy now do they?” the elf held out his off hand in a beckoning motion.

“You do this to every poor soul climbing the mountain? Jump them when they’re weak and steal their valuables? This is sacred land.” Agnar replied with an irritated smirk.

The orcs looked at each other a moment, grins sprouting on their faces. Laughter exploded from them and the female responded, “It ain’t nothing personal kid. It’s tough out there. Gotta survive.”

Agnar pondered her words for a few seconds. “Yeah, gotta survive…” His father would survive.

Agnar wrenched the dark elf’s wrist, it crunched in his grip, and the dagger fell to the ground. The Dunmer screamed in pain and collapsed, cradling his ruined arm. The elf’s screeches echoed off the mountain peaks, multiplying as they grew further distant. Makur leaped forward soundlessly, a sword having appeared in his hand. Agnar could see the blood rising in Makur’s eyes as he lunged forward. His sister joined his attack, whirling twin knives in a devilish blur.  

Agnar repositioned himself, actively using both bloodlust orcs as an obstacle for the archer’s line of sight. The twins flanked Agnar in their frenzy. He stepped to the side as they leaped upon him, tripping the male, knocking him down the ancient steps. Makur’s body crunched and broke against the unforgiving stone, but his cries did not ring out. Agnar’s eyes followed him down a moment, maybe he was already dead.

Agnar turned around to the female’s whirring blades. They whistled in her hands, slicing through the growing wind. Agnar stood a moment, unsure if he should attack or wait. 

She smiled, “You should have run half-breed.”

Cowards run. Njoll didn’t raise a coward.

Agnar flipped the small dagger into the air letting it spin and whirl. The waning sun flashed off of the blade catching it with a bright pink light. Agnar leaped into the air, and as the blade fell to the ground, he flicked it into the orc’s shoulder.

Thank you for that one, mother.

 The orc’s eyes opened wide and she looked down at the darkened blade protruding from her shoulder. “How did you…?”

Agnar dashed forward, catching her before she fell, and safely shielded himself from the archer. He drew the knife from her and held it to her throat.

“Let me pass,” Agnar shouted.

The archer shuffled in his perch, looking around at his fallen comrades. 

Agnar’s shoulders knotted together. This man would not be trained- would not have the resolve to allow his friends to die for his own survival. Yet his bow remained taut, the arrow staring at Agnar with its iron eye. 

“We are a poor band,” the archer said. “It is only your food we seek.”

Agnar pitied them. But this world was a harsh one, and pity would only doom Agnar to the grave. He held fast. “Let me pass,” he repeated. The sternness of the archer’s gaze spoke louder than any words. They would not simply let him go. “Or I kill her.”

The iron eye fixed its gaze to the ground as the archer lowered his bow.

Agnar looked down upon all four of them. He saw no point in killing them. He hadn’t before and he wouldn’t now. He wasn’t a murderer. 

The knot in Agnar’s shoulders relaxed, and the archer dropped his bow to the ground. He sat down, panting. 

A scream pierced through the howling wind and snow. Agnar turned and the elf with the broken arm scrambled to his feet. He ran through their midst like a madman, his screams only growing and dissipating as he came and went, supporting his useless arm.

All heads turned, searching. There was nothing. 

“He’s gone soft as pudding, eh?” the archer chuckled.

A low growl rumbled in the gloom. Agnar’s gaze snapped toward it. He crouched down. The elf had seen something.

The beast that came from the swirling wind and snow was the stuff of legend and lore–the kind of beast parents create to scare children into submission.

But the fantasy growled with the power of giants and reared up on hind legs. A frost troll the size of two men loped forward faster than such a monster should be able. This creature was not something you fought; it was something you survived.

With a swipe of its paw, the archer was knocked aside instantaneously. The orc screamed the cry of battle and charged toward the beast. Her knives whirred in her hands once more–the left one slighter slower. In two swift motions, her blades buried themselves in the troll’s thick hide. But as she fought to withdraw them, they stuck. A great paw swiped, and she flew backward into the now pink snow.

Agnar stood rooted to the ground. His mother’s training had never prepared him for this. He could fight men, but not something that was akin to the abominations of Oblivion itself. He watched as death leaped forward and thrashed him with its massive paw. Stars flooded his vision, and he crashed into the side of the mountain. 

He felt his side where pain sprouted like lances in his abdomen. That, he knew, meant a rib was broken. His breath came like wicked rasps from his lungs. The mountain grew dim, and the world with it, as everything faded to black.

#

When vision returned to him, Agnar clutched at his ribs as coughs bent him double with their force. His head throbbed like a war drum, and he rubbed his scalp where a rock had grazed it. His hand came back bloody. He sat a moment, catching his breath, taking further inventory of himself. His right shoulder was dislocated, his skull cracked, a rib broken. What was it the older man of the milky eye had said? Two others had died, and the gods had seen fit to take them

It would take more than a mindless troll for Agnar to meet Talos today.

Below Agnar, the two orcs clashed with the beast, the great troll’s howls mixed with the grunts of its attackers. The orcs were a spindly dam holding back the force of a waterfall; soon they would break. There was nothing Agnar could do to save them. He rose to his feet. The world swam before him, but the distraction below offered him the gift of escape, and he would not be the fool who refused it.

He broke into an adrenaline-fueled dash. One foot in front of the other, his will to live forced him to continue. As he continued up the steps with haste, the screams and shouts of the bandits echoed behind Agnar.

“Hey! He’s getting away!” one of them said. 

Agnar ran, he didn’t know how he did it, but his legs carried him forward. With a hiss like a snake, an arrow whizzed by him, narrowly missing his shoulder. Damn them. Don’t they realize I’m the least of their worries? Sprinting step-by-step in the stone and frozen snow, Agnar felt his heart beating rapidly. Then, suddenly, an arrow sprouted from his thigh, and he pitched forward into the falling snow. Agnar screamed, the ever-violent snowstorm nulling it. 

He whipped around and saw only the all-consuming void of snow and wind. Then another arrow planted itself to the left of him. As soon as they began, the arrows stopped and he glanced at his leg. The arrow had gone clean through- thank Talos- but blood still soaked his pants. He gripped the arrow’s shaft with both hands, gritted his teeth, and yanked hard. The shaft ripped free and brought with it a crimson sea. Agnar would have retched had he not been so busy gritting his teeth against the agony.

He tore the cloth from his sleeve as a makeshift tourniquet and bandage, tying it tightly around his gushing wound. He was so occupied with his fatal wound that he had completely forgotten about the sub-zero temperatures. An artery was severed and blood soaked the snow around him. Soon, it would pump out in little rivers until his vision clouded, and death’s embrace welcomed him. 

Not yet. Talos, please not yet. I’m so close.

Agnar dragged himself forward. His arms trembled, his breath came forced and hollow. But before him, the shadow of High Hrothgar cut through the gloom. The temple of the Greybeards stretched out over the perpetual snow and ice. It was a hardened and ancient fortress jutted high against the waning light. It cut the shadows in half, and the sun shone blood-red.

“High Hrothgar…” Agnar said with hardly any breath. It was more incredible than anything he had ever imagined. He reached for his knapsack but stumbled to the bottom of the steps. The blood wasn’t stopping. He used every bit of energy to flip himself onto his back. The snowstorm had waned. The skies were painted in deep reds, contrasting the soft greens of the world below. Agnar took a large breath and reached into his knapsack, taking out the urn; the urn filled with his father’s ashes.

But he had no more strength to stand, no ardor left with which to move. He mustered every fiber of his being to get up and knock upon the massive doors that lead into the monastery of the Greybeards- the hermits who were trained in the tongue of dragons.

“I’m sorry, Father. I- I’m not strong enough.” Agnar closed his eyes to rest for a moment, but also to weep. He had lost all hope, yet he was mere feet away from his destination. The aching of his heart was more excruciating than the wounds he endured. 

But Agnar heard footsteps descending the snow-ridden steps until they stopped right next to him. He slowly opened his eyes; a bearded man with a hood gazed down upon him with a blank face, saying nothing. Agnar lifted the urn slowly towards the Greybeard.

“Please…” begged Agnar with his final breaths.

The Greybeard said nothing but knelt down, taking the urn from Agnar’s feeble, shaking hand. A bittersweet smile was upon the Greybeard’s face; he understood. Njoll would rest with Talos. 

Agnar closed his eyes one final time. Now he would join his father.

Agnar opened his eyes. Blue and purple light surrounded him, and stars illuminated an ethereal, mist-covered landscape. He was warm, feeling a sensation other than cold and pain once again. Where an iron-forged hole had been, his leg now felt strong and young. Agnar felt at peace, a wash of calm having overcome him. But where was he? 

He walked through the foggy path for some time, taking in the indescribable beauty of his surroundings, until he saw a man fishing at a river, back turned towards Agnar. He seemed… familiar. He could not describe it, other than the feeling of happiness. He felt safe.

Agnar said in a carrying tone, “Sir? Excuse me, but do you know where we are? I seem to be a little… well, lost.”

The man reeled in his line, laid down his pole, then turned towards Agnar.

Bright eyes that Agnar had known from his youth smiled at him. Talos above, Agnar cried in his mind as he closed the distance between them in a single leap and wrapped his father in an embrace. Njoll’s strong arms held him tight, and Agnar thought he could exist in this moment for an eternity and one.

Njoll pulled back, tracing Agnar’s face with his eyes. He nodded as if to say his son was exactly how he remembered. Then he smiled a wide smile, showing his perfect teeth, and said,

“Welcome to Sovngarde, son. Welcome home.”

END

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Courtesy to Bethesda Studios