You never get used to the stench of the dead. The Necromancer and his bandits had done all they had done simply to raid the Barrow of its gold. The Orc was happy to tell me how the Necromancer had raised all the Draugr to fight for him. How they had watched them pour from the Barrow and descend on the village while they had looted the rich burial chambers. The Orc dragged me deeper into Hulgard’s Barrow.
The smell grew stronger. I heard something wail in the darkness of the tunnels ahead of us. We were getting close.
When they’d built the barrows our forefathers had filled them with traps. I saw the light glinting from the metal plate in the floor.
Before the Orc had a chance to act I dived on the plate. I didn’t know what would happen. I didn’t care. As long as it killed the Orc too that was good enough for me. Metal screeched as the spiked grate tore away from the wall. A wall of spikes swung towards us. I managed to dive into a crack in the wall but the Orc was not so lucky.
The wall of spikes tore him off his feet, picking him up and slamming him into the tunnel’s wall. He cried out as the spikes pierced through his armor. The grate swung back with the Orc hanging, impaled on the spikes. He moaned for my help, begged for me to pull him from the spikes. I stood in front of him watching the life draining from his body. I didn’t have long.
I started with his leg. I pressed on his right leg with all my weight. I pushed so the spikes that had torn into the limb dug deeper still. He screamed in pain. Next I moved to his other leg. Again I pushed hard on the leg, driving the spikes further into his flesh. The Orc begged for me to stop. “Who was he?” I shouted, “The Dunmer? Who was he?” The Orc shook his head. Weak and sick from the pain he would not give up the Necromancer’s name. I pressed against his arms next. Even though the pain must have been overwhelming he still would not speak. He might have been a bandit but his Orc loyalty had not left him. “I will find him” I told him, “I will find them all and I’ll kill them for what they’ve done.”
The Orc looked down at me. “You don’t stand a chance” he coughed, spitting black blood with his words. He would be dead soon. I sat on the ground in front of him and waited. I watched him die as I will watch them all die.
That night I buried my Mother and Father. After he had died I pulled the Orc’s body from the spikes that had killed him. I stripped off his armor and put it on. It was too big for me. It sagged, it pinched at my skin, I bound it tight with strips of leather, with each step it scraped and nicked at me but I felt nothing. I stood by the grave in the dark and I made a promise. I promised that they would pay, the Dunmer, his men, all of them. They would all pay for what they had done.
The Orc kept a journal. From it I learned that his name was Ghamul Gurakh. That he led a band of bandits based out of an abandoned fort near Whiterun. In the journal he spoke of the Necromancer only as The Traveler and from what little he’d written I found myself no closer to identifying the dark elf. I took the Orc’s horse and set out to try and track the murderers. With everything they had taken from the Barrow surely they could not have moved very fast. They had almost a day’s trek on me.
I rode through the night into the dawn and again through to the next sunset. As night fell I felt the Orc’s horse stumble. We had ridden too long. I had seen no sign of the Elf and his bandits. I could have steered my horse in the wrong direction at any point. My only guide was my anger. I was no tracker. I had never even been on a hunt before!
A mile later and the Orc’s horse collapsed altogether. I managed to find a stream nearby but I had nothing to gather water in. I soon realised that I was not ready to ride into battle, to revenge myself on the Elf’s army of bandits. I couldn’t even keep my horse! Amongst the Orc’s belongings I found his helm. I took it to the stream and filled it with water. The horse drank quickly. I filled the helm three more times before my horse was sated and I could stop to drink myself. My armor felt so heavy I could barely take another step. I lay down next to my horse and, pressing into its warmth, I fell asleep.
I didn’t learn to fight, I fought.
At first I thought it was the cold of the night drawing across my exposed neck. It was the cold steel of a blade! I awoke fast trying to pull away from the sword. My movement startled my horse which staggered to get quickly to its feet. The bandit turned his attention to my horse raising his blade to strike. I didn’t have time to think. I hurled myself at the bandit knocking him backwards.
His sword nicked my horse’s side as we fell, it squealed in pain. I wasn’t strong enough to pin the bandit down. He threw me over, tore a dagger from its sheath at his waist and, grabbing my face to hold me still, he made to slice my throat.
My horse stamped him with such force that his spine snapped. A terrible sound escaped from his mouth; an agonised, broken scream. I managed to get myself free before my horse stomped him again. This time the bandit fell silent.
The Orc’s horse had saved my life. I tore strips from the bandit’s armor and used it to dress the horse’s wound. I dragged the bandit’s crushed corpse from the road. I took his coin purse and his few supplies. We ate dried meat as if it were the finest Colovian Beef. Neither of us had eaten for days.
The bandit was just a thief on his way to a job when he had chanced upon us. An exhausted child must have looked like easy pickings. A letter concealed on him revealed that he had come from Riften. That den of thieves. If I were going to find the The Traveler and his bandit army that seemed a good place to begin my search for information. I gave Styrr the last of the dried meat. I named the Orc’s Styrr after my Father so that he might be there when I used his steel to cleave the Elf’s head from his body.
16th of Last Seed, 4E 201
Bleak Fall’s Barrow. Up here the cold is your first enemy. Everything else can get in line. Making slow progress, winding up through the mountains, I passed more than one camp where the cold had taken ill prepared Travelers. Huddled, frozen corpses, one had knelt to pray, no doubt for any warmth. His prayer went unanswered. I’d take an army of Frost Trolls over this bitter, relentless cold any day.
For over a year I lived in the Ratway beneath Riften. I paid a hand at the Riften stables almost all the gold we had taken from the thief to make sure Styrr would be fed and have a place to sleep. I slept amongst the forgotten and forsaken in the festering tunnels underneath the city. I found a place to hide my sword and what little gold there was left and I posed as a beggar, wandering the streets from dawn until dusk, listening for any hushed word, any whispered mention of The Traveler and his men. At night, when the city slept, I would take Styrr from the stables and race through the woods around Riften, dodging through the aspen trees, tearing around Lake Honrich. My Mother had taught me to ride a horse when I saw just a child. When The Traveler came to Hulgard’s Barrow his men murdered all our horses so the villagers could not get away.
In the hours before dawn I would practise with my sword. I would wield the sword until my arms shook and my muscles screamed, until I could hold the blade no more. To begin with I could barely lift the greatsword’s weight, let alone swing it. It was not until the second month that I managed to swing the blade and bury it deep into the trunk of a old oak. I spent the rest of that evening trying to prise it free once more.
Time dragged on and I heard not a word of The Traveler. There were nights when I doubted I would ever see him again, nights when I would tear through the forest with my greatsword, carving at the trees, screaming at the night sky for revenge. My anger grew, every day I grew stronger. I would soon learn that there is a great difference between fighting a tree and fighting a man.
Each morning Talen-Jei would throw a bucket of scraps from the Bee and Barb’s previous night’s meals into the canal. A clever begger standing on the lower levels of the city could use a fishing net to catch enough scraps to eat for a day. Most of the beggars were still asleep that early so there were few to contest the catch but standing on slick boards that morning I heard a name whispered from above that made me forget all about the hunger that cramped my stomach.
Ghamul Gurakh, the Orc I had killed in Hulgard’s Barrow. Two men were talking about him. They’d worked under him in the past and had just heard word that he had been killed. One of them blamed the Elf. Knew he couldn’t be trusted. They’d deserted Gurakh when he had joined forces with him. The other blamed another man. A name I had not heard before.
An hour later I took Styrr and we raced from Riften. Silian Berne had been a Captain in the Imperial Army until he’d decided that the Empire’s wages could not compare to the riches he could take for himself. He’d deserted and gone to ground outside Falkreath. There he’d gathered together a small band of cutthroats and had begun raiding the travelling carriages of wealthy merchants on the road to Hammerfell. He’d become so good at it that the King sent an order to Siddgeir of Falkreath to send men to quash Silian’s enterprise. Every one of those men lost his head. Silian mounted them outside the fort he had overtaken. For a time it looked as if he might ride on Falkreath itself, take the town for himself.
Fortunately, for Siddgeir, Silian met the Orc. While the two drunk bandits talking outside The Bee and Barb had still been under the Orc’s command they’d been witness to their boss and Silian making a deal. By joining their bands of thieves and murderers together they created a small army. Sometime later it would be that army that had sacked Hulgard’s Barrow and murdered my friends and my family.
A life of desecrating the tombs of the dead had paid well for Silian. With the Orc out of the way a greater chunk of the spoils fell his way. He’d used some of that money to buy a house in Markarth. That was everything I had learned from the two drunks that day but it was enough. After a year of biding my time I was a step closer to The Traveler’s head.
I had imagined finding The Traveler’s men in a dark fort, an adandoned mine, somewhere hidden, out of the reach of the law, not in one of the wealthy mansion houses in the City of Stone. I guess that even the Jarl of Markarth could be made to turn the other cheek when there is enough gold on offer. It didn’t matter. Whether in a garret or a great house when I left Silian Berne would still be dead and I would be closer still to killing the dark Elf.
Berne’s house had not been occupied for months. I learned from an Orc blacksmith that he rarely visited the city. She knew no more about the bandit leader than that although she was interested in my blade and offered me a fine price for it. I told her, “While there is still breath in these lungs, no gold, no man and no monster will see this blade leave my side.” She understood but told me that one day I should visit Whiterun and meet the man who forged my steel.
Markarth was the city of stone hearts as well as walls. I had lived better in the Ratway in Riften. Over six arduous months I learned every movement that Berne’s servants made each day. I watched his house from the street and noted every moment that the house was empty, every entrance and exit, every guard patrol that might catch me as I slipped inside.
Between six and seven in the evening, depending on the time of the year, Imsine, the housecarl, would move from room to room lighting the candles for the night. She would then take a light supper in the kitchen with the cook and spend the evening reading books brought to her by Morven, Nepos man servant, who was not so secretly in love with her.
At ten she would once more move through the house. Once snuffing every light, before retracing her steps a second time to shutter and lock the house for the night. It would be this gap between darkness consuming each of the rooms and Imsine’s return to secure the house that would allow me to slip in unseen.
Each night I waited. I would have waited ten years if I had needed to. I knew that one night Berne would arrive in Markarth and that night, his last night, I would be waiting for him.
A year after I had arrived in Markarth that night came. Without any word Berne and a party of his men were at the city gates. There was no sign of Elf. As they made their way to Berne’s house I got a good look at him. He had been the other bandit leader who had flanked The Traveler that day. I reached for my greatsword. Not now! Not yet! I had to wait. It took all my strength not to try and run him through there and then. Night could not come soon enough.
17th of Last Seed, 4E 201
Bleak Falls Barrow. I know he has been here. He may still be here. The Draugr are testament to that. He is the reason that they walk in the tombs of our dead.
I had waited all night. It wasn’t until an hour before dawn that the final, drunk bandits spilled from Berne’s house. Stumbling, singing and shouting, their faces glimpsed in the light of the moon. I looked for any I might have seen that day in our village, my hands white, gripping my greatsword, but they flashed past too fast to be certain and I could not risk revealing myself too soon.
Before that last of them had left Imsine had already begun her rounds and the rooms of Berne’s house were, one by one, doused to darkness. I had to move now.
Slipping from my cover I moved as quickly and quietly across the street as I could. I didn’t see the drunk bandit coming at me.
I was knocked clean off my feet. The bandit stopped and looked down at me. His eyes narrowed. Was he trying to place me? He might just have been trying to see me. I turned away to hide my face.
He swayed, belched and stumbled away into the night. I quickly got to my feet and rushed to Berne’s house. I hugged the wall, hoping that the shadows would swallow me once more before anyone else saw me.
The house was almost in complete darkness. Soon Imsine’s lone candle would return and the shutters to the downstairs window through which I had planned to enter would be locked.
I climbed up to the window. The weight of my greatsword made it hard to pull myself up. A dagger might have been a better weapon tonight but Berne would die by my Father’s blade and no other.
I dropped my greatsword into the dark room first and then dragged myself through the open window after it. I found the sword on the ground just as the light of Imsine’s candle painted the hallway outside with flickering golden light. Before I knew it she was in the room with me.
I watched her close and shutter the window I had just climbed in through. After she had gone I lay on the cold stone floor, beneath the table where I had hidden myself, for another thirty minutes until I could no longer hear any movement in the house.
I found Berne’s bedchamber easily. His door was ajar. Drunk, still holding a bottle of Surilie Brother’s wine, he had passed out sprawled across his bed. Perhaps he was paranoid or just too drunk to care but aside from his gauntlets and helm he was still wearing a full set of armor. I closed his door behind me. A single candle burned by Berne’s bed. In the dim light I looked upon the other bandit who had stood by The Traveler’s side that day. In the dim light I pressed my blade into Berne’s neck. Not quite enough to break the skin; yet. Silian Berne’s eyes opened wide. He turned to look at me.
I had expected to see fear. Instead I saw rage. In a moment he had knocked my blade away from his neck like a giant swatting a fly.
Even in full armor he was quick. He threw the bottle of wine at me. I managed to duck to one side as it spun past me exploding on the wall behind me.
Before I could react he had grabbed me round the neck. His other hand grabbed a strange jewelled claw that sat on a chest by his bedside. He swung the claw, striking me across the face with it. I could taste the blood in my mouth. I raised an arm up to try and defend myself from another strike. He slammed the claw into my arm. I cried out in pain.
I couldn’t see for the tears and blood in my eyes but I heard the door open. Suddenly the grip around my neck was released. I collapsed onto the floor choking, coughing, trying to wipe my eyes, clear my vision before Berne attacked again. Then I heard Imsine scream. She must have heard me cry out and had come to investigate. I turned to see Berne raise the claw and strike Imsine with it. The sound was terrible.
A sickening crack; bone shattering as the claw struck her skull. Imsine fell back against the bedchamber door. He hit her again and again. I screamed and pulled myself to my feet. Imsine’s lifeless body collapsed onto the stone floor. Berne turned back to me. His face contorted with insane blood lust. He raised the claw to strike me. I felt a rage like I have never felt before. It consumed me. I raised my greatsword and swung it at Berne.
My blade tore through his wrist severing the hand holding the claw. It took a moment for Berne to realize what had happened. In that moment I raised my sword again. This time I swung it across his body. The blade slid along the underside of his arm finding a gap in the plates of his armor at his armpit and burying itself deep into the flesh.
Berne grabbed at the blade with his remaining hand. I remembered how my blade had stuck deep in the tree that night and how I had found it so hard to free it.
I did to Berne what I had done to that tree. I kicked my boot into his side and used my weight to lever the blade out. Berne cried out in agony. My rage had not subsided, he would pay for my family, for the villagers he had slaughtered, for Imsine… All I could see was blood and death and all I wanted was revenge. I raised my blade once more into the air and brought it down on him.
Berne’s shattered corpse collapsed onto the ground at my feet. Even when he lay dead in front of me I raised my sword again and again.
Standing over his broken body, daylight beginning to creep through the closed shutters in his bedchamber my rage was suddenly gone. It was replaced by regret. What had I done? “Who is he?” I cried. “The Dark Elf? The Traveler? Where can I find him?” I shook Berne’s lifeless body as if I could somehow shake the answers from him. “Tell me! Tell me!” The dead take their secrets to the grave.
I tore through his house, desperately hunting for any clue as to where I might find The Traveler. I’d killed Berne too soon! I’d meant to weaken him, overcome him and then extract the information I needed from him but the red rage that had overtaken me had stolen any chance I’d had of getting answers from Silian Berne. Surely there had to be something, a paper, correspondence, or order that might help lead me to The Traveler. There was nothing.
I left Berne’s house in the dawn light. Trying to hide my bloody, swollen face from the guards I raced through Markarth hoping to find Berne’s men camped outside the town.
All that remained of their camp was a burned out fire, empty bottles, food and filth left behind from the night’s drunken revelry. I knelt in the mud and I cried to Talos. With Silian Berne’s death the best chance I had of finding The Traveler was gone.
Bleak Falls Barrow is riddled with holes. It’s a wonder that the place still stands. A sell sword in Dragon’s Bridge told me of a way that I could bypass the locked Sanctum door and gain entrance directly to the inner chambers of the tomb. If he wasn’t lying then I may stand a chance of surprising The Traveler. If he is here today he will find that I have not forgotten what he did. I will never forget.
In the five years that have passed since that day in Markarth many men have begged for their life before my steel. They talk, they tell me whatever they think I want to hear to spare their lives. One day one of them will have the answers I seek.
I have followed promise and lie alike. I have spent more time with the dead than the living. Wherever there are Draugr, wherever there are bandits, I will hunt you Traveler. I am the death that you have made for yourself. I am the Reyda the Red Blade that will not stop until it rests against your throat.
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Andy Cull is the writer and director of The Possession Of David O'Reilly (UK title The Torment) and In The Dark (www.louisepaxton.co.uk). He's currently writing his first novel and a new horror feature.