Dawn in Windhelm
Shadows were growing long as a cold evening dawned in Ysgramor’s city. The sky had been clear all day as I’d walked about the city conducting my business, but now clouds were slowly creeping in from the edges of the horizon and a few snowy flakes dropped down from the heavens to quickly vanish upon hitting the ancient pavement.
I'd just stepped into the warmth of Candlehearth Hall to buy the last of the supplies that I’d need for the long journey ahead of me. The innkeeper was gravely unfriendly, as always. She looked at me sideways as I entered and her hand went protectively over the small purse on her belt. I grimaced as I asked to buy bread and cheese for the road and had to have repeated the mantra in my head half a dozen times before the exchange was finally over.
“Must not burgle, must not steal, must not antagonize her any more than I need to…”
I knew that I had the power to rob her of every last wall-hanging and sweetroll without getting caught. I knew how satisfying it would be to imagine her face later in the evening when she goes to her bedroom and discovers that the covers are gone. But all that was behind me now, left in Morrowind with the remains of my previous life, hard as it is to keep my fingers from wandering, though I swear I have turned over a new leaf.
At any rate, I loaded up my pack with the cheapest day-old loaves she had, put my coin on the counter and said goodnight before she could offer up one word more. The iron door clanked heavily behind me as I shut it with less force than I would have liked and the icy wind hit my face like a well-placed slap, stinging my eyes and nose with shards of flying ice.
For a moment I stood there, blinking away the frost and rubbing my streaming nose on an already travel-stained sleeve. That was when I noticed them with a jolt, nearly dropping my purchases in the snow bank beside the inn’s front door. There were three of them, huddled in a shadowy mass beneath the eaves of the city’s gate. They were swathed in black robes, of a cut that had long gone out of style. The cold wind carried their foul scent to my terrified nose – dust, earth, a faint touch of rotting meat and the iron tang of blood.
As I stood there staring, my knees beginning to shake, I saw one of them slowly, deliberately turning towards me. I saw her pale hair catching the wind and lifting off her shoulders. I saw her eyes glowing golden as they met mine. I saw her lips curling into a pitiless smile as she took one purposeful step towards me.
I ran for it. Terror filling my heart, I clutched my bag to my chest, crushing the loaves within, with a crunch that sounded far noisier than it should have in my pounding head. I dove headfirst into the twisting alleyways of the Gray Quarter, stumbling and slipping on the ice and snow, panting like a dog, praying to Azura that they hadn't seen me, that they didn't know me, that they weren't hunting vampire slayer tonight.
At that point, I was just a novice Dawnguard, newly inducted into the order and had just been sent out on my first mission. I hardly knew a thing about vampire-slaying yet – only that it was best to strike them before they knew of one’s presence. I’d fuddled up that part of the formula nicely. What was I supposed to do when they’d caught me? Isran had never given me any advice on what to do should that happen. I was alone and without help that bitter night in Windhelm. I was not a hunter then, but a scared girl. I did nothing then but what a child does when faced with something that frightens them.
I made it home, trudging heavily through the squealing door of the New Gnisis Cornerclub, my breath steaming, sweat running down my face, relief filling my heart. I nodded wearily as I passed by the innkeeper, cracking what small smile I could in his direction and headed back behind the counter, where he'd let me lay down my bedroll for the night. Upon turning the corner, I fell to the pallet, dropping as though I’d been fleeing for hours without rest. My stomach gurgled in protest, whether in hunger or delayed anxiety, I can’t say. I couldn’t bring myself to eat anything that night. If I had tried, I was certain that whatever it was would have come straight back up.
So instead, I discarded my soggy boots, crawled under the covers and rolled over, peering through the wooden slats of the much-repaired wall. Bits of conversation drifted through to my waiting ears. Sadri and Niranye haggled good-naturedly over a business arrangement before finally shaking on it. Suvaris Atheron spat venom at Ambarys before drunkenly stumbling out into the dark. Malthyr swept the floor, his mouth running a mile a minute about all the injustices he’d suffered to any and all who would listen. I was home. As I drifted off to sleep, the narrowness of my escape sank in and the joy of living rose tenfold in my breast. I was alive, I was home, I was surrounded by my only kin in this frigid wasteland. So what if it was small and dirty, plagued by theft and violence? What did I care what anyone else thought of it? It was home and I was never more glad to see it with my sleepy eyes.
It all happened in an instant. It was the slamming of the door that jolted me awake, bolt upright, the hair on the back of my neck standing straight up. It was a terrible noise, the sound of the door being slammed ferociously into the wall outside, its rusty hinges squealing like a dying animal as they snapped under the pressure of a strength not of the mortal world. The screaming followed not a second afterward. Then the sounds of fighting, of snarling, of steel connecting with flesh.
I heard them all just beyond that thin wall - Ambarys gurgling and hitting the floor with a thud, Sadri frantically trying to argue his way out of it like the good businessman that he was, Malthyr fighting for his life as bravely as he faced everything that was ever thrown at him, Niranye sobbing as she begged for mercy.
I was frozen in place, my jaw tight, the taste of blood in my mouth as I bit my tongue to keep from screaming myself.
Through the slaughter, I just sat there huddled behind that flimsy wall, hearing it all though I wanted to stuff my ears with cotton and squeeze my eyes shut until it was over. I could nothing but sit stiller than death, listening to dissonant noise of my kins' ends, shivering though I'd left the cold outside, curling up in a ball in the darkest corner, softly weeping in horror for the doom that I'd brought down upon them all.
Then it was my turn. A thrall, his dark eyes glazed over with a desire foreign to him, turned the corner, pointed his finger at me and drew his axe, shining silver in the wavering candlelight.
Something broke in me then. I don’t how or why it happened or if anything can ever make me feel such burning anger ever again. The tears on my face dried as though I stood in the heat of a volcano. Fury and indignation filled me as I got up and ran at him, my sword drawn and a roar upon my lips. My blade was in his gut before he could react and he fell gurgling to the dingy floor. And then, unthinking, filled with nothing more than white-hot rage, moving with the savage speed and instinct of an animal, I stabbed the remaining monster in the back as he fed on the corpse of a fallen friend, before he even knew what had hit him.
Just like that, it was over. Shaking, Niranye stood up, bracing a foot on the final vampire’s throat as she wrenched her knife from its sheath in his heart. Her frock was coated in blood. We looked one another in the eyes and I saw the accusation in hers. She left, turning her back on me and running without a word.
The floor was ankle-deep with corpses. I slept among them that night, having nowhere else to go as the storm worsened outside and the wind beat on the dilapidated walls. My dreams were haunted with visions of angry spirits and every gust of wind was a condemnation from Oblivion.
In the morning, I packed up what little belongings I had and left, my body still weighty with lethargy. I gave the empty cornerclub one last, longing look before leaving for the snows of Dawnstar.
No one visits the New Gnisis Cornerclub any longer. Not even the disenfranchised travelers who get turned away when the Candlehearth is filled to bursting, or the bums who wander the streets in daylight hours. Its broken door is a gaping black maw through which nothing but snow and slowly accumulating trash are admitted. Inside is cold and dust and best-forgotten memories. Its lights haven't been lit in months and the rats slowly nibble away anything edible left behind. You can't hear the rousing political speeches of Ambarys and Malthyr anymore. Sadri doesn't complain about tariffs any longer, in his nasal way. Suvaris must have found somewhere else to drink her troubles away.
I can't go back there. Once, I tried, for a moment forgetting the tragedy that had taken place. I chatted it up with my new friends Celann and Serana as we passed through the area, telling them of all the great times I’d had in this bar. It was then that I found a black hole where a home used to be, silence where once was song. The three of us never spoke of it again.
I make sure to visit their graves in the Windhelm Catacombs whenever I'm in the area. I leave them flowers and pray to Arkay for forgiveness. I tell them I'm so sorry that I couldn't help them, that I couldn't act when there was still time, that I brought this fate down upon their heads. Serana watches me at a distance, saying nothing, quietly sitting in a corner until I’m finished. I don’t know what she thinks of me or how much she knows of life after death.
My brow hardens as I go on and I say that I've never forgotten them. That they're the reason I strive onward in defense of the sun, to whatever doom that might lead me to. Serana gets up and brushes the dust of the grave from her cloak. She knows that it’s time to head out again by the time I reach that part of the prayer.
I gird on my sword and head out.