Jack Pot wrote: The Chronicles of Ysgramor
It is getting darker. My eyesight leaves me and my candle is slowly burning down. Now, my old hands have to hurry: this is my legacy to you, my sons and daughters and I entrust this parchment with the truth I never dared to talk about when you asked. I did not want to spill the very poison amongst my children that ate away the bond between my father and his sons. Maybe I am just a coward, after all – but I should leave this judgement up to you.
When I was young, there was one glowing glimpse of bliss that warms my heart even to this day: the great opening of the Moothall in Saarthal, when Ysgramor and Heddvild were declared King and Queen of the Nords. For days, men and mer had been swarming into the town. Splendid tents were erected, embroidered in gold and silver with the coat of arms of every known clan.
We children ran and played amongst the lords of Snow Elves and Aldmer, the chieftains of Atmora and the nobles of Haafingar and Winterhold. Guars laden with food and drink, cloth and clutter were driven up the steep climb to Saarthal.
On the day of the Moot, it was at my fathers behest that the mer were invited to the Hall – the first and last Moot, that mer and men attended in common. Ah, you should have seen the splendour of the Great Hall of Saarthal! Rasdbart the Elder himself, who had left Atmora as soon as the news of the New World had spread, had build the Hall as his masterpiece. Nordic Blath trees, as tall as the gods, a man's length across, were erected as columns, intricately inlaid with white Bonewood. Mighty beams of Crestwillow were spanning the space between them in sweeping arches, supporting a roof of Wintertree timber that was covered by shingles of the red slate that you only found in the remote mountain ranges of the New World. The arches stretched so high, you could hardly see their tops in the dark. At the head of the Great Hall, there was a table made from a single, polished, black stone. Solemn, high chairs were surrounding it: it was here, that the Moot had taken place.
And I remember the awe that struck me as I imagined my father sitting there, together with the great chieftains of the North and the highest born of the Elves, whose blood lines traced back into times so ancient that even the gods had forgotten. Now that the Moot was over, the public were called into the hall and filled the immense space with a sea of faces like I had never seen before.
My brother Hrindal stood next to me and suddenly took my hand. I was bewildered and turned towards him. The last time he had done something like that was probably when we were still toddlers. His chin pointed forward so my eyes followed – and my heart very nearly stopped. Our father was climbing onto the table!
His hand reached down and he pulled someone up. Mother!
As the two of them turned to the crowd, smiling, standing almost forlorn on the massive plate of the table, the cheering began. Ah! but it wasn't what you call cheering nowadays! not that everyone screamed as they saw fit, but all voices combined to a slow and deep "woooh", rising in pitch and volume until the vast hall began to fill with light. The chorus of hundreds of Nord voices made the darkness retreat. Even though the hall was lit by a hundred torches, it had been pretty dark until then just because of its size: now, the place was so evenly filled with light, you could have thread a bait on your fishing line. Then father spoke.
I would like to say: I remembered every word of it. But I was frozen and felt my heart throbbing in my throat. I was ten and Hrindal was only just twelve – and he couldn't remember much of the speech either – but my father was basically telling all those people that the New World had from now on become a recognized Voice in the Moot. Ah! I forgot to mention: Tamriel wasn't even existing, as far as the Moot was concerned, before this day. Even though there were more Nord living in Tamriel already than in Atmora, a few hundred Artehnutans had a chieftain, and thus a Voice, while thousands of settlers had nothing. Now, living on the coast of Cape Artehnu at the northern tip of Atmora is no bed of roses, but being the mess that you heard it is, Atmora did´t seem to have much of a future, even back then.
The cheering got louder again, mother and father now dressed in glowing white robes instead of stained grey ones like they used to. Their clothing simply started to radiate light until it was white. In passing, father mentioned that he would be the one representing the New World in the Moot as they were declared King and Queen of The Skyrim. I remember bumping into some adults behaving rather strangely, that evening. I remember Hrindal grabbing my shoulders and shaking me "I am a prince! I am a prince! - now how does that sound?". I remember the fireworks.
With hindsight, it would be easy to say: this was the night, the Elves must have realized, which marks out their future: these sturdy men, fertile like rabbits, and incredibly powerful when focused all together, will spread like mould all over the place. And look what they did to the last place they did that to. Now, if you wanted to stop them, you had to stop them quickly.
The year after the Moot was to be the happiest of my life. Hrindal completely stopped to pick on me - a prince can't be seen to torture his little brother, can he? - and everyone else told me behind his back how sorry they were I was only second in line. Just in case. They looked at me as someone who could be their king in thirty, forty years just as well, and treated me accordingly. There´s nothing like being treated like a prince when you´re eleven. Sixty years later, you might think differently about that. Now, the Atmora people got back to their scorched but frozen land, and my father decided to invite all mer leaders to Saarthal after a year had passed since his coronation. The official reason was to discuss the abolition of trade route taxes with the Elves. You know, our father back then was a reasonable and – especially for a Nord – unusually friendly man. He certainly was the best father Hrindal and I could think of, even before he became king. He never beat us up, for one thing. So he invited the lords of the Elves and their court to a meal accompanied by elven tunes played by a band of Nords.
And the Elves came. All of them. For a lot, they must have set out months ago, at the beginning of my fathers reign. Back in the Black Marshes and Cyrodiil, they didn't even know whether my father was a good king or a bad thing, for news couldn't have reached them before they left off. He never even had a chance. The Elves of Morrowind, on the other hand, knew that my father was a good king, for they had most benefited from his reign – but they still joined ranks to kill him.
Their armies hidden behind tree and rock, all around Saarthal, the Elves send their nobles to the feast. They were invited into the Moothall, only this time, a slice of a single, full grown Blath tree, seventy or eighty men long, filled the entire length of the hall right up to the Moot table. It seated a hundred men on each side. One half of Saarthal was frying, baking or cooking something for the great feast, the other half provided for the various beasts a circus like the one around an Elven lord entailed.
The meal lasted for more than four hours, so my father had plenty of time to make his intentions public of not charging any taxes any more – for every road in Skyrim, the Nord had build. He wouldn't have gone so far as to suggest, the Elves do the same with their roads. He simply wanted to make a point. The feeding only stopped when the fireworks started.
Hrindal and I were present, when my father bid the Elves farewell. Since none of them wanted to make use of the provided rooms, the leaving of the guests and their entourage turned out to be more of a hubbub than anyone anticipated. Nonetheless, my father spoke to every lord in turn and wished them a save journey to their kin. To which a lot of them replied, they were sure they didn't have to go very far, then. Or something to that effect. There were a lot of people present. No one thought anything about it.
Can you imagine those high born Elves, how they return to their armies and say: "Now guess what, the Nords are not taking road taxes any more! Without any concessions on our behalf! We're going to be rich! Now, let's go home folks. Those Nords are fine people, after all."?
Neither can I.
If you ask me, Saarthal's fate was decided the day after my father was made king.
How can I even start to describe that night?
Mother had just born little Skelje, our sister that only got three weeks old. She was covered in red spots two weeks after her birth and soon, so was her mum. Saarthal prided itself on a house for the sick, where each person had their own room (albeit very small): a rule that was being slavishly obeyed. Right at the northern edge of the town facing north, the Sickhouse didn't get in anyone's way. Our Mother and the baby were getting the same room only because the baby was – according to the rules – too young to be considered a person at all. According to Nord medicine, Skelje wasn't even born yet and was still considered part of my mother. When I saw how vulnerable and helpless she was, I had to agree. Many a Nord don't celebrate a birthday in their life! - you know the phrase.
My father and me, we set off to the Sickhouse very early in the evening: he simply couldn't wait to see "his girls" after his day's work was done. I was beginning to warm up to the idea that I would have a little sister in a couple of years time and thought it felt good to be nice to her already, just in case. Even my brother made an appearance, every now and again. I was playing with Skelje, eyeing how father kissed mother – rather passionately – while sitting next to her bed. I felt a strange urge to try this kissing sometime. One of the girls in Saarthal sprang to my mind, but ye gods, do I remember her name?
I bloody well should, for I was thinking of her, when the horns sounded. From the Sickhouse, they sounded far off – but they still carried a sense of urge with them. It was almost ridiculous. There was no defence, at least not against Elves. The Elves swarmed into Saarthal by the hundreds – and if a late drunk Nord had seen a few Elves hushing past – Elves were so common in Saarthal these days, no one batted an eyelid. They simply gathered around the doors, sounding their horns.
Now this was not the sound of alarm the Nords were used to, but it sounded alarm. It had every man reach for his arms within seconds. To a man, the Nordmen rushed out of their houses at the sound of these bloody horns. They were received by elven bowmen half-circled around their doors. Eight out of ten were dead before they could even think of fighting back, the rest got quickly dispatched by Elves equipped with straight long blades and daggers, who were placed along the walls to the left and right of house entrances...a few Elves then entered the houses, and you hardly ever heard a scream from inside. On their way out, these Elves set fire to the house. Before leaving, the Elves made sure every house was burning. As simple as that. In cold blood, they slaughtered every single Nord, man, woman or child in Saarthal that night. They showed neither mercy nor cruelty. The Elves did not come to plunder or rape, they came to kill. The "Night of tears" they call it nowadays – but believe you me, there was not a single tear shed that night. The "Night of blood and fire" it should have been called.
My father was the only Nord in Saarthal who did not pick up his sword when the horns sounded, but grabbed his two sons and threw them out of the window, and into the gutter. Mother and Skelje had their room in the second store of the Sickhouse. I remember the shock when my father grabbed my belt and hauled me through the window. A shock that made me cringe in mid air when I saw the drop below me. I know nothing of the following moments. Hrindal woke me up. He looked dreadful. Then I saw my father glide across the sky. He head jumped through the shattered window and rolled into a ball mid air. As a ball, he hit the ground with his feet and rolled off. All the time, with a sword protruding from his fist: a bloody sword.
He jumped up and sheathed the sword, apparently unharmed, and rushed towards us. But this man was not my father any more.
Ysgramor dragged us along like dead cats, while Saarthal was bursting into flames behind his back. I never saw him laughing, he never gave us a hug. This man was not my father any more. He was pushing us forward while he himself was stumbling. That night never ended.
We arrived mid morning in what should have to be called a fishing village. Although it wasn't aware of this fact just yet. A couple of fishermen had put up their yurts and their families along this bit of shore because, for some reason, there's a lot of fish 'round here, and you can get your boats in and out lazy buggers with beaches like that. Until their enraged king appeared amongst them, and demanded a passage to Atmora, they were really happy people.
They made it very clear that trying to cross the Sea of Ghosts by fishing boat is suicide. So what my Majesty is asking for is two or three volunteers who would like to meet their end in the icy seas, right now. The fisherman begged to be spared that favour. Ysgramor wouldn't have any of it. So he ended up picking the most hardened fishermen himself. He did quite well, as the howling and wailing from the women and even from fellow fishermen suggested.
We set off, with the communities best fishing boat and three young and fit but weathered sailors. Ysgramor send Hrindal and me into the Stupor of the Nord. I remember bits of the ritual, but after that, my recollection is sketchy. If Ysgramor had not been the shaman of the Nord for twenty-odd years, we would never have survived this passage. I do remember towering ice and fog that seemed to shape a huge face with a gaping mouth. I do remember the merciless bite of the howling winds and the added pain when a gust of water did hit you, the being thrown about and being pulled onto the backs of giant waves, and yet I shouldn't have noticed any of this.
Against all odds, we did arrive at Atmora. Ysgramor and his crew crawled off board like wounded snails, while Hrindal and I could still move on hands and knees. The Skyrim fishermen left only three months later, having their boat restored and their health replenished sufficiently to take on that journey again. They never arrived back home.
Atmora. I spend four years of my life in that waste. Even the sun did not dare to rise very high there, so as not be witness to the wounds, the wars of men had carved into the land. Most of the hinterland was storm swept icy deserts, where the snow flew past so levelly, you wondered how it ever hit the ground. Only a few bushes and shrubs stood their ground out there, wind bend cripples of their species. There weren't many Nords who could march through Atmora. Certainly no one among them, who wasn't born there.
The only inhabitable stretch was near the coastline, and even there, towns had been burned, taken, raped and re-taken so often, there was hardly more than a couple of shacks, built of burned timber, left to any of them. The elder talked of trees along the shores, and even something approaching a forest to the west of Hraskvald – the southernmost town of Atmora, and once something like its capital. Of course, all of this was long gone. The trees were burned down, in effect. They were felled first, shaped on the spot by skilful carpenters to boards and beams, hauled ever longer distances through screaming gales to be erected as the huts and halls of the North. Only to be burned down by the first invader who took the settlement, but couldn't keep it. They got recaptured and rebuilt only to be burned down again. This happened to Hraskvald three times in the past 500 years, apparently.
Even to me as a twelve year old, this seemed a huge waste of effort. They could have burned the trees right on the spot and saved themselves a lot of trouble. There was another snitch, though: the trees never grew back. It seems it had become colder in Atmora over the past centuries – and while it was just good enough for saplings to grow back then, it wasn't good enough anymore. At some point, it simply got too cold for trees to grow; and while the weather beaten, venerable old trunks stood and prospered, there were no young trees on Atmora for at least the last hundred years.
The Nords only stopped their fighting – and shaped the Moot – when it became clear that they either had to start living in caves, dug into frozen ground for protection, or they wouldn't have enough planks left to repair their fishing boats.
The riches of the ice crusted sea were the sole means of survival for these poor Nords. Even their bread was made from seaweed. The deer had gone with the woods, the wolves with the deer, the hares were hunted down and the fox went with them, and so on, and so on. But the sea provided food galore, and the Nord of Atmora learned how to use it.
Four years of seaweed and a spider-like animal called "Crish", which seemed to feed on the algae, that sometimes coloured the sea a fresh green. Must have been thousands of Oxweights of the stuff. It seemed you only had to dip a fine woven net into this soup to dig out as much – well, Crish, - as your boat could carry. Provided you have a boat, that is.
Now, after we left Atmora, there wasn't a single tree left on the whole continent any more – so the remaining Nords either learned how to braid their boats from the twigs of the remaining bushes – as at least these tried to occupy the land freed from the trees – or they would inevitably die. But even back then, I always thought, what if the green carpet on the ocean suddenly went away like all the other plants and animals? There would only be Nord left.
I could never bring myself to eating raw Crish like the others. Partly crushed animals you could nearly see through with an excessive number of legs? No thank you. But stewed and boiled with seaweed, this was another matter. Crishpot actually tasted quite good. At first.
It was either Crishpot or Sea Bread as long as you were anywhere near inhabited places – and nothing if you were not. Ysgramor dragged us as far as Holfingfyord up the south west of Atmora near the border to Artehnu. He preached hate and revenge all the way. But he also preached paradise. A land with vast forests and beautifully carved mountains. To us, he kept his distance all the time.
In Arthenu, even the coastline was sparsely populated by anything. You couldn’t get further north than that even at sea, for there were towering mountains of ice, always drifting from east to west. The sea went from treacherous to impossible within a few days north of Arthenu, the capital of the province, on the north east coast of the island.
In the harsh and bitter environment of Atmora, this was the time Hrindal and I grew together. We simply had no one else. For all three of us, the last night of Saarthal never ended. Yet none of us ever talked about it. Ysgramor had a fierce fire in his eyes that never ceased, even when looking at his sons. We never saw our father in his eyes, ever, again.
Hrindal one day decided to comfort me about the loss of my father. I can not for the life of me remember what he said – though it was so important at that time. I simply hugged him as a reply, for he had suffered the same blow as I had. To us, we lost both our parents and our sister and we couldn't get our heads around the fact that the body of our father was still walking.
From Ysgramor's point of view, everything worked out fine: there were plenty of – mostly young, bright and adventurous – folks to march off to Hraskvald to build three more proper ships. He never even travelled to the east of Atmora, but still people came in hoards from there. They were so stirred up by Ysgramor's speeches, they uprooted the last sacred trees of Atmora. Each of these trees had a name. I later heard that some people actually killed themselves when they learned their tree was gone. They hauled them whole to Hraskvald – a task only Nord could hope to achieve – just so the carpenters could make out the best trees for the masts.
Nearly two thousand Nords, more than half Atmora´s population with their families, wanted to leave. Despite the fact that "its nut bein cawled the sea of ghosts for nuthin, sun" how one toothless old fart put it, as I remember. Not without adding "mind you, I woulda gone twenty years ago...". He started to cackle and then nearly coughed his lungs out. No fisherman ever went out of sight of the shoreline in Atmora. Partly because they didn't have to. Partly because they were afraid of ghosts.
I, for my part was even surprised that some people actually wanted to stay.
Three Longships were being built at Hraskvald: the Rina, the Qunita and the Star of Marya. Only twenty years ago, the Nords had built their last Longship, which was also called the Star of Marya. Build by the Clan of Ralfingard at Hraskvald, it got captured at anchor by Ursfan the Great of East Wrenglia – and got burned down in the attempt of Ralfingard to recapture the ship. Not a good story for a ship, if you ask me. And again: how much trouble could you have saved yourself by just burning the trees down on the spot. Not that I think that's a good idea either. Ysgramor's lot named a Longship after that unfortunate vessel and made her their flagship.
I am glad to have seen how a proper Nord Longship is being build. But it was utter joy to see eight hundred men work from dawn 'til dusk on three huge ships at the same time. They had to start off building two more docks at Hraskvald by using the bits and pieces left over by the carpenters after they made the ribs, mast blocks, masts and planks for the ships. They built two enormous scaffoldings – and enlarged the existing one with the fresh cut wood. They gathered every rib, plank and block into one huge pile, roofed it off with seaweed – and waited for two bloody years, doing nothing but turning the pieces over every now and again.
With Hraskvald's population more than tripled, Nords from all clans in one town, including some that had sworn eternal bloodshed to each other, these two years I still recall with a shudder.
At least, the Nords of Atmora found nothing much else to do except punching each other’s faces. Ysgramor caused uproar when he demanded that everyone had to hand in all their weaponry before setting up their tents at Hraskvald. If the Nords hadn't been so busy fighting each other, he would never have pulled this through. Only my father would have thought of something like that. Disarm Nords! We were glad, there still was something of father still alive in Ysgramor. Unfortunately, and we didn't know it at that time, it was dying.
A few weeks later, even the most hot headed men had to concede that the ban was reasonable. I had my nose broken three times, Hrindal four. Someone once also decided to smash a chair against his chest, which resulted in three broken ribs – one nearly piercing his lungs – on my brother's behalf. In the first year.
A young warrior, Vestar of the Thorgots, was not only the son of Hector, warlord of the Thorgots, but also managed to make himself a name for his brutality. Given the way things were in Hraskvald before the last true Nord ships were being build, this was quite an achievement. He was only two years older than Hrindal, but due to his high born state and strange kind of charm, he was always surrounded by followers. Not quite unlike my brother, prince Hrindal of Skyrim, really. Only Vestar's followers stayed close to him to witness his odd eruptions of cruelty every now and again. My brother himself wondered why anyone would want to follow him, an attitude which I found rather more appealing than anyone else's, so I did.
In the second year, I only broke my shoulder when someone threw me out of a barn and my arm got caught by that damn iron bolt. It all got a lot better when the men started to build the ships.
I may repeat myself, but it was a sight to behold. Every single piece of wood was cut to perfection in advance. The shipwrights and the carpenters who had designed them were still masters of their trade. Oxweights of seaweed got turned into tar, simmering in large clay ovens. Steppe grass fibre turned into ropes in skilled Nord hands. But in the docks, three enormous ships were being pieced together from the planks, using tar soaked rope for glue, axes for carving and iron nails. Every smith in Atmora was hammering nails when they weren't repairing tools.
When the ribs got set, they fitted in so well they didn't even have to pad them much using fibre and tar. The mast blocks were enormous chunks cut out of a single tree and held a trunk twenty men high for setting sail. Nearly four years after our beaching at Atmora, three ships were ready to be manned.
I remember Hrindal and me sitting on a hill overlooking the docks. How could anything hurt these ships? The enormous hulks, forty men long, looked invincible. We both couldn't piece together any more of our journey to Atmora than I can now. Ysgramor would not speak the stupor on us anymore. This time, we were both counted as adults. We would be needed. We talked about Skyrim, like we did so often. But the last night, the night Skyrim ended, we never mentioned.
It was Hrindal, who broke this silence: "Rasgard, my brother, I love you. I enjoyed your company in this waste of a land, and I enjoyed talking to you. This might very well be the last time we sit back and chatter. Tomorrow, we will sail on these ships – I don't know much about how I got here, but the little I seem to remember, I have locked in the dustiest cupboards of my memory. There will certainly be no time for idle talk when we're at sea – and we would be very lucky if both of us survived this trip." Only Hrindal could talk like that.
"I don't think he killed Mum and Skelje. He saw them dying, and that killed him, too. Only he got instantly reborn a different person. There were too many Elves but he fought them. The blood on his blade was Elven blood, not Mothers! - when we were the only thing left to defend, he jumped out of the window."
My brother spoke in haste, but what he said, he had obviously long thought over. It would have sounded a lot more convincing to me if he hadn't been in such a hurry to get the matter dealt with. I thought about that night a lot, too. Only my conclusions were completely different. And I had grown up a lot in Atmora, believe you me!
"Hrindal, old boy! I can't believe that's what you think has happened. How long d'you reckon, you were unconscious, after the fall? I bet you weren't unconscious at all; the impact simply knocked the air out of your lungs and the sudden stop turned your vision black. I know very well how that feels, myself, now. But it doesn't knock you out for good. Next thing you saw was the lifeless body of your brother a few men away. So you crawled over and shook me. All this took a minute. Two maybe, if you like. How many Elves, who weren't even near when father hauled us through the window, do you think he slayed in two minutes? - Hrindal, father knew what was coming, he threw us through a bloody window, four men high! Don't ask me how, but he knew, and he landed two minutes after us with his sword still drawn and bloody. The Elves didn't even bother sounding their signal in front of the Sickhouse: they send their killers in right away, since none of the inhabitants would have got up from bed to battle just because somebody blew a horn, anyway. Brother…"
The longer I talked, the more I felt Hrindal closing up. I was convinced, Ysgramor had killed his wife and daughter, but I never had to put this conviction into words – when spoken out, my words seemed a monstrosity and I wondered how I could carry on. I didn't have to worry for long, as it was Hrindal, who interrupted me: "Stop. Stop right there! How dare you talk like that about father!" I was completely taken aback by his anger. He was trembling and all of a sudden, his voice was hush and pressed: "If you were not my brother I would kill you now. But you will never, ever, talk like that about father again. Vow."
I was so dumbfounded by his reaction, I vowed a Nordic Oath to "never talk like that again" and ran home. Next morning, nearly two thousand Nords with bag and baggage gathered at the docks before three giant moored ships. It was easy enough to keep well away from my brother.
The boarding of the settlers, the wailing and crying of families torn apart for good, the hauling in of tools and provisions, it was all a blur to me. And I didn't even leave anything behind in Atmora. Ysgramor held a speech. It was full of bravado and still pathetic. Hrindal and I had heard that kind of speech a tad too often. Everyone else loved it. The cheering, too, went completely past me. Hrindal was nowhere to be seen. Everyone on board as on shore was still chanting when the ships set sail. And then we were out at sea.
All of a sudden, a decent storm blew around my ears and the sail had to be taken in. The Star of Marya climbed and dived in the waves like a cat running over hills – and occasionally rocked sideways like a shying horse.
To lock the sail, every man had to pull their heart out at the main fall while the low falls would be eased away so the sail came up in a controlled way. In practice, every light build man or boy manned the low falls – being told to hold on to it, no matter what, they were simply dragged along by the pull of the main team. Tug-of-war, they call this game.
Now, being dragged along through the hull of a Longship, right along her sides, in a howling gale, torrents of ice cold water crashing over your head and shoulders, you really did hold on to that rope, no matter how frozen and cramped your hands were.
This happened for the first time we were at sea for three days. After the experience, I decided to keep a diary. Under the communal tarpaulin – a heavy sheet made from tarred sea grass, a bit wind and water proof, we ducked and huddled as close to each other as humanly possible, trying to turn the biting frost into a humid, stinking cold – I scribbled away at the washed out and unreadable copy of Kyne's Sayings. Every Longship had to have a copy of the storm goddesses Great Word on board, but often the sailors felt too close to the goddess altogether to much feel the need to read her prophecies. Our copy on the Star of Marya must have had an interesting life already before being drawn to its service on board, since it was a sturdy old leather bound book with completely washed out, bend pages, the writing totally illegible. Charcoal and fish oil – of which we had ample supply – made for a good water proof ink. I had a large sheet of fish skin to wrap it up in – wherever that came from, as I have never seen any fish that size being caught in Atmora. The purser gave it to me with a conspirational grin and a slap on the shoulder. He sat next to me the night before as I was scribbling my notes. That fish skin made for a wonderful cover. Kyne's Sayings were nearly all full of my handwriting and somehow they got lost just as we were washed ashore in Skyrim. That's all I know about it, myself. And yes, I did turn every plank over on the Star of Marya, searched from bow to stern. Twice.
I wish I still had this diary. The crossing was exactly the kind of nightmare that begged my whole self for the mercy of forgetting it. In my young life, nightmares where already queueing up for that favour. Some of them, as I can now say at the end of my days, were pretty successful. So when I now try to remember what it was like to sail from Atmora to Skyrim, it seems as if I remember something I only have seen myself – instead of having been part of it. There are exceptions, of course. Events I remember in every detail and always in the same way, sketched and frozen in time as if struck by lightning. Let me tell you about the day we met the ghost.
In the middle of the day, we ran into a bank of fog. If I still had my diary, I could tell you which day that was. The fog hung above the sea, swishing and swirling about as if it was more liquid than it should be. As we dived in, our little breeze waned to a prefect calm. The Atmorans huddled together and prayed. It was a strange, down- and up welling chant that seemed to make the ship pulse like a wounded heart. Ysgramor was standing aft starboard next to the helmsman – the only Atmoran still standing – and looked all of a sudden helpless.
I thought the Atmorans were just being foolish. Of course, the dense fog and the dead silence of the calm were a bit annoying. The Nords in Atmora were superstitious folks, as I had learned by living for four years amongst them. But this was downright stupid. Just minutes ago, I had seen the massive hull of the Rina as a grey streak a few hundred men away on our port side. The Qunita couldn't be far away either. Last time I saw the sky, there were only a few harmless tufts of clouds in a bottomless sea of blue. So here's the lesson I learned that day: If people who live off the icy northern seas huddle together praying, if folks who brave waves as high as towers with a reckless laugh, tremble with terror, you should be scared, not smug, no matter how the situation looks to you.
I remember every heartbeat until this day, the following moments are tattooed under my skin. There was some stirring in the fog, port ahead. The Nords on the Star of Marya fell silent, though I don't think they had seen anything. Instead, I heard the same eerie chant from the Rina – up and down, up – the dampening through the thick fog did nothing to make it sound more cheerful – and down. The stirring ahead started moving towards us. There was a shape to it, and the more it came close, the more it resembled – a human face. Distorted in horror, with empty sockets for eyes but nonetheless, a human face. It now rushed towards us and I heard loud splashing noises from the Rina – as if some heavy things were being hauled overboard. I saw her hull as a grey shape but couldn't make out what happened. Even though she must have been right next to us. I even remember how this fact irritated me beyond belief. That very heartbeat, the – ghost – began to scream.
It was getting close now and I saw it was heading for the Rina. It had been going for her all along. Now, the face seemed the size of a big hill, and a large, gaping hole had appeared in it like a cave. The mouth was littered with straight, pointed teeth like stalactites that stood edge by edge in his jaws. In four rows.
The air was trembling and my vision grew dim. The scream made my head ache even though my ears seemed to be deaf. As if I heard the scream right in my mind. To anyone but a Nord, this kind of magic cry would have been murder. The face rushed past us, as fast as a bird, swallowing the Rina in its wake without even slowing down. There was nothing to hear above the din, and behind the face, the fog was dense and swirling like it was alive. The Rina, a massive ship with more than six hundred Nord on her, was gone. And so, all of a sudden, was the scream.
She was gone so completely, as the fog cleared up (which it did in due time), there was not a single plank drifting on the sea, even though we hadn't moved because of the calm. Twenty-two Nords were fished out of the blue, fifteen men and seven women, one by one, by the white-faced crew of the Star of Marya. No one spoke a word. The splashes I heard earlier had found an explanation. They all – as I later learned from them – didn't even wait to see whether the ghost was coming for them as they jumped overboard into the deadly, icy sea. The ones who did were all gone now. They all were paralysed by the cold when we hauled them aboard.
Up until then, I always tried to please Ysgramor, somehow. He had been my father, after all. Even though he never treated us different from any other Nord he came across. And he had pretty little time for them, either. There was a determination in his eyes that drove him more than was good for him. But when he gave order that no one was to give his clothes to the castaways nor were they to be helped by the ship's spare garments, I felt something hot and sour welling up from my stomach. I was beginning to hate Ysgramor.
As soon as their state allowed, I asked the survivors of the Rina about Hrindal. I did not see him when we embarked so I didn't even know which ship he was on. Just one of them was able to answer, a young man about my brothers age. But he positively knew that Hrindal sailed on the Qunita. Hrindal was not dead!
I asked him when he last saw my brother. But his eyes drifted away as he sat there shivering and staring straight ahead like the others. His last words might just as well have been addressed to me.
The young man died that night, and I don't think he said anything after we spoke.
Ysgramor had him stripped just like the four that died before him as the corpses got thrown overboard. Only the clothes of the dead, damp and cold as they were, he gave out to the Rina crew. At the time, I was disgusted, but of course, every single one of us was only clinging on to life by a very thin thread indeed. Any item of protection less, and you might have the giver dead the next day. Never mind the receiver freezing to death anyway. It takes a lot until a Nord dies of cold, but this journey was full of opportunities. It was a long time after he was gone that I began to understand why Ysgramor could have been so cruel. For all he knew during the rest of his lifetime, his youngest son did avoid his presence whenever possible. Not that I think he ever noticed.
We were at sea for a month before we noticed any signs of an approaching continent. A month of cold and wet and sore. A month of hunger and pain and never enough sleep, until Skyrim called out to us, home of the Nord.
At first, there were branches and a few rotten trunks to appear. While this sight certainly made my heart jump, it was nothing compared to the reaction the first branches got when my Atmoran fellows sighted them. Both crews insisted on steering their ships close enough to the first driftwood they encountered and pulled it aboard. It got marvelled at, sniffed at and passed among the crew a dozen times over. A few Crestwillow branches – but in Atmora, this kind of tree was gone for more than two hundred years.
For the first time in the last two years, the survivors felt they were on to something. The paradise, their promised land, forests, the size of their continent, all those incredible things Ysgramor preached about: they were true! Ysgramor was their king and they would, to a man, give their life for him. A spirit that lasted, in some cases, only a few months.
We made land at the side of some kind of peninsula. We were being washed ashore by local currents rather than by proper seamanship. As the Nords reached Hsaarik Head, a dozen Elves with some time to spare would have been enough to finish off the Nords entirely. As it were, the most pathetic invasion of all history took place.
Men, women and children dragged themselves ashore with what little they had saved. A narrow strip of pebble beach surrounded by cliffs up to ten men high gave us a harsh welcome. There was a cave, or rather a large hole in the cliff, about a hundred men deep. On top of the rocks, a dense forest reached out with its branches and roots. If you want to know about the state we all were in, let me tell you it took us one week, one cold and hungry week, until the strongest men made it to the top of the cliffs, found some food, and made it back. The sight of the trees gave them strength, they said later.
It took me two days until my eyesight adjusted to steps instead of miles, three days until I could walk properly. I staggered past a lot of people who were still lying down. I was frozen, battered and starving when I met Hrindal, and so was he. When we hugged each other, we did not say a word but simply tried to push each other upright again. We never talked about our last conversation before boarding for Skyrim again.
We just hauled all the firewood and food to the edge of the rock, gave a push, and collected the debris from the beach. Warmth and food brought every Nord in the cave back to life and the Elves of Skyrim had lost their only chance to keep their kin and country, without even knowing about it.
The Nords of Atmora started to explore Skyrim.
With every day, the Nords were more and more awed by Ysgramor. They were still more comfortable by the shore – as they were all fishermen rather than hunters, they knew better than to build a town right by the sea. Instead, a bit further down the shore from where we were stranded, there was a large gash in the cliffs in a bay that was even sheltered by a large island half a mile out at sea. You could turn the slope into a long ramp to water your boats and the fishing ground between the shore and the island proved to be excellent. The ground quickly went from hilly to mountainous in the hinterland, and just behind the cliffs, a few hundred men, there was a hill in the forest already high enough to overlook the entire bay. The Nords were all for founding a town immediately, only Ysgramor wouldn't have any of it.
A secluded little village at the very edge of Skyrim had no strategic value at all, he argued. Apart from, as the clansmen returned, a safe harbour where wood, stone, game and fish were plentiful and the Nord could flourish. Ysgramor did something, no other leader of the Nord had done before him: He gave in. The man who led the Nord to their paradise, a land so fashioned to be Nord, it must have been rightfully theirs, all along. He gave in. Ysgramor at some point just raised his hands and turned towards the group of men who had been following the dispute - “Go ahead and clear that hill, build your huts you brave hunters of red herrings: how long do you think you'd last? A year? Or two? - 'cause when the Elves get wind of us being here again, they will slaughter us. Saarthal's charred remains are only a short walk away. Go and have a look. In fact, let's all go.”
Nearly all of the Nords, even the old and the very young, went on that march, treading nearly the same paths Ysgramor, my brother and I used that night some four years ago. We passed the fishing village from where we set off. It was deserted and broken. It looked as if the inhabitants simply had packed up and gone, leaving their empty huts to the elements. There were no corpses. Yet.
It still took us a few hours, all uphill, to Saarthal. A flat, large, pancake shaped plateau in the higher foothills of the mountains. Burnt down to the foundations, the remains of Saarthal looked as if someone had painted the ground with heaps of charcoal. They were all still there. Mostly even untouched by the animals, as their flesh was too burned to be digestible. Four years of rain and frost had turned the corpses into neatly bleached skeletons in a puddle of black goo. The bones of the Nords having been killed outside – the ones not having been burned together with their own houses – were all over the place. Since they weren't burned, wolves and bears had had a feast. Bones littered the ground everywhere you looked. It was too much to take in. My mind simply wandered off, leaving a note to please call it back when there was something else to look at.
It was a children's toy, in the end, that made me vomit. A little horse carved from wood, only half burned, among the debris. There were lots of small Skeletons. Others collapsed, ran away screaming or cried their heart out. Most of them were sick sooner or later, too. I still walked from the shape of one house to the next. The Nords of Atmora knew nothing about Saarthal, and still were shocked, cringing and weeping. I lived here, I have known a lot of the skeletons as people. One of them was my mother, one my sister. We never really found their remains, as the Sickhouse was mostly build from stone but nonetheless collapsed as its burning wooden roof came down on it. A large heap of blackened rock was all that was left of it. As good a grave as you could hope for, I felt, even if you had to share it with a lot of others. My mother had a wooden horse like the one I found, so my baby sister would have something to look at. I strayed through Saarthal, confused and dizzy, dumbed down to the point I couldn't do anything but walk and stare. The Moothall, too big by the sheer ground it covered, couldn't just collapse into a single heap. In fact, you could still guess where the walls once stood. In the centre, surrounded by the debris of the roof, was the black stone. Perfect and rectangular, the Moot table looked as if nothing had happened. Someone was standing on it.
I never understood how people were able to listen to a speech, in a place like this. Much less giving one. I certainly did not take anything in of Ysgramors' rant, but I have been assured it was a brilliant one. The Nords of Atmora stopped weeping. Afterwards, none of them had any qualms about banging their axe into any elf they saw, so the speech must have been quite good.
Still we founded Winterhold first, as the Elder of the clans demanded. Ysgramor in turn reserved his right to build and name the second village as he pleased. As there was plenty of wood and stone around it, Winterhold quickly grew into a very comfortable village, indeed. As every family had their room, stores and granaries were being built, along with firewood shelters and even stables. It was only then, the village got a name: Winterhold. This village would grow healthily on its own and provide others with food and shelter should the weather play up.
Ysgramor came back from a patrol with a few officers one morning. They had caught three wild horses and saw a group of six Elves, hunting. They couldn't get to them without at least one of them having a chance to escape, so they had to let them go. Every Nord had to go on patrols like that, and it wasn't long before there were the first deadly encounters. Until then, the Elves had never expected to meet anything hostile that couldn't be turned into a meal, and were fair game themselves. The Nord made a point to never take any prisoners. All of a sudden, entire elven hunting groups went missing. Stealth was strength. We covered every trace. We even buried their bodies.
Ysgramor wanted to build a stronghold. Along the old northern trail up to Dunmeth Pass, on top of a steep Rock next to the westbound road to Amol. A brilliant location to control everything that went on between Morrowind and northern Skyrim. He called it Windhelm. Only a year had passed after the disastrous beaching at Hsaarik Head, and Winterhold's population had already grown. Now, the Nords began to take possession of the land.
By now, the Nords were worshipping Ysgramor as if he was Shor himself, a shadow of the god, freeing himself from the underworld. I don't know who came up with the idea. Maybe they weren't even serious. But as Shor has led the Nord against the Aldmeri before his fall, Ysgramor has led his men against mer without losing a single warrior, so far. Something about that comparison stuck. And grew. Ysgramor lead the Nords back to Skyrim. Given how much more fertile the ground is here compared to Atmora, the Nords felt like being led to paradise. From safe extinction, when you also looked at how things were going for Atmora. Saving folks from extinction – wasn't that also what Shor did, just after the creation of the world? - what some of the Nords thought of Ysgramor was not healthy any more.
Around that time, the skirmishes turned into war. Up until then, the Nords had only attacked cut off hunting groups. The Elves simply lost entire hunts without a trace. Something in north east Skyrim made mer disappear completely. Skyrim's fertility also drew a lot of attention amongst all sorts of bears and wolfs – be it the ordinary or the more magical variety. But it must have been something pretty bad if a party of five to eight elves simply disappeared. By that time, the Elves of Skyrim had pretty much forgotten about the massacre at Saarthal. Even if that took a little effort, as it was only five years ago, it was well worth a try.
It wasn't long until the Elves simply kept out of the area. Maybe they wrote their losses down to ghosts. You could have left it at that, for the time being. The Nord grip on Winterhold and Eastmarch was growing, as were their numbers. Windhelm was but a few huts sheltered by a row of wooden palisades. But if you looked up at it from the road, you already couldn't help thinking what a few archers up there could do.
Ysgramor now felt the time right to make his presence known. The patrols grew less frequent, but kept everyone more busy as he sent out three times as many men, each time. Enough to finish off a small village. He left them all with clear instructions: kill all elves you can, don't look back, no prisoners. We're not after hunting parties any more, find out where they live. Burn out their roots.
You will leave traces. Make them point to Windhelm. Ysgramor had a plan all along.
I was involved in five of those patrols, and all of them are still present in my mind, even nowadays.
They are unbidden guests in my memory, so I will spare you all but my first one. There were Nords who went on patrol fifty times or more. After what I've seen, I wonder how they kept their sanity. But then, history proves some of them didn't.
It was a month before my fifteenth birthday, that Ysgramor suggested to the chieftains to make my manhood by assigning me to a hunting group. Only, instead of the usual deer or bore, you had to bring home an elves head. He set the same task for every boy right in their puberty, to make sure the experience had an impact. Even young men – Hrindal amongst them – had to prove themselves again, no matter if they had already passed their Duties in Atmora. The chieftains never rejected. As it was customary for Nord boys to pass their Duties to become men – these Duties being anything useful to the community, from a successful hunt to the slaying of undead that haunt a cave – it was only good and proper to make them earn their promised lands. In times like this, only a foes head would do.
Ysgramor had chosen Iangbald the Rover as the leader of our patrol, and despite the name, Iangbald was a careful and patient man. Bjornget, a young lad who performed strange exercises and had an odd affinity to fungi, was our scout. He wasn't really a seer back then, but he certainly was a brilliant blood-hound. The two of them made a frightening team already. My task was to kill an elf, cut his head off and carry it back to Ysgramor. We left Windhelm at noon, so we could march down south and be in elvish hunting grounds in the early evening. Just as any elves around would be hunting their prey right now, they were hunted themselves. And just like the animals, they weren't even aware of it.
We got to elven territory at dusk, and it was a slow trek, sneaking through the undergrowth alongside the elven hunting paths. With the animals of the night, we knew the elves would come. Four of them rushed right past us, mere dark shadows in the dim light. Iangbald screamed, and I charged. It was as easy as that.
I had polished the blade of my axe for an hour, that afternoon, partly because it was such a surprisingly relaxing thing to do. Every Nord looks after their weapon. It has nothing to do with me being on my first patrol this evening, I was just sharpening my axe. And now, Iangbald screamed. I felt my blood boiling in my ears. I think I screamed, too.
A very young Elf stopped on the path, and turned around open mouthed to see what this noise was all about, and I propelled myself towards him. Ye gods! He was about as old as I was, at that time. Overwhelmed by the scream, the Elf seemed to reach for his quiver when I approached, pulling my battle axe upwards. He moved like he was just waking up. I hardly even felt an impact when the blade split his stomach and his midriff. He was still stopped dead by Iangbald's scream when I got my axe out of him and up sweeping it along just above his shoulders. I did it with my eyes closed.
The feeling was quite remarkable. I would have thought the strong neck muscles of a healthy young man to be noticeable, even when you swing a sharp, heavy blade. But my sense of touch was very accurate. I didn't notice his neck, but I noticed his spine. It was like striking a stone in the ground. A stone that simply cracked and went away. Many a night, I lay awake reliving that moment. In surprise, I opened my eyes and saw a head on its way to the ground. A body, spurting like a fountain, sagged forward, drenching my left leg with blood before it hit the mud. I simply climbed over the corpse to grab the head by a long plait and went back to the undergrowth. Looking back, I also never fail to notice that my mind was completely blank back then.
Yangram, a year older than Hrindal was watching me wide eyed and open mouthed. He was hidden in a Swajsward bush and saw it all happening. I nearly fell over him rather than see him as I went back to where I thought the others were. All of a sudden I felt even really good. A surge of pride ran through my body like hot met. In salute, I raised my arm that held the head, it drifted into my view like someone else was holding it. The head was still warm. I collapsed on the spot, crying and vomiting. Yangram didn't see the end of this since by that time, he breathlessly reported back to Iangbald about young Rasgard slaughtering an Elf with an effectiveness and cold-bloodedness that made him run away. When I arrived, Bjornget stopped me and had a close look in my face. At that time, I was only dimly aware of this, as my eyes still refused to focus properly. I felt vaguely cold and pale. Slowly noticing that I was being looked at, I became aware of the cold sweat on my face, ye gods, I had snot running out of my nose. Bjornget seemed to be pleased with what he saw. “Welcome back, Nord.” he said as he padded my shoulder. It shouldn't take me long to find out what he had been so worried about.
Three elves where lying there already. The one next to me had a leather helmet on to brace him from snapping branches. The elves back then often used them when they were hunting in the forests. They were not much use in combat, but you could go head first through the thicket with them, which was a bonus. His head was clean split in half. I felt my stomach clenching again, now being grateful for the fact it had nothing in it any more. We dragged the corpses into the woods and covered them with leaves and branches a good way from any path. If the elves send someone to look after their lost hunting group, they would have a hard time finding anything. If the bears and wolves got there first, which was almost certain, no-one would notice the cut of an axe anymore. All the time, it felt like murder.
I didn't have a clear idea of what should have happened when we got back to the shacks of Windhelm. The night I had done my Duties. Well, Iangbald went straight to Ysgramor and ordered me to come with him. He gave a short account on how we found the elves, being very detailed about as to where exactly we found them. When he mentioned in passing how I did my Duties on this patrol, Ysgramor briefly looked at me. I have thought long about that look. It had no trace of emotion in it. That was all. You can imagine, at that time I felt a little disappointed.
It was Hrindal, who put me straight again that morning. “You've been lucky”, he said, “he shook hands with me. Can you believe it? Shook hands. Only because he wanted to show some kind of approval and didn't know what else to do. He didn't even look into my eyes.” Hrindal had a point, of course. Ysgramor had become some kind of ethereal leader of the Nords and was beginning to believe it himself. Being a son of a god still makes you a mere mortal.
When we finally decided to put up a proper fight with the few elves that still dared to set foot into Skyrim, that was when things really got ugly. Vestar Thorgot is the name I put to the shame of the Nord, and I shall tell you in every detail. In part, because I still have nightmares about it, but partly because we Nord have so conveniently forgotten about how the Elves came to attack Windhelm. There are songs and long poems about the crushing defeat at the Hold of the Nord, after which the Elven race was a thing of the past in Skyrim. Every mer who could hold a stick and march went against Windhelm. Their numbers just matched the Nords, but the defenders held a rock overlooking the fork of the main road out of Skyrim towards Blacklight in the east, behind the foundations of what would be the strongest walls north of the Jerall Mountains. They were well prepared and the Elves even knew. The scouts of the two hosts ended up taunting each other. And yet nowadays hardly any of us ask what drove the Elves to march into oblivion with their eyes wide open.
Only a few Nord even know the name of Vestar Thorgot. Where were all those poets when Vestar came back from his umpteenth patrol, eyes ablaze. “Victory!” he shouted, driving his steed uphill right into Windhelm. “We killed them all! Skyrim is ours!”. The poets had been everywhere before and made a ballad of it. Why has no one ever sung of this moment? Vestar certainly looked the part, swinging a blood covered axe over his head. Maybe it was his fellows then, that took a bit away from the glory by walking rather meekly next to their horses, eyes on the ground.
Vestar dismounted and ran straight to Ysgramor, who was standing in front of the blacksmiths (it’s the same building as it is in, today). He started talking. He was exited and proud, I saw by the way he moved. Fenner, the old blacksmith, had a large anvil and a set of hammers outside at summers, for “jobs the steel jus' needs be told to behave”. All I saw was Ysgramor, grabbing the largest hammer and banging it on the empty anvil sixteen times with all he was worth. I did count. Vestar froze in middle of whatever after the first bang. Ysgramor was exhausted as he send Vestar away. He only said a few words and pointed out of the hold.
He beckoned one of the soldiers of the patrol who went to him like a lamb to the slaughter. Vestar seemed completely transformed, eyes red rimmed, he was pale and trembling. Without a word, he marched out of Windhelm. He passed me close enough to see his face, and he was looking at no-one. Whoever was there, right on the market square in Windhelm that day, will never forget. Everyone else just pretended it never happened because they weren't there. Of all the days of my life, the ones after the "Night of tears" where the most terrible, without doubt. The next days came only close second. While Ysgarmor interviewed the soldier, his own figure seemed to shrink, and for the first time since many, many years I fear'd for the life of my father. You would have heard a needle drop onto the soft ground (as the keep of Windhelm wasn't plastered yet) even though the hold was packed full of folks.
Ysgramor called for a Moot, right away. He had to steady himself on the anvil as he addressed his people, yet he gave no explanation as to why he send the leader of a raid into exile who shouted “victory” at him. Every Nord should go home and wait for the smoke to clear. By tradition, the Moot was only attended by the chieftains of the Nord. Of course, the Moothall was lit and heated by a large fire for the occasion. When the Moot was over, the fire was extinguished, and thus the smoke (above the Moothall) cleared. In case of Windhelm, this hall consisted of four walls of clay and rubble, topped with a roof of Featherwood. A builders hut without equipment. Ysgramor hardly had no chieftain neither, so he named Hector, warlord of the Thorgots and father of the man he just condemned to a lonely life, and Rorgulf, son of Kron the Dark (he was only twelve but his father drowned on the Rina) of Hraskvald as the only clan leaders that were left to him for counsel. These where the only two chieftains alive of the old continent of Atmora. He simply made Heagart the Dog and Iangbald chieftains of the new realm of Skyrim and called them so.
For more than six hours, someone must have been desperately trying to light a fire in that dump builders shack. It smoked all right and that's all it was supposed to do. Yet it never seamed to clear up. When it did, Ysgramor held a speech. Is it not strange that the only speech of him I can remember, is the only one no one else can?
“Vestar Thorgot led his raid against the elves in the south of Whiterun, towards the Throat of the World” he said, “and as the Elves tried to wipe out the Nord, we swore to do the same onto them”.
The day they closed the Mausoleum was when I became aware that we sons would have no achievement to our own name. Whatever we would do with our lives, we would always be only the sons of Ysgramor. Our names were doomed to be forgotten since we would always live in the shadow of him. The bitter irony was, we didn’t ever get anything special from our father since we left Saarthal. If anything, he seemed to be intimidated by our presence, later on in his life.
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- Lord Berandas
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