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The Writing on the Wall

by baratron

baratron Hadvar was in charge of the prisoner list when the Imperial Legion tried to execute Ulfric Stormcloak at Helgen. Among the prisoners was an amnesiac priest from Cyrodiil, who knew nothing other than that his name was Martin. He wasn't on Hadvar's list, and was clearly not a Stormcloak, but the Captain in charge said he should be executed anyway. Then a dragon appeared in Skyrim for the first time in centuries, and burned the town to the ground. Hadvar fled to Whiterun, to tell Jarl Balgruuf what had happened, taking Martin with him.

Now they're in Bleak Falls Barrow looking for a Dragonstone for Farengar, Balgruuf's court wizard. They encounter many undead warriors, and a strange stone wall with mysterious runes engraved upon it. One of them has the *oddest* magical experience, and the other has to save him from certain death.

A Skyrim story. Canon-typical violence and gay content. Not suitable for children. Part 1 in a series.
The third time Martin scared the living daylights out of Hadvar was in Bleak Falls Barrow.

Hadvar was on edge going through the barrow. Too many memories of going there with Ralof: to test their skills against bandits and Draugr, and steal kisses away from the prying eyes in Riverwood. He could picture the ghosts of their former selves laying the long-dead Nordic warriors to rest, then lying down together pressed up against a tomb. Now they were so estranged that even thinking of his name hurt. Would the bloody war ever end, and would they both survive it unscathed?

Martin didn't seem nervous at all. Unfazed by the Draugr and the Frostbite spiders - if he was afraid, he wasn't showing it. Probably praying to his gods again, like he had in Helgen. He'd stumbled off the cart with the other prisoners (with Ralof), blinking and confused, knowing very little other than his name. That floppy brown hair and those damned blue eyes made him look entirely innocent, and he clearly wasn't a Stormcloak. Hadvar hadn't wanted to let him die, Eight damn that bloodthirsty Captain.

Then the dragon had come, and Martin had raised his arms to the sky, praying to Akatosh. What kind of damned idiot stands praying when there's a dragon overhead trying to burn you up? The first dragon in centuries, straight out of the old Nordic legends... Did the prisoner, in his disoriented state, honestly believe it was Akatosh come to Nirn? Hadvar had grabbed the crazy Imperial and hustled him into the Keep, half-listening to him babbling while looking out for threats. He'd cut the prisoner's bindings, given him a sword, and hoped he had enough skill to keep himself alive. He'd turned out to be a priest rather than any ordinary religious nutter, and his mage abilities had initially made Hadvar cringe in horror. Though he'd become ashamed of his anti-magic prejudice after he'd taken an arrow to the shoulder, and Martin had healed the wound in seconds instead of the days it would usually take.

They'd arrived at his uncle's house later that evening, been welcomed and fed, so exhausted that they'd easily fallen asleep wrapped in blankets in front of the fire. Then Martin had woken up in the middle of the night screaming, terrifying him all over again. He had assumed it was just delayed shock from almost getting killed twice in one day, or perhaps from whatever had transpired at the border crossing. But Martin had no recollection of coming to Skyrim, of anything past his life as a priest in Kvatch, wherever that was. Perhaps he'd taken a bad blow to the head, but he didn't seem to be injured, nor did he remember healing himself.

Hadvar knew that he should have left the priest in Riverwood and rejoined his unit at the earliest possible opportunity. That's what he should have done, if he'd been thinking like a hardened Legionnaire instead of a man pining after his lost love. But he'd been shaken up by seeing Ralof again – accompanied by Ulfric Stormcloak, no less – making him even more of a damned traitor than before. And Martin's blue eyes reminded him so much of his former friend, despite the confusion and fear which never left them. He seemed to have the oddest faith in Hadvar because of the uniform he wore, as if he truly believed that the Empire was worth fighting for. Yet he didn't seem quite able to look after himself without help. Among other things, he was surprised by the value of money and other items, he claimed to have never heard of the Thalmor, and was adamant that Talos was as worthy a god as the rest of the Eight. Hadvar worried that if he left Martin alone somewhere, he might get killed through his own ignorance.

He could have left him in Riverwood. Alvor would have kept him safe. But he'd had to take Martin to Whiterun (arguing with himself that he couldn't possibly trust a man with no memory to find the way unescorted) to bear witness to the Jarl. Once they'd told Jarl Balgruuf about the dragon, they'd been asked to go to Bleak Falls Barrow to find a (or possibly, the) Dragonstone. It couldn't be a coincidence. There had to be some connection... but what? He was getting used to his sleep being interrupted by Martin's nightmares, and hearing him mumble things in a half-awake state which made no sense at all. Clearly, something absolutely terrible was buried in Martin's past. Was he deliberately suppressing his memories?

Hadvar shook himself. While he'd been daydreaming, they'd reached the entrance to what he suspected must be the final chambers. Far deeper into the barrow than he'd ever gone with Ralof, this door required the golden claw which he'd taken from the corpse of the Dunmer bandit. It turned out to be a key, of sorts – its three prongs fitted a slot on the door. Hadvar put it in place and tried to open the lock, but three wheels set into the door simply spun around without anything else happening. There were also three different symbols on each wheel, and he spent a dizzy moment attempting to work out how many possible combinations that made.

“Let me see that,” said Martin, his soft voice a surprise. He had been examining the murals on the walls of the ancient hallway, and was now almost whispering.

Hadvar handed him the claw, and the priest turned it over in his big hands. “Here,” he remarked, giving it back to Hadvar with the “fingers” pointing upwards. “The solution is imprinted upon it.”

He reached for the door, turning the wheels to match the pattern of bear-butterfly-owl. Hadvar fitted the claw to the slot again, and this time the door opened, sliding downwards in a dramatic show of ancient engineering. Martin smiled, and the two men went onwards.

They entered a room larger than Hadvar would have believed possible. A natural cave with waterfalls and a stream flowing through it, plus some of the hardy plants that seemed to manage with so little light. A bridge was carved out of the rock, allowing visitors to cross the stream without getting their feet wet; and stairs led up to a raised dais, all hewn from the cavern's own rock. Another set of stairs continued further up, almost to the roof of the cavern itself. It was beautiful, and lit by the same magically-burning lanterns that had lighted their way so far. He didn't want to think about them. One incidence of magical healing, restoring the use of his sword arm rather earlier than usual, was not enough to overcome what he felt was a natural resistance to magic. Besides, he reasoned that magic which still worked thousands of years after its creator cast the spell should make anyone feel profoundly uncomfortable.

Martin stopped in his tracks, staring around the room. “Do you hear that?” he muttered.

“Hear what?” asked Hadvar, entirely too loudly. His voice echoed around the cave.

“Singing, or chanting. It sounds... like a choir, actually. Like many voices joined in chorus.” He wandered further away, searching for the sound which he claimed to be able to hear.

Hadvar turned to examine the Imperial's face. Martin hadn't shown much evidence of a sense of humour so far, but this was the sort of joke that he would have expected from Ralof: playing on the spookiness of the burial mound, leaping out from behind a dead Draugr to make him scream... Yet the priest seemed entirely serious, his eyebrows raised slightly and his mouth set in a line. Strange music that only he could hear?

“It seems to be coming from the back of the cave,” said Martin, finally. He began to walk in that direction, but as he approached the dais, something incredibly odd happened. He stopped abruptly at the foot of the stairs, rocking back on his heels as if struck; then equally abruptly started to move again, arms outstretched in front of him like a marionette. Unable to see his feet because of his long robes, Hadvar wasn't even sure if he was still walking, or simply being pulled by a tremendous force. It reminded him of the time, before the war, that the Legion had been called in to deal with a rogue master vampire with human minions. The enthralled humans had moved in much the same way, yanked about by their master's will. Very alarmed, Hadvar yelled Martin's name, then started running towards him when he didn't reply.

Martin stopped in front of a massive carving in the wall, which for all the world resembled a gigantic throne on the dais. There was an engraving – was it really a dragon, or was Hadvar now fated to see dragons everywhere? - below which was a flat wall. Runes were carved upon it in a harsh, angular font, the likes of which he had never seen before. As he watched, he saw light burst from the wall and surround the priest; who promptly fell to his knees.

Gods damn it! What was happening? Hadvar rushed up the stairs towards him, and could hear him speaking: words in a language that he'd never heard before, a guttural tongue with lots of grating 'kh' sounds. Was he reading the runes? How could an amnesiac priest from Cyrodiil understand the runes in an ancient Nord barrow? Was this wall the Dragonstone that they'd been asked to find?

His ruminations were cut off by a scraping sound; whirling around, he saw a tomb that he hadn't previously noticed with its lid sliding off. A Draugr more powerful than any they had faced so far climbed out. Clutching an iron shield and an enchanted axe of some kind, it advanced on Martin; who was staring into space, oblivious. His eyelids fluttered rapidly; he continued to babble in the strange tongue, utterly unaware of anything else despite Hadvar's yelled warning.

Hadvar ran towards the Draugr, his sword out and ready to hit; but suddenly there was a noise like muffled thunder and a ripple of unfamiliar magic in the air. It threw him through the air, depositing him on the ground by the entrance to the cavern. He hit the rocky floor hard, knocking the breath from his lungs, and it was a few moments before he could even think about moving. The Draugr had... shouted? Normally they were entirely mute - he didn't even know they could make sounds – but this one had definitely said words. They sounded like “Fus ro”, and they'd managed to push him, a fully-grown warrior, halfway across the large room. Ancient Nord magic?

Staggering to his feet, trying to get his brain and body synchronised, Hadvar saw the Draugr consider Martin with what appeared to be silent humour. The priest was still staring at the wall and mumbling, despite the deep cut on his back. When had that happened? When Hadvar was mid-air? He saw the undead creature raise its axe, dripping blood, and swipe again – an entirely unfair battle considering that Martin was in some kind of trance. It doubled up in mute laughter as he entirely failed to react. Already angry, Hadvar became enraged – whatever you thought about magic, fighting someone who couldn't retaliate was Wrong. A sickening realisation followed: soon the Draugr would get bored with its vindictive game, and would simply chop the priest's head off. By the Eight! He couldn't let that happen.

Hadvar charged towards his enemy, bellowing. He ignored the bridge and simply leapt over the small stream, waving his Imperial Legion sword and shield, trying to make himself as large and obvious as possible. As he approached, he saw that the Draugr seemed about to shout magic at him again. Knowing with a terrifying certainty that if he got thrown to the back of the cave, Martin would be killed, he yelled, “Hey. Leave him alone. You want a battle? Come and fight me.”

That did the trick. The Draugr lifted its arms, waving its axe and shield in the air as if to say “Bring it on”; Hadvar recognised the pose from fighting Stormcloaks. It began to advance, and they met in the middle of the cavern.

The battle was lengthy; far longer than Hadvar had hoped. Although he had the benefit of being young, strong, and alive, the Draugr must have been a mighty warrior before it died. Not only did it have a longer reach than he did, it also kept using its magic to throw him out of the way whenever he got too close. Between its shield and its magic, barely one sword swipe in three was getting through its defences; and it managed to get several axe hits in on Hadvar before it was defeated. He was beaten, bruised, and bloodied. Just from one Draugr. Gods!

He stood bent over with his hands clutching his knees, gulping down air. He wanted to collapse where he stood. He hurt all over. But he had a duty to help Martin – if he was even still alive. He'd moved not an inch; the wounds on his back oozed thick blood. Hadvar hurled himself across the dais and put his hand on the priest's shoulder – thank gods, he was breathing - noticing that he was now silent. Whatever it was that he'd been saying, he'd stopped. Martin remained on his knees, impassive, his only movement being the slow rise and fall of his chest, and the erratic flickering of his eyelids. His head was bowed, as if in prayer, and his gaze remained fixed on the wall.

Hadvar spoke to him, shaking him firmly by both shoulders now, shouting, slapping his face – trying to get a response, any response. Increasingly afraid, he would have wept with relief even if Martin had mistaken him for a foe, cast an Ice spell, and sent him flying across the room again.

Eventually, after what felt like hours but could only have been a few minutes, Martin raised his head and blinked. His eyes were glassy and – by the Eight – yellow. The pupil in the centre was slitted, like a cat, or... dragon. What in Oblivion? His fear so strong it left him cold, Hadvar shuddered violently and couldn't stop. It was so wrong to see that eye in a human face – in his friend's face.

Martin blinked again, slowly – then abruptly pitched forwards in a dead faint.

Hadvar panicked completely. Screaming “No!”, he tried to shake Martin back into consciousness. His skin was very pale and felt cold to the touch. Hadvar spat out curses, with no real idea what to do. He was used to travelling with the Legion, only ever alone when on patrol around the perimeter of their camps. Normally there were at least four other soldiers with him who could help an injured companion. And he was certain that at least some of what was wrong with Martin was due to magic – why did his eyes look like that?

One thing at a time. Stop the bleeding. Get him warm. Try to find help. In Bleak Falls Barrow? Gods, the nearest help would be back in Riverwood. Shit. Shit!

He touched Martin's back lightly, finding the blood loss had slowed to a trickle. Was that a good or a bad sign? He hurled his pack to the floor, looking for something he could use as a bandage. They'd acquired lots of things going through the barrow, but most of them were weapons. In sheer desperation, he contemplated hacking part of his tunic off, though he wasn't sure how practical that was. Then he found something soft and fabric-y at the bottom of the bag. A... linen wrap? He must have grabbed it by accident when picking up items from a shelf. Creepy.

Hadvar tried not to think about the fact that the gauze was at least hundreds, if not thousands of years old, nor that it was supposed to be a burial shroud, and instead folded it into a neat pad. He pressed it against Martin's deep cuts, realising as he did so that he was praying. Not to any of the Eight, but to the secret One, Talos. Most Nords still revered Tiber Septim in secret, no matter what the White-Gold Concordat said, but it had been a particularly sore point between himself and Ralof. Tears ran down Hadvar's face, and he didn't even know who he was crying for.

Martin was clearly no longer in danger of bleeding to death, but neither was he showing any sign of regaining consciousness. Hadvar gently rolled him onto his side, arranging his limbs to support his weight, so he wouldn't choke if he vomited. He pulled out his cloak and wrapped it around the priest's motionless form, tucking it around him carefully; almost lovingly. Despite barely knowing the man, he was more certain than ever that there was something special about him. His hands stroked Martin's hair for a few moments, hoping it would bring him comfort despite his unconscious state, wanting comfort himself.

Then he sorted through the potions in the bag. He arranged the various healing and stamina potions in order, and swallowed the weakest one of each, just enough to combat his aches and pains. He put two more in his pockets and set out at a trot, to explore the steep flight of stairs leading up from the dais. From what he knew about the layout of barrows, it could easily be an exit, which he was sure must be quicker than going all the way back to the entrance.

The stairs did indeed lead to a second exit; but the going was steep, and Hadvar did not relish the thought of trying to carry an injured man that way. It seemed likely that if he tried, he would fall and injure himself as well – and then who could go for help? The path wound around, with lots of loose rocks, then abruptly dropped down a cliff that was taller than he was, before exiting onto a mountain. Although it was pitch black and snowing, Hadvar could tell he was high up. He did not dare to explore.

Instead, he returned to the huge chamber where he'd left Martin. The Imperial was still unconscious, but looked rather better – encouragingly, his colour was much closer to his natural skintone. Hadvar started to sort through Martin's bag as well, knowing that they both needed to eat to get their strength back. He set out all of the food that was ready to eat - apples, bread, cheese, grilled chicken breast, and sweetrolls – and split it evenly, keeping the sweetrolls aside.

He was about halfway through his meal when Martin groaned and opened his eyes - ordinary, blue, human eyes. Thank the Eight! He blinked a few times and licked his lips. Hadvar recognised the gesture and helped the priest lift his head, then trickled water from a bottle of water into his mouth. Martin swallowed a few mouthfuls, coughed, then reached for the bottle himself and drank about half of it.

“Gods,” he moaned. “What happened?” His breath came in short gasps.

“You were cut up pretty badly by a Draugr's axe. Do you think you can heal yourself?”

Martin swore, closing his eyes. “If I'm going to heal myself, it needs to be clean. No clothing in the way. No fabric, loose fibres, anything that could get into the wound as it heals. It's... really disgusting if you accidentally get things like that caught up.”

Hadvar shuddered. He could imagine. “I can help you strip off and wash out the injury with water? It'll start bleeding again if I do that, though.”

“Do it. Please.”

Hadvar nodded. He really didn't want to hurt Martin, but knew that the longer the wounds were left untreated, the more stuck together they would be, and the worse it would hurt. He briskly unwrapped his cloak from around the priest, then helped him remove his robes. Martin hissed in pain as the fabric pulled away from his damaged skin. Bravely, he wriggled on his belly onto the cold stone floor, away from the clothing so it wouldn't get wet.

“Give me something to bite.”

Searching around briefly, Hadvar eventually removed one of his own leather bracers and placed it into the priest's mouth. Martin inhaled deeply and bit the leather, face contorted in agony. Hadvar held him down, tipping water from the bottle over his injuries; until he spat out the bracer gasping and sobbing, eyes watering. Hadvar massaged his shoulders as he wept, stroking his face and hair until he was able to continue. It took several bottles of water and several trips to the stream before the wounds were clean enough to be healed; and by the end Martin was no longer able to restrain himself, screaming so loudly it echoed round the cave.

Hadvar knelt down next to Martin and pulled his head onto his lap. One hand dug into Martin's floppy brown hair, while the other rubbed small, soothing circles on the uninjured parts of his back. His pallor had returned, and he lay grey-faced and nauseated, too sore to move. “Shh,” whispered Hadvar. “You're okay.” He wished he had some sort of painkilling potion, or even alcohol. Anything that he could pour down the other man's throat that might help.

Through sheer strength of will, and no small amount of help from Hadvar, Martin managed to get his hands onto his back. Lying on the Legionnaire's cloak for warmth, he cast Restoration magic slowly, trying to conserve his magicka rather than burn through it. Once the wounds were scabbed over, Hadvar stopped him; lines of exhaustion marred his smooth skin, and he seemed ready to collapse. “You'd better eat something.”

“Eat?!” Martin's eyes were wild, and he spoke rapidly in panic. “I think I'd throw up! ...And, probably, rip these cuts open again.”

“Well, I think it would be a bad idea for you to go to sleep without eating. You're pretty weak.” Hadvar glanced around the cave for inspiration, taking in more than just the dais, dead Draugr, and stream, and his eyes met the dragon wall again. “Do you want to talk for a while? About what happened?”

“Yeah. I don't remember...”

“You seriously don't remember anything?” asked Hadvar, alarmed but also curious.

“The door with the golden claw, then... nothing.” Slowly, moving like a man in considerable pain, Martin rolled over onto his side so he could see the Nord's face.

“Well, we came in here, and you said you could hear singing from the back of the cave. You started to walk there, and then... I think you went into a kind of trance.”

“Oh. Wait. That actually happened? I thought it was a dream.” Martin sat up, gritting his teeth and wincing as he yanked himself upright. Hadvar started to reach towards him to help, but stopped, aware that some men disliked being reminded of injury or weakness. Instead, he reached for the priest's ripped-up robes, and handed them to him. Martin smiled faintly in thanks, and huddled into his clothing, fastening the layers as tightly as he could.

He gazed around the cavern as if seeing it for the first time. Maybe he was. He shook his head in wonderment. “I...” He didn't continue, but simply grabbed a stamina potion, uncorked it, and swallowed it in two gulps. “Help me... Could you help me stand up, please?”

It probably wasn't a good idea, but the Imperial had a will of iron, forcing himself onto his knees. Hadvar had little choice but to help him stand, and Martin flung his right arm around his neck for support, waving his other arm in the direction of the dragon wall. “Take me over there. Please.” Well, Hadvar wanted to look at the runes up close anyway. He hadn't had the opportunity to do so yet, concerned as he'd been with fighting the Draugr and then tending to Martin.

They walked to the wall and Martin let go of Hadvar's shoulders to touch the flat stone with both hands. His fingers caressed the runes, tracing out each symbol. He sighed, lips parting in appreciation, and he fell to his knees with the most reverent expression on his face. Hadvar turned to him in alarm.

“Hmm?” Martin blinked, and met his eyes. “What is it?”

“Nothing. It's just...” Hadvar swallowed. “It's just that you looked rather like that when you were in the trance.”

“Oh! I'm... I'm fine. Though I'm wondering why I can't hear the music any more.”

Hadvar was wondering why he hadn't been able to hear the music in the first place, but he said nothing. They pondered the wall for a few more moments in silence, before Martin asked, “Hadvar? When did the wall change?”

“What do you mean?”

“Earlier, this word here -” Martin traced it with his fingers, “was lit up. Now it isn't.”

“I thought you didn't remember...?” The priest looked stricken, and Hadvar sighed. “The light went into you.”

“Into me? Gods. Then... Then that must be why the wall feels different. It's as though the power's been drained. As though... it was storing energy, and now it's... gone dormant. Like a volcano.”

Martin pushed his hands through his hair and staggered to his feet, wide-eyed. He sagged against Hadvar, who immediately wrapped an arm around his waist to support him. Martin's head flopped onto his friend's shoulder. “Akatosh,” he mumbled. “That was real. It was all real. I thought it was a dream... Oh gods. Why me?”

It might have been ancient Nord magic, but the Nord didn't have any answers. Instead, he tried to focus on practicalities. “Come on. You should eat something, before you pass out again.”

Martin allowed himself to be led back to their packs. He was still utterly chilled, and Hadvar wrapped him up in his cloak again, wishing he could build a fire. He tried to remember exactly how big the barrow was, and how long it would take to walk back to the main entrance where there was a large fire and cooking pots left by the bandits. Too long, he thought. A couple of hours? Martin ate the bread and cheese which Hadvar put into his hands automatically, as if he wasn't even tasting it. Hadvar watched him surreptitiously, from under his eyelashes, as he crunched an apple, and passed him one of the sweetrolls he'd been saving.

Martin picked apart the sweetroll and smiled. “I'm okay. I'm somewhat in shock, but you don't have to keep looking at me as if you think I'll break at any moment.” He nibbled the top of the sweetroll, and licked icing off his fingers.

Hadvar was a little surprised; though it seemed obvious in hindsight that the priest must be more resilient than he looked to be coping so well without his memories. “Then, can I ask you a question?” Martin nodded. “When you were staring at the wall before, you were talking some strange language. I thought maybe you were reading the runes. Do you know what they say?”

Martin shook his head, sadly. “I think maybe I knew what they said when I was surrounded by their magic, but now? They're just runes. I wish I could read them. Then I might know what happened.”

Hadvar was left feeling strangely bereft by that reply. He'd been hoping that there would be some simple explanation for what in Oblivion had occurred: the “music”, the trance, the light, the terrifying dragon eyes, but there was nothing... And if it was ancient Nord magic, why had it been the Imperial who was affected? Simply because he was a priest, and more susceptible to such things? He felt oddly jealous of Martin, though he had to admit that if they had both shared the experience, they'd probably now both be dead.

“Hadvar? What happened to the Dragonstone?” Martin's voice was unexpectedly sharp, and Hadvar blinked, realising he'd been lost in thought. He scrambled to catch up.

“The Dragonstone? Isn't that it, up on the wall?”

“No, it can't be.” The priest shook his head, emphatically. “It has to be something small enough for us to take back to Farengar. I... I rather suspect that the Draugr was guarding it.”

Hadvar sprang to his feet. “You stay there.” But Martin merely nodded – so tired that he was content to sit bundled up in his friend's cloak. That in itself was concerning. He wasn't going to die of blood loss, his wounds were clean and at least half-healed, but it was cold and damp in the cave. They needed to get him somewhere warm and dry – ideally, with a proper bed.

He approached the dead Draugr grimly. He didn't want to have to touch it unless he had to. Thankfully, the Dragonstone turned out to be in the creature's tomb, rather than on its... corpse. It was a piece of slate, engraved on one side with a smaller copy of the carving that he was forever going to think of as a dragon, and what looked like a map of Skyrim, marked with stars at various points. On the back, there were runes – different from the ones on the wall, and none of them glowing. He wondered what would happen if he showed it to Martin.

But the priest was already asleep, curled up on his side and breathing deeply. He looked peaceful for the first time in hours, so Hadvar didn't want to move him, even to a warmer part of the barrow. In fact, there was only one sensible thing to do – unbuckle his armour, snuggle in next to him, and try to keep him warm while they waited for morning. He only hoped that when they got back to Whiterun, Farengar would tell them something useful...
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