The Ballad of Carl the Guard
Carl woke in a pleasant mood, looking forward to another day of protecting his village, his neighbors and his family. The crisp winter’s sun crackling through the window, spilling a stark beam of weak warmth on his bed, certainly didn’t hurt. He took a deep breath of cool air as he pushed the layers of pelts away. Next to him, his faithful wife stirred sleepily, and he lovingly patted her exposed ivory thigh, which she covered immediately with the furs he had discarded.
She wore a coy smile on her face though, even as her eyes remained firmly closed. Carl resisted a lascivious impulse, and instead slunk from the bed and began building a fire in the fireplace.
Not long after, Carl emerged from his now-warm home and the comfortable kindnesses of his wife, into a bright morning day. Around him Whiterun stirred, the heavy locks of closed shops opening with the sun, the careless chaos of children at play coming from all around. A short, pleasant walk to the town’s main gates was punctuated by a half-dozen greetings with people he had known over now twenty seasons of service as a town guard.
High on the hill at the apex of the town, Dragonsreach, home of Jarl Baalgruf, dominated the skyline, proud and strong. Fears of bandit invasions and conflicts between Battle-born and Grey-mane seemed very far away. As he took his station, Carl could not remember feeling quite so good in a very long time.
And then, the stranger came.
He was instantly recognizable as a Dunmer, with dark, elven features and those unsettling red eyes. An orcish longbow and quiver stuffed with arrows loomed behind his shoulders, and his hands seemed to shimmer and steam in the bright morning, ripe with magical potential. His steps were surefooted and oddly soft among the debris. Carl balked for only a moment.
“Hail, Traveller,” said Carl. “It’s some time since a Dunmer passed through our gates. Welcome to Whiterun, where ...” but the stranger walked — nearly ran — past, without even the dismissive half-courtesy of a nod. His eyes flashed Carl’s way only once, registered no threat at all, and then fixed forward up toward Dragonsreach. He dashed along the path, nearly knocking Jamiir the Blacksmith, who was already on his way to the inn for his morning bump, into the hard, cold mud. He gave not a second glance as Jamiir staggered and hissed an entirely justified curse.
As the stranger cruised out of view, he leapt deftly over a fence and carelessly crushed a bush of mountain flowers growing in widow Errin's garden. Carl had barely gotten out of his post to challenge the dark elf, but he was gone. There was no call to give chase, but he instantly disliked the leather-clad intruder, and vaguely hoped they crossed paths again in a little less sunlight.
The encounter set the pattern for the morning. In only a few hours, the bright morning sun slunk behind grey, depressing clouds. Jamiir, who was already in a foul mood from nearly getting knocked down in the street, started a fight at the inn with a bard who decided what the morning needed was a bawdy song about a tempestuous housecarl. That was followed by word that frost trolls had been sighted in nearby foothills, and then finally a nonsensical rumor spreading like wildfire that the town of Helgen had been leveled by a dragon, of all things. Even as Carl leaned against the town wall, eating a soggy lunch as an ungrateful sky spat cold, wet pellets at his face, he was being regaled with the improbable tale by Novus, a naive and wholly green whelp of a guard.
“And just as Ulfric’s head was about to be split from its treacherous neck, the black beast perched atop a nearby rampart and burned every single imperial alive.”
“Unhuh,” Carl grunted from behind a massive bite of stale, damp bread.
“I heard say that Ulfric himself stood in the flames unsinged, and that he spake at the dragon.” Novus spat on the ground.
“Did ja hear that from the traitor himself? I mean, if all the imperials were cooked like a side of venison, then who else would be left to spread the rumor?”
Novus made a dismissive wave of his hand and began justifying his logical fallacies, but Carl perked up and stepped past the youth. From down the road he spied the stranger, striding down the center of the road. In one hand a mace at the ready, while the other sparked with destruction magic. Carl moved to step in his way.
“I’d have words with you, elf,” Carl said in his most imposing manner. “And, best you put away your weapons, or who knows how a guard might react.”
But, the stranger did not slow. He did not register Carl’s presence at all in fact. He merely stepped deftly, in a motion so smooth that even an hour later Carl would be puzzling over how he could have prevented it, around the aging and angry guard.
“Oy!” Carl shouted, and even Novus seemed to come to some kind of vaguely conscious attention. But the stranger strode without hesitation. Carl put his hand on his sword, his ego as offended as his sense of propriety, but before it was unsheathed a hand fell on his shoulder, and an elder Grey-Mane that had been passing by spoke in a flat, even voice.
“Best hold your weapon, and your tongue, guard. He has come from Dragonsreach, and tell is that he is tasked by Baalgruuf himself.” Carl stayed his blade and the Dunmer left the town. “They say he is the last survivor of Helgen.”
“Not more of that nonsense. I did not think a companion would go for such claptrap.”
The Grey-Mane said nothing, but fixed Carl with a patient, hard look that unsettled him deeply. For the first time, Carl wondered exactly who was the fool in this particular discussion. As he steadied himself, he said in a voice that was far too uneven, “Well, at least that cur is gone from our town.”
The Grey-Mane turned and said to no one in particular, “I think not. We will see his weathered face again far too soon.”
It was a casual prophecy that turned out to be all too true in the wake of a whirlwind of events that eventually found Carl standing under the crushing dark of Skyrim’s heavy night sky, as Jarl Baalgruuf’s housecarl Irileth spouted platitudes that might have seemed inspiring, if the overall message hadn’t been “We need to go fight a dragon.” That sort of message could dim even the most carefully worded speech.
As Carl lifted his sword along with a half-dozen of his compatriots in a wholly disingenuous warrior’s cheer at the prospect of taking down a flying, fire breathing, nightmare of a monster, he stole a glance at the stranger standing next to him. This omen of destruction, this long-faced thief of peace, this dead-eyed villain, he just stood there mute, unmoved, unfazed by the catastrophic proposition that had earlier seemed like a brushfire of nonsense and now seemed so inevitable. And then, Carl looked past the stranger’s crooked nose, at his home down the street where a warm light burned a small corner of the cold dark. He made out the worried silhouette of his love in the window, and words no longer mattered; strangers no longer troubled him. The dragon, if it exists, must perish.
It was a cold walk through stiff weeds and grasses that crackled, rigid from frost. Carl worked his fingers so that they would not be numb, should he suddenly need to pull sword and shield. The horizon began to glow a fiery orange as they approached the watch tower where the beast had been spotted, and then, as they cleared an outcropping of stark stone, the devastation lay before them.
The tower was in ruins. An exposed stone staircase spiraled up into nothing. Fire roared and tumbled within the outpost’s hollow remains. Pieces of rock walls the size of boulders rested heavy in the frozen ground far from the building. There was moaning on the quietly whispering wind, and for just a moment they all stood frozen at the sight, even the seemingly impenetrable stranger. And then they all moved at once to find survivors.
As they approached from the darkness, someone shouted a warning just a great roar rolled across the valley. Carl’s traitorous hands turned numb in a moment, and his knees threatened to spill him to the ground. He caught a sharp breath and looked to the inky sky. It took what seemed like an interminable moment to register the magnitude of the black creature, whose edges against the darkness seemed indistinguishable at first from stars. Then mighty wings folded, and the beast began a furious decent.
A pop of fire igniting in the dark snapped his attention to the stranger, who held fast. There was a tickle of what seemed like a smile playing at the edges of his lips, and his right hand was engulfed in flames. With his other hand, he pulled a blood-stained mace that glowed strangely in a landscape of dark shadows and bright flames.
“Bows!” Irileth shouted. And the battle was on.
The dragon settled at a comfortable altitude, as high up as the tower once had been, and sucked a deep breath. Instinctively, Carl slung himself behind a ragged chunk of debris. A half-moment later, magical fire blasted all around him. He felt his hair singe, his lungs burn from acrid, seering air. The fire seemed to burn even more deeply for the cold of the world around. As it subsided and the heavy thump of wings created an uncomfortable pressure on his ears, Carl patted out a small flame on his fur-lined boot.
With thoughts of his wife, his home and his village, Carl pulled his bow, stood and aimed into the darkness.
The dragon swooped past, hard to see in the night sky, and Carl added his arrow to the volleys that flew. A few of them hit the skin of the creature, and the mighty nightmare howled and launched himself higher into the sky. Carl moved himself from his secure position to get a better range of vision, and scanned. For a moment he thought perhaps they had scared the dragon away. And then he caught a glimpse of the stranger.
He was looking right at Carl, the oddest of expressions on his face. Was that something like sympathy? Why?
Carl didn’t even have time to register the expression before the talons tore through his upper body and the world fell away from under his feet in an almost unimaginable way. He heard the beat of the wings terrifyingly close, but also — somewhere far deeper — the great breaths of cavernous lungs and the strong warrior’s thrum of an unworldly heart. The tower was inexplicably far below him, and even as the pain only vaguely began to occur to him, he realized he could see Dragonreach, Whiterun and even that beckoning warm window of his own home.
Great muscles clinched, and bones all throughout his shoulder exploded. The pain hit him hard. He cried out without ever thinking to do so, and as the beast finally released him entirely, Carl was perfectly and horribly aware.
He had been lifted high as the peak at the Throat of the World, and now he was falling impossibly fast. Arrows and firebolts sailed past and eventually above him, but the wind was rushing past his ears too fast to hear what the dragon’s next move was. It didn’t really matter to him anymore anyway.
His last thought was of waking in bed on a bright, cheerful morning and patting the soft thigh of his loving wife. Then darkness.
Poorly named, Steve the Dark Elf Destruction Mage shuffled through the corpse of the fallen dragon. He compared the loot to his own equipment and made some snap decisions, ultimately deciding that the spoils of this mini-war were entirely disappointing. Somewhere nearby some guards whose names he had forgotten — if he had even known them to begin with — were talking excitedly about something called Dragonborn. It seemed like it might be important, but honestly the whole discussion was getting a little long in the tooth, and he had this quest in a nearby barrow that seemed like the sort of thing he could enjoy before calling it a night.
The Whiterun contingent didn’t seem to notice or care that he had stopped listening a few minutes ago. As he stood, Steve noticed the broken body of that ridiculous guard that had been scooped up by the dragon and dropped from an almost comical height. He stood next to the corpse and considered it for half a moment before rifling through its pockets for anything useful.
A few gold, a rusty, unenchanted sword and a dull note from what must have been the guard’s wife were all that defined this man. Steve pocketed the gold and the note and moved on with his story, which was far more interesting than anything this forgettable guard would have ever known.