“Goodness! That was a long climb, eh?”
The man in the monk’s habit inclined his head towards him slightly. His face was lined with age and, perhaps, the wisdom accrued over long years of study in the remote mountain fortress; his eyes were as blue – and as cold – as the empty shell of the sky above them.
“Yes,” the monk said.
The other man – the newcomer, one of two to arrive this eventful and momentous day – grinned.
“Quite a view though, isn’t it?” Gesturing expansively with a gauntleted hand, the speaker gazed out over the vast wildness of Whiterun Hold, falling silent for a moment, perhaps in awe at the majesty of what he saw. “I killed a troll once in those ruins over there. Those ones, right there.” He glanced across at his listener, who was staring impassively into the middle distance. “Speaking of trolls, do you know you have a frost troll problem on this mountain?” The monk raised an eyebrow. “Yeah. Well, you did have. Me and the mistress took care of it. Well, it was me mostly.” He tapped the grip of the warhammer strapped to his back. “Me and the old warhammer. You know.” He turned back to the monk, who was not looking at him; indeed, the only sign that he had heard the other man was the slow regular tapping of the forefinger of his left hand against his thick woollen robe.
The man with the warhammer sighed. “You know, it’s funny. For a bunch of monks who bang on about how important the ‘Voice’ is you don’t talk very much.”
The monk turned to him, his blue eyes flat and unyielding. “Come. The trial is about to begin.”
Part of the castle was almost completely ruined. Isolated chunks of masonry littered the snow-shrouded ground and a pair of wrought iron gates hung open between two pillars, whatever part of the castle they led into long since consigned to the oblivion of the past. About twenty yards from these gates stood a young woman in a mish-mash of fur and leather armour. An air of… significance hung about her and the bluish tinge of enchantment coated her boots and breastplate like an oily sheen.
From his vantage point on a particularly large block of stone, the man with the warhammer watched intently. The monk stood next to him, his gaze also focused on the woman and the pair of gates which opened slowly on some sort of mechanism operated by another hooded figure stood behind one of the pillars.
Two other monks stood close to the woman and it was from one of these dark-robed figures that the instruction came.
The young woman said something, something alien, something powerful. Suddenly, she was moving. Quickly. The air seemed to blur around her as she sprinted through the gates that clanged shut just behind her.
“Did you see that?” The man with the warhammer turned to the monk, his eyes wide with incredulity. “That was… amazing! Did you see it?”
“No, really. That was… incredible. I mean, she just…” The man with the warhammer paused. “Come on, that was good, surely? I mean…”
The monk stared at him for a long moment, his lined face unmoving, his lips compressed in a thin, hard line.
The other man’s shoulders slumped and he turned away to fumble in his pack for a wineskin. “Tosser,” he muttered.
The monk turned and said something softly. And the man with the warhammer slid off the stone block and into the briar patch on the other side, spilling the contents of his wineskin – a particularly fine Colovian vintage – over his face, breastplate and arms.
One of the three monks now deep in conversation with the young woman glanced up sharply.
“Arngeir!” he cried, sharply. “Stop mucking about!”
“Sorry,” the monk said, not at all convincingly. “Must have been a slip of the tongue.”
Behind him, Sven of Riverwood rose from the briar patch, wiping the wine from his face and wishing, not for the first time, that, when the mysterious stranger had asked him to join her on her quest, he’d told her in no uncertain terms to get lost.