So I’ve been playing a fair bit of Skyrim lately. Not quite as obsessively as I played Oblivion, but it’s a damn fine game with so much to do (even if it is rather bug-ridden). And, just because I can, I’d like to write about some of the experiences I’ve had in the game so far. I caution you: they will be long, and likely boring unless you have any interest in role-playing adventure games and/or my strict moral code.
Rumour had it that there was an Aretino lad in Windhelm who had been practicing the Dark Sacrament. This was a mysterious and macabre ritual that involved creating an effigy of a human body, skeleton, flesh and heart, covering it in deadly nightshade, stabbing it over and over and chanting to the Night Mother to hear one’s prayer that the sins of the unworthy might be cleansed in blood. Despite the privacy of this ritual, every time it was performed it would be answered by the Dark Brotherhood, a guild of mysterious assassins who would kill for a price. Concerned for the boy I sought him out and came upon him performing the ritual in his house. He was an orphan who had fled an orphanage where the caretaker, Grelod the Kind, was supposedly a monster who deserved to die. He mistook me for an agent of the Brotherhood and insisted that I kill Grelod for him. He would hear no sense from me, so I sought out Grelod to form an opinion of her myself.
From the moment I met her she presented as intensely dislikable. She beat the children often, crushing their hopes of freedom and turning away anybody who showed interest in adopting them. I spoke to everyone in the orphanage and some of the townsfolk who knew her, and it was clear that everyone hated her. I thoroughly explored her living quarters, which contained wine, books on evil women who exacted revenge on witless travellers, even going through her pockets to see what she owned. She was not rich, nor drunk, but appeared to harbour enmity towards life. Speaking to her myself, she was hostile and discourteous, and a horrible influence on the children. Still, I did not give up hope, and I persisted in talking to her. I believed that if I showed her enough love, enough kindness, she would start to warm to people. Kindness is most powerful when it is least deserved. Unfortunately, the game’s morality is not as deep as my own, and my dialogue options were limited to being insulted. At this dilemma I decided I could not let the children grow up under her oppressive rule, but nor should I use murder as my next option. I decided to intimidate her.
I returned to the inn to sleep a few hours, and crept out undetected at midnight. I figured the children would all be sleeping- as much as possible, I wanted to shield them from violence or death as a solution to one’s problems. When I arrived at the orphanage, I crept successfully undetected past the sleeping children and the worrying maid and into Grelod’s chambers, closing the door behind me. I decided to talk to her one last time to see if she would see reason, but she was as caustic as ever. I decided, then, to drive her out of town, to intimidate or humiliate her into leaving for good. Persons in positions of power who abuse their powers on other, weaker people are often shaken to the core when they are overpowered themselves. If I could show her I was more powerful than she was, it was possible I could help her to change her ways, or at least protect the children from her destruction. To provoke her, I stole some coins from her desk in plain sight and she became outraged. Yet, a moment later, her anger turned to fear (though I had not done so much as raised my fists) and she fled, begging for her life. I gave chase, and unfortunately she woke all the children with her cries. One child asked why we were hurting each other, though I had still made no hostile movements. I chased Grelod out of the orphanage and all throughout town, trying to yield to her, but she would not be mollified. Realising I could use this to exile her from the city, I tried to herd her towards the town gates. The guards did nothing to stop me. Unfortunately Grelod ran into the inn, still bustling with people at this late hour. I imagined they thought it quite amusing as they goaded us on (Nords love a good fight). I did my best to block her path, but she ran past me into the private living quarters of the innkeep. I had done the man a great favour earlier by providing him with the precious gems he needed to propose to his lifemate, and seeing Grelod flee from me he drew his knife and killed her in one blow. I felt sorry for the old woman, yet relieved that she could oppress no longer. I suspect my friend the innkeep felt no guilt- she was not well-loved.
I returned to the orphanage to talk to the children about what happened- how Grelod had died, despite my intentions. The children were too gleeful to hear it, and their matron was too distressed. Every time I approached her to talk to her she fled from me in fear, despite the calming spells I cast on her and my lack of hostility. Not knowing what else to do, I fled the orphanage and crept away undetected, making my way to my horse outside of town and riding back to tell the Aretino boy what happened. He was overjoyed that I had completed my mission and gave me a family heirloom as my reward, which I promptly returned. I tried to tell him it was not my fault, but he was too inspired by my “assassination” to hear me. I hope I had not been a horrible influence on them, and that I can return to them again when they’re older to explain what really happened.
Shortly after the incident at the orphanage, I was riding out on a new quest to retrieve a magickal phial for an old alchemist when I came across an unmarked circle of stones. Curious, I dismounted and explored it, discovering some mildly valuable treasure but not much else. I pondered if it was a burial site, or perhaps used for some sort of religious ritual when I noticed movement out of the corner of my eye. My horse was fleeing- it had been attacked by something! I gave chase and caught it, reining it in before turning to see what had startled it. A humanoid creature was running towards me, and assuming it was a bandit trying to steal my horse, I shot a firebolt at it and killed it dead. A moment later a frost troll came blundering out of the trees and I hit it again and again until it too fell before me. In horror, I approached the person I had shot down and it turned out to be one of the few Khajiit in Skyrim- an acquaintance of mine, if not a friend. He was part of a nomadic caravan of traders and I had spoken to him before. The rest of the caravan was about to attack me when I yielded, putting my flaming hands away peacefully. Before they could sheath their weapons though, they turned to face a new threat- another frost troll just behind them. I ran to their aid, intervening not a moment too soon as it nearly cut down another member of the caravan. I felt deeply guilty about what I had done- a murder, after I had tried so hard to avoid it with Grelod. The caravan didn’t seem too fussed- I healed their wounded and prayed for my lost friend to walk upon warm sands once more. Wanting to protect him from robbers, I took his valuables (as is the Khajiiti way- no use going to waste when others could use them), but gave him gifts in return: a purple mountain flower, to remind him of his days when cold white powder would fall from the skies, and the wing of a monarch butterfly, so that he might chase them forever more in the afterlife. It was very difficult for me to avoid reverting to a previous save, as I paused the game for several minutes to debate the transient nature of life, the importance in accepting change, purity of intention regardless of result and other such things, not just for myself, but for his companions. In the end, I left him there, hoping the caravan would forgive me some day.
I was visiting a small town named Riverwood in search of moonstone, a rare material I could use to improve the quality of my sword and armour. Having successfully purchased some from the town blacksmith, I set off to the next town in pursuit of more. But just before I left, I noticed a small icon on my marker indicating an unexplored cabin to the West. Curious, I set out on horseback until I found it. The cabin was in a state of disrepair, but an old woman named Anise sat out the front, lamenting her loneliness. Inside I recognised a number of alchemy ingredients, including a rather rare book detailing some of the alchemical effects of common plants and insects. I decided she was curious but harmless and was just leaving when a roar shook the ground. On instinct, I summoned fire to my hands and turned to face the skies, and sure enough a dragon flew overhead. I shot firebolt after firebolt at it, blasting it in the air and stunning it on the ground. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed and extra torrent of flames, and when I turned to look Anise had leapt from her chair and was shooting fire from her hands. Together we slay the dragon and I, as the Dragonborn, absorbed its soul. Anise, amazed, soon went back to her chair on the patio as a ghost-like wolf sat beside her. A familiar, I realised. It seemed that Anise was a witch, the hated and despised old crone kind. But my opinion of her was no different than before- I too explored the unknown arcane that so many Nords feared by openly practicing magic, and I too enjoyed the study of alchemy. I left her to her business and set out looking for more moonstone ore.
In essence, there was a war going on in conflict between Ulfric Stormcloak, who fought for the freedom of the Nords and Nordic way of life, and the Imperials, who insisted that the land of Skyrim was part of the Empire and should be held accountable. Ulfric’s argument is that when the high elves invaded the rest of Tamriel, the Nords bled trying to repel them while the Empire, overwhelmed, ultimately surrendered and signed a peace agreement which forbade the worship of a Nordic god. After thinking about it long and hard, and visiting both the Imperial headquarters and talking to Ulfric himself, I decided the so-called High King of Skyrim was powerful and eloquent, a born leader… But megalomaniacal, narcissistic and xenophobic. His city was a perfect metaphor for him: he was the self-declared ruler, and almost all the Nords looked to him as an example while every non-Nordic citizen was ostracised and discriminated against. Although the Empire had surrendered to the Aldmeri Dominion, they did it for the greater good. If they could reunite a strong Empire, there might come a day when they revoke the peace treaty and delivered justice unto the elves. Dividing the land, delineating between Skyrim and Cyrodiil, would only lead to further power struggles and discord. A single united realm could achieve more, like the Emperor did in ancient China. There would be problems of successive leadership, as with any group, and it was not easy to say whether Ulfric’s successor would be as eloquent as he was, nor the Emperor’s as wise. Although not every Imperial was a long-term visionary like their Emperor, and not every Stormcloak soldier was a xenophobic brute, ultimately their leaders would shape the face of the world. And I believed the dream of a united Empire was worth fighting for.