So I finally see what Bethesda has so carefully cut from the game's opening in previews: prisoner escort, with me lumped right in the middle of a carriage of miserable wretches, and the flame-roaring reason for my escape.
I decide to lump with Nord, were last I masqueraded as humanoid lizard Argonian. One, because I've decided for my first proper playthrough I'll stick focus on melee combat (which I'll swiftly be dissuaded from in a day or so) and secondly, to surmise how race alters interactions. The effect is immediate: my guard takes pity on a fellow kinsman and immediately seeks my removal from the line of would-be executions. It falls on deaf ears. A dragon's appearance solves that issue.
A few minutes of scampering for cover amid the chaos and I'm given my first hard choice: follow the guard through one door of a building, a fellow captive through another. I immediately consider that decent though it was of the guard to speak up for me, after we've survived his sense of duty may win out over friendlessness, and I may be forced to kill him. I go right.
And often wonder afterwards how different the following events would have been.
I and my fellow escapee emerge bloody and worn from the mountainside. He's played tutor for a small number of essential mechanics in the game. I'm now concealed under guard armour, after killing squads trying to prevent our escape. He suggests we split, but in taking the same route I planned to, we end up matching strides down into the valley.
He thanks me for following him. It's only because undernourished and poorly armed as I am, I'm not willing to strike out into the wilderness yet. I follow his back, and truth be told I'm tempted to slay him to see if my actions would alter my welcome into his nearby town. It's a thought that recurs with every key figure I meet over the next week.
We tackle two wolves, more emaciated than us but a rusty sword arm means the clumsy fight goes on longer than it needs. In two days when I pass this way again, their bodies will still lie where we slew them.
We arrive at his homestead, and he's met by a couple living nearby. We walk to a clandestine meeting in the shadow of an old mill were discussion turns to joining the Stormcloak rebellion, the continent-wide civil war that's gripped Skyrim and serves as one of the main backdrops to the game.
They talk of unjust rule and a return of the old ways. I have a flash of Monty Python's arching response to "Whatever have the Romans done for us?". Joining the Stormcloak Rebellion will remain unchecked as a mission objective for some time I decide.
For my aid I'm offered bedding for the night.
I'm some miles from the village, ranging back to it and the store keeper to whom I'd agreed to salvage some stolen items for. I'm trudging down a mountainside breathless not just from the walk but the day spent crawling through snow amid an ancient ruin to fire arrows into thieves. That was the easier part of the day's escapades.
The thieves had taken up camp inside a temple of some kind, a dungeon crawl that saw me exchange swords for spells, mixing Fire and Sparks on either hand for the long range benefits, my combat training not assured enough to guarantee survival. It proves key to battling the undead hordes, whose burial chambers I've disturbed, brittle bones and clothing soaking up flames like kindle.
The site also sees my first boss encounter - a venomous spider whose legs dwarf my body, and whose attacks kill me. Again and again. Only by equipping my shield to block the occasional lunge, and downing small health vials to keep me from death's door do I survive.
On leaving the site I march down back to the river nearby, and trace my steps back to the village, assured of my path after walking this way before. Its only after I end up at an old mill I realise I'm several leagues the wrong way. I turn, and start the long walk back.
A saddled horse stands riderless, inviting, in the middle of a grit path. It's clearly a trap. I walk on, and ignore the flirtatious whinny suggesting I jump on for a ride. Rounding a corner I come across a hunter out on a nightly patrol. He remarks I look ill, and I take it as a slant against my Nord heritage, but the massive broadsword on his back stays my hand.
I've punched my first woman in the face. It's a good-natured inn brawl, initiated by the armour-clad lady full of piss & vinegar because she's been banned from joining the Companions, a wandering outfit of warriors intent on bringing justice to the regions they pass through. I make a mental note to visit their townhouse here in the town, only a few houses away from where I stand. I punch her again and she goes down.
Another drinker makes reference to my poor pallor, but its only on stumbling into a healer's house that I twig that I've somehow come down with Rockjoint, and ongoing status ailment that reduces melee attack damage by 25%, likely picked up during my tomb raiding yesterday. Quickly cured, I weigh up sticking to the effective magics thus far, or stick to my original plan of being a powerhouse with bow and sword. Seeking out the Companions convinces me of the latter.
I've been summoned to the Jarl's chambers -for some lengthy exposition that ends with the news that another dragon is attacking just outside the city. I'm asked for my aid, and follow the captain and her squad as they rush through the town. But as they head to the gates I swing by the Companions quarters, eager to see if there's any fallout from delayed actions.
They're a gruff bunch, these Companions, wearing more camo than Arnie's squad in Predator. They put me through a series of easy to complete trials - a few clashes with the sword, a fetch and find run across town, and with that, I've joined.
A sense of place in the world fills me, but is quickly quashed as I'm ordered to murder a gang of mages terrorising the town. As I've become all too aware, there's multiple viewpoints in Skyrim - and one person's justice is to another simply misplaced ire stirred by fear and racisim. Skyrim's a complex place, and I've a sinking feeling in my stomach that I've joined up with a crew of murderers who hide behind might and redefine evil as benefits them. I quit the Companions' chambers, and make haste to the join Jarl's captain and her squad.
I'm being commended. Given the role of Housecarl in Whiterun, along with the Companion role, I'm a man of prospects in the city and surrounding hold. The Jarl keeps the questioning simple. Good thing. I don't want to him to know I spent the majority of the battle last night hunkering down inside the ruins of the outhouse, peppering the dragon with arrows while it was distracted by the soldiers below. They're on a steady pay. I am not.
Along with a superb enchanted axe I'm given a follower: a warrior maiden by the name of Lydia, who will guard my back and to whom I can issue commands (no more diverse than simple orders you'd give to a dog - stay, follow, carry.) Having an extra set of hands in my adventuring is a great benefit: outside single combat I'm too easily chopped to the ground. With Lydia I feel like I can take greater risks.
I've been crushed to death by a mammoth. Two of the follows graze outside a nearby bandit encampment, and in a moment of curiosity I fire an arrow into one's hide. Both immediately advance at a fighting pace. While I go to higher cover, Lydia charges forward with sword. I don't want to see her die - who's going to help me clear out the camp? - so I charge in after her. It's a short-lived affair and not one for the great sagas. Having her along may hamper my plans to boost my stealth XP.
I duck to pick up a mushroom, and my unexplainable fascination in collecting plant life around Skyrim saves my life. An arrow clatters into the stone by my ear - a lone bandit has remained hidden in the shadows while I (thought) I cleared the small encampment. Lydia rushes forward and plunges her sword into the woman's chest. Maybe the girl has her uses after all.
Lydia's a great fighter yet she has difficulty turning a corner. Either through hold loyalty or NPC stupidity, she can't navigate past the small camp that marks the end of Whiterun's territory. I tell her to stay, and make a mental note to check back when I'm around to see if she follows it.
I'm trying to climb a mountain, in order to meet a mysterious group named the Greybeards, who can answer some outstanding questions I have about the story's main quest. My efforts are proving fruitless, inclines too sharp to get foothold, and I spend the ungodly hours of darkness skirting the base of this titan looking for a way upwards.
My route takes me from snow-coated hills to mist-covered forests, and back again. I stumble upon the Stormcloak camp - and overhear the location of their leader. I make note to investigate later, and ponder if anyone would give reward for his capture.
As I crunch through the snow, a herd of goats appear and immediately bolt. Yet their short legs mean I easily keep pace as they run ahead of me on the path and I idly play with the idea this is a procession taking me to the location.
They're still here, all around me, and I start getting paranoid. Wondering if the goats are herding me to danger. I can hear their braying voices. They're clearly laughing. Sod this. I break trail and run over a nearby slope, the sound of running water gets louder in my ears.
I walk into a small gorge, a waterfall coating one side of the cliff, a mini lake formed from the rushing water. I splash forward and have to hold steady the analog stick as the current threatens to sweep me away. In a small overhang across the way I see something shift.
A hulking shape rears from its feeding and charges towards me, knuckles shuffling in the dirt. Gorilla? No - Troll! After the Mammoth experience I decide to back up, and fall into the fast flowing river which fires me downstream and towards another waterfall. The last thing I see before I sail over the edge is a lone goat standing atop a poolside rock. Bastard.
I splutter out of the river, only to see the troll tracing my route by the dirt path by the waterside.
I continue to backpedal further into the water, pelting the troll with Fire spells as it seems unwilling to enter the stream. Then I notice its health recharging, and decide on tactical retreat. It doesn't let me, easily matching my slow trawl through the water, and I panic whether I'll survive.
Then a glance to his on-screen health meter I see it suddenly drop - I look around to see if Lydia's finally worked out how to walk around a boulder, but we're alone on this mountain top. Then the penny drops as the sky starts lightening around me: the sun is rising. I run towards the cliff edge and the growing brightness, then turn to face my attacker.
His swings are powerful but slow, and I filter through my armoury to find the enchanted axe I found some days before, which deals fire damage with each strike - and the thing goes down. A titanic struggle and no one there is to witness.
I'm engaged in a mile-long evasion of a Ice Troll, distant cousin to yesterday's creature. When it reared up out of the tundra initially I surged forward to slay it, confidence at an all time high. I swiped upwards once with my sword. It took no damage. With one lazy blow it caved in my ribs. I reload and try again. And again.
These investigations prove he's invulnerable, or near enough to it to make the victor of the clash a forgone conclusion. So on my fifth prod to activate the confrontation I do the unthinkable - but the only course for survival - run around its mass and hightail it along the mountain path.
It's loping run and the sharp gradient of the stairwell ahead means we're about evenly paced, and I can't spare but a glance behind else I sail off the side of the cliff by accident. I make it into the shadow of a nearby castle. The troll stops his pursuit.
This is the home of the Greybeards, and here I'll learn about my destiny. I imagine towering giants, or aged warriors. What I get is a small group of elderly robed men in need of a good meal and enjoyable company. It's a disappointment.
They teach me the Shout, the name coined for a multitude of superhuman abilities such as staggering dragons and lightning-fast bursts of speed, as well as detail the background of the Dragonborn, of which I seem to be one.
Only a couple of thing penetrate this rolling saga - there may be other Dragonborn, and the Greybeards are the only one who can teach them their powers. I immediately take stock of the numbers - four old men on a mountaintop - and wonder if I can better my chances by slaying them all. Then I'm told their mastery is so powerful they'd rip flesh from bone, and my sword remains sheathed. There's still something to learn - something they're holding back. But I make a point to consider someday ridding myself of old men who believe they know best, and leave myself free of higher powers believing they can control me.