Solitude was very much like I remembered it, although I was a little surprised to enter just in time for a beheading. Public execution is generally not a thing in Skyrim. I left Lydia at the inn and headed up the ramp to Castle Dour and presented myself to the guards as a new recruit. They grunted and jerked their heads toward a table. Or, rather, toward the extraordinarily long line of recruits queued up at said table. The courtyard was huge, easily the length of a football field (except round, not rectangular), and the double lines circled the circumference of the courtyard (including directly behind the straw targets currently in use for archery practice. That seemed safe).
"Um...isn't there any other way? I'm kind of in a hurry."
They laughed. Which, of course they did. I would have done the same, in their position.
"So eager to die, are ya?" The first guard motioned toward a nearby door. "In that case, try in there. They're looking for people with...skills that might not translate to the normal soldier's life."
"That sounds perfect, tha..."
"That's if you don't die during the trial, of course."
"Ah. Right." I glanced at the door, then at the line, then back at the door. "Well, I don't think I have much choice."
"As I expected." The guard moved aside, leaving me a path to the queue. He seemed surprised when I went the other direction. "Wait, you're not really..."
"I told you, I don't have that kind of time." I stepped past them and walked briskly toward the door. I heard one of them say, "Bloody waste of good pus..." just as the door shut behind me.
The corridor was dimly lit - torches were in limited supply, apparently - but the clanging of metal against metal and the shouting of voices was enough to guide me to a large room, this one better lit. I entered just in time to see a man get a sword through his eye. The woman standing on the less-pointy side of the sword shook her head as the man slumped to the ground. "I thought you said you were a master swordsman. Fool." She gestured. "Clean this up."
Two soldiers snapped salutes and grabbed the dead man by the arms and dragged him toward the door. I stood aside to let them pass, which brought the woman's attention to me. She sighed "Another one? Go stand in line. You're too young to die today."
"I don't have time for that, I'm afraid. I need this war to end as quickly as possible."
She laughed. "On that, we are in agreement. It has lasted far too long. But your words are a curiosity to me - everyone wants the war to end. Why is your purpose so much more urgent than anyone else's?"
"Isn't it obvious? To get rid of the dragons. Why is the war still on when there is a bigger threat to everyone?"
"Everyone?" She seemed surprised. "Everyone in Skyrim, perhaps. The rest of Tamriel is in no danger."
"No danger? How can you say that?"
"Because it is true. The dragons are annoying, I do not disagree. But they have been shown to be killable. We'll just continue to kill them as they show up."
"That is ludicrous! You know they are coming back to life every time you kill them, don't you?"
"Coming back to life? You are the one who sounds ludicrous. No," as I started to speak again. "I do not have time for this. I appreciate your willingness to volunteer to fight for the Empire, but you don't look like a warrior, sword notwithstanding. I can offer you a job as a cook or something, if you wish."
"No, I'm here to fight. To end..."
"Fine, if you insist. Then go back outside and get in line. Don't say I didn't warn you."
"No, they said to come in here. They said you were looking for people with special skills."
She frowned. "Yes, that is the purpose of this. But you..."
"I can help. Give me your trial, or whatever." I just kept myself from glancing down at the path of blood left from her recent victim.
She stood still for several long seconds and just stared at me. I stared back, though it made my skin itch. I dearly wanted to turn away. At last, she shrugged and drew her sword. "Fine. Your funeral. Although it will be less of a funeral and more of a mass burning."
"That's fine. I'm kind of tired of this place anyway." I didn't mention the red asshole who kept dragging me back to this hell (yet did nothing to save me from the long years in the mine - how was slaughtering the elves boring but watching me swing a pick for eternity exciting, anyway?)
She waited with sword drawn as I stood and watched. After a moment she tilted her head and narrowed her eyes. "Are you going to draw your weapons?"
"Not...so, you're ready?"
"Absolutely. Whenever you are."
She shrugged. "Very well."
She circled me with a wary expression, clearly expecting some sort of trap. And rightly so, but I merely pivoted to keep her in my field of view. Finally she gave up and charged.
"Fus Ro dah!" The shout didn't have the full effect I had been hoping for (because, I realized later when I thought back on it, I had not yet been back to High Hrothgar to turn in the horn and had therefore not yet received the final word of Unrelenting Force) - instead of flying backward dramatically, she only stumbled back several steps. But fortune was with me, because she was unable to keep her balance and fell onto her ass. I drew my dragur sword as I added,"Wuld." A half-second later, I stood over her with the point of the sword at her neck. She looked at it, then looked up at me.
"What kind of magic was that?"
"Not magic. A shout. I am the Dragonborn." I winced inwardly as the words left my mouth. It felt so pretentious. Especially when she simply frowned at my pronouncement as she climbed to her feet (waving away my offer to help).
"I would love to believe that. As a Nord, I truly would. Whatever the case, I see that I underestimated you. I apologize. I am Legate Rikke. Welcome to the Imperial Legion."
And thus began my career as a soldier. The warnings about what would follow were already there (literally in front of me - even a woman as highly ranked at Rikke was forced to wear what amounted to a metal bikini because "it bolsters the morale of the men"), but I had made a vow, those long years ago, and I hadn't seen any of the female legionnaires until it was too late (they were a relatively new addition). Besides, it is entirely possible the hell that swallowed Skyrim after the war would have come about no matter who won.
Don't feed the bastards. Feed yourself instead.