Skyrim is set 200 years after the events of Oblivion, though it is not a direct sequel. The game takes place in the land of Skyrim, amid a civil war between two warring political factions; the Stormcloaks, led by Skyrim's native Nord race, and the Imperial Legion.
The story begins with the imprisoned player being led to an Imperial execution in the town of Helgen, alongside several Stormcloak soldiers and their leader, Ulfric Stormcloak. A Dragon unexpectedly interrupts the procession, attacking and destroying the town. The player escapes and journeys to the nearby town of Riverwood, whose residents are now fearful that the Dragon could strike their town as well at any moment. The player is asked to make their way to the city of Whiterun, to request aid from the city's JarlÂ-the game's equivalent of a lordÂ-against the Dragon threat. The Jarl, Balgruuf the Greater, accepts. He also directs the player to retrieve a Dragonstone, a magical artefact that shows the location of ancient Dragon burial sites.
The player returns to Whiterun with the Dragonstone, only to learn that another Dragon has appeared near the city. After slaying the Dragon with assistance from the city's guards, the player absorbs the Dragon's soul which grants them the ability to perform a magical ability called a "Thu'um", or Dragon Shout. The city's guards are astonished, and inform the player that they must be a Dragonborn, a mortal with the soul of a Dragon. After returning to the Jarl with news of the Dragon's defeat, the player is summoned to meet with the Greybeards, an order of monks who live in seclusion in their temple of High Hrothgar on the slopes of Skyrim's tallest mountain, the Throat of the World.
The Greybeards further train the player in the "Way of the Voice", teaching the player more powerful Thu'um's and instructing the player on their destiny and role of the Dragonborn. The player learns that Skyrim's civil war is the last in a sequence of prophetic events foretold by the Elder Scrolls, which also predicted the return of Alduin, the Dragon-god of destruction. Alduin is prophesied to destroy the races of Men and Mer, and consume the world. The player character is the latest "Dovahkiin", a Dragonborn, an individual with the body of a mortal and the soul of a Dragon. Dovahkiin are anointed by the gods to help fend off the threat Alduin and other Dragons pose to Skyrim and Tamriel.
The player character accompanies the Blades in search of Alduin's Wall, a prophetic engravement located in an ancient Blades fortress known as Sky Haven Temple. While the Blades set up in the temple, the player character learns that the ancient Nords used a special Thu'um against Alduin called "Dragonrend", representing mankind's comprehensive hatred for the Dragons, to cripple his ability to fly so they could engage him. To gain more information, the player meets the ancient Dragon Paarthanux, the leader of the Greybeards who was once one of Alduin's most feared generals. Paarthurnax reveals that Alduin was not truly defeated in the past, but was sent forward to an unspecified point in time by the use of an Elder Scroll, in the hopes that he would get lost. The player manages to locate the Elder Scroll within the ancient Dwemer ruin of Blackreach and uses it to peer through a window in time, learning the powerful Dragonrend Shout to combat Alduin.
Armed with the knowledge of how the ancient Nords defeated Alduin, the player battles Alduin on the summit of the Throat of the World. Overpowered by the player, Alduin flees to Sovngarde, the Nordic afterlife. The player learns that Dragonsreach, the palace of the Jarl of Whiterun, was originally built to trap and hold a Dragon. Balgruuf refuses to allow the player to utilize Dragonsreach and possibly endanger the city if the civil war between the Stormcloaks and the Imperial Legion still rages. With the help of the Greybeards, the player calls a council between General TulliusÂ-the Imperial Legion's commanderÂ-and Ulfric Stormcloak, successfully calling for a temporary armistice while the Dragon threat exists. If the war has already ended the Jarl will eventually agree with persuasion.
The player summons and traps a Dragon named Odahviing in Dragonsreach, learning from him that Alduin has fled to Sovngarde through a portal located high in the mountains, at an ancient fort called Skuldafn. Odahviing, impressed with the player's Thu'um and ability to capture him, agrees to fly the player to Skuldafn, claiming Alduin has shown himself as weak and undeserving of leadership over the Dragons. Upon arrival at Skuldafn, the player travels to Sovngarde and meets with Ysgramor, the legendary Nord who, along with his Five Hundred Companions, drove the Elves out of Skyrim. Ysgramor informs the player that Alduin has placed a "soul snare" in Sovngarde, allowing him to gain strength by devouring the souls of deceased Nords arriving there. The player meets up with the three heroes of Nordic legend who defeated Alduin originally, and, with their help, destroys the soul snare, defeating Alduin.
If the player did not kill Paarthurnax in an earlier side quest, an alternate conclusion is given. The player returns to the summit of the Throat of the World in which Paarthurnax and the other Dragons wait. Paarthurnax explains that even if Alduin is defeated, they are in no condition to celebrate for he was once their ally and is still one of their kin. Having asserted his authority over many Dragons, Paarthurnax convinces those loyal to him to leave Tamriel.