The Song of Deirdre – Chapter 4

 

Whiterun

 

Deirdre looking at Whiterun

My first view of Whiterun since I was a child.

I was out of breath when I reached the top of the stairs to Dragonsreach, the great hall that crowned the city of Whiterun. But the climb wasn’t the reason my heart was racing. I would have to speak to the jarl on my own, and I was nervous. I hadn’t been in a great city for years, and I had never spoken to a jarl before – unless I counted meeting Ulfric in Helgen, and that hardly seemed the same. There, we were all “brothers and sisters in binds.” Now I was supposed to face a different jarl in his great hall, the imposing building with lofty peaked roofs looming in front of me. How would I be received, a mere girl dressed in a tattered tunic and fur boots?

I wished Ralof were here. He knew Dragonsreach well, and he was known to Jarl Balgruuf. But there was the possibility of a price on his head in Whiterun. Even I would have to be careful with what I said about my time in Helgen – yet one more reason to be nervous, at least until I learned where the jarl stood on the Civil War. But how would I do that? It all seemed too difficult. Surely this was a job better suited to someone familiar with the ways of great palaces and courts, not a girl who had been living on her own in the woods.

Already the guards standing on either side of the great hall doors were looking quizzically at me. To steady my nerves I turned away and pretended to take in the view.

And a spectacular view it was. East to west stretched the great Plains of Whiterun far below Dragonsreach, a high expanse of tundra dotted with pools and streams sparkling in the late afternoon sun. Bordering the plain, snow-clad peaks thrust skyward. To the east stood the greatest mountain in all Tamriel, the Throat of the World, with the mighty White River flowing at its feet. Even from the lofty summit of Dragonsreach, that mountain seemed to stretch into the sky forever. I had to tilt my head far back to view the summit, but it was lost in a ring of cloud. To the south were the lesser but still imposing Brittleshin Mountains around Riverwood, with the White River flowing out of them.

Dragonsreach view

The view from Dragonsreach was breathtaking.

That had been the course of our journey, down from the mountains along the river, then west across the plains for a short distance to Whiterun. From here it was easy to pick out each of the spots where our progress had been delayed. First, the wagon had lost a wheel. It took hours to retrieve it from the deep gorge into which it had rolled, then to fashion a lever to raise the wagon and all of its load, and finally to reattach the wheel and set the wagon down again. Then, as we approached Whiterun with its three levels looming over us, we came across a group of fighters battling a giant.

Giants are harmless if left alone, but fearsome when roused to anger. They live on their own away from towns and cities, and are usually no trouble as they tend their herds of mammoth. But this one had wandered onto a farm, wreaking havoc as he went. Carts were overturned, fences broken and the livestock long fled. The giant stood twice as high as the tallest fighter facing him. He wielded a mammoth-bone cudgel and wore rough mammoth-hide armor reinforced with mammoth bones. One blow from that club would likely crush any fighter who came within reach.

Unfortunately for us, the giant had taken his stand in a field near the road. Hod stopped the wagon well back to avoid getting caught in the fight. Already the horses were whickering with fear.

The three fighters were having difficulty. Two of them took turns darting in and out with their two-handed swords, always remaining cautious of the giant’s club. An archer stood farther back, firing over and over again. Her arrows seemed to enrage the giant more than harm it. The fight went on like this for a minute or two and it seemed the giant was finally tiring. Then the archer ran out of arrows.

“I’ll be right back,” I told Hod and Gerdur, and I jumped down from the wagon before they could stop me. I only meant to give the archer the arrows from my quiver, but adventures seemed determined to find me wherever I went. Before I could reach her, the giant had come between us. It was very near the road now, swinging its club wildly at the two sword-wielders.

I notched an arrow and let fly at the giant’s back. The missile pierced his shoulder. It didn’t seem to hurt him much but it did get his attention. He turned and took a step toward me. One of the sword-wielders took advantage of this distraction, plunging in and giving a great blow to the giant’s lower leg, right above his calf-high boot. The giant threw his head back in a howl of pain and rage, exposing the soft flesh of his throat. My next arrow flew true, and then the giant was pawing at his neck while a fount of blood gushed forth. The fighters were on him then, and he soon fell – right across the road.

That quickly, I had broken my vow that I was done with killing. Why couldn’t the giant have stayed at his mound, tending his mammoths and keeping out of harm’s way? But who knew? Maybe this one had killed the farmer or his family and deserved death. It was sad either way.

Deirdre and the Companions

My introduction to the Companions.

The archer came over. She had long brown hair with red highlights. Her leather armor seemed designed more to provide freedom of movement than protection, it left so much flesh exposed. Her blue eyes were piercing, and her war paint was three diagonal stripes that made her look fierce, as if she had been raked by a sabre cat’s claws. “Thanks for your help, stranger,” she said. “That was a good shot.”

“It was there, and I took it,” I said. “You were doing fine until you ran out of arrows. I only wanted to give you some of mine.”

“It was a good thing you chose to shoot instead. Giants are dangerous even for us Companions. We are in your debt. I’m Aela, and this is Vilkas.” She nodded at one of the sword-wielders who had come up to join us, a dark-featured Nord with black hair, dark circles under his eyes, and a three-day beard. He wore stout plate armor inset with the head of a wolf on the chest plate.

“Companions?” I asked as Hod and the other fighter began trying to drag the giant clear of the road.

“You haven’t heard of us?” Aela asked. “You must not be from around here. We are an ancient order of brothers and sisters in arms, founded by Ysgramor when he sailed from Atmora to retake Skyrim from the elves. I’m descended from Hrotti Blackblade, one of the original Five Hundred Companions who accompanied Ysgramor. Now we help people and solve problems, if the coin is right. You look like a good fighter. You should think about joining us.”

“I’ll think about it,” I told her. “I’m new here, and I could use some friends.”

“You can find us at Jorrvaskr, our mead-hall in Whiterun’s Wind District,” Vilkas said. “You can’t miss it – it looks like an upturned boat.”

It took us another hour to haul the giant out of the way and reopen the road. By the time we reached the stables, the sun was slanting low in the west.

“Deirdre,” Gerdur said as she got down from the wagon, “I said I would go with you to Dragonsreach, but now I’m needed here, and we have to warn Jarl Balgruuf today. I know you’ll do just fine delivering the message to him. Anyone in Whiterun can point you the way to his hall. You can’t miss it, right at the top of the hill.”

She didn’t need to tell me the way to Dragonsreach. It had been long since my last trip to Whiterun with my father, but its shops and houses and mead halls seemed familiar. It even felt a bit like a homecoming. My father had known many of the townspeople, having grown up here. I thought I recognized one or two of the people I passed on the street, but none recognized me. Five years had changed me more than they had changed the city. I remembered looking up at the long flight of stairs leading to the Great Hall atop Dragonsreach. It had seemed impossibly high and imposing then. It still did. But I climbed those steps and now found myself at the jarl’s doors. Would he listen to me, or would his thoughts be on his fast-approaching supper? I took a deep breath and approached the guards.

“I bring news for the jarl,” I told them.

“We don’t get many teenage girls petitioning the jarl, lass,” the taller one said. “Were your parents too busy to come?”

“I have news of a dragon that attacked Helgen two days past. I was there, I saw it.”

The guard laughed. “A dragon, you say. You’ve been listening to too many old tales.”

“No Badnir, wait,” said the other guard. “I heard the steward say something about dragons before I started my watch. We had better let her in.”

“All right, you may pass,” said the first guard, and the great doors swung open at his push.

Inside, the hall was almost as imposing as without. It was built all from wood, with great timbers rising to the vaulted ceiling far above. At the center of the ceiling, a skylight let in shafts of sunlight, sending rays of brilliance through the rafters. The room had three levels, starting with the lower entry where I stood. Up a half flight of steps was a banquet area lined with long tables and rooms off to either side. As I climbed those steps several warriors sitting at the tables looked up to stare at me. Beyond them, up a shorter set of stairs, was the jarl’s dais. He sat there on his throne, counselors and guards surrounding him, and a dragon’s skull looming on the wall above, its jaws opened wide. Dragonsreach was aptly named, it seemed.

Deirdre and Irileth

Jarl Balgruuf’s housecarl Irileth confronted me, but not before I overheard the Jarl and his steward.

It was a long walk up that hall, with so many eyes on me. The fighters at the table, a large man in a full set of steel armor and a shield-maiden with jet black hair, nodded as I passed. Through the side door to the right, I could see a man in hooded robes poring over a stack of books. Finally I approached the dais. A female Dunmer in full armor descended the steps to confront me, but not before I overheard the jarl.

“What you say is true, Avenicci,” he was saying. “The Empire has helped us immensely. Yet I will not plunge my city into this Civil War, on either side. Many good people here support the Stormcloaks, and many more yearn to once again worship Talos freely. If we enter the war on the Imperial side, there will be bloodshed in our streets. Let the Empire deal with Ulfric and the other jarls who support him. Leave me and my city out of it.”

“I say again, what is your business here?” I had forgotten about the Dark Elf, the jarl’s words had so distracted me. She glared at me now, her eyes a bright red that matched her magenta hair. “Receiving hours are almost at an end, and the jarl will be going to his dinner. I am Irileth, Jarl Balgruuf’s housecarl and marshal of his hall-troops. Whatever your business, you can conduct it with me.”

“I bring news for the jarl from Riverwood and Helgen,” I told her.

“Helgen! What do you know of Helgen?”

I looked at her stern face. Would she believe my story? I almost didn’t believe it myself. I took a deep breath. “There was a dragon. It destroyed the town and the keep, along with many lives.”

The jarl must have heard me. “Come closer, lass,” he said. Up close, he was not that imposing. Though he was dressed regally, with a golden circlet around his long blonde hair, a thick fur mantle about his shoulders, and a richly woven surcoat draped over his tunic, he slouched on his throne taking his ease. In the books, jarls and kings always bore themselves proudly erect, but so far that had not been my experience. I stood two steps below the dais, and met him at eye level.

“If you tell true, lass,” the jarl said, “then you were one of the few who made it out of Helgen alive. We had the news just this morning, though I didn’t want to believe it. Yet I don’t know what could have caused such destruction other than some beast out of legend. And you saw the dragon with your own eyes?”

Deirdre meets Jarl Balgruuf

Jarl Balgruuf’s bearing was far from regal, yet he still managed to intimidate.

“Yes, my lord, as close as I am to you right now.”

The jarl drew a quick breath and his eyes grew wider. “And what did you think when you saw this dragon?”

“I … I could hardly believe it though it was right in front of me. I’ve read about dragons in storybooks, but I thought they were all dead long ago, if they ever existed. I thought I was having a dream, or a vision, right before…” I was going to say before the Imperials beheaded me, but then thought better of it. “But then everyone was running and screaming and fire was raining from the sky, and I knew it was real.”

The jarl looked at me as if appraising my story, then looked up at the dragon skull, its jaws wide above his head. “Many say the dragons were always just a myth, but I cannot sit beneath this skull and doubt they once existed. But for one to come back to life now, it’s almost too much to believe.” He turned back to me, and his voice became stern. “Now tell me, how comes it that a slip of a girl such as yourself survived when so many others died?”

This was not what I expected. I thought my challenge would be to convince the jarl there really had been a dragon. Now I had to explain how I had survived, without mentioning the help the Stormcloaks had given me. He seemed neutral toward the rebels, but it would do no good tempting fate.

“Well,” I began. “I … I escaped through the caverns below the keep. And I … someone helped me.”

Jarl Balgruuf looked at me more kindly. “I didn’t mean to frighten you, lass. I’m just a gruff old man. We have had but a few lines in a message this morning. If you were there, you can tell us much more. If there is a dragon in Skyrim, we need to learn as much as we can about it. Now, tell me your name.”

“Deirdre, my lord,” I said.

“No need to call me my lord, Deirdre. Jarl Balgruuf will do. And are you from Helgen, Deirdre?”

“Dragon Bridge.”

“Ah, I’ve been through there several times when visiting Solitude. I always admired those carven dragon heads on the bridge. Tell me, was this dragon much like those?”

“Very like, only this dragon’s head was larger.”

“Larger? And how did it compare to the one above me here? This is the skull of Numinex, the dragon that was imprisoned in Dragonsreach by my predecessor of long ago, Olaf One-Eye.”

I looked at the skull, trying to imagine how large it would appear when covered with flesh and scales. “Larger, I believe, Jarl Balgruuf.”

deirdre, Balgruuf and Irileth with dragon skull

The Jarl blanched when I told him that Alduin was larger than Numinex, the dragon whose skull was mounted above his throne.

He thought about that for a moment. “And what were you doing in Helgen, Deirdre? Were you there with your parents?”

“My parents died three years ago, sir. I live on my own now. I was … just passing through Helgen when the dragon attacked.”

He looked at Avenicci and then at Irileth, then back at me. “Something else was happening in Helgen that day. Did you see anything out of the ordinary before the dragon attacked?”

“I was in the inn. Some Imperial soldiers came into town, and there was some shouting, but I didn’t pay it much attention. I was busy packing to leave.”

“And where were you headed?”

I said the first thing that came into my head. “Winterhold, Jarl Balgruuf. The college, I mean.”

He looked surprised. “Winterhold! Do you have some skill with magic?”

“A bit, sir. I want to learn more.”

He looked at the knapsack I carried. “And does it take you long to pack, Deirdre?”

Avenicci had been growing increasingly impatient with the jarl’s lengthy questioning, fidgeting and shifting his weight from foot to foot. He was balding, and dressed in fine garments from Cyrodiil. Now he spoke up. “What if we told you that Ulfric and a band of his Stormcloak brigands were scheduled for execution on that morning? And that Ulfric escaped when the dragon attacked? Surely the whole town had turned out to view the spectacle. And you’re telling us you remained in the inn because you were too busy packing a small knapsack? Her story smells to Aetherius, my jarl.”

I tried to look at him as calmly as I could. I pretended I was the girl of three days before, the one who didn’t even know what a Stormcloak was. “Do you mean those warriors with the blue uniforms? Are they some sort of rebel war-band?”

“You mean you don’t know Skyrim is in the midst of a civil war with Ulfric and his Stormcloak traitors?” Avenicci frowned at me.

“I’ve been living in the wilds of Cyrodiil for the past three years. I’ve had no news of Skyrim in that time. When I heard the roar of the dragon, I thought to stay hidden in the inn. Then it set the inn on fire and I ran out into the street. A soldier was standing there. He said to follow him into the keep, so I did.” Then I told them everything I could of the dragon attacking, keeping silent on the fighting between the Imperials and the Stormcloaks and my part in it.

“You say the walls of Helgen couldn’t withstand the blasts of the dragon’s fire breath?” the jarl asked me when I was done.

I shook my head. “Many of the tower walls lay in rubble when we entered the keep. I can only imagine how much more the dragon destroyed after we descended into the caverns.”

“What do you say now, Avenicci? Do you still think our city walls will defend us if the dragon comes here?”

“Still, my jarl, this is no time for rash action. We need more information.”

“And that’s what this girl is giving us.” He turned to me again. “I’ve heard there are frightening things in those caverns – spiders and bears. How did you get past them?”

“I’ve survived on my own in the forests of Cyrodiil, Jarl Balgruuf. Frostbite spiders and cave bears hold little fear for me. I saw far worse things in the dungeons below Helgen.” I looked him square in the eye. Remembering the horrors of Helgen suddenly made facing a jarl seem a small thing. Did he know of that chamber of Oblivion beneath the keep, and the methods the Imperials employed on their enemies?

“You are a brave girl to have made it out of Helgen and through its caverns alive, Deirdre.  I thank you for bringing me this information. I had hoped you might have seen a weakness in the dragon’s defenses. Yet you say nothing the soldiers did seemed to harm it?”

“No, sir,” I replied. “They used arrows, bolts, fire arrows, and even a mage’s fire spells. Nothing seemed to slow it.”

“We will have our hands full then, if the dragon attacks us. Still, it is good to know what we are facing. You’ve shown initiative in coming here on your own. Avenicci, see that she gets a new set of studded armor as a token of our appreciation.”

“My jarl, I have to protest,” Avenicci said. “For all we know this girl was with the Stormcloaks when they escaped. She still hasn’t said which soldiers helped her out of Helgen. Maybe Ulfric sent her here as a spy.”

“Proventus,” said the jarl, “why must you always be so mistrustful? Does this girl look like a warrior, or a spy? She’s a Breton, too. Why would she side with them? And what could they hope to achieve, in any case?”

“They might learn what we know about the dragon. Or whether we plan to join the Imperials in the Civil War.”

“It’s no secret that I plan to stay out of the war. I’ve told both sides as much. And we know nothing of this dragon, what of it? No, I believe the girl speaks true. Now, Deirdre, was there anything else?”

“My jarl, someone did send me here – the people of Riverwood. When I passed there, they were in a panic about the dragon. They saw it flying over the town after it left Helgen. Also, there was a burglary at the Riverwood Traders. They request a detachment of guards to help protect them.”

“My jarl,” said Irileth. “We should send guards to Riverwood at once. They face the most immediate danger of attack. And a strong presence will deter thievery as well.”

“Jarl Balgruuf, this is just what the Stormcloaks want,” said Avenicci. “They would love nothing more than to see us weaken our defense of Whiterun by sending our fighters hither and yon. And Jarl Siddgeir of Falkreath will view the massing of Whiterun troops on his borders as a provocation. He may conclude that we’ve joined the Stormcloak rebellion.”

“That’s enough, Avenicci,” Jarl Balgruuf snapped. “I will not sit idle while a dragon threatens any part of my hold. And I would rather fight the beast out in the countryside than here in the crowded streets of Whiterun. Can you imagine the carnage if the dragon attacked here? I will have those guards sent to Riverwood, understood?”

Avenicci knew he was beaten. “Yes, my jarl, as you wish,” he said, bowing and taking his leave.

“Now, Deirdre, the people of Riverwood can rest more easily, thanks to you. Your experience with the dragon may prove useful to us as well, should it attack here. Will you be staying in Whiterun long?”

“I’m not sure I could be any help with a dragon, Jarl Balgruuf,” I said, “unless your warriors need lessons in running from one.” He smiled at that. “Helgen taught me that I have much to learn. I was wondering … does your court mage need help? Or maybe an apprentice?”

“I see you still plan to pursue your interest in the arcane arts. It could be that Farengar needs help, I wouldn’t know. I’ve set him to learning as much as he can about dragons. It’s strange, he was already interested in dragon lore, and he’s beside himself with excitement now that one has turned up alive. He’s a prickly sort, though, and I can’t imagine he’d be a very good teacher. But feel free to talk to him. He’ll certainly want to hear your story.”

Balgruuf was right. Farengar Secret-Fire made me repeat every detail about the dragon, down to how big his scales were. “Dragons are such fascinating creatures,” he said. “I’d give anything to see one up close. You should consider yourself lucky.”

This one had a strange idea of luck. He was less interested in my desire to learn magic. “I’m no teacher,” he said. “You should go to the College of Winterhold. Old Tolfdir is a wonderful teacher, even if he does keep his students on a short leash. And you’ll meet people from all over Tamriel. Mirabelle Ervine is the Master Wizard, and she’s a Breton like you. You should fit right in.”

“But I have this spell tome,” I told him, digging through my knapsack and pulling it out. “And I don’t even know how to read it.” I had been poring over the book I had taken from Helgen Keep, but no matter how hard I concentrated, the runes would not reveal their secrets to me. “Are you sure you couldn’t just teach me this one spell?”

Deirdre and Farengar

With his face hidden by the hood of his robes, the mage Farengar was hard to read.

With his face hidden behind his dark mage’s hood, it was hard to read Farengar. I couldn’t even be sure where he was from. If I had to guess, I’d say he was from Cyrodiil. “Well, all right,” he said. “I suppose I shouldn’t be too hard on anyone with an interest in the arcane arts. Julianos knows, most Nords are too dense to understand their value. Here, let’s see that tome.”

I handed it over.

“Ah yes, Sparks. It’s one of the most basic Destruction spells in the lightning branch. Won’t really cause much damage, but it could distract an opponent enough to allow you to get away. Here, this rune means ‘lightning.'” There were only five runes to learn in the whole tome, so within a few minutes he had taught me the words behind the spell. “Okay, now give it a try, over on that wall. Just let the words pass through your mind, you don’t have to say them out loud. Eventually, you’ll be able to simply concentrate on the result you want, and the spell will come.”

I did as he said, holding my hands out toward the wall and thinking the words he had taught me. At first I felt only a tingle in my fingertips, then a few sparks flickered and died. Finally, I had a thin stream of sparks striking the wall. They made little black scorch marks where they struck, but the spell didn’t seem likely to defeat anything larger than a fly. Then the sparks flickered out as the last of my magic power drained away. I felt weakened.

If I thought it was a poor showing, Farengar was pleased. “Excellent!” he exclaimed, clapping his hands. “Most students need several tries to produce even a few sputterings. Come, you must have had some magic training before now.”

I told him about learning to produce flames on a cold wet night when I couldn’t get the kindling to light, though it was literally to save my life. I had concentrated so hard that the kindling burst into flame on its own. Eventually, I had gained partial control over it.

“Extraordinary!” Farengar exclaimed again. “Most people with magic ability find it popping up sometime in their teens, moving objects from a distance, setting things on fire by accident, that sort of thing. But few are able to channel that power into a spell they can use at will, unless they get training. I’d say you have an extraordinary gift for magic, like many Bretons. You should make your way to Winterhold as soon as you can.”

This was encouraging, but at that moment I was feeling drained from the spell, not to mention I hadn’t fully recovered from the ordeal in Helgen. “I was hoping to stay here for a time and rest. I could earn some gold for the trip to Winterhold, and I imagine the college will charge tuition. Are you sure you don’t have any tasks you could give me?

“Well,” he said, rubbing his cheek, “I suppose there are a few errands you can run. Here, why don’t you take these frost salts down to Arcadia on the lower level of Whiterun. Do you know her shop, Arcadia’s Cauldron? She may have some work for you too. Besides, Alchemy is one of the most important of the arcane arts for a young mage to master.”

I did know Arcadia, but she didn’t recognize me, fortunately. I couldn’t bear to repeat the story of my father just then. Also, I didn’t know what stories had been told about how my parents had died. I wouldn’t put it past those Nords to claim that I burned my home, then fled. No, it was better to keep my identity a secret for now. “Deirdre Morningsong,” I told her when she asked my name. She had known me as Deirdre Silver-Tongue, and she didn’t make the connection now. She was just glad to receive the frost salts. Farengar had kept her waiting for them.

Arcadia questioned me closely on my herbal knowledge.

Arcadia questioned me closely on my herbal knowledge.

“Do you have any other errands,” I asked her, “or chores around the store I could help with? I’d love to learn something about alchemy as well.”

“There are always town boys available for simple deliveries,” she said. “But if there are instructions that go with the potion, they sometimes get confused. I don’t suppose you know anything about the different kinds of flowers, or how to tell the difference between a luna moth and a blue butterfly?”

I grinned. “I’m just the girl for the job, ma’am.”

“Oho, you sound very confident. Can you tell me what these are?” She pointed to a glass jar filled with bright red flowers. After I had correctly identified ten flowers in a row, some of them in their dried state, she was satisfied. “I don’t have much time to collect ingredients for my potions, the shop keeps me so busy. But I can’t trust just anyone to gather items properly without getting them cross-contaminated. It will be wonderful to have your help. When can you start?”

We arranged that I would be paid a small amount of gold for everything I collected, and she would teach me potion-making as well. She even gave me space to sleep on the floor in the back of her shop.

I found Gerdur at the Bannered Mare and told her the news. She was glad for me, and thankful that the jarl would send a contingent of guards to Riverwood. “You will learn much from Arcadia, and even more if you go to the college. Ralof will be glad too. I had almost hoped you’d decide to come back to Riverwood. Ralof grew attached to you after your experience together at Helgen, you know. I’m sure he wishes you’d go with him to Windhelm.”

I didn’t know what to say. “I know,” I began, looking at the table in front of me. “I wish…” but my voice trailed off. I didn’t know what I wished.

“Do you know what he told me this morning before we left? He said that if he had been one of those boys in Dragon Bridge he would have taken on the whole town to defend you and your parents. That’s my brother – he always wanted to be the white knight protecting the innocent and undertaking dangerous quests. I think he sees you as a damsel in distress.” She smiled when she said that, as if she knew how foolish her brother could be.

I laughed. Me, a damsel in distress? I was the Girl the Nords Couldn’t Kill, the Girl Who Escaped Helgen. Surely, Ralof had helped me get through the keep, but I’d helped him too. What kind of girl did he think I was? “Give him a punch for me,” I said.

When we said our farewells in the morning, part of me did wish I was going back to Riverwood. It was the closest thing to a home I’d had in three years, even if only for a day. But I had a new life to begin. I told Gerdur I’d try to visit when Arcadia needed flowers that grew only in the mountains.

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