The Song of Deirdre – Chapter 5

 

The Plains of Whiterun

 

The next two weeks were the happiest I’d been since my parents’ deaths. My childhood wish had finally come true. I was spending my time in the fields and forests, picking flowers and catching butterflies, and earning a living to boot. It was a pleasure to be outdoors without having to worry if I would find enough to eat or a place to sleep. I was almost as carefree as I’d been as a girl. I would lie on the heath with my feet soaking in one of the many pools that dotted the plains about Whiterun. It was wonderful to feel the sun warming my face and hear the bees buzzing in the heather while the thunderheads built over the mountains. Sometimes those clouds would move out over the plains with incredible speed and I would race them to Whiterun. In the warmth of Last Seed it felt good to get soaked to the skin. I’d dry off in the Bannered Mare, the pungent smell of the peat fire redolent of the tundra where I just been roaming. I always had a coin or two for a bowl of beef stew and a cup of mead to take off the chill.

I even enjoyed working in the store, surprising myself by not growing bored. There was always something new to learn about potion making. Even dusting the shelves wasn’t so bad. I would come across a vial containing a potion I didn’t recognize, and Arcadia would tell me about its properties. Too, I had spent so much time alone for the last three years that waiting on customers was a pleasure.

Where at first I was shy and halting in my speech, I gradually grew better at conversing with people. I enjoyed hearing their stories about life in Whiterun and the surrounding farms. I learned a good deal about people’s views on the Civil War as well. There were factions supporting both sides, both adamant in their positions. I was surprised that open feuding hadn’t already broken out between the Gray-Manes and the Battle-Borns.

In my free time, I would wander the market stalls and poke my head in the shops. I even bought a dress, though I soon found I couldn’t really be comfortable in it – it was too confining, and the long skirt only got in the way. I wore it only in Arcadia’s shop, and only then when waiting on customers. When out of doors I’d wear the light armor and boots the jarl’s steward had grudgingly given me. It made me feel strong, like some sort of shield maiden.

The armor even helped me to feel more welcome in Jorrvaskr. Sitting in the Companions’ mead-hall with Aela and Vilkas, I’d imagine I was one of the original five hundred heroes traveling from Atmora to Tamriel across the Sea of Ghosts. It was easy to do – Jorrvaskr had been built from the upturned hull of one of the Companions’ boats, hauled overland to this early Nord settlement. But then I would remember myself. I was no Nord hero, nor did I aspire to be one.

Deirdre helping in Arcadia's shop.

Arcadia proved to be a kind and patient teacher.

Arcadia proved to be a patient teacher and a kind employer. She even showed me plants I hadn’t seen before. Most useful was tundra cotton, an ingredient in the potion to fortify magicka, the mage’s store of magic power. She taught me how to make that potion and others of particular value to a mage, those that restored health and increased ability in a particular branch of magic. There were also a few that could add to my skill in stealth, especially potions of invisibility and lockpicking, but those would come later.

When I wanted to apply to the college, she helped me write the message. My father had taught me my letters, of course, but after three years my handwriting was rusty. Farengar helped us with how to ask for admission and how much to say about my magical development so far. He even included a note attesting to my ability. I waited hopefully after the letter went off with the courier, wondering how long it would take the college to reply.

If Farengar hoped the dragon would show itself, he was disappointed. We saw no sign of a dragon for the fortnight. Nothing troubled the sky save the afternoon thunderstorms rumbling over the plains. Farengar kept studying his books on dragons. He was supposed to be looking for something that would help defeat one of the beasts, but he just enjoyed learning whatever he could about them.

I visited Dragonsreach often, since I was the only one Arcadia trusted with deliveries to the jarl and his court. Soon I was as familiar and comfortable in the great hall as I was in the Bannered Mare or Jorrvaskr or Arcadia’s. The guards would greet me cordially, asking if I could brew something for them – usually an ale. I had gotten to know the jarl’s hall-troops, the two I had seen that first day, Hrongar and Lydia, and several others. Hrongar was the jarl’s brother. He and Lydia were both part of the jarl’s hirth, the special war-band of skilled fighters and loyal retainers he had called up after the fall of Torygg. While the regular guard included several women, Lydia was the only shield-maiden accepted for this special service.

I would find the hirth-fellows sitting at table reliving some great exploit, then one of them would shout out to me, “Hey, lass,” and want to tell the story all over again for my benefit. They asked often about Helgen, but I could not revel in the tale, however much they pressed for details. “Come, Deirdre, tell us how you escaped the dragon,” one would say. I could see the lust for glory in their eyes, as they imagined themselves confronting the beast. Then I told them of the brave fighters I’d seen lose their lives that day, men and women battle-eager but death-bound, while I ran from the destruction like a frightened rabbit. What valor I had shown that day, I could not speak of – I still kept secret my temporary alliance with the Stormcloaks.

I could see the disappointment in their eyes. Nords were used to boasts and tales embellished to add to their glory, not stark confessions of cowardice. They found nothing in my tale to celebrate, no glory that would earn me entrance to Sovngarde, the eternal halls of the brave Nord departed. Bold deeds and a good death were all to these warriors.

Lydia would come to my defense then. She had heard me tell Jarl Balgruuf about the frostbite spiders and the cave bears beneath Helgen. “Anyone who can deal with frostbite spiders is all right by me,” she said. Her comrades mumbled in assent. No one liked frostbite spiders. Then they would return to one of their own tales, more befitting a Nord’s idea of valor.

As I listened to their stories, I admired the camaraderie among these hirth-fellows. They reminded me of my friends and myself when we were children, before the day I wanted to forget. They treated Lydia no differently than the rest. She would laugh heartily at the jokes and roar her approval for any act of valor, burnished though it was in the retelling. Even the most ribald jest couldn’t make her blush. She would look over at me then and give me a wink, as if to let me know her fellows meant no harm.

Though she was only two or three years older than I, none of the men called her “lass” or “girl.” I wasn’t surprised. At nearly six feet, Lydia stood on a par with many of the soldiers and even taller than a few. She was strong of limb from the constant training and carried herself with quiet confidence. I heard the men talk many times of her besting a male fighter in practice. One of the hirth-men once made the mistake of calling her “wench” and ended up on the floor.

Yet I wondered if the men found her attractive. She wore her jet black hair in the Nord fashion, with side braids like my own. I supposed a man would find her fair of face, with her high cheekbones and dark eyes. Although she complimented me on the tattoo I wore around my left eye, she had chosen not to mar her own face in similar fashion. And while she certainly wasn’t plump, a trait Nords found particularly attractive, there was something voluptuous about her that no amount of physical training could take away.

During my years in Cyrodiil, I had forgotten about the Nords’ predilection for plump women and burly men. Yet few such comely figures were to be found. Skyrim’s winters saw to that – no one could manage to keep the weight on, they spent so much energy trying to stay warm. Cyrodiilians, on the other hand, prized a svelte figure, though these were equally hard to find in that land, where the warmer climes led to lethargy and weight-gain. Thus, the old adage, “The lass is always fairer on the other side of the Jeralls.” During my time in Cyrodiil, I grew accustomed to those few men I came across ogling me, especially as I grew scrawnier from life in the forest. Now, I’d begun to put some weight back on from regular meals at the Bannered Mare, and I could feel the Nord men beginning to eye me in that certain way I found uncomfortable.

And if they thought me worth a second glance, how much more attractive must they find Lydia, whose curvaceous figure couldn’t be hidden even under her thick armor? No, I was sure that at least one of her hirth-fellows had wanted something more from her than the fraternal camaraderie on display in the great hall. Men always wanted something more from women, it seemed, like Osmer, or Ralof. I wondered if Lydia had ever found herself fending off an unwanted advance as I had, and what she had done about it. Or maybe she welcomed those advances? There was no way to ask about this while they were together in a group – and they were always in a group – so I found myself just getting more confused. After a bit more banter I would excuse myself and continue on my errand.

Other than my confusion on the subject of men and women, only one thing darkened my time in Whiterun: the feeling that I was being followed. It started on my second day working for Arcadia. I was returning from a delivery to Jorrvaskr. Old Kodlak Whitemane, Harbinger of the Companions, had been complaining of the rot, and Arcadia had something she thought might help. On my way back I felt the back of my neck tingling. I knew that feeling. It was the one I got in the forest when a dangerous animal was near. I looked around and saw nothing, except perhaps a shadow in a doorway out of the corner of my eye. When I looked again, it was gone.

It happened again the next day, and the next. The sound of footfalls behind me when no one was there; a tall, robed figure disappearing around a corner; glances passing between strangers I saw in the street – these were the only hints my followers gave, yet I knew they were there just the same. On the fourth day, I went to collect flowers on the tundra west of Whiterun and they were at it again. A hunter passed near me in the morning, then later in the day I came across a fisherman at a small stream, and toward evening I saw a man on horseback off in the distance on the road. I was sure they were all the same man in different costumes.

For the moment, I pretended not to notice my watchers. I was confident that I could turn the followers into the followed when I chose. But what would I do once I caught them at their game? It seemed better to keep my suspicion hidden and see what their next move would be. I guessed they were Imperial agents, or maybe the jarl’s own men who suspected me of ties to the Stormcloaks. So let them follow me. They would soon see I was no Stormcloak sympathizer – or so I thought.

Then one morning a strange thing happened. I was on my way to the mountains to collect lavender and scaly pholiota. It was the middle of my second week in Whiterun, and the day had started off well, with a courier bringing a letter from the college during breakfast. The school had space for another student, as long as I could prove my latent magical skill. I was thrilled, of course, and I planned to leave at the end of the week. A few more gold pieces in my pocket couldn’t hurt, and there were still a couple of potions I wanted to learn, especially the one that would make me invisible. While stealth was a valuable skill, becoming invisible was even better when you were being followed.

I was walking across the tundra toward the mountains, thinking about my good news, and whether I should make a trip to Riverwood to share it with Gerdur. I wondered too if Ralof was still there. Most likely not, I thought, not since the jarl had sent that detachment of guards. Then I felt the hair prickling on the back of my neck, and was certain I was being followed. I was just looking for an excuse to look around for my pursuer when I heard my name shouted from behind me, and turned to see Lydia on horseback. I paused to wait for her, and in a moment she had drawn even with me.

“Collecting flowers again?” she asked, smiling.

I nodded, holding her gaze, looking for any hint of deceit in her eye. Why would Lydia have followed me? If the jarl had put her on my track, she certainly wasn’t being very stealthy about it. “I’m headed for the mountain forests,” I said. “And what are you doing out here?”

“I’m on my way to visit my parents,” she said brightly. “They have a farm just over that rise.”

“You grew up on a farm?”

“Aye. My parents hated to lose my help when I went into the city to join the guard. There’s only my sister left to help them, but I try to visit as often as I can.” She sounded wistful as she said it. Then she brightened again. “Would you like to meet them, see the farm?”

“No, really, I need to get about my collecting.”

“The mountains rise up right behind the farm, and if we ride together it will shorten your journey. Come on, get up behind.” She held a hand out to me, and I couldn’t see a way to avoid accepting her offer. As I climbed up behind her, I tried to tell myself this was a chance meeting, and I was just being silly.

The farm was small, not more than a few acres scratched out of the tundra. The barn had plenty of places to let the rain and snow in. A few animals – horses, an ox or two, and several sheep – huddled forlornly in a small paddock. The house was small. I remembered Lydia mentioning brothers, and I wondered how they all had fit in such a place. I couldn’t blame Lydia for leaving for life in the city.

Lydia’s parents, Grimvar and Silda, seemed nice enough, though care-worn and a little distrustful of a half-Breton stranger. Their daughter Lisbet was several years older than Lydia, her face already lined from working outdoors in the blazing sun of summer and the bitter winds of winter. Her mouth turned downwards, as if it had been years since she had stretched it into a smile. She barely looked at Lydia and me when we arrived, while her parents greeted me stiffly. We exchanged a few pleasantries about the weather and the coming harvest, then I bid farewell to Lydia and went about my collecting.

I was still pondering the strange encounter that afternoon as I approached Whiterun, and was so lost in thought that I nearly walked into a commotion at the city gate. There were three guards rather than the usual two, and they were arguing with two Redguard men of Hammerfell, Alik’r warriors by the look of them, arrayed in garb appropriate for their desert land. With their dark skin, turbaned heads and tunics with wide, billowing sleeves, they stood in contrast to the fair-skinned, mail-clad guards.

Whiterun guards confront Redguards at the city gate.

Confrontation at the city gate.

“You aren’t welcome in the city,” one of the guards said. His hand was on his sword hilt, though the Alik’r looked more suppliant than aggressive.

Relations between the peoples of Hammerfell and Skyrim had never been cordial, and they had deteriorated further when the Empire severed ties with Hammerfell at the end of the Great War. The White-Gold Concordat required Hammerfell to cede half its lands to the Aldmeri Dominion. When Hammerfell chose to fight rather than submit, Emperor Titus Mede expelled them from the Empire to maintain the treaty with the Dominion. Then the Redguards pushed the Aldmeri forces from their lands, and they liked to brag that they had won a true victory over the elves where the Empire had only managed a stalemate.

Now Hammerfell stood independent and isolated, surrounded by the Empire to the north and east and the Altmer of Summerset Isle across a narrow stretch of sea to the south. Individual Redguards still lived in and served the Empire. They were a people who liked to roam, and could be found in every corner of Tamriel, like that Redguard captain back at Helgen. There was even a Redguard woman waiting tables at the Bannered Mare. She had arrived in town a day or two before I had. Everyone guessed this was her first job in an inn; the common joke was you could die of thirst before Saadia brought you an ale. There was even some grumbling about why Hulda had hired her rather than a more competent Nord.

“You don’t understand, Captain,” one of the Alik’r was saying. “We must find this woman. She is wanted in Hammerfell for terrible crimes. I have an official warrant for her arrest bearing our queen’s seal.”

“I understand very well,” said the older of the guards. It was a serious matter if the captain of the guard had been called out. “I understand that there is no treaty between Hammerfell and Skyrim allowing Redguards to hunt criminals across our lands. Your warrant is less than worthless here. To get permission you will need to go through channels at the Imperial City. Now be off and be glad I don’t throw you in a cell.”

“You’re making a grave mistake, Captain. We have tracked her here and we know she is somewhere in your city. We won’t be held responsible for any crimes she commits against your people.” With that he and his companion turned and walked away from the gate. I made for the gate myself, but the Alik’r stopped me as I passed.

“Young lady,” began the one who had spoken before. He was middle-aged and clearly used to wielding authority in his own lands. His eyes were stern but not unkind. “My name is Kematu of Taneth in Hammerfell. We are looking for a Redguard woman who has taken refuge here in Whiterun. We are representatives of the Alik’r Coterie and are here to deliver her to justice for crimes against our country. Yet these imbecile Nord guards will not allow us to search the city or even to speak with their jarl. If you help us, you will be rewarded. Have you seen such a one in your city?”

Of course I had. But what could Saadia have done? She didn’t seem like a criminal. Maybe these two were the criminals and Saadia their innocent victim. Official documents could easily be forged. “A Redguard woman you say?” I replied. “I haven’t seen anyone like that, but I’ll be sure to let you know when I do. What did you say were her crimes?”

“Her crimes are a matter of official Hammerfell business,” he said, sounding officious now. “It should be enough that we bear this warrant. We will camp on the plain west of Whiterun. I hope you will find us there if you happen to see her. Good day.”

The guards looked at me quizzically as I approached the gate, but I just shrugged. “You meet all sorts these days, don’t you?” I said, and they opened the gate for me.

That night in the Bannered Mare, I watched Saadia as she served a glass of alto wine and a plank of grilled salmon to me, then a mug of mead and a bowl of beef stew for Arcadia. As Arcadia and I switched our dishes, I wondered if Saadia could really be a criminal. She certainly wasn’t a very good bar maid. At least our food had arrived at the right table, and still warm. That was better treatment than the guests around us had received. Nor did she seem the sort to become a tavern wench. She wore the typical low-cut blouse and flowing skirt of a bar maid, but she held herself with a poise more befitting a lady-in-waiting to a queen, and her manners were more refined than those typically found in taverns.

Though none of the Bannered Mare’s patrons knew anything about her, there was much speculation. Most guessed that she came from a noble family that had fallen on hard times, maybe during the war with the elves. Much of southern Hammerfell had been razed before the Redguards had succeeded in driving the Aldmeri forces from their lands. She was the right age, at least thirty-five. But such guesses were the work of ale-addled imaginations. The only thing we knew for certain was that Saadia was a terrible bar maid.

She proved her inexperience again before we had finished our meal. She was waiting on three men at the table next to ours, two of the Gray-Mane brothers and another I didn’t know. As she bent to serve a dish to the man across from her, Avulstein Gray-Mane put a hand casually on her rump.

Now, most barmaids by necessity learn to deal with the constant advances they receive from their male customers. Many develop a playful way of admonishing their accosters that still manages to let the cads know they are serious. Many barmaids keep hidden knives, and since Nord law is on their side, most men know to go no further. Other serving girls take the random fondlings in stride, and some even encourage them. Saadia’s response was neither of these. She quickly turned on Avulstein and slapped him across the face. “Unhand me, you filthy pig!” she exclaimed, as if he were the servant and she his mistress.

The Mare went silent. Avulstein jumped up, grabbed her by the wrist and twisted. “Someone ought to teach you your place, Redguard wench!” he shouted. The Nord loomed over her as Saadia sank to her knees. He raised a hand to strike her.

I couldn’t help myself. I shouted, “Stop!” as I leapt to my feet and came around our table. I tried to make my voice as deep and commanding as possible. My hand was on the hilt of my dagger, but I did not draw it. “Let her go. Now.”

The Nord looked at me with a mixture of surprise and curiosity, his fist still poised above his head. He stood more than a head taller than I, and was probably wondering what I hoped to achieve. Then he looked down at my hand on my dagger, and grew more serious. Meanwhile, his companions had gotten to their feet and were coming around the table toward us.

“What is this, some sort of rebellion of the outlanders?” Avulstein smirked. “Take your hand off that dagger, lass, or this could turn ugly.” He still hadn’t let go of Saadia. She knelt before him, her face wrenched in pain as she looked back and forth between us.

“It’s gotten ugly enough already,” said a voice behind us. For the second time that day Lydia appeared unexpectedly. I hadn’t seen her come in, and she usually took her meals in Dragonsreach. She stepped forward to stand beside me, and Avulstein looked at her uncertainly. I could tell he was weighing his chances.

Then another voice spoke. This time it was Arcadia. “Deirdre’s right, Avulstein,” she said, stepping around Lydia and me and walking up to him. “Let Saadia go. This is no place for such behavior.”

Though she hailed from Cyrodiil, Arcadia was a respected merchant in the city, and her words carried weight. Even Avulstein, whose Stormcloak sympathies and Nord bigotry went together like ale and tavern brawls, paid heed. He loosened his grip, and Saadia got to her feet. “You saw what she did, Arcadia, she struck first.” It seemed a lame excuse coming from such a hulking brute. Many in the tavern jeered him.

“And I saw what you did before that,” Arcadia replied. “You should be ashamed. Nord men already have enough of a bad reputation without you making it worse.”

Hulda came over finally. “I’m sorry for this disturbance everyone.” She went over to Saadia. “Take a minute to calm yourself. If you can’t learn to treat our customers better, you’re going to have to leave. I’ve already had enough complaints about you.”

Saadia rubbed her wrist and lowered her eyes. “As you say, ma’am.” She turned and went into the kitchen, and the tavern broke out in debate about the event.

“It’s all over folks,” Hulda said. “Now, who needs another drink?”

That got some shouts of approval from the other patrons, but Avulstein still stood glaring at me. “You better watch yourself, lass,” he said in a low voice. “You don’t want to make an enemy out of the Gray-Manes. And if you’re going to wear a knife, you best be willing to use it.”

“Oh, I am, you can be sure of that,” I said coldly. Deirdre, your boastful mouth is going to be the death of you, I told myself even as I said it. “Keep your hands to yourself and we’ll get along.”

Avulstein’s brother, Thorald, came over. “Come on, Avy, let’s drop it.”

Lydia winked at me and went back to a table with a group of soldiers. Then Arcadia put her hand on my shoulder and suggested we finish our meal.

“I’ve lost my appetite,” I told her. “I think I’ll go check on Saadia. She’s not the only one who needs to calm down.” My heart was still pounding and my face felt flushed. My body had readied itself for a fight, and now I had nothing to do with all that energy.

Saadia and Deirdre in the kitchen

Saadia seemed surprisingly unruffled by her confrontation with a hulking Nord.

I found Saadia in the kitchen, standing at the open doorway looking down toward Whiterun’s main gate. While I still felt flustered, she hardly seemed bothered as she turned toward me, gazing at me curiously out of calm, dark eyes.

“Are you all right?” I asked.

She held out her wrist. “Just a bruise, I think. I’ve had worse.” There were no tears, no self-pity for her situation. I wondered how she could be so calm. “Thank you for trying to stop that brute. That was brave.”

“You’re not really a barmaid are you?” I blurted out.

Then I did see fear in her eyes. “Of course I am. Why would you ask that?”

I looked around to see that no one was listening. The cook was making too much noise with his pots on the other side of the kitchen to hear us. “Two men were at the gate this afternoon,” I said, “two Alik’r warriors. They were looking for a woman from Hammerfell. They said she had committed terrible crimes.”

As I spoke, Saadia looked more and more worried. She put her hand on my arm. “We shouldn’t talk about this here. Come to my room.”

I followed her up the stairs to the small cell above the kitchen Hulda had allowed her. As soon as the door shut behind us she took me firmly by the shoulder and pushed me up against the wall. I felt a knife at my throat, though I hadn’t noticed her draw it. What had happened to the cowering tavern wench I’d seen on the floor below?

Her friendly tone forgotten, Saadia confronted me at dagger-point.

Her friendly tone forgotten, Saadia confronted me at dagger-point.

“What did you say to them?” she hissed. “You didn’t tell them I was here, did you?”

I shook my head. “I wanted to hear what you had to say first.” She looked hard at me and I held her eye. I was telling the truth, even if I had doubts about who she was.

“I’m sorry,” she said, letting me go. “I had to be sure you weren’t spying for them.”

“So you are the one they’re after,” I said.

“Yes, but I’m no criminal. I belong to House Suda. We were prominent in the resistance against the Aldmeri Dominion. These Alik’r are only posing as officials of Hammerfell. They are really assassins in the employ of the Thalmor seeking the bounty on my head.” Now she did seem the innocent victim, pleading with me. “You have to believe me. Don’t turn me over to them.”

I still wasn’t sure I trusted her. She had appeared to be at least three different people in the last half hour. But I told her she had nothing to worry about on my account. The Redguards would probably decide she had never been in Whiterun and move on. The lie came easily; it seemed the quickest way to get out of that room and get on with my life. Why had I taken such a concern with this woman’s affairs? It was hard to remember after having a knife put to my throat.

“I should get back to work,” Saadia said, and went to open the door. As she did, I thought I heard the sound of footsteps outside. She heard it too. She pulled the door open quickly and we both looked out. A shadow was moving in the stairwell, as if someone was there, illuminated from below.

“I thought you said the Redguards weren’t allowed in the city?” Saadia said.

“They weren’t,” I said. “Maybe they recruited someone else to their service.” Or maybe it was my follower, I thought.

“Deirdre, I may need to leave the city at a moment’s notice. Not tomorrow, but maybe the next day. There is no one else in Whiterun I can trust, so I’m choosing to place my trust in you. Will you help me to escape without the Alik’r knowing I’ve left?” I told her I’d think about it.

I still felt jittery when I left the Mare, so I said goodnight to Arcadia at the door and went for a walk through the Wind District, Whiterun’s second level. I stopped at a bench under the old dead tree, known as the Goldergreen, at the center of the circular plaza. The tree had once been beautiful but now stood leafless, its bare branches making a lattice-work across the night sky. At least this way I could look up and see the stars. That was one thing I missed about sleeping out – I hadn’t seen as many stars in the weeks I had been living in the city. It was like saying hello to old friends after time away.

Some said that the stars were formed from Anu’s blood at the dawn of creation, others that they were holes in the fabric of Oblivion that let the light of Aetherius shine down on Nirn. I just thought they were pretty. Gazing at them had comforted me on many a lonely night after my parents died, the vast reaches of Mundus somehow making my own troubles seem small. Tonight the Apprentice, patron of mages, was high in the sky. The Warrior was just rising. His eye, formed by the planet Akatosh, blazed particularly bright. Facing him was the Serpent, a malign constellation that wandered the skies threatening its neighbors. I wondered what that could portend.

Nearby, a giant statue of Talos loomed over the plaza. All was silent now, but in the daytime a priest of Talos would harangue the people about the evils of the Thalmor and the Talos ban. Heimskr would even encourage them to join the Stormcloak side. Jarl Balgruuf’s loyalties must truly be divided, I thought, for him to allow such seditious talk. I wondered how he had prevented the Thalmor justiciars from seizing the priest and tearing down the statue.

Then I felt that familiar tingling on the back of my neck, and I knew my follower was near. I had grown so accustomed to it by now that I would normally ignore it, showing no sign that I was alert to the watcher’s presence. But this time something made me move. And just as I did, I heard a whoosh in the air near my head and the thunk of a projectile piercing wood. I turned back to where I had been sitting and saw a three-inch dart sticking out of the bench, its feathers still vibrating.

I broke into a run and made for the houses to the north of the plaza. Whoever was following me now gave up on stealth, and I could hear the sound of footfalls coming behind me. I ran faster and darted around a corner. There was an alley between two houses just past the corner and I turned into it. Now I would have to employ all of my skill in stealth to evade my pursuer. I found some pebbles on the cobbled alleyway and quickly threw them farther down the street in the direction I had been running. They made a satisfying clattering sound as they bounced down the hill. Then I put my hood up, flattened my back against the house wall, and silently crept deeper into the alley, waiting for my pursuer to run past.

Seconds passed, then a minute. All seemed silent. Could they have given up the chase so easily? I decided to check the street. I crept around the corner, looking to my right, the way I had come. Suddenly, someone coming the other way ran into me, nearly knocking me over. Strong hands grabbed me by the arms. My attacker must not have realized my quickness because I whirled out of his grasp and turned on him, drawing my dagger.

Then I saw that it was Lydia.

Lydia and Deirdre in the alley

Then I saw that the person I thought was my attacker was Lydia.

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