The Song of Deirdre – Chapter 6

 

Swindler’s Den

 

Lydia stepped back, her hands raised.

Lydia stepped back, her hands raised.

Lydia took a step back, her hands up. “Deirdre, it’s only me! What’s the matter?”

I still hadn’t put away the dagger. I held it in front of me, aimed at her chest. “You’ve been following me. This is the third time you’ve taken me by surprise today.”

“No, really, I just didn’t see you there. I must have been walking too fast, and not watching where I was going. I was looking at the stars, to tell you the truth.”

“Then what about that dart?”

“Dart? What are you talking about?” If Lydia’s surprise and confusion were feigned, then she had missed her calling as a traveling mummer. And she couldn’t have shot the dart at me because she was coming from the wrong direction. I lowered the dagger.

“Well, where are you headed so fast?” I demanded. “You seem to be taking the long way around if you’re headed back to the barracks.”

“I wanted to stretch my legs a bit before going to my rest. That’s why I was walking so fast. You’re a bit out of your way as well.” She looked at me more closely. I was still breathing hard, she had given me such a shock. “Are you sure you’re all right? Why would anyone be following you? And what was that about a dart?”

I still didn’t know whether I could trust her. I couldn’t see her face very well in the dark, but her voice seemed sincere, full of concern. “Someone fired a dart at me, then chased me. I ran into this alley to get away from him.”

“Who?” she demanded. “Who did this? Where did he go?”

“I don’t know. Maybe he went away when he saw you coming.”

She looked up and down the street. “Whoever it was, he seems to be gone now,” she said. “Let me walk you home. Or should we report this to the guard?”

I put away my dagger. “Let’s not involve the guards, I’m worried they … Lydia, do you think the jarl would have me followed because he thinks I’m with the Stormcloaks?”

“Jarl Balgruuf?” She pondered this for a moment as we began walking back to Arcadia’s. “I’m just a soldier, but I don’t think the jarl supports the Empire that much. There are many Stormcloak sympathizers here. Out of all of them, why would he have you followed? And even if he did have you watched, he wouldn’t try to kill you.”

“It was a dart,” I reminded her. We were passing through the plaza now. I went over to the bench and pulled it out. It was feathered, with an inch-long tip. “I bet there’s some sort of sleeping potion on it. Maybe Arcadia can identify it.”

“Jarl Balgruuf wouldn’t do that either,” Lydia said. “If he wanted to bring you in, he’d just have the guards arrest you.”

We arrived at Arcadia’s and I thanked her for accompanying me as she turned to head back to the barracks.

It was long before I fell asleep that night. Ignoring my followers had seemed the wisest course, but now they had turned hostile. What had I done to provoke them? Was it my conversation with Saadia? Could the Redguards be involved? But if they were, hadn’t I just led them directly to her? Why would they attack me over that? And why did Lydia just happen upon me right after the incident? It was toward morning before I finally fell asleep, the questions still roiling my head.

 

*~*~*

 

The next morning, Arcadia needed more tundra cotton so I headed out to the plains west of the city. I took no chances after the previous night. I wore my light armor and slung my bow and quiver (outfitted with newly purchased steel arrows) over my shoulder. My sword dangled at my hip. In my collecting satchel I had two vials of fear poison that should send any attackers running. I didn’t think they would approach me in broad daylight, and I felt better about facing them in the countryside than in the narrow city passages. It was my homeground.

The watchers were there, as I expected, but they kept their distance as usual. I gave no sign that I noticed them and went about my business. Maybe last night’s adventure had been the work of a mere thief, I thought. It was another lovely day, with a soft breeze rustling the tundra grasses and the scent of the heather pungent in the air. The snow-covered mountains across the plain glinted in the sun. I picked a few blaeberries and enjoyed their tartness, trying to forget my trouble.

It was around mid-day when Kematu came riding up on a handsome black courser. It was the most beautiful horse I’d ever seen. The trailing ends of the Redguard’s turban billowed out behind him as he approached.

Wonderful, I thought. Why wouldn’t these people let me go about my business? He looked surprised when I notched an arrow and leveled it at his chest.

“Well met, young lady,” he said as he brought his horse to a halt. “Have I done something to offend you?”

 If last night’s altercation had anything to do with my conversations with the Redguards, it wouldn’t do to be seen talking to this one now. At least I could make it look as if I wanted him to go away. “Stay away from me!” I shouted, though my watcher was probably too far away to hear.

“I merely wanted to ask if you had thought about what I said at the gate yesterday. I will gladly give you more information here where we won’t be overheard.”

Keeping my voice low, I said, “Someone attacked me last night. I think it had something to do with you Redguards. I want you to stay away from me.”

“Ah, more evidence that Iman is indeed in Whiterun. What name is she going by now? Saadia? Zhaheera? Her friends in Skyrim will do much to protect her.”

“I warn you we are being watched from a distance even now,” I said. “I told you, I can’t be seen with you. Now go away.”

He backed his horse off a yard or two, as if making ready to leave. “I know you would aid us if only you would hear me out,” he said. “Iman is about to do something that threatens the lives of thousands of our people. She is in league with the Aldmeri Dominion. Come to our camp tonight, if you think you can elude your watchers. We are at Swindler’s Den, just west of here. Can you find it?”

“I can, but don’t expect me.” Swindler’s Den had an evil reputation. Why were the Alik’r holed up there?

“I expect nothing, but I will still hope. Remember, thousands of innocent lives rest on your decision. Farewell for now.”

“Wait. I have to make a good showing for my watcher.” I fired an arrow just over his head, then quickly notched another one. “Leave me alone!” I shouted. His horse shied, then horse and rider wheeled and bolted away. I hoped the watchers would believe I had rejected the Alik’r’s questioning.

I returned to Whiterun at mid-day, my mind still wracked with indecision. Was Kematu telling the truth? He seemed sincere, yet how could I trust him? My instincts told me he was just what he seemed: a soldier on a mission. At the same time, Saadia was clearly more than she appeared. The woman who had put a knife to my throat was neither a simple barmaid nor a noble gentlewoman. But could she be this Iman Kematu spoke of?

It wouldn’t hurt to hear Kematu out, I told myself. But if I was followed to his camp… If I would do this, I must do it secretly, sneaking out of Whiterun while my watchers thought I was asleep at Arcadia’s. It could be done, but it was a risk.

 

*~*~*

 

That evening I waited in the shop for Arcadia to return from the Bannered Mare. When I heard her on the steps I drank a potion of invisibility, then slipped silently past her as she opened the door. To my watchers it would appear that Arcadia had come home while I remained inside. I had twenty seconds of invisibility to slink around the corner and away.

Once outside the city, I doubled back on my tracks several times to make sure I wasn’t being followed. When I was sure I was alone, I set out westward for Swindler’s Den. It was a beautiful moons-lit night. Both Masser and Secunda, Tamriel’s twin moons, were full, so there was plenty of light by which to make my way. Here and there the moons-light glinted off ripples in the tundra’s pools. It was quiet, the only sounds the breath of the wind, a few crickets, and the occasional music of water tumbling over stones when I passed a rill. The evening was warm, so the luna moths were out, their wings glowing white in the silver light. It was magical. I almost forgot I was on my way to the most notorious thieves’ den in all of Whiterun Hold.

As I approached the cave entrance, I was disappointed not to see the Alik’r warriors I’d come to meet. Instead, the entrance was guarded by a single Nord wearing the bits of mismatched low-grade armor that marked him as a common bandit. I crept up behind him, thought “You’re dead,” then stole past him into the cave.

Inside, the cavern seemed to go on and on. Narrow passages led to lower and lower levels, each with a wide chamber containing two or three bandits. Some played at cards, while others were sleeping on mats – or passed out from drink, more likely. I crept past them all. Finally, the passageway entered a long, narrow pool of water. Seeing no other way to go deeper into the cave, I stepped in, the water rising to my thighs. Ahead, a waterfall fell like a curtain over the passage. As I approached it, I could see light from many torches in the chamber behind and heard the sound of voices muffled by the falling water. Well, I thought, in for a septim, in for a drake, as they say. I sank into the water and pushed myself underneath the fall. I came up with just the top of my head and eyes out of the water at the edge of the falls. I hoped my hood would help me blend into the darkness.

I counted two dozen Alik’r warriors in the chamber. It’s not too late to turn back, I told myself. But curiosity got the better of me and I stepped out of the pool into the light of the torches. The Alik’r responded as if stung, shouting and grabbing for their scimitars. I saw Kematu standing at their center. He had doffed his turban. His skull was shaved close on the sides, leaving a shock of thick ropy hair in the style the Redguards favored running in a black stripe down the center. It gave him a fierce look. I could see why Saadia would be afraid of him, even when he wasn’t surrounded by a band of warriors.

“Kematu, I have come to hear your tale,” I called to him. “Have your warriors sheath their weapons. You’re not afraid of a mere girl, are you?”

The men relaxed and Kematu came over. “I told the thieves guarding the cave to expect you and give you safe passage. What happened to them?”

“They’re still out there. I know thieves too well to just walk right up to them. It seemed best to sneak past them.”

“Very impressive,” he said.

“Not really. They weren’t very attentive. Most thieves aren’t, in my experience. Why have you holed yourselves up with them?”

“They provide cover for us. We arrived here in twos and threes. A large Alik’r war-band would not be welcome in Skyrim.” He handed me a large, thick cloth. “Here, dry yourself and come sit. Would you like a cup of mead?”

When we had settled ourselves, I said, “Now, what are the charges against this Iman, assuming she exists?”

“Young lady, your presence here is proof enough that you know of this Iman. Otherwise, why come at all? I will speak plainly, and I expect you will as well.”

“Fine,” I said. “You go first.”

“Iman is not only a convicted traitor to Hammerfell. She is about to commit an even more heinous act of treason that could result in a renewed war with the Aldmeri Dominion.”

“Go on,” I said.

“In the Great War, when she was little more than a girl, a lass as you would call her, she betrayed her house, her city, and her country by selling secrets to the Thalmor, the ruling party of the Aldmeri Dominion…”

“Yes, I’m familiar with them.”

“Well… Without her betrayal, the city of Taneth could have withstood the Aldmeri forces. Instead, the city fell and it took another five years of bloody conflict to drive the Altmer from our shores. By that time she had taken refuge on Summerset Isle, where no doubt she was richly rewarded.”

“So Hammerfell wants her for treason. Why would she be foolish enough to leave Summerset and come here?”

“Five years ago, she returned to Hammerfell disguised as a servant. She worked her way into the service of one of our highest ranking generals, an officer with detailed knowledge of Hammerfell’s troop positions. She used her feminine wiles to gain entrance to the general’s bedchamber, his most deeply held secrets, and his document chest. She learned much from their pillow talk, and even more from the reports she stole. Armed with that knowledge, the Altmer may be emboldened to attack us at our weakest points, where thousands of our citizens are vulnerable. It’s been twenty years since our part in the Great War ended. Peace, harmony, and prosperity have been restored only recently, and much still needs rebuilding. All of that will be lost and we will be plunged into war once again if she achieves her aims.”

“Why did she come here instead of fleeing directly to Summerset with her secrets?”

“Fortunately, the general had moved to eastern Hammerfell, around Elinhir, before Iman could steal his secrets. Once he found her missing and his chest empty, his guilty conscience led him to report the crime immediately. Her trail was still warm when we began tracking her. All signs pointed to Skyrim. She was clearly hoping to make a quick connection with one of the Thalmor patrols now common here. Fortunately for us, chance was against her and she never made that contact. Then she tried sending messages to her masters in Summerset, but Thalmor field communications are not everything they could be. We intercepted a letter from her indicating that she would wait to be contacted in Whiterun.”

“And what makes you think this contact hasn’t been made by now?”

“We have monitored all of the approaches to Whiterun and have seen no Thalmor movement. Nor have we seen her leaving the city, though that would have been more easily hidden from us. So please, we must know if she remains in the city. If not, we must begin looking elsewhere and I fear our cause is lost.”

I looked at the document Kematu held out for me. It detailed Iman’s crimes and even bore a reasonable likeness of her. Truly, her fate and perhaps that of thousands of innocents rested in my hands. How could I decide?

Then I told Kematu about Saadia, that she had arrived only recently in Whiterun, and that she claimed to be a noble woman who had spoken out against the Aldmeri Dominion, while Kematu and his men were the real agents of the Thalmor.

“Ah, now you see the kind of manipulations she will use,” said Kematu. “But her story makes no sense. The Thalmor want all of Hammerfell dead or enslaved. Why would they go to such trouble for one woman?”

I had to admit the story seemed flimsy. What had she said? That she had spoken out against the Aldmeri Dominion? Such speech must be common in Hammerfell now. “Still,” I told Kematu, “it’s her word against yours, plus this warrant with a seal that means nothing to me. How can I possibly make such a choice? I could easily be sending an innocent woman to her death.”

“Young woman, you need only look in your heart. I believe you are a good judge of character. You trusted your judgment enough to come here and put yourself in my hands. Now think, is this Saadia just what she claims to be, or is there something more hiding behind that façade? And when you look at me, do I seem anything other than what I claim to be, a servant of Hammerfell and my queen?”

He was right, Saadia had shifted from incompetent barmaid to weak victim to a confident woman who was good with a blade, and back to helpless victim, all in a matter of minutes. Kematu’s behavior had been consistent throughout. But maybe that was because he wasn’t the one running in fear of his life.

“All right,” I said. “Hide yourself south of Whiterun after dark this evening. If I decide I can trust you, I will shine a light from the city walls. When you see my signal, make your way to the stables and I will have Saadia, or Iman as you call her, waiting there.”

 

*~*~*

 

It was morning by the time I returned to Whiterun. I stopped by the stables and spoke with the drayman there. When I arrived back at Arcadia’s, my purse was considerably lighter.

In my room I began gathering my things and packing them in my knapsack. If I went through with helping the Alik’r, it would only provoke whoever had attacked me. Besides, it was time I got myself to the college. Then I napped. I had been awake for nearly a whole sun’s turn.

I awakened to the sound of horses’ hooves in the street. They were moving fast, like single mounts, not the draft horses pulling wagons that were common in the Plains District. I looked out Arcadia’s door to see three figures on horseback passing through the market stalls and up the steps to the city’s second level. Two wore the elven armor of Thalmor justiciars and the third looked to be a Thalmor wizard. I pretended to sweep Arcadia’s steps while I watched them disappear out of sight in the direction of Dragonsreach. If they had wanted to announce their presence in Whiterun, they couldn’t have done it more plainly. It appeared that the jarl’s days of holding the Thalmor at arm’s distance were at an end.

I had slept into the early afternoon, but Kematu and his men wouldn’t be in position until nightfall. If Saadia really was an Aldmeri spy, I would have to keep her from them until then, and convince her to come with me to the stables. But how?

I found her in her room in the Bannered Mare. Before she opened the door to me, I thought I heard the sound of pages being stuffed into a satchel. When she let me in I took her by the arm. “The Alik’r have found a way into the city,” I told her, trying to inject as much fear into my voice as possible. “They’re coming for you now. You have to hide in Arcadia’s until tonight, when I can smuggle you out of the city.”

“I can’t leave now, there’s something I must do,” she said, shouldering the satchel. Her voice was quite calm for someone whose life was in danger. “The city guard will just have to protect me from them. What are they going to do, attack me in broad daylight? I’ll meet you at Arcadia’s at nightfall. Will your escape plans hold until then?”

I could only stare at her. Kematu had been right about everything. She had played me like a cheap wooden flute. What am I to say? I was but a seventeen-year-old girl, inexperienced with the wiles of foreign spies.

“Well, are you going to stand there staring, or get out of my way?” she demanded. I stepped aside to let her pass. When she felt the dart pierce her neck, she turned in surprise, grabbing to pull it out. But it was too late. Her eyelids fluttered and she slumped to the floor. Arcadia’s analysis had been correct – the dart was covered in sleeping potion. I dragged her back into her room and closed the door.

I searched Saadia’s satchel. It was full of documents containing information on troop movements in Hammerfell and much else besides. I had prevented her from delivering them to the Thalmor, but now I somehow had to get her unconscious body down to the stables without being seen. Nightfall was still two hours off. I had that much time to devise a plan.

I went downstairs and ordered a cup of nettle tea. I had to think. I wondered if Hulda would miss Saadia, or if the Redguard woman had given an excuse for her absence. And what would the Thalmor do when she didn’t appear at the appointed time? Probably begin looking for her here. I could only hope they had a bit of patience. Then the Gray-Mane brothers came in and I knew what I needed to do.

 

*~*~*

 

Back at the shop that evening, I said my farewells to Arcadia. She loaded my knapsack with a few potions and ingredients for more. Then I shouldered my pack and Saadia’s satchel, grabbed a lantern and opened the back door carefully. If my watchers were about, they were well hidden. Night had fallen by now, but the moons had not yet risen. I kept to the shadows as I crept toward the guard post on the wall. This one was hardly ever guarded, and it proved empty now, perfect for my purpose. Even with the walls enclosing me on two sides, I used a wolf pelt to shield the lantern from the rest of Whiterun. I used a flap of the pelt to alternately cover and uncover the side of the lantern facing south. It would have been much easier to signal the Alik’r with a jet of magical sparks, but I wanted to maintain stealth as long as possible. It took a minute for the Alik’r to respond with their own flash of light.

Back at the Mare, I found a commotion going on inside. Saadia’s limp form lay slumped across a table, the Gray-Mane brothers standing over it. The cook was talking to Hulda. “I found her unconscious like this, stinking of ale.” As well she should, I had doused her with enough of it.

“This is the last straw,” Hulda said.

“Wait,” I called, going up to the table. “Can’t you give her another chance? It was only this once.”

“You were up in her room long enough this afternoon,” said the cook. “What were you doing there?”

“We were just sharing a pint or two. We’re both new here, so we became friends, especially after the way these ruffians treated her. I tried to get her to stop drinking so much, I think she was just upset. But she wouldn’t listen. Finally I left, I couldn’t watch her do that to herself.”

“You’ve got a kind heart, Deirdre,” said Hulda. “But my patience is at an end. Get her out of my sight.” The Gray-Manes lifted her by the arms and began to drag her toward the door.

“What are you doing with her?” I demanded

“We’re going to put her on the next wagon heading out of town,” said Avulstein. “She’ll wake up by the time she gets to Falkreath, then she can make her way back to Hammerfell from there, or plague the people of Falkreath for all I care.”

“I don’t trust you,” I said. “I’m coming with you to make sure she’s not hurt.”

“Whatever you say, lass,” said Thorald. “It’s a fine night for a walk. You’re welcome to join us.”

I opened the door for them, and we walked down the steps, Saadia’s limp feet bumping down the steps behind us.

Stealth was no longer an option. I had considered getting the guards involved in removing Saadia from the city. While there were procedures for deporting foreigners from Skyrim, turning them over to Alik’r warriors wasn’t one of them. Nor did it seem likely that the guards would let two hulking Nords carry an unconscious woman, Redguard or not, through the gate without asking questions. I needed to be with them, and that meant my watchers would see my every move.

“Thorald! Avulstein!” the guards greeted the Gray-Manes. They hardly noticed me. “What’s going on here?”

“Ah, Brond, good to see you,” said Thorald. “This Redguard woman has served her last drink at the Mare. You can see she’s dead drunk. Hulda doesn’t need servants like that, and we’re taking her to the wagon and sending her to the border.”

The other guard chuckled. “I bet you have some other plans for her first, right? A fine-looking woman, Redguard though she be.” Apparently the Nordic laws against molesting women didn’t extend to foreigners.

“That’s why I’m here,” I said. “I knew I couldn’t trust these louts with her. If they lay a hand on her, they’ll answer to me.”

The guard laughed. “You really think you’re a match for these two?”

“We’ll find out, should they dare touch her,” I said.

“I told you, lass,” said Avulstein, “we mean her no harm. We’re just trying to do Hulda a favor.”

“Deporting undesirables is our job, Avulstein,” said Brond. “There are procedures, documentation.”

“Well, it’s your choice, Brond,” Thorald said. “We just thought we’d save you a lot of work with quill and ink. But if you’d rather write reports than share a flagon of ale with us when your shift is done, it’s all the same to me. There’s a mug waiting for me at the Mare right now.”

“Well, if you put it that way…” said Brond.

“Come on, no one cares about a Redguard wench,” put in Avulstein, “except for Deirdre here.”

As the guards opened the gates for us, I heard the sound of footsteps running back up the street toward Dragonsreach.

“Come!” I said to the Gray-Manes when we were through the gate. “We have to move quickly.”

“What’s the hurry? The wagon’s not going anywhere.”

“Don’t argue,” I said. “There’s coin in it for you, but only if we get her to the stables safely.”

We took a shortcut over the battlements that avoided a long loop of road. In another five minutes we were at the stables.

“The wagon’s not here,” Thorald said, puzzled.

“I know,” I said. “Don’t worry. Just bring her up here away from the road.”

As we rounded the stable master’s house, Kematu and two of his warriors stepped out of the shadow of the stables, the light of the newly risen moons turning them into looming silhouettes. The Nords dropped Saadia and drew their axes. “Alik’r!” Thorald exclaimed. “What kind of trick is this?”

“It’s all right,” I said. “Everyone put away your weapons.” The Alik’r had drawn their scimitars. “Thorald, Avulstein, there is more I didn’t tell you. This woman is a Thalmor spy. These Alik’r warriors are here to arrest her and take her home.”

“Alik’r on Skyrim soil,” said Thorald. “It stinks to the Nine.”

“Hammerfell has done what you Nords could not,” said Kematu, sheathing his scimitar. “The Thalmor still walk your lands. A true Nord would never side with them against any who oppose them.”

Thorald lowered his axe and seemed to be pondering this. A true Stormcloak sympathizer, he was sure to hate the Thalmor more than these Alik’r, once the wheels in his mind began turning. That could take a while with a Nord, however.

“Thorald, you may have to make that choice sooner than you think,” I said. “The Thalmor may be on their way here even now. You two need to get out of here before you’re seen with us. Here’s your gold.”

Thorald took the bag I handed him and turned to go, but Avulstein paused. “There’s more about you than I first thought, lass, I’ll hand you that.” Then he followed his brother.

I turned to Kematu. “I’m sorry, we were followed to the gate. If my watchers are in league with the Thalmor, they’re surely on their way here now.”

But I was too late. The two Alik’r warriors were just trying to get Saadia on her feet and I was about to hand her satchel to Kematu when we heard hoof beats on the road. Avulstein and Thorald had just started back up the hill and were the first to encounter the elves, while we remained hidden around the corner of the house and the stables. “We’re looking for the Redguard woman,” I heard one of the elves say. “Where is she?”

“Ain’t seen no Redguards,” came Thorald’s reply.

“We know you brought her here,” said the elf. “Speak, or die.” I peered around the corner of the house to see three Altmer on horseback looming over the Gray-Manes. Three more elves were arriving on foot, as well as a couple of men. Those must be my watchers, I thought. Even in the moons-light they looked familiar. But where had those three additional Altmer come from?

“Let’s see what you’ve got, you stinking elf!” Thorald shouted. Stupid Nord! He and his brother were both brandishing their axes, and the elves had drawn their swords. The Thalmor wizard on horseback dismounted, the better to cast spells. I looked back at Kematu and held up eight fingers. We had six. The odds didn’t seem bad, but the Thalmor justiciars had an evil reputation. Then Kematu whistled and a dozen Alik’r warriors stepped out from the stables.

The fight was short but bloody. Before we could do anything, the Thalmor wizard had aimed a lightning bolt at Thorald, blasting him back against the house, unconscious or dead. The stable master foolishly opened his door to see what the trouble was, then shut it quickly.

Avulstein hesitated, not sure whether to go to his brother or face his attackers. The wizard was about to aim another spell at him, but my arrow caught him in the chest. Then the Alik’r were upon them. The second Thalmor wizard took out one of the attacking Alik’r but then it was close work with swords, staves, and axes. I held back and let the Alik’r fight their battle. The lightly armored mercenaries fell first, and in moments three surviving Thalmor were retreating up the road, whistling for the horses.

Several of the Alik’r wanted to give chase, but Kematu held them back. “We’ve got to get the woman and depart before the city guard arrives,” he told them. A horn was sounding over the city, and we could hear shouts. Avulstein went over to check on his brother, who was stirring groggily. Two of the Alik’r picked up Iman and began to carry her down the road. The rest of the Alik’r followed them, with many glances back over their shoulders to make sure they weren’t being pursued.

Kematu came over to me and I handed him Saadia’s satchel. “All the documents should be in here,” I told him. “I searched her room thoroughly.”

“Gods praise you for your help today… Wait, I don’t even know your name.”

“Deirdre,” I told him. “Deirdre Morningsong.”

“Hammerfell owes you a tremendous debt, Deirdre Morningsong. Your name will not be forgotten among our people.”

“And Saadia, or Iman, as you call her? She won’t be harmed?”

“No harm shall come to her on our journey to Hammerfell. On that you have my word. After that, the queen and our courts will decide her fate.”

We heard the sounds of approaching city guards and he ran off after his men. Soon I heard many horses thundering westward, the guard giving chase on foot.

Avulstein had helped his brother get to his feet. “Are you all right, Thorald?” I asked.

“Just a bit stunned,” he said.

“We gave worse than we got,” said Avulstein. “I never guessed you’d lead us into a fight with the Thalmor, Deirdre, but I’d do it again. Those Alik’r are bloody good fighters, too. This is one to tell the kids someday.” Then they began making their way up the hill.

It was time for me to make my own escape. I headed stealthily cross-country, aiming to strike the north road near Battle-Born Farm. It wouldn’t be long before the guards and maybe even the Thalmor were swarming the stables. There was nothing left for me in Whiterun. If the jarl had thrown in his lot with the Imperials and the Thalmor, he would soon have me in a dungeon – or worse, the Thalmor would take me to one of their own prisons. I should be safe from them at the college. I’d heard Winterhold was Stormcloak territory.

The wagon was waiting for me at the place I had arranged. There was a steep charge for this special service.

“Have you been to Winterhold before, lass?” asked the driver. “Best bring your heavy cloak. It’s colder than a hagraven’s teat, pardon the expression, even in summer, so they say.”

I looked back at Whiterun, crowned by the outline of Dragonsreach jagged against the evening sky. It was hard not to feel regret at my sudden departure. I had made many friends over the last fortnight. I wondered when I would see Arcadia again, or Lydia, or Aela and Vilkas. Still, I was looking forward to the college. No doubt I would make many friends there. And more important, I would begin to find out about my magic ability and where it came from.

Tamriel’s twin moons shone down upon us as we made our way north.

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