The Song of Deirdre – Chapter 8

 

Saarthal

 

To say that the sun had not yet risen when Tolfdir awakened us on the morning after the bonfire would not be saying much – the sun was seldom seen in Winterhold. Yet it was ungodsly early. The small window in my cell looking out on the courtyard showed a pitch-black sky.

“Rise and shine students,” Tolfdir called merrily as he made his circuit of our tower. “We have a big day ahead of us. We’re going to Saarthal!”

Saarthal – I tried to dredge the name from deep in my hungover brain as I struggled into my apprentice’s robes. Wasn’t it some sort of ancient Nord city? I thought it had something to do with Ysgramor and his five hundred brave companions, the ones Aela had told me about in Whiterun. I staggered out to the hall and saw my fellow apprentices gathered around the old wizard.

J’zargo was holding his head as if it hurt as much as my own. “This one needs hangover cure,” he said, “but there’s no time to make one.”

“Now students, we have a wonderful treat in store for us. The chief archaeologist…”

“But I thought we didn’t have classes on Loredas,” exclaimed Brelyna. Her red Dunmer eyes were even more red than usual. “And it’s so early. Doesn’t the college plan its field trips in advance?”

“As I was saying, the chief archaeologist at Saarthal just sent word last night that the excavation will be available today for our exploration. We have to seize this opportunity! I’m especially eager to delve into the ancient Nord use of magical wards.”

“We should let the dead rest in peace,” said Onmund. “Who knows what we’ll find down there? What about draugr? Wights? Skeletal walkers? I’ve heard all manner of powerful beings haunt these ancient ruins, guarding hoards of treasure. We shouldn’t disturb them.”

I had already faced much in my young life with bravery, yet the mention of draugr turned me cold inside. My father had told me the stories of draugr from Nord legend – corpses that come back to life to guard the treasure hoarded in their barrows, or to walk Skyrim terrorizing the living and dragging the young and innocent back to the land of the dead. There is nothing ghostly about a draugr. It is as real and solid as any mortal. More so, with all trace of soft human flesh wasted away, leaving nothing but rock-hard muscle and sinew stretched taut over bone. And in some places the bone shows through. Its eyes glow with a cold blue light. It remains clothed in whatever scraps of armor it wore to its burial and carries the weapons that were interred with it. When disturbed from its slumbers, it attacks instantly. In addition to its great strength, it possesses powerful magic and spreads contagion with its breath. There is only one way to kill a draugr for good – first by severing its head, then by burning the corpse to nothing but ash.

Suddenly my decision to focus on Illusion and Restoration didn’t seem so wise. All the Illusion spells I had learned would be little help, since I had yet to progress to the level where they would work on undead. A stronger fire spell, that’s what I needed, or the turn undead spell, but I had neglected to learn either.

“Now, now, let’s not let our imaginations carry us away,” replied Tolfdir. “The excavation hasn’t reached the level of the crypts yet. And these stories of draugr scourges and death lords, they’re just that – stories. You have nothing to be afraid of, I’ll be with you the entire time, and Arniel Gane is already on his way there to catalog items of a magical nature. No, the only thing you’ll have to worry about is an empty stomach. We’ll be gone most of the day, so get yourselves a hearty breakfast and pack a lunch. We leave in twenty minutes.”

Saarthal was southwest of Winterhold. As cold as it was, it felt good to be outside. The crisp air cleared my head as we walked up toward the snowy pass separating the village of Winterhold from the lands to the west. The contrast to my home in Dragon Bridge, or even the plains of Whiterun, was stark. We were familiar with winter in the mountains of Haafingar Hold, the time when snow blanketed everything and all but the evergreens lost their leaves. All of my favorite flowers died back to nothing, waiting until late in the spring to grow again. And of my bird friends, only the black raven, the snowy owl, and the black-capped chickadee remained. The snow-clad mountains did have an elegant, stark beauty, but within a few weeks of the first snowfall, I would find myself pining for the green shoots of spring and the long, languorous days of summer.

But here winter kept its hold year-round, as the name implied. The few evergreens were laden with snow. Not even the bits of green showing through the frost could relieve the black and white tone of the place. The only bit of color was that of the perennial snowberry, a hardy shrub brave enough to bear fruit even in the depths of winter. The bright red berries were the key ingredient in a potion that lent resistance to fire. I suspected I might need such a potion one day, so I had been stocking up on the berries during my time in Winterhold. It grew more abundantly here than anywhere I’d yet been in Skyrim. I gathered more as we ascended to the pass, darting from side to side off the trail, then running to catch up with my companions, who seemed intent only on following Tolfdir up the steep route. For an Elder, he was remarkably spry.

The other side of the pass presented a scene even more bleak. Before us stretched an unbroken complex of ice sheets and crevasses stepping down to the Sea of Ghosts. Here and there, bleak outcrops of black rock punctuated the field of white snow and ice. A series of cairns, each with its flag flapping in the stiff breeze, marked the route.

As we walked, Tolfdir refreshed our memories of Saarthal. Onmund added bits of his own, for the ancient city was famed in Nord lore. It was the first settlement of humans in Tamriel, founded before recorded history began. They came by ship from Atmora and built homes beside the race of mer who inhabited the province, the Snow Elves. The relationship between elves and humans started out well enough, then deteriorated as the newcomers pushed into more territory that had once belonged exclusively to the mer.

Then, on the Night of Tears, a force of Snow Elves attacked the city. The Atmorans were routed, and only three survivors, Ysgramor and his two sons, made it back to Atmora. Ysgramor vowed to return, amassing a large fighting force – the Five Hundred Companions. They returned to Tamriel, and drove the elves from Saarthal. Eventually, the people that would become the Nords pushed the elves out of this northern portion of Tamriel and claimed it for their own, under the new name of Skyrim.

In the eons since, Saarthal was literally buried by the sands and rock and ice of time, and even its location was forgotten. Only recently had archaeologists rediscovered it and begun to reveal its secrets. Little was left of the portions of the city that had been above ground, Tolfdir told us, but the catacombs beneath it remained for exploration.

After two hours’ journey we arrived at the Saarthal excavation. It was a deep, square pit in the ground, a hundred feet on a side, with scaffolding and stairs leading down to an iron door. Looming over the pit was a massive stone archway, all that was left of the great city. Tolfdir led us to the bottom of the pit, gave us a short lecture about safety, then pushed on the iron door.

It creaked open and we entered Saarthal, or what was left of it. We descended a narrow tunnel carved out of the granite bedrock, the roots that hung down from fissures in the stone brushing at our heads as we passed. I was toward the back, but I heard gasps from my fellow students up ahead. Emerging from the tunnel, I saw the object of their surprise – a giant stone face confronting me. It was carved into a pillar of stone at the center of a large room. The face was bearded in the Nord fashion and gazed sternly at us as we made our way into the chamber. I wondered how long it had taken the stone-masons to carve it. And they hadn’t stopped there, hewing similar faces into the three other sides of the pillar.

Stepping farther into the room, I saw that it was multi-leveled, and we had entered at the top. If there had once been stairs leading the two flights down to the main floor, they were long gone. Instead, the archaeologists had built wooden scaffolding that led down one level. From there, a stone bridge led to a platform encircling the middle of the central pillar, directly beneath the brooding stone faces. A circular ramp wrapped around the pillar, descending from the platform to the main floor. The archaeologists’ tools, shovels, buckets and wheel barrows were strewn everywhere. Lamps and torches burned here and there, illuminating the chamber in a wavering light.

The pillar was not the only feature of the chamber that had been carved by ancient hands. Portions of the room’s natural rock had been hewn with considerable skill into graceful arches and buttresses, and even adorned in places with elaborate designs. In other places the rock had been left in its rough natural state. The floor was laid with smooth flagstones to allow easy passage. We stood there for a moment, taking it all in.

“How the ancient Nords were able to delve so deeply and carve such elaborate stoneworks is still very much a mystery,” Tolfdir told us. “It’s nothing to rival the Dwemer, of course, yet these catacombs were created by people just arrived here from Atmora. Just imagine the time involved to create just one of these carvings! Our Nord ancestors are often looked on as barbaric, yet they clearly had an elaborate culture of artisans and craftsmen.”

Then he led us down the spiral ramps to the main floor to gave us our final instructions. “What are we seeking?” J’zargo asked. “Powerful magical items? Enchanted weapons? Rare potions? J’zargo will find them!” Under his breath he added, “And J’zargo will keep them,” but I was the only one standing near enough to hear him.

“We are looking for anything that might be of interest,” said Tolfdir. “That’s what I enjoy most about this place – you never know what you are going to find. And if my message about the dangers of magic sinks in during your search, so much the better.”

“I still believe we should let the dead rest in peace,” interrupted Onmund. “We’ve all heard how jealously the draugr guard their crypt treasure.”

“Young man, you can see very well there are no dead here. These are merely storerooms. The inhabitants must have taken precautions to keep their goods safe. If we could find any magical wards in these halls, it would greatly advance our understanding of ancient Nord magic. Brelyna, I want you to look for those.”

“Yes, master Tolfdir,” she said, and wandered off into the passageway leading out of the chamber.

“Deirdre, I want you to search for enchanted items. You’ll find Arniel Gane farther along these passages. He’s cataloging the artifacts the archaeologists have already found. He can certainly use your help. And students, while the archaeologists will have cleared out most of the non-magical objects, there may still be one or two items of interest lying about. You are welcome to keep whatever stray gold pieces or other artifacts that have been overlooked, as a sort of payment for your services.”

I followed Brelyna into the tunnel. Like the chamber, it was mostly rough-hewn stone with occasional carven arches and buttresses supporting the ceilings. There were wooden supports as well, whether placed by the archaeologists or the ancient Nords, I couldn’t tell. But I was glad for them, because occasionally I heard the sound of rock falls from deeper within. The passageway twisted and turned and seemed to descend slightly. This really is quite a labyrinth, I thought. Had I only known I was just at the beginning of it!

Soon I caught up to Brelyna. She was examining the floors, walls and ceiling as she went. “I doubt we will find anything of use down here,” she said. That was Brelyna – always the optimist. “The elves must have ransacked the place after the Night of Tears, and who knows who else has been through here since then?” Then she paused and put her hand on my arm. “Just think, eons ago my ancestors – or cousins of them, really – battled Onmund’s people here in these passageways. Now here we are, exploring the place together.”

“It is strange,” I agreed. “I could have had ancestors on both sides of that battle. And the war continues to this day, doesn’t it?”

“It seems so,” Brelyna said. “I’m glad we are well out of it. Since the sundering of Morrowind we Dunmer have too much to worry about to bother with the wars of elves and men. Besides, we’ve never had much use for the self-styled ‘High Elves,’ always so full of themselves, labeling us ‘Dark Elves.’ Not that the Nords treat us much better.”

We emerged into another chamber. It was much like the first, except larger, with three supporting pillars connected by stone bridges. Again we came into the room at the top level, and descended to the main floor on circular ramps and stone bridges. Though the room was larger, the main floor was more crowded with boulders fallen from the ceiling above and with the wide bases of the supports. I tried poking around in the debris on the floor, but didn’t find much other than a few clusters of mushrooms I couldn’t identify. I put a few of them in my satchel. Maybe Brelyna was right and we wouldn’t find much.

I had noticed a passageway leading off of the platform at the second level, so I left Brelyna behind with Onmund, who had joined us by now, and went to explore it. This looked much more promising. Several passages branched off of this first one, and in each there were broken urns and other pottery, and even some whole ones. Looking inside one, I found a few gold coins. Those I could certainly use, since I had depleted much of my own store of gold pieces purchasing spell tomes and paying for lessons at the college. I wondered how thorough a job the archaeologists could have done. The place seemed to go on and on, and small items were easily missed.

I decided to sift through the piles of broken pottery. Who knows what the urns had contained before being broken? I moved from passage to passage searching in this way, finding a few gold coins and a few dried flowers along the way. Finally I found something that looked promising – a gold ring. After I brushed away the centuries of dust, it gleamed with a warm yellow glow in the flickering torch light. But was it enchanted? I had no way of knowing, having yet to take lessons in that branch of magic. I wondered why Tolfdir had set me this task. I needed to find Arniel Gane. I was sure he would be pleased with my find.

I found him in an alcove off the next passageway ahead, bent over a table with his back to me.

“Sir,” I called to him from the doorway, “I found this ring.” Only then did I notice the piles of jewelry, weapons, and armor spreading across the table where he worked and spilling onto the floor into every corner of the room.

“Oh joy, a ring!” he exclaimed, turning to glare at me. “Aren’t you special? Put it over there with the others.” He nodded dismissively at a pile of a dozen identical rings. Mine looked no different than the rest.

“Yes sir,” I said, feeling foolish.

As I turned to leave, Arniel spoke again. “Wait. I’m sorry I snapped at you, young lady. It’s just that it is going to take forever to sort through all this.” He sounded tired. “I really should take it all back to the college where I could study it properly and get help from Sergius, but that spy Ancano asks too many questions. I’m sure he wants to steal my research. I’ll just have to carry on here as best I can, though I wish Sergius were here. He is our master of Enchantment, after all. Meanwhile, bring me anything else you find.”

I promised him I would, but left with my enthusiasm deflated. Still, it wasn’t long before I found another ring, identical to the first. It was lying in a dark corner, and I was lucky to spot it.

“What did you find there, Deirdre?” It was J’zargo, who had come up behind me just as I was picking up the ring. “Let J’zargo see. Maybe it will aid this one on his path to greatness!” His cat eyes shone brightly as he tried to see what I had in my hand.

Normally I wouldn’t give in to such a request. Had I been unable to guard my own possessions, I would never have survived those months traveling with a pack of thieves. But the going rate for magic rings now seemed quite low. Let J’zargo feel Arniel Gane’s ire when he added yet another ring to the pile. What did I care? I showed it to him.

The Khajiit gave a purr of anticipation. “That could be a ring of power! With it this one could… Give it to J’zargo!”

As I made to hand J’zargo the ring, something made me hesitate. I looked at it more closely. It suddenly seemed the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. It had a solidity and a weight that surpassed its small size. And as I looked more deeply at it I had a vision of myself seated on a throne, my loyal subjects kneeling before me, waiting to kiss the shining ring I bore on my right hand. A voice whispered from within the shining band, “Put on the ring. It is your destiny.”

The vision vanished as quickly as it had come, and I returned to my senses. A ring that spoke to me? That couldn’t be good. Or maybe it was just my imagination. The smoke from the torches in these enclosed spaces was making me light-headed.

“Well?” J’zargo asked. “Will you give me the ring or not?”

“As you wish, J’zargo.” I handed it over, curious to see whether it would have a similar effect on him.

J’zargo’s eyes glowed more brightly as he examined it. “Yes, this will be the key to J’zargo’s destiny,” he said. Then he slipped the ring on.

The effect was immediate, and powerful. Within seconds, the Khajiit shrank to half his normal size, lost all his feline hair, and grew a full white beard. His face took on a cherubic expression. “No, no, what is happening?!” he shrieked in a pinched, reedy voice. He had been transformed into a gnome.

I tried to suppress my laughter as I told him to take the ring off, but it was no good. The sight of him floundering around in his now much-too-large apprentice robes was just too ridiculous. He finally got his hands free from the sleeves to look at them. Gone were his clawed, fur-covered hands, and in their place were tiny human hands with pudgy, soft fingers. He began feeling at his face and his new beard. If only there had been a mirror! “No,” he wailed again, and began to run around the room, but soon tripped over his trailing hem. The humor began to fade as I grew concerned that he would hurt himself. “J’zargo, take the ring off!” I said again.

But the transformation seemed to make him forget that he was wearing a ring. Finally, I grabbed the flailing gnome, wrestled him to the floor and began fumbling for his hand. A gnome’s knuckles are surprisingly knobby, and the ring seemed to have shrunk along with the Khajiit. Finally, to the accompaniment of many gnomish shrieks, I pulled the ring free. J’zargo resumed his usual feline form and arrogant demeanor.

“You tricked J’zargo!” he said. “This one will not soon forget!”

“J’zargo, you demanded the ring of me,” I told him. “Maybe you should learn to detect enchantments before you don magic items. Now, we should take the ring to Arniel and tell him what happened.”

“Ah yes,” Gane said when we told him the story. “A ring of humor. Very common when enchanters have nothing else to do. I hope this will teach you a lesson about putting on magic items willy-nilly. It could have been much worse.”

With that task accomplished, the Khajiit and I went our separate ways. But before we parted he told me, “This one tested the magic ring for you, now you must test the flame cloak scroll for J’zargo. Surely we will encounter undead in these catacombs, no matter what the old wizard says.” Perhaps I should have wondered then why he didn’t just test them himself. He didn’t seem to be doing much else.

I entered another chamber, the last that the archaeologists had opened on this level. The floor was bare, no broken crockery or cast-aside jewelry lying about. I looked at the rest of the room and noticed that a portion of the far wall seemed different than the rest. It was an arched doorway of carven stone, inset with elaborate designs – spirals and curves and circles. But if it was a doorway, there was no obvious way of opening it. In its center a kind of sloping shelf had been carved, and on it rested a gold amulet bearing designs similar to those on the doorway. Or maybe it wasn’t a doorway after all, but an altar for displaying the amulet?

I hadn’t seen anything like this amulet in Arniel’s collection. It seemed just the kind of thing Tolfdir had set me to find. I plucked it from the shelf.

Immediately I heard the sound of metal scraping over stone behind me. I turned to see the entrance to the room blocked by iron bars. Inspecting them more closely, I saw that they had thrust upward from holes in the floor. I tried pushing one back down, to no avail. Why hadn’t I noticed those holes when I entered the room? Each bar was tipped with a sharp metal point. Shuddering at what could have happened if anyone had entered the room at the wrong moment, I vowed to be more careful in future.

Tolfdir had heard the sound too, and soon appeared on the other side of the bars.

“Now how in Sovngarde’s name did you get yourself into this predicament, young lady?” he asked. He seemed more amused than concerned.

I showed him the amulet. “I took this from the wall over there, and then these bars slid into place. I’m trapped here.”

“The amulet must be enchanted,” he said. “Is there some way you can use it?”

“You want me to put it on?” I had little interest in turning myself into a gnome, or something worse. “I thought we were supposed to be careful with magic?”

“Ah, I’m glad to see you’re learning caution,” said the old wizard. “Perhaps you are right. Let me see if I can find some sort of lever that will open the bars from this side.”

Tolfdir began searching the walls on his side of the bars and soon disappeared around a corner. While he was gone, I looked more closely at the amulet. Now I saw that the swirling patterns made an almost human figure. It was wearing a tall crown, and where its face should have been there was but a single eye. It seemed ominous somehow, and the fang-like pieces of gold adorning the amulet’s chain only added to the impression. The amulet had none of the attractive power of the gnome ring, no whispering voice encouraging me to wear it. If only I had focused on Enchantment during my time at the college!

Tolfdir returned. “I’m afraid there is no way to open these bars from either side,” he said. He grasped them then and tried to move them, for show more than anything. But he was a master of Alteration. Couldn’t he turn the iron of the bars into something we could break easily – ice, maybe, or glass?

“I’m afraid our only choice is to have you try on that amulet,” he said.

“Couldn’t we ask Arniel to examine it?” I asked.

“Arniel lacks the proper equipment here in the catacombs, and we don’t have time to send the amulet to the college. Besides, nothing ventured nothing gained, as they say, eh? Where’s your youthful sense of adventure?”

So much for caution and safety. Putting my last doubts aside, I slipped the amulet over my head. I didn’t notice anything at first, but Tolfdir grew amazed as he looked into the room behind me. “Would you look at that!” he exclaimed. I turned to see a glowing red light emanating from the shelf where the amulet had rested. The streamers of light reached out toward me like tendrils. “There is some sort of resonance between you and that wall,” said Tolfdir. “It must have to do with the amulet.”

“What should we do?” I asked.

The old wizard considered for a moment, stroking his graying blonde beard. “I wonder what would happen if you cast your magic at the wall. It looks suspiciously like a doorway that has been sealed over. Why don’t you try a flame spell?”

Tolfdir was right. When my flame spell hit it, the stone wall crumbled into blocks and fell inward, revealing a passageway beyond. At the same time, the bars slid down behind me and Tolfdir entered the room. “Well this is highly unusual and very interesting,” he said. “Come, let’s see where this goes.”

“Shouldn’t we tell the others where we’re going?” I asked.

“Come now, young lady, you’re with me. There is nothing to fear.” I followed him into the passageway, rankling a little at the suggestion that I was afraid.

Unlike the previous passages, this one was merely a rough-hewn tunnel. After several twists and turns we came to another chamber. Tolfdir stopped before entering. Through the doorway I could see an altar and beyond it a stone coffin upright against the far wall.

“Astounding!” Tolfdir exclaimed. “I’ve never seen anything like it! What is this place? And why would the ancient Nords seal it off like this?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe they wanted to keep their burial crypts safe from grave robbers?”

“Perhaps. There’s only one way to find out. Let us investigate.”

With that we stepped through the opening. Now I saw that the room contained two more vertical crypts on each of the side walls. Three burial urns rested atop the altar. So much for leaving the Nord dead in peace, I thought. But I had to admit, this ancient tomb had a grim allure. And no one had been inside it in thousands of years. What might we find in those urns?

Tolfdir took a step farther into the room but then froze. Surprised, I put a hand on his shoulder, but he was suddenly as immovable as stone. Then a glowing light appeared on the other side of the altar. It grew larger, and then a hooded figure appeared within it, whether human or elven I could not tell. The figure looked toward me and then spoke.

“Hold mage, and listen well. I am Nerien of the Psijic Order and I have stopped time for your companion so that I may communicate with you in private. You have set in motion a chain of events that cannot be stopped. Judgment has not been passed, as you had no way of knowing the danger here. Judgment will be passed as you deal with the dangers ahead of you. This warning is given because the Psijic Order believes in you. You mage, and you alone, have the potential to prevent disaster. Take great care, and know that the Order is watching.”

Before I could respond, the robed figure disappeared and time returned to its usual pace.

Tolfdir looked around. “What was that?” he asked. “I sensed something just then.” I told him what had happened. “The Psijic Order! But what could they want with this place? They’ve never been associated with Saarthal. And what could they want with you? Psijics only ever dealt with those they deemed worthy.”

“They did say I was the only one who could prevent disaster,” I reminded him.

“Disaster! What could they mean? Are you sure you heard correctly? Or that you weren’t dreaming?” He looked at me closely, as if trying to decide whether I was in my right mind.

“I saw him as clearly as I see you now,” I said. “But I have no idea what he was talking about. Who are the Psijics anyway?”

“Were, most likely,” he replied. “A group of mages that predated the Empire. Very powerful, very secretive. They felt magic should remain in the hands of a select few. They would never approve of sharing magical knowledge as we do at the college. They wanted Tamriel to remain in the dark ages. But they vanished over a century ago, along with their sanctuary on the isle of Artaeum.”

“Well,” I said, “maybe we should heed their warning and leave.” I edged closer to the doorway through which we had come.

“Nonsense,” said Tolfdir. “We have nothing to fear here. Now let’s see what’s in these coffins. I’m guessing they cover passageways to deeper levels of these catacombs. If there is a danger here, we had better find it before the archaeologists come to harm.”

He stepped around to the coffin on the back wall and grasped the edge of the lid. It popped open a crack and Tolfdir stepped back in surprise. A pale, sinewy arm appeared in the opening. Skeletal fingers grasped the lid, then threw it aside as though it weighed nothing.

Before us stood the most hideous creature I had ever seen, the thing I most feared to meet in Saarthal: a draugr, come to life out of Nord legend. Its blue eyes fixed on me with an evil glow.

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