The Song of Deirdre – Chap. 10

 

Keizaal

 

I was flying. The mountains and vales of Skyrim spread out below me like a map rolled out on a table. Even the loftiest peaks seemed mere bumps from this great height, their summits blazing orange with light from the newly risen sun. From this vantage, the sun rode high in the sky, though the valleys below were still lost in the gray light of dawn. To the north lay the frozen Sea of Ghosts, and to the south, across the Jerall Mountains, Cyrodiil and the lands of Tamriel beyond. Westward I could see the red, burning plains of the Alik’r Desert. Eastward, smoke from a smoldering mountain rose into the sky above Morrowind.

I flew on the back of a fell beast, a great sky-winger coursing over the land. I perched between its shoulders as it glided, held aloft by the breath of the wind. It flapped its wings now and again, rocking my seat. I clung to the scaled ridges along its spine to keep from falling. Its long neck stretched before me, its head sweeping from side to side, the horns sprouting from it like two double-curved scythes. We were at such a height that I couldn’t judge our speed, but it must have been prodigious, the wind buffeted me so.

Then the dragon folded those great wings and we were plunging down toward the jagged mountains of Skyrim. I clung more tightly to the bony ridges, crouching low over its back and bracing my feet behind its shoulders lest I plunge to the rocks below.

As the mountains rushed to meet us, the creature unfurled its wings and flew straight. We swept through a narrow pass, jagged peaks rushing past on either side. The beast swung to and fro as it carved its way through a twisting mountain defile, again threatening to throw me from my seat.

Yet I felt no fear, only elation. Never had I experienced such speed. Neither, it was safe to say, had anyone in all of Tamriel. I had only ever walked or run, ridden in a cart, or once in a while galloped my father’s old cart horse. But nothing could compare to this. There was no measure for our pace as we crossed a lake in a flash, then plunged down out of the mountains and streaked low across the plains of Whiterun. To the east I could see Dragonsreach rising into the sky. We were flying but we were below that lofty summit. I wondered if the denizens of that city could see us down here. A grove of trees in front of us grew quickly larger, then blurred as we rushed past. I gave a whoop of pure joy.

The dragon spotted a farm ahead and slowed. I could feel it gathering its breath as we approached. Then it exhaled a great jet of fire, spraying the farm-house with flame as we passed over. Looking back, I saw a woman gathering two children and making for the barn. They were all screaming.

I screamed too. “No!” I shouted to the monster. I beat its sides with my puny hands, to no effect.

Turning back toward the farm, we lit upon the roof of the barn. The beast cast its head to and fro, looking for targets. An ox that remained trapped in its pen received a blast of fire and screamed awfully as it died.

Then the farmer appeared, bow in hand, an axe strapped to his side. “Go away, dragon!” he yelled. “You’ll not take me and my family without a fight!”

Stupid, stupid Nord! “No!” I shouted to him. “Run! Hide yourself! Save your family!” But like the dragon, he seemed not to notice me.

It was too late, in any case. The arrow from his bow bounced harmlessly onto the ground after hitting the monster’s broad chest. He didn’t get a second shot. The dragon stretched out its long neck and clamped its mighty jaws around the farmer. The man’s scream seemed almost inhuman, a high-pitched wail. Then the corpse-maker shook him back and forth, nearly cutting him in half before dropping his lifeless form to the ground. The dragon curled its head toward me, as if it wanted me to see the blood dripping from its fangs. The eye that gazed coldly at me was round, with a single vertical slit at its center.

Then we launched back into the air. Something was different now. No longer did I ride astride the dragon. I was looking through the dragon’s eyes. I was the dragon. My vast wings beat the air as I gained height, then circled back for another pass at the farm. No longer did I feel dread or horror at the devastation the dragon had wrought – that I had wrought. No, it was pure joy to soar through the skies, wreaking destruction from above.

The farmhouse was all ablaze and the farm-yard was empty. Then I heard the shrieks of the mother and children from the barn. If a dragon can laugh, I laughed then. I dove at the barn and plunged through its thatch roof and rafters with both clawed feet, but met only rushes and wood. I plunged a talon in again, but still my quarry eluded me. I gave a hot jet of fire that quickly set the thatched roof alight, along with the hay stored within. Then I launched back into the air once more, taking a lazy circle around the wreckage.

Now the mother and children burst out the back of the barn and began running across the fields. The children, a boy and a girl, were faster than their mother and soon outdistanced her. “Run, children, run!” she screamed. “Keep running!”

I spoke to them as they ran. “Fools! Your hopes wither! I am your doom!” But I did not speak in the Common Tongue. I used a language I didn’t know I could understand, that I had heard only once before. “Meyye!” I called in a deep, roaring voice. “Him hinde liiv! Zu’u hin daan!”

I swooped down at them, the space between us closing swiftly. The mother looked back once, then tripped and fell. I lit on the ground a few yards from her. Her children, farther ahead, stopped and looked back in horror. It would be their doom.

The woman was crawling backward now, shouting at her children to keep running. I felt only elation as my jaws opened…

 

*~*~*

 

I woke screaming. My night clothes and sheets were drenched. Gray light filtered through the slit of a window in my cell, but it could not shake the reality of my dream, nor relieve the darkness I felt within. I kept screaming, then buried my head in my hands.

I heard someone rush into my room and looked up. It was Onmund, looking ready to fend off cave bears if need be. He stopped short when he saw me sitting up in bed. “Are you all right, Deirdre?” he asked, coming over to sit on the edge of the cot.

Brelyna appeared in the doorway too. “We heard screaming,” she said.

I rubbed tears from my eyes. “I know,” I said. “I’m sorry. It was just a nightmare.”

“Some nightmare!” said Onmund. “You must have been dreaming about Saarthal. All those draugr! I warned Tolfdir not to lead us there. It’s a wonder you survived!”

I looked him in the eye. I tried to imagine him or Brelyna or J’zargo in the tunnels with Tolfdir and me, fighting off draugr, but it was difficult. I saw the look of fear in Onmund’s eyes, and Brelyna looked worried as well. As close as we had become over these weeks, I felt a great distance separating us at that moment.

“Draugr,” I said. “Yes, that must have been it.” I couldn’t tell him I had dreamt I was a dragon and … I looked away as I remembered the end of the dream.

J’zargo was the next to appear in the doorway. “Yes, we heard from Tolfdir about your great exploits with the draugr. But this one wonders, why could you not share the glory with the rest of us? Why did you run off, leaving J’zargo and these two behind?”

This was the first I had seen of my fellow students since returning to the college. I had arrived in the evening and gone straight to the arch-mage’s quarters. It was my first visit to that chamber and I stood for a minute at the threshold, gawking. The room occupied the entire top floor of the college’s main tower. A well-tended alchemist’s garden grew in an atrium occupying the center of the room. It looked to offer every herbal ingredient a potion-maker could hope for. There was even a juniper tree in the middle, reaching up to the arched tower ceiling far above. An arcane enchanter, an alchemist’s table, and shelves and shelves of ingredients and soul gems lined the walls. And this was only part of that chamber. An interior wall beyond the garden screened off a good portion of the room’s circumference – the arch-mage’s sleeping quarters, I assumed.

Then I noticed Master Aren sitting at his desk near the chamber’s entrance, looking at me quizzically. I quickly made my report. He was as surprised to learn of the glowing orb within Saarthal as we had been to find it.

“A powerful object, you say? Can you be more specific?” He looked at me with penetrating eyes, as if he had expected me to conduct a thorough analysis of the orb.

I handed him the note about Jyrik Gauldurson. “It made Gauldurson’s undead corpse invincible until Tolfdir severed their connection,” I told him.

“Jyrik Gauldurson! Now there’s a dark name from ages long past. The orb must be powerful indeed. I’d best make my way to Saarthal and investigate your discovery. Meanwhile, I’m sure the Arcanaeum has something on the secrets buried within Saarthal. Please check with Lorekeeper Urag for anything he has in the collection.”

I told him I would do that first thing in the morning, then went straight to my bed. Not even my fellow students returning later that evening could wake me from my slumber.

Now I looked hard at the Khajiit. “Just consider yourself lucky you weren’t there to see the results of your flame cloak. That thing nearly killed us. Did you know the undead would explode?”

“Yes, that was the surprise J’zargo mentioned. But J’zargo made sure the explosion would kill the undead and not harm the caster – too badly.”

“There were two draugr, J’zargo. Tolfdir and I took a double blast.”

“Ah! J’zargo did not foresee that possibility. The spell needs more work.” He looked disappointed. “J’zargo will make some refinements.”

“Good,” I said. “That scroll was worse than the draugr themselves.”

“Well, you’re quite the hero around here now,” said Onmund. “None of the teachers can believe you had the courage to explore the depths of an ancient Nord city. And to find an object of such power!”

“Tolfdir was with me most of the time,” I said. “He was the one who discovered how to sever the connection between Gauldurson and the orb.”

“But no one expected even that much from a mere apprentice,” Onmund said. “You faced draugr on your own! And what were we doing? Sitting in that storeroom having tea, wondering what was taking you so long!”

I didn’t have the heart to tell them it had all been a test Tolfdir had set for them. The three students began to argue over whose idea it had been to sit and wait in that second chamber. I could only look on. After my nightmare – if that’s what it was – such concerns seemed petty. How could I have dreamed I was a dragon? How could I speak in a language I didn’t know? And the most distressing question of all, how could I take joy in such cruelty? What kind of person was I?

Onmund looked over at me, distracted from the argument. “Deirdre, you look worried. Are you sure you’re all right? I think those draugr scared you more than you’re letting on. Come now, you don’t have to play the brave lass with us.”

I looked at him doubtfully. Who could I talk to about my dream? “Mirabelle. I need to see Mirabelle,” I said, jumping out of bed and throwing an old tunic over my nightclothes. The others looked surprised as I rushed past them out of the room.

But the master-wizard of the college was not to be found in her bed-chamber, nor in her offices. It turned out she was closeted with the arch-mage, who had just returned from Saarthal. They were making arrangements for transporting the orb to the college. I suppose it should have troubled me more that they were making these decisions without me, the one whom the Psijics had entrusted to avert the danger within Saarthal. But my dragon nightmare had pushed all thoughts of the orb and Nerien’s warning from my mind.

While Mirabelle was preoccupied, I busied myself with restocking potions and cleaning the robes I had worn to Saarthal. I took the staff of Jyrik Gauldurson to Sergius so he could identify its enchantment. Everywhere I went in the college, I received the congratulations of the instructors and staff. I tried to look happy as I thanked them for their praise, but it was difficult. I shared a noon-time meal with my fellow students. They ate heartily while I picked at my food, and kept upbraiding me for my somber mood. Onmund even predicted that I would be promoted to the rank of Scholar. I could only smile wanly at this suggestion.

After our meal, I remembered the task Savos Aren had set me and went to see Urag gro-Shub in the Arcanaeum. The lorekeeper greeted me in his usual gruff fashion. It might seem odd for an Orc to devote himself to scholarly pursuits, but his war-like nature showed itself in his defense of his collection, and the dire threats he made against anyone who might harm one of his prize tomes. I told him about the orb and the arch-mage’s request for any information the Arcanaeum might contain.

“I don’t recall that we have anything much about Saarthal or any magic orb,” he said. “But some texts were stolen a while back. Maybe one of those is what you’re looking for.”

“What were they?” I asked.

“Let’s see, there was something about the Night of Tears, another tome titled The Last King of the Ayleids, and another on the isle of Artaeum. I suppose the Night of Tears might contain something, but as I remember it was very short.”

This did not seem very hopeful. Still, I asked him where he thought the books might be. Urag told a tale of a student named Orthorn who had left the college suddenly to join a group of powerful necromancers in a place called Fellglow Keep. He had taken the books with him to ingratiate himself to his new friends.

“When do you plan on retrieving them?” I asked.

“Me? I have far too much to do here without running across Skyrim after stolen books. The arch-mage set you this task of finding information on that orb, so I suggest you get yourself to Fellglow Keep without further ado. You had such success against those draugr, I doubt a group of mages will be much trouble for you.”

I left the Arcanaeum pondering this new task, wondering whether I could convince one of my fellow students to accompany me – and whether they would be any help.

Lost in thought, I nearly ran into Ancano, who was waiting for me in the library’s foyer. He loomed over me, his long silver hair pulled back to reveal a high forehead and pointed elven ears. He wore heavy black robes adorned with silver fasteners and stout gauntlets inset with black gems. He seemed more prepared for battle than for magical study and academic exchanges.

“I heard you found something deep within Saarthal,” he said. “Something powerfully magical. Please give me all the details.”

I didn’t trust the Altmer. No one did. I was still surprised he appeared to know nothing about what had happened in Whiterun. Perhaps he was too focused on snooping around the college. “Oh, you know how rumors spread,” I said. “We only found the usual enchanted objects, a couple of magic staves, and other items of lesser importance. I imagine Arniel Gane is still cataloging the lot. Maybe he would be a better one to ask.”

“Young lady, Tolfdir sent you back to the college, alone, with news for Savos Aren. Obviously whatever you found is too important to be left unattended. I will get to the bottom of this, and your lack of assistance will be noted. I can only do my duty as an advisor to the arch-mage if I know everything that happens here. Good day.” With that he turned and walked haughtily from the room.

I headed in the opposite direction, to Mirabelle Ervine’s offices. She was available, finally. She was seated at her desk when I entered, looking as if she expected me. “You had a big day yesterday, Deirdre,” she said. “We’re all very proud of you. Yet you don’t look as happy and full of accomplishment as one might expect.”

“No, ma’am. I…” I paused and thought for a moment, then began again. “When I came here, I thought the college would unlock the key to who I am. I thought it had something to do with magic, that one day I might become a great wizard, or at least put my magical ability to some use. But now … I’m not so sure. I think there’s something else…”

“Are you saying you’re thinking of leaving us?” she asked.

“I don’t know. It’s just, last night, I had this dream, or vision.” Then I told her of the dream from beginning to end, as difficult as it was. I felt I could trust Mirabelle, that she wouldn’t judge me harshly no matter what the vision meant. Her expression grew more grave as the story progressed. “I don’t know how I could possibly dream those things that the dragon did, if I hadn’t seen them or done them myself. It makes me think there’s something else buried deep within me, and I have to find out what it is.”

“Now, now, Deirdre,” she said, “I have been watching you over these weeks, and I know you are not capable of the evil you described in your dream. You are one of the few people in this age who has actually seen a dragon, witnessed its destructive acts, heard its speech. From these elements, and with a dollop of your own imagination, you conjured a dream that was terrifyingly real. Or it could be something more than that. There have been many seers who could look through the eyes of their familiars and view events from afar. Maybe something like that is happening with you. But even then, you did none of those things. You are still you.”

She paused for a moment before continuing. “Yet, from that first day we met, I knew there was something different about you. When you described the way your magic first appeared, I knew this was a different sort of power than any I have encountered.”

I waited for her to go on, but she seemed to think this was enough explanation. “Please, ma’am, can you tell me what it is?”

She looked at me searchingly, then said, “I cannot be sure what this power is, and it is not my place to tell you, even if I was certain. Only you can walk the path to your destiny, and anything I might say could lead you astray. But I believe you are right that you will not find it here. You may indeed rise to great heights among wizards and mages, and you may even return one day to aid the college. But the key to your destiny lies elsewhere.”

This was mystifying. I knew no more than before. “But where?” I asked, trying not to plead with her.

“With that, I believe I can be of some help. We’ve had a rider.” She drew an envelope from the folds of her robes. “He had been riding hard since just after dawn, taking every shortcut through mountain passes and across dangerous streams. When he arrived this afternoon, he had nearly ridden his horse to death. The letter is from Jarl Balgruuf of Whiterun. He calls for your aid. They have had another dragon attack.”

I was stunned. “So my dream … it was real.”

“It seems so. You appear to have some sort of connection with the dragon. I believe that therein lies the key to your power and the mystery of who and what you are.” She came around her desk then and took my hand. “But I say again: whatever it is, a mysterious power or a hidden part of yourself, I am certain you will use it for good and not for ill. If I am any judge of character, I know that much is true. And you can begin by going to the aid of Whiterun and helping them defeat this dragon. The rider is waiting to take you back to Dragonsreach.”

My head was spinning. Whiterun! I had thought it would be long before I saw that city again, considering the manner of my leaving. Then I grew suspicious. What if this was a trap set by the Thalmor justiciars to lure me back into their clutches? Had Farengar revealed my plans to come to the college? He seemed to care little for Skyrim’s politics, and I didn’t think he would put me in danger. But who knew what methods the Thalmor had used on him? And what about the task the Psijics had set me? I was the only one who could avert disaster, they had said. How could I do that if I left for Whiterun? Unless the dragon was the disaster I was meant to avert?

I opened the letter, hoping it would guide me. Though it bore Jarl Balgruuf’s seal, Farengar had written it:

Dearest Deirdre,

I hope this letter finds you well and that the college – but enough of that, I write in haste to urge you to return to Whiterun at once. The dragon attacked at dawn this morning, after remaining hidden since the events at Helgen. It destroyed a farm west of the city. The farmer and his wife were slain, but the children escaped, thank the Nine Eight. The jarl requests that you return to the city at once and aid us in whatever way you can. You are the only one who has seen the dragon and survived, after all. We would consult with the surviving soldiers from Helgen, but relations with the Imperial Army are … strained, shall we say?

You need have no worry about those Thalmor, by the way. The jarl expelled them from the city after the ruckus they caused, White-Gold Concordat or no. It’s just too bad that the events precipitated your untimely departure. I had hoped to see you off on your great adventure to the college. I am sure you will have much to tell when you return.

Please don’t write back. Just come straight away with the rider who bore this note.

Yours sincerely,

Farengar Secret-Fire

P.S.: If the dragon gives us a reprieve from its attacks, I have one task with which I could use your help. You wouldn’t happen to have gained any experience in ancient Nord ruins, would you?

The dream decided me. It matched too precisely the events Farengar described. He must be telling the truth, not setting a trap for me. And Mirabelle was right – if I was to learn my destiny, I would have to start with that dragon. “I’ll go to Whiterun,” I told her.

“I knew you would, though I’ll be sorry to see you leave so soon after joining us. Pack your things quickly. The rider is waiting in the village for you. I’ll come to see you off when you’re ready.”

I hurried out of her offices and back across the courtyard to my cell. The other students were loitering around the hall outside their rooms, taking a day off after their exertions in Saarthal. They looked up in surprise as I rushed in.

“I’m leaving,” I said, brushing past them into my room, to exclamations of “What?” and “You can’t be serious!”

“I knew it,” said Onmund. “Something has been bothering you since last night, and now you want out of here.” He looked more distressed than the others.

“Where are you going, Deirdre?” asked Brelyna. “What will you do?”

I was busy shoving clothing, enchanted jewelry, potions and ingredients into my knapsack. My possessions had increased considerably since my arrival at the college and it was a tight squeeze. “I’m going to Whiterun,” I told them. “The dragon is back.”

“Dragon?” asked Onmund. “The one that attacked Helgen?”

“Is there any other?” Brelyna snapped at him. “Do you think more than one dragon has come back to ravage Skyrim?” She turned to me. “But what does that have to do with you, Deirdre?”

I had forgotten I had chosen not to tell them of the events at Helgen. With Ancano around, it just seemed too risky. The less they knew about that part of my past, the better for them and for me. I considered how much to tell them now, as I also considered how to carry my bow, quiver, and the staff of Jyrik Gauldurson at once. Sergius had discovered that the staff would deal a powerful bolt of lightning, doing considerable damage and also reducing my opponents’ magicka. I had no time to learn more Destruction spells, and Farengar had mentioned an ancient Nord ruin. If I must face undead again, the staff would be invaluable. I consoled myself that the staff was already fully charged with Aetherial energy, and by using it I would release the soul energy trapped within.

Finally I had everything secured, but still could think of no sound explanation for my sudden departure. “I ran into the dragon right after it attacked Helgen,” I lied. “I’m one of the few living who has ever seen one. And now the Jarl of Whiterun has asked me to help them slay the dragon.” I knew I was making little sense, but I could think of nothing better.

“This one thinks the Breton girl is very full of herself since Saarthal. How could you help with a dragon?”

“There’s no time to explain,” I said as I gathered the last of my things and left the room, stuffing an apple into my pocket. “Wait! I almost forgot!” I turned to face them again. “Savos Aren and Urag set me the task of finding books that may have to do with the orb. I won’t be able to do that now. You three will have to get them.”

“Certainly,” said Onmund. “Where are they? Who has them?”

“They’re in a place called Fellglow Keep. It’s home to a group of powerful necromancers. Nothing you three can’t handle, I’m sure.”

“Necromancers!” Onmund exclaimed. “What can we do against them?”

“I’m sure you’ll think of something. Savos Aren needs as much information as he can get about that orb. I know you won’t let me down. Urag can tell you more. Now I really have to go.” I went out the door to the courtyard, and Onmund followed me.

“Wait, Deirdre. This really is goodbye then?”

“For now,” I said. I couldn’t stand these long, serious farewells, so I tried to lighten the mood. “I’ll just pop down to Whiterun, slay the dragon, then come right back. How long could it take?”

“Then Akatosh speed your journey,” he said and opened his arms for a hug, which I accepted. His arms felt good around me and I hugged him back. I almost wished I weren’t leaving. There was no kissing this time, and I couldn’t decide how I felt about that.

“I’ll be counting the days until your return,” he said as I turned away and walked through the archway out of the college. Mirabelle was waiting on the other side.

“I know you’ll return to the college one day, Deirdre,” she said. “I look forward to seeing what you have learned about yourself in the meantime.”

“That Psijic monk’s words still bother me,” I said. “I’m the one who is supposed to prevent disaster from the orb we found in Saarthal. Are you sure I’m doing the right thing?”

“I wouldn’t put too much stock in Psijic prophecies. They are often vague, if not incomprehensible. He didn’t say exactly what the danger would be, did he?”

I shook my head.

“I’m not certain I would bring the orb here, if it were up to me,” she said, a note of doubt creeping into her voice. She looked past me, up at the college’s main tower. “I told the arch-mage as much earlier today.” Then she shook it off. “But no, Master Aren is the most powerful wizard in Skyrim, and perhaps in all of Tamriel. Can you imagine a safer place for such a powerful magical object? Don’t worry about us, you have bigger things with which to concern yourself. Now off you go. The Whiterun rider is waiting.”

I found the rider in the village with two horses saddled and waiting. Jarl Balgruuf had sent him with gold to purchase fresh mounts for the return journey.

“The name’s Horik, miss,” he said. “I hope you’re ready for a tough road. We go by Wayward Pass in the mountains above the old Alftand ruins. But at least you’ll get some rest tonight in the Nightgate Inn – if we get there before sunup, that is.”

I climbed onto my horse. Whatever the rough journey ahead, I was glad we would travel no faster than a gallop.

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