The Song of Deirdre – Chap. 11

 

Sheep-Shearer Farm

 

“The heat must have been tremendous,” Farengar exclaimed. He held up a twisted scrap of iron that might once have been a scythe blade.

We were investigating the wreckage of the Sheep-Shearer Farm, Farengar, Irileth, two city guards, and I. The barn still stood, but a chimney and two blackened stone walls were all that remained of the house. Two days had passed since the dragon attack, yet the ruined house still smoldered, the smoke drifting away on the light breeze soughing across the plain. Nothing could have been more forlorn. The farm had been little more than a few acres scratched out of the heather and gorse of this tundra plain, the last, lonely dwelling between Whiterun and Rorikstead far to the west. And now it was not even that. A few sheep grazed in the distance, fated to become meals for the wildland wolves.

The trembling began shortly after we arrived. What else could I expect? I could not look on this burnt-out ruin without thinking of my childhood home after it was destroyed. And then there was my part in this devastation, imagined or no. I soon began to doubt the wisdom of this trip. What did we hope to find that could help in a fight against the dragon? The beast was practically invincible, with prodigious speed, a hide that turned away arrows, and the ability to attack with talons, fangs, and fire. Then I trembled all the more. What had happened to the girl who fought her way through Saarthal? I struggled not to let the others see my discomfort.

Now Farengar stood in what had been the livestock pen, sifting through bits of burnt and twisted metal that had once been farm tools. Nearby, the charred remains of the ox gave off a pungent odor of burnt flesh.

“Yes, quite impressive,” Irileth said now, coming over to look at his find. “But remember, Farengar, we are here not to admire the dragon’s power, but to learn how it attacks and how it might be stopped.”

“Of course, of course!” exclaimed Farengar. “And judging by the heat that must have been applied to this piece of iron, our guards would do well to avoid the dragon’s breath. I wonder if we could forge some sort of fire-proof shield for them?”

“But the farmer was not burned you say, Yngmar?”

“No, Housecarl Irileth,” said one of the guards. He led us over to the spot in front of the barn where I – where the dragon had dropped the farmer’s body. “We found him over here. It looked as if he had been bitten nearly in half.” I was glad the guards had removed the bodies the day before, but the ground was still dark and damp from the blood.

“What did he think he was doing?” Irileth pondered.

“We found a bow nearby, ma’am, and he had a nearly full quiver of arrows on his back. Maybe he thought he could slay the dragon with his bow.” I was finding it more difficult to conceal my dread. To hide it, I began searching around in the grass in front of the barn. I soon found the arrow that had bounced off the dragon’s scales.

“It seems he got one shot off at least,” I said, showing them the arrow. Its shaft was cracked. “But I will hazard it must have bounced off.” The jarl wanted any information I could give about the dragon, but I could never acknowledge its source.

“Then we’ll need to outfit our archers with stronger bows,” Irileth said, “and give them arrows with hardened shafts and the sharpest heads available. See to it that Adrianne at Warmaiden’s gets a full order when we return. Now, what about the wife?”

“Over here,” I almost said, but stopped myself. I let the guard lead us around the house’s ruin to the spot where the woman had died. It was blackened with fire. Just before the burned area two talons had made deep imprints in the grass. They were so large I could have curled up and lain down in either one.

“Agna and the children ran out of the house. The boy says his mother fell and told them to keep running. The dragon flew after them and caught the mother here. She couldn’t get away. What was left … it must have been an awful way to die.”

Now we all shuddered.

“And the children?” asked Irileth. With her stern expression and red eyes, the Dunmer usually presented a grim visage, yet even she seemed shaken.

“That boy is a brave one,” said the guard. “When his mother told them to run, he took his sister by the hand and wouldn’t let her look back. They ran to a little cave they knew. By the time the dragon was done with their mother, it couldn’t find them.”

“I hope they got out of earshot before…” I said, but I couldn’t finish the thought. Though I never heard them on the night they died, my parents’ screams still echoed through my nightmares.

“So it seems the dragon can focus on only one foe at a time,” Irileth said. “Then we must abandon our shield-wall and attack the dragon from many directions at once.” As she continued to discuss tactics with the guards, I walked a few paces in the direction the children had run. Amidst the tufts of brown grasses and heather, I found a doll. I could easily imagine the girl dropping it as her brother dragged her away. It was missing an eye, and a bit of stuffing poked out a hole in the seam. I had never cared for dolls, but I guessed this might be a prized possession, it was so well used. I tucked it away in the folds of my robes.

 

*~*~*

 

Horik and I had arrived in Whiterun late in the afternoon of the day before. We had pushed our horses as hard as we dared over the snowfields and the crevasse-cut glaciers of western Winterhold, yet still were forced to bivouac in the Wayward Pass that night. In the dawn hours we descended the pass, stopping at the Nightgate Inn for a hot breakfast and hay for our horses. Then we rode hard once more along the good roads to Whiterun. Dragonsreach looked even more imposing when approached from this side, its great north face jutting into the sky, topped by the jarl’s hall. I reported straight to Jarl Balgruuf, and found him closeted with Proventus Avenicci and Irileth, discussing their defensive preparations. The dragon hadn’t been seen since the attack the previous morning.

“The entire city guard is on full alert,” Balgruuf told me. “I have sent patrols out across the countryside as well.” I had seen Lydia and Hrongar preparing to leave on night patrol with the jarl’s hirth as I came into the city. We barely had time to exchange a greeting. “I’ve even contracted with the Companions. You might think they would defend their city at no cost, but no. I’m glad you’re here at any rate. I still hope you will have some insight for us if the dragon returns.”

I couldn’t tell him about my vision. Would he interpret it as Mirabelle had, as some sort of second sight? Or would he hold me responsible, thinking I was somehow in league with the beast? “I’ll help in any way I can,” was all I could manage.

“Good,” he said. “And about that business with the Thalmor. I apologize for the trouble they caused you. I never should have let them into the city in the first place. I only wish you had come to me and told me you were being followed – and that you had been more honest with me about Helgen.”

“So you know about the Stormcloaks?”

“Yes,” he said. “The Thalmor brought me that report on the day you left the city so suddenly. It seems Avenicci’s suspicions were correct.”

“I’m sorry, Jarl Balgruuf,” I said. “Being new to the city and Skyrim’s politics, I didn’t know who I could trust. You have to believe that I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time when I was captured along with the Stormcloaks. I make no apologies for fighting my way out of Helgen in the company of the rebels, since the Imperials would have beheaded me along with them. Still, I have no part in their cause.”

“I believe you,” said Balgruuf. “I was sure you were no Stormcloak on the day you came here, and I can’t blame you for fighting for your life. But what about these Thalmor? That certainly made it look as if you’re on the Stormcloak side.”

 “I never meant to cross the Thalmor,” I said. “I only meant to help the Alik’r in their pursuit of a criminal from their own lands.”

“Well, I can say nothing of the wisdom of that decision. You’ve certainly put yourself on the wrong side of the Thalmor, and pulled Whiterun into conflict with them as well. Avenicci is ready to flay you alive.” I looked over at the steward, who was glaring at me. “But you aren’t the only reason I had trouble with the Thalmor. I won’t have them following my citizens and kidnapping them off the streets. Even Heimskr was in league with them. All of his preaching was just meant to lure Talos worshippers out of the woodwork, then the Thalmor would grab them. No, we’re well shut of them.”

Avenicci broke in. “We may have rid ourselves of them for a time, but they will be back, my jarl. Ejecting them from the city has put us in a difficult position with General Tullius and the Imperial Legion. We just received a message saying he wants to station one of his war-bands here.”

Balgruuf pondered this news. “So you see, Deirdre, we are in a tight spot. I’ve tried to convince Tullius to leave Whiterun out of this war, but I don’t know how long I can hold him off. You should be safe here for now, and I hope you will feel you owe me some service regarding these dragons in return for my protection.”

“I’ll do what I can, Jarl Balgruuf,” I told him.

That night I found the Bannered Mare nearly full, with farm families having sent their women and children in to the safety of the city. Arcadia was there, taking her evening meal as usual. It was good to see her and remember that happy period that now seemed so long ago. I ordered a bowl of my favorite beef stew – the fare at the college had been meager, limited to bread, fruit and cheese – and began telling her of my travels. She was eager to hear of life at the college and whether I had any new alchemy secrets to share.

Then Thorald Gray-Mane came in. He looked exhausted from a day out on patrol for the dragon. It wasn’t long before he spotted me.

“If it isn’t Deirdre of Saarthal!” he exclaimed, making his way to our table.

Saarthal? I wondered how he knew about that.

It soon came out that he had the story from the stable boy, who had it from the courier, Horik, who had it from Enthir, who had coaxed it out of J’zargo. They knew only that we had discovered a powerful magical object, though in truth, we didn’t know much more. “Your bravery and magical skill are the talk of the college, so says Horik,” Thorald concluded.

The room had gone quiet while he spoke, and I felt all eyes turned on me.

“What are college mages doing delving into Nord ruins?” someone yelled from the back of the inn, where I couldn’t see them. “What the Ancients sealed away should be left alone. Who knows what danger you’ve uncovered?”

“Aye,” said another voice. “And what about that business with the Redguards and the Thalmor? You’ve stirred up a pot of trouble for Whiterun, you have.”

Thorald brought his fist down on the table. “Shut your yobs, all o’ you. Any lass who’ll brave a crypt on her own is all right by me.” He turned to me. “I knew you had spunk when you stood up to my brother. I’m glad you’ll be on our side if that dragon comes back.” He turned back to the rest of the room. “Now, does anyone have anything else to say? Good, I thought not.”

I stared down at my half-finished bowl.

“Ah, pay them no heed, lass,” he said. “Most folks in this town just want something to complain about. How about if I buy you a drink?”

I declined, pleading fatigue after the long day in the saddle, and retreated to my room, feeling the eyes of the tavern on me as I went.

Things seemed brighter in the morning, at least until we came in sight of the ruined farm.

Now, at the end of our search, it seemed we had gained but a little information on which to build a battle plan. Yet Irileth, Farengar and the guards found much to discuss as we headed back to the city. I was just glad to get away from that accursed place, and followed behind them, lost in my own thoughts.

As we entered the city gate, I suddenly thought of something, and caught up to Irileth. “Where are the children?” I asked.

“Danica Pure-Spring is caring for them in the Temple of Kynareth. That’s where all our sick and wounded go.”

“Then I will meet you back in Dragonsreach,” I said.

I left my companions and went straight up to the temple, finding the head-priestess, Danica Pure-Spring, just inside.

“I can’t have them bothered with questions about the tragedy,” she said, barring my way. “They are both still in shock, especially the little girl.”

She relented when I showed her the doll and promised I wouldn’t pester the children for details about the dragon attack.

The main hall of the temple was lined with beds for the sick and injured. I found the children, Huldi and Harald, sitting on one of them. The boy was about nine years old, and was trying to interest himself in a picture tome. His sister, around six, just stared listlessly at the wall, humming a tuneless refrain.

“Harald,” said Danica, “this is Deirdre, she has something for your sister.”

“Hello,” said the boy, looking up. His eyes were red from crying.

A nurse sat nearby. “Something to cheer her up, I hope,” she said. “The wee bairnie just sits there all day, won’t eat, won’t speak. Waste away, she will.”

I knelt in front of the girl. “Hello, Huldi,” I said, but she didn’t seem to know I was there. I reached out and stroked her hair. “My name is Deirdre. I brought something for you.” I pulled the doll from within my robes.

“Poppet!” the girl squeaked and took the doll, clasping it to her chest with both hands. She rocked back and forth for a bit, then went back to staring at the wall.

The boy spoke up now. “That’s the first word she’s spoken since … since…”

I put my hand over his. “I know,” I said. “Do your friends call you Harry?”

He nodded.

“You can call me DeeDee. My friends all called me that when I was your age.” Then before I could think better of it, I went on. “You know, Harry, when I was not much older than you, I lost my parents too. I know how awful it is. I just want to tell you that things will…” and then I stopped to think if things had gotten better, if my grief had grown less, and I knew that it hadn’t, and then I couldn’t stop myself. The tears were flowing from my eyes and I was sobbing and pleading their forgiveness. I lowered my head and the sobs racked my body and I couldn’t think what good I’d meant to do them.

Then I felt a small hand patting me on the shoulder. I looked up and Huldi was standing in front of me. “DeeDee,” she said. Then she said it again, and I saw in her eyes that she was sad – for me. I was the one who should be comforting her. I hugged her to me as tightly as she held her doll. “I’m sorry,” I said again, trying to control my tears.

“It’s all right, DeeDee,” I heard Harry say, and now he was patting my other shoulder. Then we were all hugging each other, the three orphans. I vowed – to myself; at least I had that much presence of mind – that I would find the dragon that killed their parents. I might not be able to find justice for my own parents’ killers, I thought, but by Ysmir, I would wreak vengeance on theirs.

Then I let them go and tried to dry my eyes on the sleeve of my robe. Danica was looking at me sternly, but the nurse said, “At least you got her talking, praise Kynareth.”

I turned to leave.

“Come back soon, DeeDee,” Harry said.

“I’ll try,” I said.

 

*~*~*

 

In the next days, I found no opportunity to fulfill my silent vow to slay the dragon. I spent the time standing atop the walls of Dragonsreach scanning the horizon for soaring wings, or scouting the countryside with Hrongar and Lydia and their hirth-fellows. The weather was bright and crisp, the last of the summer snow sparkled off the mountains all around, and warblers and woodlarks sang on the heath. The soldiers were jocular, as if going dragon hunting were a great game. I held my tongue at their fool­ish­ness. They hadn’t seen the destroyed farm. When we happened to pass by it, they grew more subdued.

On the afternoon of the second day, the jarl summoned me to his war chamber. Farengar was there when I arrived, and he and Balgruuf were arguing, while Irileth and Avenicci looked on.

“My jarl,” Farengar was saying, “five days have passed since the dragon was last seen. Our patrols have had no luck finding it. That tablet may provide the clue to the dragon’s lair.”

“Very well, Farengar,” said the jarl, “you go chase this wild goose, but I cannot spare any of my guards or hirth-men.”

“Me?” Farengar seemed shocked. “What if something happened to me in that crypt? Who would read the tablet then?”

“Well then, what do you suggest?”

Farengar turned to me. “That’s why I’ve sent for Deirdre,” he said, turning to me. “Deirdre of Saarthal they’re calling you now. You won’t have any trouble going into a Nord barrow for us, will you?”

They all looked at me. “What’s this about?” I asked, looking from one to another.

“Farengar,” said the jarl, “it would be madness to send the lass alone into Bleak Falls Barrow. She may have proved herself escaping Helgen and exploring Saarthal, but she had help both times. And we’ve had reports that the place is thick with thieves.”

“Let’s let the girl decide, shall we?” said Irileth. “Perhaps she’s made of sterner stuff than she looks.”

“None of you are making this clearer,” I said. “What do you want me to do?”

“I have reports of a stone tablet in Bleak Falls Barrow,” said Farengar. “If my informant is correct, it is a map of dragon burial sites in Skyrim. This Dragonstone may lead us to the elusive beast.”

The jarl interrupted him. “And if you would reveal to us the identity of your informant, and the quality of your information, I’d be more inclined to help you.” He turned to me. “So it’s up to you, lass. I cannot risk warriors on such an uncertain quest when the dragon could return at any moment. But if you are successful – and if this tablet proves useful – you will have the thanks of Whiterun.”

Anything seemed better than waiting idly for the dragon. And if the tablet could bring me a step closer to the monster that haunted my dreams… “I’ll go,” I said. Farengar began to give me directions. “I know the way,” I interrupted. “I’ve seen it before. But can you tell me where in this barrow I can expect to find the Dragonstone?”

“I can only guess it will be hidden away in the deepest chamber,” he said.

“Where else?” I said, smiling grimly.

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