The Song of Deirdre – Chap. 13

 

The Western Watchtower

 

“The Dragonstone!” Farengar exclaimed. He and a woman in a hooded cloak had been poring over a tome together when I entered his chambers. “Where did you find it? Oh, and I’m glad you made it back in one piece, of course,” he added.

“On a powerful draugr in the deepest chamber of Bleak Falls Barrow,” I replied.

The woman hadn’t looked up from her work when I entered, but she did so now, careful to keep her face shadowed by her hood. “You went into Bleak Falls Barrow alone? And you survived? Impressive.”

Then I told Farengar of my adventure. I finished with the battle, leaving out the part where I tried to shout at my foe. I omitted the rune wall as well. I had taken the draugr’s sword, thinking a blade of frost would be more useful than my simple Imperial sword, and then found the Dragonstone hidden on his body. It was a pentagonal tablet, engraved with a fearsome dragon head, and crude etchings that appeared to be a map of Skyrim. But instead of Skyrim’s familiar cities and towns, star-shaped symbols were scattered across the landscape. Judging by the numerous cracks and chipped places along its edges, the tablet was ancient.

I emerged from the barrow’s exit door high above Lake Ilinalta in the evening twilight. I scrambled down the cliffs by starlight and then the moons came out to illuminate my walk along the shores of the lake and the banks of the White River. There was a frosty nip in the air, so I was glad to see the smoke from Gerdur’s house. When she opened the door, I saw she had been crying.

“Oh, Deirdre, we thought we’d lost you!” she cried, gathering me in her arms.

Even the taciturn Hod was moved. “Glad to have you back safe and sound, lass,” he said, patting me on the back.

That night I actually slept well at Gerdur’s – not even her hard mattress and close air could keep me from my rest.

Lucan was glad to see me with the claw the next morning. I traded some of the items I had found in the barrow for gold and a stout but supple bow to replace the one I had lost. The shopkeeper gave me a good discount in exchange for the claw, but he didn’t have enough gold to meet what I thought the battle axe was worth. I strapped it to my horse along with the knapsack and other possessions, and said my farewell to Gerdur. I went straight to Farengar as soon as I arrived in Whiterun at mid-day.

“Ah, then it must have been a draugr wight lord,” Farengar said when he heard about the guardian of the Dragonstone. “He must have been very powerful in life to be set to guard such a valuable object. Not as powerful as a death lord, or so I’ve heard, but he still must have had a strong shout. Yet it didn’t knock you over, blast you against a wall, anything of that nature? What words of power did it use?”

“I thought I heard it say “Ro Dah” when it tried to stagger me,” I said.

“Ro Dah! That sounds like two of the words in the shout Ulfric used to kill High King Torygg! Shattered the poor boy, so they say. Now how did it go? What was the other word?”

The woman looked at him. “I believe you’ll find the word is Fus, Farengar. Fus – Force; Ro – Balance; Dah – Push. Fus-Ro-Dah.”

There it was. The word I had learned at the rune wall was part of a shout. Perhaps this was nothing special. Maybe the word would have been revealed to any who happened by that wall. Still, I decided it was best to keep my mouth shut.

“That’s right!” said Farengar. “I’m surprised you dare speak the complete shout aloud.”

“Don’t be silly, Farengar. Anyone can learn the words of a shout, but it takes years of study and mental training to channel one’s whole being into a Thu’um. Unless of course … but that’s so rare, we hardly need speak of it, do we?”

Farengar didn’t want to leave the shout alone, however. “Two parts of the shout that killed our king, yet here you stand. How did you survive it?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I’m small but sturdy, I suppose.”

“Yes, well,” said Farengar uncertainly, giving me an odd look. I could feel his guest’s eyes on me too. “Let’s have a look at the Dragonstone then. I’m sure D… my colleague here will have much to say about it.”

I made to hand him the Dragonstone but then drew it back. “Wait. Don’t I deserve some sort of reward?”

“Well, Balgruuf probably has a reward for you, but you have outdone yourself, I suppose. Why don’t you take a tome of your choice from that chest over there?”

As Farengar and his mysterious guest bent over the Dragonstone, I began searching the chest. It contained only spell tomes, some for incantations I already knew such as the flame spell, and others I didn’t – turn undead, raise zombie, stoneflesh, frenzy, lightning bolt, and more. I chose the ice spike tome, and set to learning it immediately. The battle with the draugr wight lord had finally convinced me that I needed another offensive spell. And if I was to battle a fire-breathing dragon any time soon, a spell of ice would come in handy, especially one I could use at a distance.

I had nearly mastered the spell when Irileth rushed into the room.

“The dragon has attacked!” she said breathlessly. “At the Western Watchtower! Balgruuf wants everyone in his war-room immediately.” Then she noticed me. “Ah, Deirdre, it’s well that you’re back. The jarl will want to see you too.”

We all rushed up the stairs to Balgruuf’s war-room – all but Farengar’s mysterious visitor. At the center of the room stood a table covered with a large map of Skyrim, dotted here and there with red and blue flags denoting Imperial and Stormcloak strongholds. The map and the war were forgotten for now. A soldier had just arrived and was reporting on the attack.

“My captain sent me to raise the alarm the minute we spotted the dragon,” he said. “As I looked back I saw the beast swooping and diving on the tower, and breathing fire. I don’t know how the rest of my war-band could have survived such an attack.”

“You’ve done all you could, soldier,” said the jarl. “Now go get some food and rest – you’ve earned it, and we may call on you again before this is over. Irileth, take a war-band of your best fighters and go to the watchtower. Make sure they have those new shields and arrows, but don’t meet the dragon in battle unless it forces you. I would confront the beast myself, for it is my duty to my people and my retainers. Find out what the dragon is doing, then report back here.” If the jarl wanted the glory for himself, I wondered why he didn’t march out with his hirth-men right away. Maybe years of sitting on the throne had tempered his lust for glory.

“Yes, my jarl,” said Irileth, turning to leave.

“Jarl Balgruuf, I would like to go too!” Farengar said. “The chance to see a dragon up close…”

“You’re staying here, Farengar. You’re a scholar, not a fighter. Besides, I want to meet the dragon on my own terms, surprise it in its lair, if we can just learn where that is. Do you have that Dragonstone yet?”

“Deirdre just brought it to me, my jarl,” Farengar said.

“Good! So the goose chase wasn’t so wild after all. And is it everything you hoped it would be?”

“It is indeed a map of Skyrim, Jarl Balgruuf, and we are just beginning to interpret its symbols. I hope it will provide useful information.”

“Excellent! Make haste in your study while we find out more about the dragon.”

Farengar left and the jarl turned to me. “Ah, lass, it’s good to see you’ve returned unscathed. You have done a great service for the people of Whiterun, and you will not go unrewarded. First, let me say that you can keep the horse you rode here from Winterhold, and that is only the beginning. But now I must ask for your assistance once again. Go with Irileth and her war-band. Aid them in any way you can. You’re still the only one with first-hand experience of the dragon, and you’ve proven your skill as a fighter.”

“You needn’t have asked, Jarl Balgruuf,” I said. “Nothing can keep me from that dragon. But mine is not a scouting mission. I mean to slay it, though it mean my own death as well.”

Balgruuf looked surprised. “And your death it will be, if rash actions follow rash words. No, you will give Irileth what advice you can, and follow her commands. Is that clear?”

“Yes, Jarl Balgruuf,” I said, though I doubted my powers of restraint when it came to it.

I found Irileth and her dozen warriors outside the gates of Whiterun. She had chosen the best of the jarl’s hirth-men, plus several of the Whiterun guards, but no women. Though I recognized a few faces, I knew none by name. All were outfitted with the new bows and arrows and banded iron shields Warmaiden’s had made for them.

“The jarl asked me to accompany you and give aid where I can,” I told Irileth.

“Of course,” she replied. “Your knowledge of the dragon will be useful, and you surely know how to fight if you survived both Saarthal and Bleak Falls Barrow.”

“This seems a small war-band to take on a dragon hunt,” I said as we mounted our horses.

“Yes, well, these were all of the new armaments Adrianne could manage on such few days’ notice. And we are on a scouting mission, remember.” She looked me up and down then. “And what about you? Those robes would seem to provide little protection. You have no shield, and that bow looks none too stout.”

“Don’t worry about me,” I told her.

“Well, if it comes to it, I hope you can match those brave words with brave actions. But do nothing without my command. Now, do you have any last advice for us?”

I looked at her and her men. They looked strong and battle-hardened, but so had the Imperial soldiers I had seen flying through the air like child’s toys at Helgen. “Just remember to spread out and fire from cover. No matter how frightened you become, keep in mind that you cannot outrun a dragon over open ground. And put those shields to good use if the dragon breathes in your direction.” It was little, but maybe it would do some good.

As we rode, we spotted smoke on the horizon. In due time we came within sight of the tower, dismounting and taking shelter behind an outcrop of rock. The tower still stood, but its battlements were shattered in places, with great chunks of stonework lying about it. The smoke came from what little wood had been used in the tower’s construction – the great front door that had been ripped from its hinges and a flagpole – along with some fencing and a wooden cart. The place seemed deserted, and there was no sign of the dragon.

“Not a pretty sight, is it, men?” said Irileth. “Such wanton destruction!” She sighed. “Ah well, our quarry seems to have eluded us once more. Spread out and search the wreckage and the tower. See if there are any survivors.”

We did as she bade us. I came across the first body not far from the tower, just off the road. It was burned beyond recognition, but I went to check on it anyway. Every soldier carried a sturdy leather tag with their name inscribed on it. Surely this warrior’s family would want to know where and how he, or she, had fallen.

Then I heard a burbling sound and I saw the man’s chest – for now I thought it was a man, though it was hard to tell –rising and falling in gasping breaths. I cast a healing spell on him, bringing my hand near to his body.

“No,” he gasped. “No good.” He reached for my hand with his burnt one. The smell of charred flesh was strong. I concentrated on his eyes, the only human thing left about him, and covered his hand in both of my own.

“Are you a priest,” he asked, “or an angel?”

“Just an apprentice mage,” I said.

“Glad … glad you’re here … with me. Not long now.” Blood sputtered from his lips as he tried to breathe. I offered him some water from my flask, but he refused it. “I’m Olaf … Olaf Brittle-Spear. My wife, my babes, you’ll…”

“I will,” I assured him, struggling not to cry, but to soothe his last moments.

His last words were to call to the gods. “Mara … Arkay … Kynareth … Akatosh…” Then he looked at me with a question in his eyes, and I knew what he would ask.

“Pray as you will, my friend. Your family is safe with me. The Thalmor will never hear of it.”

He closed his eyes, but squeezed my hand as best he could. “Ysmir … I am coming…” His next breath was his last, and then he lay quiet.

“Safe travel to Sovngarde, my friend,” I said, and I folded his hands across his chest. I found his name tag still intact, and tucked it into my satchel. Then I stood up and surveyed the tower. How many more broken, burnt bodies lay around it, and within?

Then my rage was upon me. Fie on this cautious skulking! The dragon could not go on wreaking wanton destruction, nor could we go on trusting to chance to put the dragon in our path. I stood out on a little hillock of grass and shouted to the skies.

“Dragon! Vile serpent! By Akatosh, Master of Time, I call you here to meet your fate!”

Two or three soldiers a short distance off looked toward me in surprise, but I cared not. No more would the dragon cut down men in their prime, make widows of their wives and orphans of their children. No more would it force me to witness its depredations in my dreams. I would have vengeance for all. I would slay the dragon, and so slay that part of me that saw through its eyes.

I had not summoned the dragon to Helgen. But I believe that on this day, I did summon the dragon to the Western Watchtower.

I drew my bow and approached the tower. The soldiers were scattered around it, investigating blast marks and checking on fallen comrades. I ascended what was left of the ramp leading up to the great doorway, which gaped like an open mouth. As I neared the entrance a soldier appeared. He wore the uniform of a Whiterun guard. “Thank Talos you’re here! But we’ve got to hide! The dragon could be back at any minute! We didn’t stand a chance!” With that, he ran down the ramp and hid under the overhang of a great block of stone.

All was quiet for a moment, and I wondered if my plea to Akatosh would have any effect. Then a great shadow swept across the land and I heard the first shout from the other side of the tower. “The dragon! The dragon is come!”

Still I could not see it with the tower blocking my view. I backed down the ramp away from the tower. Then I saw it.

Great were the wings that spread across the sky, and terrible were the talons that gripped the parapet. Merciless were the eyes that looked down upon us from the tower’s peak, and grim was the maw that opened to speak.

“Zu’u Mirmulnir,” it spoke. “Wo draal zu daal?”

I did not speak the dragon tongue, but I guessed it had spoken its name: Mirmulnir. It wasn’t hard to suppose what question the dragon had asked next.

I stood out on the ramp where the beast could see me. “Deirdre Morningsong is my name, foul wyrm,” I called up to it, brandishing my bow. “Today, you die!” I notched an arrow and let fly, glad to see it pierce the dragon’s dark scales, though the beast didn’t so much as flinch. I had five more of the special arrows Adrianne had made, tipped with the Orcish metal, orichalcum. I doubted whether my remaining steel ones would do much good.

“Hio kos kril, balaan hokoron,” it replied. “Hin viik drun zin!”

“Deirdre, get down from there!” called Irileth. “Everyone, take cover! Fire only when you see its scales!”

The beast took no notice of her, but opened its gaping maw in my direction. It sent a blast of fire down at me, and I leapt from the ramp just in time. As I tumbled, I thought I heard speech in the dragon’s breath, “toor” and “shul.” I came to rest near the block of stone where the guardsman from the tower was hiding.

“I told you it would be back,” he said. “Now we’re all going to die!”

The dragon took to the air and sailed out of sight. I could hear shouts from the other side of the tower.

“You shouldn’t have insulted it,” the guardsman complained. “Where did you learn that?”

“From the tales the bards tell of dragons,” I said. “The bards also say that a warrior will sooner die than live a life of shame. What kind of Nord are you?”

“One who never should have left that tower,” he said, cowering deeper beneath the overhang. He seemed a hale fighter, but the battle with the dragon had unnerved him.

“Here, this should help,” I said. “Your comrades need you.” He flinched as I raised my hands. “It won’t hurt,” I told him, then cast a spell of courage on him.

“What was I thinking?” he said as he scrambled out of his hiding place. “We have to fight that dragon!”

“Yes, let’s go,” I said. I knew the spell would only last for a minute, but maybe by then he would rediscover his own bravery.

“What’s your name, guardsman?” I asked as we made our way up a ramp where we could see what was happening.

“Gunnar, ma’am.”

“I’m Deirdre.”

“I know, I heard,” he said.

“Oh, right,” I said, feeling a bit embarrassed now.

The ramp ended abruptly fifteen feet off the ground – the dragon must have smashed the rest of it to bits. Still, it was out away from the tower and high enough that we could get a good view of the battle. The dragon had landed on the ground out of our bow-shot, cornering two soldiers against a low tor. The fighters did as they had been trained and crouched behind their shields, which seemed to protect them from the dragon’s fire blasts. Two other warriors were off to the sides, launching arrows from their stout bows. From this distance, we couldn’t see whether the arrows pierced the dragon’s hide. Then I saw Irileth. She was nearer to us, casting spears of ice. They made white, frozen splotches on the dragon’s dark scales.

“Come on,” I was saying to Gunnar, thinking to get closer to the fight, when the dragon took wing once more. It circled around the tower, and came toward us. I foolishly took a shot as it flew past, wasting one of the Orcish arrows. It circled back at us and I got in a hit to its pale belly as it hovered in front of us, its vast wings beating the air. Gunnar was firing arrows too, but his were the common steel-tipped issue. They bounced harmlessly away.

“Get down, Gunnar!” I yelled as the dragon drew its breath. “Take cover!” Was it my spell or his natural foolhardiness that made him stand with me, firing more pointless arrows? Yet who was the bigger fool? I stayed there with him. I would not desert him after putting him up to this fight. Then the dragon breathed its fire upon us.

In Helgen, I had taken only a part of the dragon’s fire breath. But I took this blast full force. It was a breath of both fire and speech, and now I heard the words: “Yol-Toor-Shul!” How could mere words harm me? And they didn’t, or not much. Mirmulnir’s fire breath was like a hot wind on the brightest day of Sun’s Height. It was like the handle of a kettle set too long over the fire. It scorched but it did not set me alight. I couldn’t stand many of those blasts, but this one alone would not kill me.

It was a far different thing for Gunnar. He had dropped his bow and put up his shield as the dragon drew breath. But it was a simple shield of banded wood and not nearly large enough. Crouch though he might behind it, parts of his body were open to the flame, and then the shield itself caught fire. He began screaming and threw the shield away, pawing at the flames licking his body.

I kicked his legs out from under him, as I used to do with my playmates when we wrestled. That sent him rolling down the ramp. I hadn’t time to see if the rolling extinguished the fire, but at least now the dragon’s breath could not get at him. I turned back to Mirmulnir as the dragon’s breath subsided. I could see the shock in its eyes as it realized I still lived – shock and fear. Arrows flew at the beast from both sides, many of them piercing its hide.

I had dropped my bow during the blast of fire, so now I switched to spell casting. I got in one ice spike before it flew away, and saw the icy splotch it made on the dragon’s scales. I screamed at the dragon in my rage, “This is the last day you terrorize Skyrim, wicked orphan-maker!”

My taunt must have caused him to redouble his efforts. Flying off for another turn around the tower, he landed with an earth-shaking crash near Irileth, facing the archers who had been tormenting him. Instead of attacking them, he took a great swipe with his tail that caught Irileth in the chest and sent her hurtling into the tower wall. She slumped there, dazed or dead, I could not tell. Then the dragon reached down with his mighty jaws and clamped his fangs into one of the archers. The soldier had crouched behind his iron shield, but that puny defense was cast aside. The dragon shook him back and forth in a display of fury and mayhem I could not bear to watch a second time.

Still, the remaining archers launched arrows from the sides, and now I remembered to cast my ice spikes. They were not as powerful as Irileth’s icy spears, but they had their effect.

Dropping the soldier’s lifeless body, Mirmulnir took to the skies once more. He looked to take another circuit around the tower but came shuddering to the ground near another group of fighters. Too weak for flight he might be, but he was still deadly. He breathed fire on two soldiers. At first, their shields held, but then one began to glow red and the man dropped it like a hot coal. He ran screaming from the dragon as his clothing and hair caught fire, then dropped in a smoldering heap.

The dragon’s breath abated, and it turned to snapping and biting at the remaining fighter in front of it. The fellow was quick, however, and avoided the dragon for the moment.

“Now for him!” I called to the remaining men. I had noticed that the dragon had to wait a moment between fire blasts, and that last one seemed weaker than the others. Now was the time to finish him. We converged on the dragon from different directions, the Nords screaming their war cries. “You never should have come here, dragon!” I heard one call.

Three of us approached from one side. I cast ice spikes as I went, but my magicka was running low. At the same time, I saw that the soldier facing the brunt of the dragon’s attacks was tiring. I doubted he would dodge another snap of the dragon’s jaws.

I drew my sword of frost and called to the dragon. “Mirmulnir! Now face your death!”

The soldiers with me crouched behind their shields as the dragon turned on us, but I stood out a few paces in front of them. A kind of madness seized me as I brandished my sword in the beast’s eye. We were just feet apart now, and I could see the fiery blood streaming down the dragon’s sides.

“Go on, rank sky-plague, do your worst!” I challenged. Mirmulnir almost smiled as he reared his head back and bared his fangs. I saw them plunging at me, then ducked and rolled forward, the dragon’s snout striking the ground just behind and to the side of me. As I came up I reached out with my left hand and grasped the beast’s horn. I swung myself up onto its neck, directly behind its massive head.

Mirmulnir reared back, trying to throw me as he howled in rage. His shouts were spent and all that remained was his own impotent voice. Wildly he flung his head to and fro, but he could not shake me. My heels found purchase on the bony points around his neck, and my hand gripped the horn fast. My right hand, holding the sword, flailed about, lashing the beast’s sides in its thrashing.

Finally, he was spent. I stood up, balancing, with one foot just behind the horns. I raised my sword with both hands. “Dovahkiin, niid!” I thought I heard him say, just before I plunged the sword deep into his brain. Hot blood met icy steel, sending a jet of steam into the sky. The beast slumped to the ground, dead.

All around me the men cheered. I saw Irileth getting up from where she had fallen and coming toward us. I raised my sword and gave a whoop of joy. I had vanquished my foe. I had avenged Huldi and Harry’s parents, and it seemed as if I had somehow avenged my own. No more would the dragon haunt my dreams, and neither would it terrorize Skyrim.

It was only as I swung down to the ground that I noticed the horn I gripped in my hand. It was long, but not as long as that of the dragon that attacked Helgen. It made a single curve, where the Helgen dragon had double-curved horns. And this beast had a more protruding snout, I was sure. The other had a more ornately scaled hide, I remembered. I didn’t remember any lighter patch on its belly, either.

This was not the dragon that attacked Helgen. Nor was it the dragon that attacked the Sheep-Shearer farm. There could be only one, awful conclusion: more than one dragon dwelt in the world, and my task had only just begun.

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