The Song of Deirdre – Chap. 15

 

The Road to Ivarstead

 

We set out for High Hrothgar on one of those rare Frostfall days when summer returns for a brief spell before the deep plunge into winter. It was a brisk, bright morning, with the Throat of the World’s summit outlined against the blue sky and the promise of warmth ahead. Our destination didn’t seem so far away after all. Strange, how a little thing like a clear sky could so lighten my mood.

The pleasant weather hadn’t had the same effect on Lydia. She was quiet as she secured the last of our baggage onto our horses. A group of our friends had come to see us off – Farengar, Arcadia, Aela and Vilkas, Thorald and Avulstein, Adrianne Avenicci, and several of Lydia’s hirth-fellows and city guards. Yet she barely acknowledged them, looking over their heads at the road west of Whiterun, as if expecting someone else. Then we mounted and were away, the shouts of our friends in our ears. We rode in silence for a time, Lydia staring down at the back of her horse’s head.

By the time we reached the White River Bridge, I could take the silence no longer. “Lydia, is anything the matter?” I asked.

She looked up, trying to seem brighter, yet her brow was still knitted in a frown. “I shouldn’t burden you with my cares, my thane.”

“I told you not to call me that. I’m just Deirdre, and I hope I’m your friend. It will be a lonely road if we cannot tell each other our troubles.”

She considered that for a moment before speaking. “Oh, it’s my family,” she said finally, her voice bitter. “There was no time to visit them and say my farewells. Who knows when I’ll see them again? I’d hoped they would come to see me off, but they only sent a note.”

As she didn’t elaborate, I had to ask what message the note contained.

“I’d sooner forget it than repeat its contents. They nearly disowned me. Ever since I returned to Whiterun last year, they’ve been at me to leave the jarl’s service and help them with the farm. Now that I’m your housecarl, they’ve given up hope, as they should have long ago. My parents are bad enough, but my sister is worse. She resents that I escaped the farm life where she could not. And to think, we used to be the best of playmates when we were small!” She shook her head.

“Yet you still looked for your family before we departed.”

“More fool I. I hoped they might have a change of heart and come bid me farewell on our great journey.”

“But what of your brothers? Don’t your parents expect help from them?”

Lydia snorted with laughter. “They’re off in the Imperial City making their fortunes, and that’s fine for them. Rustleif was in line to inherit the farm, but he wanted none of it. They never visit, they never write, nor do my parents expect it.”

I didn’t know what to say. As much as I missed my parents, I knew that, had they lived, I would have disappointed them in much the same way by now. How would they have treated me if I had left them to run their shop on their own? “Perhaps in time they will come to appreciate the life you have chosen and the honor you have gained,” I said finally, though it seemed a faint hope.

She laughed again. “I will grow old before that day arrives. No, I must be content with my own pride in my achievements.”

I rode closer to her and put a hand on her shoulder. “You’re the only woman to be named to Jarl Balgruuf’s hirth. Of course you should be proud, and I am proud for you.”

She seemed to brighten, and again we rode in silence, though now it was a comfortable one. In time we moved out of the shadow of the Throat of the World and the warmth of the sun cheered Lydia further. Soon we were riding along, chatting about nothing important, as if neither of us had a care in all of Nirn. Whatever challenges I would face at High Hrothgar, they were three days off. Too, I had roamed so much on my own that I had almost forgotten what it was like to share the sights with a partner. Even with her troubles, Lydia made a better companion than the thieves of Cyrodiil. It took me back to the days of travelling Skyrim with my father.

By mid-day we had reached the White River Gorge, where the much-increased river carved its way in a narrow chasm through lofty peaks. The day had indeed grown warm, and the sun beat down. There was no wind. Few trees grew here, leaving the sunlight to glint off sheer granite cliffs. I was glad of my novice’s hood, which shaded my dragon-burnt face without being too hot. Far below us the river sparkled blue and green in pools between white-foaming falls, taunting us with thoughts of cool water.

I looked wistfully down at the stream far below. “It looks inviting, doesn’t it?” I said.

“Fancying a swim, my thane?” Lydia asked. I raised my eyebrows at her. “Deirdre, I mean.” She looked as if she would enjoy a swim as well. She had shed her cloak and bracers, and undone the top fastenings of her leather armor. “I do wish we could get down there,” she said, staring down at the pools.

We continued on the road, descending all the while. In the distance ahead, a pair of tall towers came into view, one on either side of the river, connected by a high footbridge. “That will be Valtheim Towers,” Lydia told me. “They sit on the boundary between Whiterun and Eastmarch. I think we’ve abandoned them since the Civil War broke out.”

We continued down the road, descending to a bluff just above the river. Now we had our wish – the bank was steep, but looked passable for our horses.

“Come on!” Lydia called and dug her heels into her horse’s flanks. She guided it expertly down the slope to the water’s edge, then up the stream a short distance. She stopped and looked back at me. “Come down, it’s easy!” she called.

I wasn’t the expert horsewoman Lydia was, and it didn’t look so easy to me. I dismounted and led my horse by the reins, soon rejoining my housecarl on the bank of the stream.

“The water’s too fast here,” she said. “Let’s find those pools farther up.” A quarter-mile back upstream, the river made a bend, creating a sheltered alcove. The towers were lost from sight here and the rocks closed around a pool on this side of the stream. Across the river, an open slope led up to steep, rocky peaks. We were quite alone – except for the mud crabs.

“Damn these pests,” Lydia said as she dismounted. “They won’t make good swimming companions.” She was right – the smaller ones were merely a nuisance, but the giant mud crabs, about the size of a large dog, were a serious threat.

Lydia was reaching for her axe, but I interrupted her. “Here, it’s easier this way,” I said, and cast a calming spell at the nearest crab, which was already clacking its claws in our direction.

“As you will, my thane,” she replied, a cool edge in her voice. She seemed disappointed to miss a chance at demonstrating her skill with an axe. Then she grinned. “You carry on with your spell-casting and I’ll be the first one in the water.” She sat on the bank and began unbuckling her boots.

By the time I had finished calming the rest of the smaller mud crabs and striking fear into the hearts of the giant ones, Lydia had stripped down to the light tunic she wore beneath her armor. Then she stripped that off too and stood there clothed only in an amethyst amulet she wore about her neck. Out of her armor, she was lean and well-muscled, with ivory-white skin that seldom saw the sun. Somehow, she managed to look strong yet womanly at the same time.

Suddenly I was embarrassed. I turned back to my horse and pretended to search for something in my baggage. Why should I feel such modesty? When I was small I would strip my clothes as fast as any of the boys for a summertime dip. We would laugh and frolic in the cool water, all in innocence. Then that had all changed, along with everything else when we entered our teens. Perhaps it had just been so long since I had seen anyone naked that it was a shock.

“Well?” Lydia asked. “Aren’t you going to get in?” With that she turned and plunged in, coming up with just her head poking out of the pool while she treaded water. Droplets streamed off her ebony hair, and she exhaled with a great spray of water. “Come on! It’s fine!” she called.

I went around to the other side of my horse where I would be less visible and began taking off my boots. My already red cheeks felt even redder. I stripped off my gloves and my deerskin braies, and then pulled my robes over my head. Beneath that I wore a short shift.

I walked down to the pool’s edge and waded in until the water came up to my knees. Lydia was swimming back and forth across the pool. I waited until her back was turned, then pulled the shift over my head, threw it onto the bank, and quickly sank into the deeper water.

Lydia turned to look at me quizzically once more. “Why such modesty?” she asked. “We’re alone here, and both of us maidens. You looked like you were disrobing in the jarl’s great hall.”

I shrugged “Too many years living on my own, I suppose.”

“You’re a strange one, Deirdre Morningsong,” she said, and looked at me as if I were a puzzle she was trying to solve.

I splashed her for her impudence.

Soon we were having a water fight, as the boys and I used to, and before long the cares and the burdens of the last weeks seemed to lift. I felt like a girl once again, having an innocent frolic. We splashed each other and dove to the bottom and made a contest of staying under the longest, our white bodies flashing in the clear water, distorted in that way of objects seen through liquid, lit by the bright sun above.

In truth, the water was frigid, it being snowmelt from the peaks of perpetual snow all around. We soon climbed out, shivering, all modesty forgotten, and found spots on the warm rocks on which to sun ourselves. When we were dry and warm again we lay basking in the luxuriance of the summer-like day.

We must have dozed then, for maybe a quarter hour. I was just stirring, thinking that soon we would both be as red as my dragon-burned face, when I heard a shout from far up on the slope across the river. The voice sounded feminine, but I didn’t stop to make sure. Lydia was awake too, and we both scrambled for our clothes. Lydia grabbed her tunic while I went straight for my mage robes, the shift forgotten.

When I was clothed to the point of decency, I turned to see who had called down to us. Three figures were descending the slope. As they drew nearer, I could see that all three wore apprentice robes like my own. Their hoods were thrown back, and I could see that one was a Khajiit, another was a Dunmer, and the last was human, Nord by his reddish-blonde hair. No, it can’t be, I told myself.

“Deirdre Morningsong, is that you?” the elf called, and now I recognized her as Brelyna. The other two were Onmund and J’zargo – who else? It had only been a little over a week since we parted, how could I not recognize them?

 “What are you three doing here?” I called across to them.

“We’re just coming from Fellglow Keep,” Onmund shouted, waving back up the slope to the mountain above.

The conversation was difficult with the river between us. “Wait there, we’ll come across!” called Brelyna.

We finished dressing while the mages looked for a crossing downstream, disappearing around a corner. It took them some time, and I filled it by telling Lydia about the three.

“Great,” she said, “now it’s four mages when I was just getting used to the one.”

My friends reappeared on our side and approached us. “We thought we had come across two maids of the forest,” Onmund said, his eyes glowing. “But to think, it was you!”

Brelyna looked at him severely. “We would have passed you by undisturbed, but this was the only way down to the river. These letches would have snuck up on you quietly if I hadn’t shouted.” She cuffed Onmund on the side of the head.

“Hey!” he retorted. “As I said, it’s not every day you see two unclothed maidens in the wilderness.”

“This one was surprised that such hairless bodies could be so … attractive,” said the Khajiit with a purr. “J’zargo just wanted to … investigate further.” Brelyna swatted him even harder than she had Onmund.

Then I realized we hadn’t greeted each other properly. After hugging the three, I introduced Lydia.

“Your housecarl!” exclaimed Onmund. “Much has happened since you left the college!”

“It has, and I will tell you about it as we walk. I believe we’re all headed in the same direction.”

I gave them the briefest summary of events as we walked back along the river, Lydia and I leading our horses. I told them about the rune wall in Saarthal I had neglected to mention in the first telling, and about the similar wall in Bleak Falls Barrow. I told of the battle with the dragon, and what had happened after.

“You, the Dragonborn!” Brelyna said. “And you can shout!”

“Yes, I know. You’re not the only one who was surprised.” I looked at Lydia. “None more than I.”

No one knew what to say for a moment.

“So, you were at Fellglow Keep,” I said as the Valtheim Towers came into view once again. “I didn’t know it was so close.”

“Yes, right above us,” said Brelyna, “but far up in those mountains. It was this blustering Khajiit who convinced us we could take a shortcut down to the road. He thought it would put us out beyond those towers and the falls, but that was not to be. The descent of those rocks was more perilous than the mages of Fellglow Keep!”

“Pfft,” said J’zargo. “It wasn’t that bad. We only had to bivouac one night on those ledges.”

“You are a bit out of your way, if I’m not mistaken,” I said. “Why not take the north road to Winterhold?”

“You are correct,” said Brelyna. “We were forced to take the wilderness route to Windhelm because a group of vampires has taken over Fort Kastav. So we avoided the vampires but ran into those thieves.”

“Thieves?”

“Bandits have taken over Valtheim Towers,” she replied, pointing to the towers ahead.

Lydia spoke up for the first time. “It’s these troubled times. The jarls are supposed to keep the roads open and the forts guarded, but with the Civil War and now the dragons, keeping the ways has fallen by the wayside.”

“Someone should see to it,” said Brelyna. “Another good reason for this bloody war to be over and done with.”

“We should see to it now, my thane,” said Lydia. “It is our duty as retainers of Whiterun. How many are there?”

“Six or eight, as far as we could tell,” said Brelyna.

“And you three mages couldn’t handle them?” Lydia asked.

J’zargo spoke up. “J’zargo wanted to fight them, but these two have the bravery of dormice.”

“J’zargo the Cocky, we should name you,” said Brelyna. “They had mages as well. They charged us two hundred gold for passage.”

“Bandits and thieves usually seem tougher than they are,” Lydia said. “Once one or two of them feel the bite of my axe, the rest will start running.”

I thought about the band of thieves I had travelled with for a time. Did we deserve death? “I hope we can run them off without bloodshed,” I said. We had come near the towers now, and we could see archers patrolling the bridge between them.

We left our horses out of bow range and approached the tower that guarded the road. A large fellow in a horned helmet emerged from it, along with three ruffians. Two archers looked over the parapet above.

“Oy! Back for more, I see,” said the bandit chief. “And you’ve brought friends! That’ll be three hundred gold. Group discount, we call tha’. Har!”

“We thought the two hundred gold we already paid would cover our return journey,” Onmund said.

“Yes,” put in J’zargo, “plus those flame scrolls this one gave you.”

“Look, it’s the same deal coming as going, and be glad we don’t do worse.”

I stepped forward as Lydia unslung her bow. “You don’t seem to realize when you’re outmatched,” I said.

“Oho! Big words! That big lass has a bow, but what do you got? That dinky sword? Or are you a mage, like these three? You’re not the only ones wot knows magic, lassie. Now, why don’t you just pay up…”

Fus!” I shouted before he could finish speaking. He and the bandits around him staggered. In the seconds it took them to recover, I cast my most powerful fear spell on the chief. He turned and ran past his compatriots into the tower, shouting, “No, please, have mercy!”

The other bandits stared in awe. “She shouted!” one said. “How could it be?”

They were already turning to follow their leader as I stepped forward to cast another fear spell on them. Just then an arrow whistled past my head, striking the ground where I had been standing a moment before. I looked up to see an archer aiming another arrow directly at me.

He never got a chance to release it. Lydia’s arrow caught him in the chest, and he fell over the parapet to land with a thud at my feet.

“Everyone retreat!” the bandit chief called from within the tower. “We are routed!”

We soon saw the bandits fleeing across the bridge spanning the White River Gorge. I turned to Lydia, flushed with our success. “You see, Lydia, that’s how we do it – only one dead, and the problem solved.”

“For now,” she said. “Until they regroup and begin robbing again. We should pursue them.”

“We can only do so much. Our task is to reach High Hrothgar. We’ll send a message to Jarl Balgruuf when we reach Ivarstead.”

She still didn’t seem happy. “You were lucky that first arrow missed you. His second would have done the job if I hadn’t gotten him first. It isn’t always so easy to avoid killing, my thane.”

Putting my jocularity aside, I looked her in the eye. “I know, my friend. I owe you my life and I am thankful.”

We held each other’s gaze until Onmund broke in. “That’s my Deirdre, always the peace-maker. Never wanted to learn any Destruction spells at the college, did you?”

“I’ve gone some way toward mending that oversight,” I said. “Yet I hope to never use it on people, if I can help it.” I pretended not to hear when Lydia gave a loud sigh.

After Lydia and I retrieved our horses and my friends retrieved their gold and J’zargo’s precious scrolls, we continued our journey. “So,” I asked, “what happened in Fellglow Keep?”

Onmund took up the tale. “The mages were no trouble, but their leader – she was a different matter.”

“A powerful necromancer known as the Caller,” said Brelyna. “We knew that even the three of us could not hope to defeat her, and she had the books in her chambers.”

“This one enjoyed the look on Orthorn’s face when we traded him for the books,” J’zargo said with a satisfied purr.

“Orthorn?”

 “The mage who stole the books in the first place,” said Onmund. “His offering didn’t appease the necromancers and they had him locked in a cell.”

“We thought to free him,” said Brelyna, “and he did help us get to the Caller’s chambers. But when she offered us the deal, the books for the mage, it seemed an obvious choice. He was the one who got us into the predicament, after all.”

“Have you had a chance to look at the books?” We had entered a pine forest now, and begun a twisting descent to the foot of the falls beyond the towers.

“Certainly,” said Brelyna, glaring at J’zargo, “we had plenty of time, as we were stuck on that ledge all night.”

“None of them seemed important except for one, The Night of Tears, said Onmund. “The writer believed that the elves were looking for a powerful object when they sacked Saarthal, and when Ysgramor retook the city he had it sealed deep within.”

“The orb!” I said.

“Yes,” said Brelyna. “The Eye of Magnus, Savos Aren is calling it now. They believe it connects directly to the power of Aetherius.”

“Where is it now?” I asked.

“It took some time, but Savos Aren and the other masters were able to move it to the college. It’s in the Hall of the Elements. Why? You look worried.”

“Ancano questioned me closely about what we found in Saarthal,” I said. “Just think, if the elves attacked the city all those years ago to get the orb, what wouldn’t the Thalmor do now to get their hands on it?” I thought of Mirabelle’s reservations about bringing the orb out of Saarthal. Why hadn’t the arch-mage listened to her?

“It’s true, Ancano has been spending a lot of time studying it,” Brelyna said. “What would you have us do?”

“I don’t think the college is a safe place for the orb as long as Ancano is there. You must get back to the college with all haste and warn Savos Aren. He’ll know what to do.”

“Why can’t you come with us?” Onmund asked. “You’re the Dragonborn! Who better to help secure the Eye of Magnus?” He looked back and forth uncertainly between Lydia and me. “Your housecarl can come too, I suppose.”

“No,” I said firmly. “I must help fight these dragons. They are a bigger threat than any orb. And to do that, I must make this pilgrimage to High Hrothgar. Savos Aren and Tolfdir and Mirabelle will know what to do with the orb, and I think all of you together can handle one Thalmor wizard.”

By now we had descended to the foot of the falls. A short distance farther, we came to a meeting of roads where my friends would head north toward Windhelm.

“But this is too short a reunion!” said Onmund.

“I know, it’s good to see the three of you too,” I said.

J’zargo was eyeing our horses. “J’zargo, is something bothering you?” Lydia asked.

“This one thinks we would make faster time if we had our own horses,” he said. “All this walking makes J’zargo’s feet tired.”

“You might be able to rent some at the Mixwater Mill, just down the road here,” said Lydia. “Although I don’t know how well they’ll take to three mages, and two of them foreigners at that.”

“Ah, the people of Skyrim,” said Brelyna, “always so welcoming.”

I interrupted them before either could say more. “Well, my friends, it has been a happy meeting, though too short.”

“When will we see you again?” Onmund asked.

“I will be at High Hrothgar for some days, I imagine, but who knows where my path will lead after that? I’ve learned not to make predictions in such uncertain times. Probably I’ll be wherever there are dragons.”

“I never thought I’d wish for a dragon to attack Winterhold, but if that is what it takes…” Onmund said. “Or maybe I could come with you and help fight them.”

“No, my friend, you’re needed at the college,” I said. “Now come, I’m not one for long partings.” I hugged each of my friends, and Onmund held me longer than the others. I tried to remember how good it had felt when he hugged and kissed me that night before Saarthal, but I couldn’t. Was that just the drink?

We parted, with Onmund turning to look back before a bend in the road took them out of view. Then Lydia and I mounted our horses and made the best of what daylight we had left.

 

*~*~*

 

We camped on a bluff just above Fort Amol, finding a spot well screened by trees. The fort had been taken over by rogue mages, and we wanted to stay well out of their view. The deteriorating state of security in Skyrim bothered Lydia, but we were out of Whiterun Hold now, so clearing this fort was not our duty.

When it was time to set up camp, my housecarl refused my offers of help. I sat back and watched with amusement as she went about pitching tarps and rolling out our bedding.

“Really, Lydia, it’s a fine night, I don’t think we’ll need those shelters.”

“It’s always good to be prepared, my thane,” she said.

She gathered wood and went about setting a campfire. “Just let me hit that with a flame spell, will you?”

“I’ve got this, my thane,” she said. She was such an expert with flint and tinder that she had the fire going nearly as fast as I could have.

She cooked us a stew of salted beef, onions and carrots. We washed it down with bottles of mead, and for dessert we shared a tart baked at the Bannered Mare that morning.

“Really, I could help with the washing up,” I protested.

“No, my job,” she said.

If I had been an old wizard, this is where I would have sat smoking my pipe, blowing smoke rings, and watching the stars. But as I was not, I found an excuse for idle talk.

“What did you think of my college friends?” I asked her.

“Hmm,” she said, and I could tell she was searching for something diplomatic. “It seems it’s true what they say about the college attracting all types.”

“That’s true,” I said. “You don’t think that’s a good thing?”

“I don’t know. I’ve been around Nords most of my life. A few Redguards when I was with the Imperial Legion. They were brave, if a little foolhardy in battle. And Cyrodiilians of course, but they’re just like citified Nords.”

“You were in the Imperial Legion?” I was surprised I hadn’t learned that before, though I should have guessed. She seemed to have more experience than serving in the Whiterun guard, or even the jarl’s hirth, would provide.

“I joined the guard when I was your age, seventeen,” she said. “I served a year, then joined the army in the Imperial City.”

“The Imperial City! I always wanted to visit there!”

“It’s not Whiterun, let me tell you. That was a place where you would see all sorts, Argonians, Bosmer, Dunmer. But I stayed in the garrison, and in our off hours we Nords would gather in A Taste of Skyrim. That was a tavern for those of us who longed for home. I served a year there, then came back to Whiterun in the spring when Jarl Balgruuf called his hirth. So I’ve still mostly been around Nords.”

 “Yet now you take orders from Irileth, a Dark Elf.”

“And a braver soldier and more inspiring hirth-marshal you won’t find,” she said.

“But do you think she’s the exception? Brelyna is as true-hearted as any. J’zargo is prideful and covetous, but no more so than your average Nord braggart. And Onmund is a Nord through and through.”

“Maybe so,” she said, “though he’s a little on the small side … and magical.” She looked up from her scrubbing and grinned at me. “He seemed to like you. Did you and he … when you were at the college … ?” She left the question hanging, but I knew what she meant.

“He kissed me once. It was nice. I know he likes me, but…”

“Was that all?” she asked.

“Of course!” I exclaimed. “That was right before I left and … I don’t know if I wanted anything more. It all happened so fast, and then we went to Saarthal, and the next morning I was summoned to Whiterun. He really didn’t want to see me go, I could tell.”

“But there must have been others. You with your blonde hair. Nord lads like that.”

I shook my head.

“Oh, I forgot,” she said. “I’m sorry. I should have realized you wouldn’t have many chances for romance as an orphan.”

I had told Lydia and the other soldiers that I was an orphan, and I was glad when they didn’t ask for the details. They had many orphans within their ranks, so it was unremarkable.

“Just some nasty thieves,” I said, “but I stayed as far away from them as possible.”

Now Lydia was finished with her washing. She stoked the fire and came over to sit beside me.

“What about you?” I asked. “Were there any special lads in the army? I imagine with sharing close quarters you had plenty of opportunities to inspect them.”

She gave me a playful slap on my shoulder. “It wasn’t like that!” she exclaimed. “They were my brothers!” She thought for a moment. “But there was one. His name was Sigurd, and he had long blonde hair. He was taller than me, which is hard to find, and strong. His stomach was as flat as a washboard.” She smiled while remembering. “And he wasn’t a ruffian like so many of the other soldiers. You might have noticed I’m a hale fighter, so I soon convinced them not to try anything with me.”

“But I thought they were your brothers?”

“Well, they were, but you know how men are – or maybe you don’t! But Sigurd was sweet.”

“And, did you … ?”

“You’re a nosy thane, aren’t you?” She grinned again. “Let’s just say that what I said earlier about being a maiden wasn’t strictly true.”

I hoped Lydia couldn’t see me blushing in the firelight. Of course she had been with a man! She was twenty, a woman grown. I was a woman as well, but in many ways still a child. I knew that many of the girls my age back in Dragon Bridge must be married and have children of their own by now. There was so much I wanted to ask her. I could have told her about Osmer then, but I was feeling bashful again. “So, what happened?”

“Sigurd wanted to marry me, but I couldn’t see becoming a housewife.” She threw back her head and gave a laugh. “Can you see me, cooped in a house with a couple of bairns, waiting for my brave soldier to come home?”

“No, I can’t,” I said, thinking how little I would like that life either.

“I liked being a soldier. I hadn’t gotten enough of adventure and glory – I still haven’t. Most women want to leave their mark in the world through the children they raise. But not me. Give me glory and a song sung about me after I’m gone. Then word came that Balgruuf was calling his hirth, and I knew that’s what I wanted to do. Sigurd wanted to stay in the Imperial City.”

“Do you miss him?”

“Of course I do! But you know, having a mate is a lot of work, even without the bairns. You have to spend time with them, and you can’t always do just what you want. I couldn’t joke with the other soldiers the way I used to, Sigurd was so jealous. So I miss him, and I surely miss sharing his bed, but being single is all right too.”

“Being single is all I’ve ever known.”

“You’ve really only had that one kiss?”

I nodded. “You forget, I’m only seventeen.”

“That’s easy to do, and it’s not just you being the Dragonborn. You’ve always seemed older to me somehow. I remember the way you’d listen so seriously to those stories in Balgruuf’s mead-hall. You must have been through much in your life, I can see that in your eyes.”

That would have been a good time to tell her about my parents, even about how I had felt about Osmer rubbing against me the way he did. But something held me back. Maybe it was that I didn’t know how she would react to my anger against the Nords, which I still found bubbling to the surface whenever I thought of my parents. I just nodded.

Seeing that I wasn’t going to elaborate, she went on. “Don’t worry, someone will come along to make you happy. Maybe you will have a chance to see Onmund again. Or maybe we’ll find a strapping young lad for you in Ivarstead.”

Now it was my turn to punch her in the arm. “What kind of lass do you think I am?” I protested. Then I rubbed my hand. Her muscles were nearly as hard as Ralof’s.

“Oww!” she whined mockingly.

“Well, there was one other,” I said. “Did you ever know Ralof of Riverwood?”

“You mean the Ralof who used to be a guard in Whiterun? I heard about him. He went off to join the Stormcloaks, didn’t he?”

“Yes. I never told you or anyone in Whiterun how I really got out of Helgen, but I might as well tell you now.” Then I told her the story of how I found myself held captive along with the Stormcloaks and how Ralof and I helped each other escape once the dragon attacked. “After fighting together like that, he really was like a brother to me. Only, the day we parted, I could tell he wanted it to be something more. Men always want something more, don’t they?”

“Usually,” she said. Then she jumped to her feet and did her best impression of a Nord braggart, hands on her hips and chest out. “We’re soldiers, eh, lass? We have to take our pleasure where we can, for tomorrow’s sunrise might be our last. Now bring me my ale!”

We both laughed for a moment. “No, he wasn’t like that,” I said. “More like your Sigurd, really. After what we went through together, how could we not become close?” I paused, thinking back on that terrible day. “That was the first time I killed anyone. When I slit that torturer’s throat, I was so overcome with rage, it was like someone else doing it. The others, it was self-defense, the heat of battle, and I didn’t have time to think about it. But I felt such remorse after it was over. I’ll never forget the look in that Redguard captain’s eyes as she realized she was going to die. Even though she nearly had me put to death, I couldn’t help wondering if she had a family who would miss her. So you see, that’s why I didn’t want to kill those bandits back there, if there was any way we could help it. And Ralof seemed to understand.”

“That’s rare for a hardened soldier,” Lydia said. “For most, how you die is more important than when you die. We don’t see why it should be different for anyone else.”

“You must have killed many.”

“Only a few, but it’s part of the job. Bandits mostly, those holed up out in the countryside where the city guard couldn’t get to them. Then there was a Khajiit incursion near Leyawiin when I was with the Imperials. That’s why I was a bit short with your friend J’zargo. The last Khajiit I saw, I had to put my axe in his skull. But I know that everyone I killed deserved death.”

“But what if Balgruuf enters the Civil War on one side or the other? How would you feel about killing your fellow Nords, soldiers who are just doing their jobs, as you are?”

She looked at the fire for a moment. “That would be harder. But my allegiance is to my jarl. If he decides we must enter the war, then I will follow his command – as should you.”

I pondered that for a moment. To whom did Lydia owe her ultimate loyalty, I wondered – me or her jarl? “I am glad Jarl Balgruuf has remained neutral then,” I said. “You should know that I can’t follow him if he joins with the Imperials – not after what I saw in Helgen. And I have my doubts about the Stormcloaks too, and their intentions for … people like me.”

“Let’s hope we never have to make that choice, then,” Lydia said.

With that, we went to our beds. Lydia had placed our bedrolls near each other under the tarps, but I pulled mine out so I could see the stars. I didn’t know how many more starry nights there might be before winter set in, and I wanted to enjoy them while I could. After a while all grew quiet. I could hear Lydia’s soft breathing from her bedroll, and the occasional hoot of an owl. It had been long since I had enjoyed such an evening out in the wild.

Masser and Secunda were just rising in the east when everything seemed to freeze, and a blue whirling light appeared near our dying campfire. A hooded figure appeared, and soon Nerien stood there, just as he had appeared within Saarthal.

I stood up and he looked at me. “We have been attending your progress, mage. It seems you do not recognize the threat the orb represents. If it falls into the wrong hands – Thalmor hands – it will be the end of Tamriel.”

“The end of Tamriel? That’s going quite far. They already control most of Tamriel, or as good as. What else could they do?”

“You cannot see it. You think the Thalmor simply want control over men. But with the power of the orb, they could do much worse – wipe humans from the face of Nirn.”

“No! They wouldn’t! Besides, I am taking the threat seriously, that’s why I sent my friends back to the college with all haste.”

“Yes, your three fellow students. We have no confidence in them. A trio of bumbling fools. Just look how long it has taken them to retrieve those books. That was a fool’s errand in any case. Anyone could have told the arch-mage that the elves have always sought the power of the orb. And he was a fool to let Ancano near it.”

“But once they are warned, Master Aren, Tolfdir, Mirabelle, they’ll know what to do. They’ll lock the orb away where it can’t be used, or banish Ancano from the college.”

“No, Savos Aren is so bent on gaining knowledge that he is blind to the dangers of the orb and the threat Ancano presents. We Psijics have been quarreling with these mages since long before the college existed, since the days of the Mage’s Guild and before. Magic is too great a power to give to just anyone.”

“Yet without the college, I would have no power at all,” I said.

“On that you are wrong, Dragonborn. You have great power, more than you know. That is why we chose you.”

“And I am on my way to develop that power further. These dragons are also a threat to Tamriel, and I mean to stop them.”

“Yes, we have seen these dragons in our visions as well. They may pose a greater threat than even you realize. That is why we have withheld judgment on your actions. We see that you are beset on all sides, pulled in many directions. Even to us, your path forward is not clear. So, go to High Hrothgar, but just hope that your friends will persuade Savos Aren to secure the orb before it is too late. There is one at the college who may help them, though they haven’t thought of him yet. Now I bid you farewell, and may you grow in power so you are ready to meet the danger ahead.”

With that enigmatic statement, he disappeared and I could once again hear the sounds of Lydia’s breathing and the birds in the trees. It was so peaceful, it was hard to imagine Tamriel was threatened from all sides.

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