The Song of Deirdre – Chap. 16

 

High Hrothgar

 

The doors to High Hrothgar were locked. We had travelled for three days, climbed the Seven Thousand Steps, struggled through wind and snow and frost trolls, only to find ourselves shut out on the doorstep of the Greybeards’ castle-like retreat. We were exhausted and half-frozen, and our only thoughts were for a warm fire and hot food. The purpose of my pilgrimage, to discover what it meant to be dragonborn, seemed but a distant memory, one that belonged to a warmer world where one could contemplate more than simple survival.

We had pushed on the doors, knocked on them, looked for hidden locks to pick, finally banged on them with Lydia’s axe – all to no avail. If the Greybeards had called me here, why wouldn’t they let me in? From the lintel above the door, a graven image of a dragon’s face grinned down at us without pity.

What little light there had been was now fading, while the snow fell all the harder. The prospect of spending the night out was not pleasant. We had left our camping gear back in Ivarstead, carrying only bare necessities up the mountain. True, there was food in a great chest outside the doors, offerings for the Greybeards from the people of Ivarstead. We would not starve, and we could burn the wooden chest to keep warm. It would be a rough night but we would probably survive. Our chances were better that way than trying to make our way back down the icy path through storm and darkness.

I gazed hopelessly up at the carven dragon. Then I remembered the stone altars we had passed on the way up. Each contained a plaque engraved with a few lines about the history of dragons, mortals, and the Voice. I had insisted on reading every one, despite the blowing snow and streamers of cloud. Some of it was familiar from books I had read about the Dragon Wars of legend, when humans had rebelled against the dragons and the dragon priests who ruled them. Yet much was strange to me. There was one named Paarthurnax who sided with humans and taught them the Voice. And there was a hero named Jurgen Windcaller who chose silence after the great battle of Red Mountain. The final altar contained the lines:

The Voice is worship
Follow the Inner Path

Speak only in True Need.

Now, at the door to High Hrothgar, I realized our need was true, so I took the tablet’s advice. “Fus!” I shouted at the door.

A moment later the door creaked open and there stood an old man in a thickly woven hooded cloak. His beard was indeed gray, flecked with its original blonde, and knotted at the end. His eyes regarded me steadily, reflecting depths of calm I had never before seen.

“Welcome, Dragonborn, if Dragonborn you be, to High Hrothgar. You must be tired from your journey.”

We stumbled more than walked past him, we were that tired and cold. From the outside, High Hrothgar seemed an extensive stone palace, with a central tower flanked by two massive sets of doors. But within, it was close and dark, a low-ceilinged hall with chambers and passages extending on either side. Skylights were meant to illuminate the hall, but there had been no sun this day. Darkness seemed to seep from the very stones of the castle. Stone braziers along the sides of the hall gave off little heat and less light. Still, it felt warm to us, after the bone-chilling cold of the mountainside.

“I am Master Arngeir,” said the old monk as we entered the great hall. “I speak for the Masters of the Voice.” Three other monks stood nearby. “Let me introduce Masters Borri, Einarth and Wulfgar. They won’t speak to you – they have taken vows of silence, apart from using their Thu’um. Now, let me show you to the refectory for some refreshment.”

After we dropped our packs and weapons by the door, he led us down halls to a small room with a fireplace, a trestle table and cupboards. A pot of tea, masterwort by the smell of it, already stood steaming in the middle of the table. Arngeir poured us each a mug as we took our seats on benches around the table. He sat there with us silently as we sipped our tea.

When I had revived sufficiently, I told him my name and introduced Lydia.

“We weren’t expecting two,” Arngeir said.

“Lydia is my housecarl,” I said. “I might not have arrived at all without her help.”

I spoke true. The battle with the frost troll had been a close thing. I foolishly thought I could cast a fear spell on such a large beast. When that failed, I barely escaped with a glancing blow from its massive fur-covered fist. If Lydia hadn’t come between us, the next hit would have finished me. We finally prevailed, but not before Lydia took an injury to her shield arm that I hadn’t been able to heal properly. She still held her left arm awkwardly.

“Then she is welcome as well,” the master said.

“I have answered your call, Master Arngeir. What do I do now?”

“All in good time, young lady. Tomorrow we will further test your powers to see whether you are indeed the Dragonborn. You have already passed the first test, with your shout outside the door.”

“I thought it was obvious I was the Dragonborn,” I said, then realized how arrogant that sounded. “At least, everyone in Whiterun seemed to think so, though I had my doubts.”

“That may be. However, anyone can learn to shout, though you seem quite young to have put in the practice required. But we will get to that tomorrow. For now, you and your companion need food and rest.”

After we had eaten a plain meal of salted fish and dried fruit, Arngeir led us to cots in the same dormitory where the masters took turns sleeping. I slept well that night, though I awoke once when one master came in to sleep, and another rose and left the room.

In the morning, we awoke to sunlight streaming in through the narrow slit of a window. We found our way back to the refectory before Arngeir came to rouse us. The fare was meager – bread, fruit, and water from snowmelt so cold it made my teeth hurt.

“Arngeir said he wants to test me further,” I said to Lydia. “Do you want to come and watch?”

“I wouldn’t miss it for anything. Too, I’m supposed to protect you, and how can I do that if I’m not at your side?” She rubbed her shoulder, and I could tell it still bothered her. I had given her healing potions and tried more healing spells, but there was some deep injury my skills couldn’t reach. Arcadia had given me a liniment that would have served better, but I had left it with our other gear in Ivarstead.

“I don’t think we have anything to worry about here,” I said. “You probably don’t need to protect me every minute.”

“I don’t know, what if they start shouting at you? Arngeir already said they can’t even speak to us, their Voices are so powerful.”

“Then there’s little you could do to help me. But we’ll see if spectators are allowed.”

Arngeir found us just as we finished breaking our fast. “Your housecarl is welcome to join us, though I doubt she will learn much in the way we will teach you. Perhaps we can arrange separate lessons for her in the usual way. With what you both may be facing, learning the dragon tongue could be useful, even if she doesn’t learn to shout.”

That sounded ominous, but Arngeir didn’t elaborate, and I had other things on my mind. “Master,” I said, “I have many questions.”

“Of course you do. And how could you not? You must feel as if you’ve been taken over by some other being.”

I was amazed at his insight. “Exactly!” I said. “At first, I wanted to root it out of me like a weed.”

“Every Dragonborn who has come to High Hrothgar has felt the same way. It may be that others never arrived here before being driven to madness by this strange power within.”

“Madness?”

“Yes,” he said. “For you see, you have lived most of your life knowing only your outer self, the Deirdre Morningsong you know as you, the self you show to the world. But sleeping within is your inner self, your dragon soul, the one that has now awoken. And when those two selves meet, it can be quite disturbing.”

Suddenly I knew that these Greybeards were the ones who would unlock the mystery of who I was and reveal my destiny. In a rush, I told Arngeir of the time I had first used the Voice. I left out everything that followed, worried it would be a distraction from the lesson at hand, and aware that I had never told Lydia that part of my past.

“Ah yes,” Arngeir said sympathetically, “that kind of thing is all too common, and it must have put you in quite a pickle. Tell me, how else has your dragon soul revealed itself?”

I told him about the nearly uncontrollable bursts of anger that had overtaken me more and more, the madness that gripped me as I fought the dragon. “So this is what it means to be dragonborn?” I asked.

“Yes, I’m afraid it is. Whether being born with the soul of a dragon is a gift or a curse has been a matter of debate down through the centuries.”

He looked as if he wanted to go on, but I interrupted him. “I even had a dream in which I saw through the eyes of the dragon. That was the worst. It was as if I was suddenly a ferocious beast.”

Arngeir’s calm eyes grew concerned then. “That is strange. I have never heard of such a direct connection in previous cases. Dragonborn have the innate ability to learn words of power and to project their Voice. They also can absorb the knowledge and life force of a slain dragon. But along with these abilities comes a great burden – one which you have already faced. Perhaps this vision was a boon, one that allowed you to recognize early on the dangers inherent in your dragon nature. I take that as a very good sign.”

“Why is that, Master?” I asked.

“Some who have been gifted with the Voice – or learned it – seek only power. They never become aware of this danger, and that can lead to disaster. With our guidance, you will learn to balance your two selves. For true mastery of the Voice comes only when your inner spirit is in harmony with your outward actions.”

“That is what I want,” I said. “Can you help me tame my dragon soul?”

“To speak of taming is to misunderstand your dragon nature, as if it belonged to some wild animal. But dragons are no mere beasts. They are an ancient race, rich in wisdom, language, and culture. In fact, they view us mortals as the beasts.”

“So there is no hope for me? My dragon soul will overpower my own true self?”

“It will take much contemplation and hours of meditation, but you can balance your inner and outer selves. Follow our Way, and you will achieve harmony with your dragon nature. Now, the time for questions is at an end, and our testing must begin. There are formalities, ancient protocols that must be followed. We must ensure not only that you have the gift, but that you have the temperament and the discipline to follow the Way laid out before you. Come, to the Great Hall.”

The three other masters were waiting for us when we reached the hall. “You have learned Fus, or Force,” Arngeir said, “the first word of the shout, Unrelenting Force. Each shout comprises three words, and all three must be used to achieve the shout’s full force and effect. Now, we will test your ability to learn a new word, Ro, or Balance, the second word in Unrelenting Force. It will sharpen and focus your shout. Master Borri will teach you the word.”

Master Borri spoke and a set of glowing runes appeared on the floor before us. They were very like the glowing runes on the two walls I had already encountered. I knew what to do. As I approached the runes, they began sending out streamers of light in that way now familiar to me – but not to Lydia.

“What’s happening?” she asked, stepping toward me.

“It’s all right,” I said. Then I heard the word Ro echoing through my mind.

“Deirdre has just learned a new word of power,” Arngeir explained to Lydia, “taking it into the deepest part of her being. Such learning takes the rest of us years to achieve. The second phase of learning a shout is to attain a deep understanding of the word’s meaning. This phase takes us even longer, but the Dragonborn can absorb that knowledge directly from the soul of a slain dragon, as your thane did to learn Fus. Lacking a dragon, Master Borri will now make his understanding of Ro available to Deirdre, and we will see if she is indeed able to absorb it. Prepare yourself, Lydia, this could be even more startling.”

Now Master Borri was looking at me, and jets of what appeared to be flame were sprouting from his head. It looked very much like the whirlwind of fire that had come off the dragon. I drew it in, and I felt a powerful new energy coursing through me, along with a deep understanding of Ro, or balance. Then it was over and the four masters and Lydia were all looking at me expectantly.

“That is exactly how it felt when I absorbed the dragon’s soul,” I said.

“Good,” said Arngeir. “Now it is time to put your new shout into practice. Only a Dragonborn could master a shout in such a short time. Master Einarth will cast a target for your shout.”

Einarth spoke, and a spectral figure appeared in the middle of the hall. I gathered my breath and shouted, “Fus-Ro!” The figure staggered, then faded.

“Well done! Again.”

We repeated the exercise twice more, with the same results.

“Impressive! Your Thu’um is precise. You show great promise, Dragonborn. Now we will continue your training out in the courtyard.”

Outside, the day was bright but cold. Snow and ice glistened on the walls of the courtyard and on the mountain above. I noticed for the first time that High Hrothgar sat not at the top of the Throat of the World, but some distance below the summit. Exactly how far the mountain reached above us was hard to discern, with the dense, swirling mist that enveloped the peak, despite clear skies all around.

“Now we will see how quickly you learn a completely new shout,” Arngeir said.

“Wait,” I interrupted. “When will I learn the final word of Unrelenting Force?” If Ulfric had indeed used that shout to slay High King Torygg, I thought it must be useful against a dragon. I was impatient to gain this weapon and get back to hunting the beasts.

“All in good time, young lady,” the master replied. He eyed me for a moment, as if appraising how serious I was about the task at hand. Then he gestured to the monk beside him. “Now, Master Borri will teach you Wuld, which means Whirlwind, the first part of Whirlwind Sprint.”

Master Borri followed the same process to teach me this new word. When it was complete, Arngeir tested me by having me shout my way through a gate before it closed. When the gate opened thirty yards away, I shouted “Wuld!” and I felt myself pulled forward at a speed I had experience only one other time – in my vision of the dragon. When I came to a stop beyond the gate, I heard Lydia gasping in astonishment. It took me a moment to recover my breath as well.

When I rejoined Arngeir in the center of the courtyard, he was as enthusiastic as such a calm man could be. “Your quick mastery of a new Thu’um is … astonishing. I have heard stories of the abilities of the Dragonborn, but to see it for myself…”

Then he recollected himself. “We have seen that you have the gift, now we must determine whether you have the desire and the discipline to follow the Way. For although you can learn a new shout almost instantly, even you will have to practice patiently to balance the inner with the outer. We will teach you a series of meditations, and it should take you at least a week to complete them. After that, we will give you a quest in which you can demonstrate your understanding of the Way. When that is complete, we will accept you into High Hrothgar and you can begin learning new shouts.”

A week, or more! I had known it might take some time to master the Voice, but this seemed absurd.

“Please, Master Arngeir,” I pleaded. “Couldn’t you teach me the final word of Unrelenting Force now? At least one more dragon yet lives, and Whiterun depends on me. Innocent lives are at stake. I promise, once I have slain the dragons, I will return for more training.”

Arngeir regarded me closely. “Much more than the lives of the people of Whiterun may depend on you before the end. Thus will you be tempted from the Way, by a noble goal that lures you into fatal shortcuts. Beware that your skill does not outstrip your wisdom! No, I would not teach you a full shout before you are ready, not though Alduin himself threatened all of Mundus. We have made that mistake once before.”

Alduin? Why did he mention the World Eater of legend just then? But I was too concerned with my immediate problem to question him. “Then what must I do?” I asked.

“Stay with us, spend your time contemplating the sky, meditating on balance. It is the only way you can achieve the inner harmony you say you desire. Only then can we trust you with a full shout.”

“Then I am ready, Master.”

“Good. Today is a fine day to contemplate the sky. Come, sit with Master Einarth and you can meditate together. Now, as you observe the sky, let its emptiness fill your mind. Concentrate on nothing but that. When you can tell me what sound the sky makes, we will move on to the next meditation.”

I looked up at the sky and listened. I heard nothing but the wind, which blew through the sky. “That’s easy,” I said, full of confidence. “It’s the sound of the wind.”

“Impatience will not help you follow the Way, young Deirdre. No, the sound of the wind is but the sound of air moving over stone or through trees. The sky is a different thing entirely. Sit with Master Einarth and observe how deeply he contemplates the sky. He has been in contemplation his entire life, and he is just beginning to understand sky speech.”

I looked at Master Einarth. How old was he, anyway? Would I have to grow that old before I could come down from the mountain and fight the dragons? It seemed impossible. “What of Lydia?” I asked. “What will she do while I meditate?”

“If she is willing, I will teach her something of the dragon tongue in the usual way. It may be useful as a defense against a dragon’s breath. We will see you at dinner.” He gave a slight bow. “Sky above, Voice within.”

With that, he and the two other masters and Lydia returned to the Great Hall, Lydia looking over her shoulder at me just as they entered.

I sat down opposite Master Einarth and tried to do as he did. He sat in a completely relaxed but upright pose and simply stared at the sky. I watched him a long time, and he didn’t even blink. I tried to do the same. The sky was clear today, that deep cobalt blue of the high mountains. An occasional cloud floated past, remnants of the recently departed storm. I tried to think only about the sky’s emptiness, to fill my mind with it. But how could I fill my mind with nothingness?

Soon, other thoughts intruded. What was the sky, anyway? Was it just the same air we had down here on the ground, but higher up? Why was it blue? Why a deeper blue here than in the lowlands? What happened to the blue at night, when the moons and the stars came out? And what happened to the stars in the daytime? I had contemplated similar questions many a time as I slept out under a night sky. And what were clouds? How could they carry water up in the sky that then fell down as rain or snow? Then there were birds. They flew through the sky. Maybe their chirps and calls were the sound of the sky? But no, the birds, like the wind, weren’t the sky itself.

Long before time for dinner my stomach was growling and my body was growing restless. Emptiness hadn’t entered my mind, but the cold, even on this bright day, had entered my body. I sat with my woolen cloak wrapped tightly about me. The stone bench was far from comfortable, even for one who had not been sitting on it for hours. How long had I been sitting here, anyway? I looked at Master Einarth. He hadn’t moved an eyelid. A smile had spread slowly across his face, however. Whatever he was seeing up there, it made him happy.

Finally I could contain myself no longer. I got up and went inside, in search of an apple or a piece of cheese in the refectory. I found Lydia there as well, carving into a sausage.

“I don’t know that this studying is for me,” she said. “Have you discovered what sound the sky makes?” She couldn’t suppress a smile.

“Far from it,” I said, ripping a piece of bread from a loaf on the table. I took the slice of sausage Lydia handed me and sat down. We ate in silence, more out of dejection than because we were followers of the Way.

“Come on,” Lydia said when we were done. “Let’s get outside.” I quickly agreed and we made for the front doors.

We found Master Arngeir waiting for us at the bottom of the steps outside. “Ah, escaping High Hrothgar so soon?” The skin around his eyes wrinkled just the tiniest bit.

“Just going for a walk,” I said.

“Certainly. It is good to appease the body rather than forcing it to do what it will not. Many of us find that some exercise helps to relieve pent-up energy, allowing for more focused meditation and study. Why don’t you run down as far as the seventh altar and back up?”

“Run?” Lydia repeated.

“Yes, run. Nothing like a little exercise to calm the body and sharpen the mind. You will find it easier to concentrate when you return.”

I had to admit, it felt good to run down the path, even after yesterday’s arduous journey. Lydia clumped along heavily in her steel boots, lagging behind. We had not gone far when a view opened out to the west and north.

“Whoa!” Lydia exclaimed as she came up beside me at the edge of a precipice. It dropped thousands of feet to the Plains of Whiterun. She kept well back from the edge. “I’ve never been up this high before.”

Neither had I. Peak after snow-capped peak stretched off into the distance. Though each was lofty in its own right, we looked down on their summits from an even greater height. The air was crystal clear, revealing every detail in the landscape. Far in the north the water and ice of the Sea of Ghosts sparkled in the sunlight. And directly below us, there was Whiterun, with the White River flowing nearby. The three levels of the city were spread out for us, with the great hall of Dragonsreach seeming little more than a doll’s house.

“Look, there’s home,” Lydia said wistfully. “It looks so tiny from up here – yet so close. I can almost see people moving around. And to think, it took us three days to get up here.”

“It’s beautiful,” I said. “Just imagine how noisy those streets are right now, with the vendors shouting and the children playing. But up here, we can’t hear a thing.”

We continued our run, surprised at how long it took us to reach the seventh altar. Its tablet bore the inscription:

The Tongues at Red Mountain went away humbled
Jurgen Windcaller began his seven-year meditation

To understand how strong Voices could fail.

I had read about the Battle of Red Mountain, but I had never heard that Nords using the Voice were there. And Jurgen had meditated for seven years? Would it take me that long to acquire the power to fight dragons?

We were moving at far less than a run by the end. I returned to my meditating and Lydia to her studies. The sun was angling lower by now and the air grew colder. I wrapped my cloak tighter about me to keep the built-up sweat from causing a chill. Master Einarth was still there, immovable, staring up at the sky. I stared at the sky too. It didn’t take too much longer to arrive at the answer.

I found Master Arngeir with Lydia at the great circular table in High Hrothgar’s council chambers, a book open before them. “Shul,” Lydia was pronouncing slowly.

“Silence!” I exclaimed, and they both looked up, startled. “No, I’m sorry Lydia, I didn’t mean you. Excuse me, Master Arngeir. The sound of the sky is silence.”

“Excellent!” said the master. “That is one of the best of the possible answers. Obvious, isn’t it? Sometimes the simplest solution is the one we overlook.”

“But why do you concentrate so much on silence here?” I asked. “It seems strange for ones who wield the Power of the Voice.”

“Ah, I see you are not familiar with the story of our founder, Jurgen Windcaller.” I shook my head. “And it’s no wonder! Nords are a warlike race and have forgotten Jurgen the Calm, who should be their most exalted hero. Too, the history of Tamriel is confusing and contradictory. One day some great loremaster will straighten out the many conflicting narratives. For instance, what do you know of the Battle of Red Mountain?”

“I read about that one when I was a child. That was the battle between the Chimer and the Dwemer, or Dwarves, right? The one in which the Dwemer suddenly disappeared. And after that the Chimer were cursed and were transformed into the Dunmer.”

“Very good! I see that you are a bit of a loremaster yourself. But did you know that before that there was another Battle of Red Mountain?”

I shook my head.

“About two hundred years before the battle of which you speak, in the early First Era, the Nords occupied Red Mountain in Morrowind. The Chimer and the Dwemer put aside their differences, uniting to drive the Nords out. Jurgen Windcaller commanded the Nordic defenses. He and many of the other Nord warriors wielded the Power of the Voice. Tongues, they were called, and Jurgen was the most powerful. But the elven forces defeated them! Jurgen went away from that battle and for seven years contemplated the meaning of the defeat. Finally he saw that the Nords’ arrogant misuse of the Voice to gain power had assured their downfall. He realized that the only true use of the Voice is to sing the glory of the gods. It is a gift that should only be used for true needs, not for mundane reasons – such as showing off for one’s friends.” He paused then and fixed me with a stern look, and I knew he meant the day we ran the thieves out of Valtheim Towers.

“Strangely, though Jurgen chose silence, his Voice only grew stronger. Seventeen other Tongues tried to turn him from his new Way by shouting him down, but they could not. He prevailed over them all, though he uttered not a word. That is the paradox upon which our order was founded. After that, he made his seat here at High Hrothgar. A group of Tongues followed him, becoming Masters of the Way of the Voice.”

“Is that what I must do? Learn the Voice only to put it aside? I came here to gain a weapon that will help stop the dragons.”

“The rules of our order do not apply to the Dragonborn. Akatosh gave you this gift for a purpose, and surely you must use it. Yet we would counsel you to speak only for True Needs. If you use your Voice only in service to the purposes of Akatosh, you will remain true to the Way.”

I pondered this. How could I know the purposes of Akatosh, greatest of the Nine Divines?

Seeing my knit brow, he went on. “But come, it is late in the day for such weighty questions, and you have already achieved much insight. Now why don’t you take some well-earned rest?”

I did as he suggested, returning to the dormitory and changing out of my sweat-soaked clothes in favor of my second set of robes. Then I took a long nap. Lydia thought it hardly fair, and said so, when she returned to find me sleeping after she had been struggling with the dragon tongue for hours. “I thought you were the one who was here to learn, not me.”

“Arngeir says it will help you when we encounter a dragon.” I told her about being able to understand Mirmulnir’s fire breath as shouted words, avoiding much of its damage.

“I’ll have my axe and my shield,” she said. “Maybe that will have to do.”

As she changed her clothes, I could see that her left shoulder still bothered her. “I wish I hadn’t left that liniment down in Ivarstead,” I said. “Or that the plants I need to make it grew up here.”

“It’s all right, my thane,” she said. “I’ll be fine.” These Nords and their stoicism!

Then we went off to the refectory where we found the masters. We sat down to table and Master Arngeir said a few words of thanks to Kynareth for the food before us. Some might have questioned the amount of thanks to be given for a thin oat gruel accompanied by last year’s shriveled apples and mugs of tea, but not I – I had spent too many a hungry night in the forests of Cyrodiil. It did seem that the Greybeards carried their asceticism to an extreme, however. Were we meant to fill our bellies with emptiness as well as our minds? Lydia and I finished our portions rapidly.

“Ah, I see the young people have worked up quite an appetite,” said Arngeir. “Master Wulfgar, why don’t you bring out that smoked salmon? And I don’t think a goblet of wine would be amiss to honor the arrival of the Dragonborn.”

The salmon was beautiful, and had been perfectly cured, neither too dry nor too salty. And the wine was like a dream of summer – I could practically feel the sun beating down on the grapes, bringing them to their peak of sweetness.

As we continued our meal, the silence lengthened. Lydia and I had always found something to chat about on our journey here, but such conversation did not seem fitting in the Greybeards’ presence. Finally, I asked Master Arngeir a question, more to relieve the silence than anything else.

“Master, why are the dragons returning now? Does it have something to do with me?”

Arngeir looked at me appraisingly, as if wondering how much to tell me. “No doubt the appearance of a Dragonborn at this time is not an accident. Your destiny is surely bound up with the return of the dragons.”

Now we were getting somewhere! “What is my destiny, Master? Can you show me? Is it to fight the dragons? Or to join in the Civil War? Or to follow the Psijics’ request and help secure the Eye of Magnus?”

“I see that you find yourself pulled in many directions, a problem common to those who wield such power. Why else do you think we cloister ourselves up here away from the world? The demands placed upon you will only become greater when you go back into the world and your fame inevitably grows. That is when you must adhere to the Way at all costs. But no, to answer your question, we cannot show you your destiny. We can only show you the Way; it is up to you to discover your ultimate destination. You should focus on honing your Voice and soon your path will be made clear.”

It was hard not to show my disappointment. “Oh,” I said. “I hoped that ones as venerable and wise as yourselves would be able to tell me what I should do.”

“It is part of our wisdom to know that we cannot predict the future. Unlike your friends the Psijics, we do not engage in divination, a precarious art at best. Nor do we seek to influence the course of events. But come, I believe that we have something that will help guide you.”

Lydia and I followed him out of the refectory and down the hall to the council chamber. From among the dozen or so tomes on the chamber’s circular table, Arngeir selected one and handed it to me. A stylized image of a dragon adorned its cover. The first page bore the title “Book of the Dragonborn, by Prior Emelene Madrine, Order of Talos, Weynon Priory.”

“A book about me?” I asked.

“Well, yes, since you put it that way,” said Arngeir. “Or rather, about the lineage of the dragonblood in Tamriel, of which you are the latest incarnation. It may provide clues to the manner in which you can fulfill your destiny. Now, I will leave you; it is time for my evening meditation.”

“Thank you, Master,” I said. “I will read it right away.”

“More studying, eh?” said Lydia as we headed for the dormitory. “I thought it was time for a break! Even a round of ‘Ragnar the Red’ would be good about now.” I could see her smile in the dim glow of the braziers in the hall. It was true, everyone groaned whenever the Mare’s tavern singer played the opening notes of that song, they’d heard it so often. It was one of only three he knew, and he couldn’t sing the third, “The Age of Aggression,” without starting a fight between the Stormcloak and Imperial sympathizers.

“I’m sorry, Lydia, but I must do this,” I said. “Besides, I have a terrible voice, and you don’t want to hear me sing even a drinking song like that. Maybe we can find a book for you too.”

High Hrothgar was filled with books scattered here and there on shelves and tables. After the strict control Urag had over the books in the college’s library, it was a pleasant change to have so many tomes free to hand. I hadn’t had an opportunity to go through them yet, but now we found they were mostly histories and religious tracts. Finally we found a copy of The Oblivion Crisis.

“Here,” I said, “this should tell of glorious deeds and fearsome battles. You might find it interesting.” I knew a bit about the events that had brought about the end of the Third Age – just enough to know that it would involve plenty of heroic exploits.

“If you say so, my thane,” Lydia said, resigning herself to an evening of quiet reading.

I had found so many books that interested me that I couldn’t carry them all – The Dragon Break, The Dragon War, The Great War, The Mystery of Talara, and several volumes of Songs of the Return.

“Here,” I said, “help me with these.”

Lydia feigned a sigh and said, “I am sworn to carry your burdens,” her tone dripping with ironic resignation. I nearly took offense, but her half smile showed that she meant no harm. I was still getting used to her wry sense of humor.

We returned to the dormitory with our “burdens.” I was so tired that I went to bed immediately, reading by candle light, as I used to as a child in my parents’ home. Lydia sat in a chair nearby, reading her own book. Although she kept humming the tune to “Ragnar the Red,” she seemed quite engrossed. That was more than I could say. The Dragonborn book purported to “illuminate the history and significance of those known as Dragonborn down through the ages,” but I didn’t find it very revealing.

The book began well, with a discussion of the Covenant of Akatosh. “Akatosh, looking with pity on the plight of men, drew precious blood from his own heart, and blessed St. Alessia with this blood of dragons…” Alessia, as every human child knows, and many a mer as well, was the saint who freed humans from slavery by the Heartland High Elves. Akatosh granted her the Amulet of Kings. With that, she founded the first Cyrodiilic Empire, then formed the religion of the Eight Divines, with Akatosh as its chief deity.

After that, the book went into a long discussion of how this dragonblood was passed from one generation to the next, whether by hereditary or mystical means, and how the generations of the Empire’s rulers related one to another. That’s when I began to lose the thread of the history. There was mention of the Blades, the Emperor’s bodyguards, having something to do with finding the next Dragonborn in succession. One thing became clear – all the Empire’s “legitimate” rulers had been Dragonborn, from Alessia through Pelagius Septim IV, the emperor at the time of the book’s writing in the year 360 of the Third Era.

I was just beginning to wonder if this meant my destiny was to rule Tamriel – but how could that be? – when my eyes grew heavy, the book dropped forward onto my chest, and I lapsed into a pleasant dream in which I sat on a throne in the Imperial City. My subjects came from far and wide to shower me with their affections, for there was no war, the dragons had been banished, and the land prospered. Somehow my parents had been brought back to life and stood beaming at me from a spot just below the dais. Lydia stood nearby, protecting me with her life as ever, resplendent in ebony armor.

Sometime later I must have awoken, because I heard Lydia yawn, then she came over and removed the book from where it had fallen. She blew out the candle and pulled the fur cover up to my chin, her hand resting lightly for a moment on my shoulder. “Good night, my thane,” she said softly. It was just as it had been years ago, when I would fall asleep reading and my mother would ­tuck me in and blow out my candle. I snuggled deeper under the cover.

“Good night, my Lydia,” I said, though that might have been part of my dream too.

 

*~*~*

 

In the morning I awoke early, while Lydia and the two masters who now occupied cots nearby dozed on. I took my book to the refectory and tried reading it over a cup of tea. Somehow, the history would not penetrate my sleep-fogged mind. What was happening to me? I could now learn the dragon tongue as if it were second nature, but a book written in plain Common Tongue was giving me difficulty? I soon put it aside in favor of The Ruins of Kemel-Ze. I found the adventurous tale of an explorer delving into an ancient dwarven ruin to be much more gripping.

Soon Lydia came in, rubbing her shoulder.

“It hasn’t gotten better, has it?” I said.

“Worse,” she replied. She had thrown her woolen cloak over her tunic and left her armor in the dormitory.

“You must be getting comfortable here,” I said, “if you’ve left your armor behind.”

She poured herself a mug of tea from the pot and sat down. “These old men seem harmless,” she said, but then corrected herself – “or, they don’t seem to mean us any harm, beyond making us run down a thousand feet and back up again.”

I had to grin at that. “Surely there was mountain running in your guard training?”

“Yes, only the mountains around Whiterun are not so high.” She looked at the books in front of me. “You didn’t get very far in your book last night.”

“No, and I still haven’t,” I said, pointing to the Dragonborn book that lay open to the fifth page. “How did you do with The Oblivion Crisis?”

“Finished it,” she said, grinning. “It was exciting, although there could have been a bit more action. Every time it got to a big battle scene, the writer claimed that no one knew how the hero prevailed. I kept wanting him to just make something up to fill in the details.”

“Then it wouldn’t be history, would it?” I said.

“So? It would be more interesting! But it wasn’t as dull as some of the military histories they made us read in training. And it was about your ancestors!”

“My ancestors?”

“Yes, Martin Septim, the last Dragonblood Emperor.”

“I don’t think I’m related to any Septims,” I said, although I had to wonder. The Book of the Dragonborn had said that the heredity of the dragonblood was a divine mystery.

“How do you know?” Lydia said. “Martin didn’t either. Unbeknownst to him until he was a grown man, he was the bastard son of Uriel Septim VII, who was assassinated at the beginning of the Oblivion Crisis.”

“I knew Uriel was assassinated, but this sounds like one of those cheap romances they sell on the streets of Whiterun.”

“Yes, it was almost that exciting,” she said, nodding appreciatively. “It has evil Daedric lords trying to break out of the plane of Oblivion and invade Tamriel. And it has a brave hero who tries to hold them at bay, the Hero of Kvatch, or the Savior of Bruma as he was later called. In the end, Martin gave his life by shattering the Amulet of Kings and taking on the form of the avatar of Akatosh – that must be a dragon, right? Then he did battle with the Daedric prince Mehrunes Dagon, with the Savior of Bruma’s help.”

“Wait, you said the Amulet of Kings was broken?”

“That’s right. That’s why Martin was the last Dragonblood Emperor. After the battle, Martin was turned to stone in his dragon form. You can still see him in the Imperial City at the Temple of the One. He was one big dragon.”

“So none of the Emperors since then have been dragonborn?”

“I suppose not,” she said.

Master Arngeir came in just then. “Good morning, young ones. Up early I see.”

“We were just discussing the succession of the Dragonblood Emperors,” I said.

“Ah, then I take it you made good progress in the book I gave you. Any interesting … discoveries?”

I shook my head sheepishly. “I’m afraid not, Master, but I promise to finish it today. It seems Lydia is the better student. She finished The Oblivion Crisis while I slept.”

“Very good! But see that you do finish your book, Deirdre. I’m sure it will be helpful. Now, break your fast if you haven’t yet. There is much to be done if you wish to complete your training in good time.”

If there was much to be done, as Arngeir claimed, a casual visitor to High Hrothgar over the next week might have missed it. Mostly what I did was sit in quiet contemplation in various corners and hallways, or outdoors when the weather was bright. Master Arngeir had me meditate on a series of questions, each more difficult than the last. Soon that first question seemed a mere child’s riddle. There was “How can the weak overcome the powerful?” and “How can silence speak louder than a shout?” and worst, “How can one do something by doing nothing?” – exactly what I wanted to know!

Mostly there was a lot of contemplating the nothingness of the sky, and trying to fill my being with that emptiness. “For only when the silence fills you,” Arngeir told me, “can you speak truly. Only when the mind is empty, will you achieve wisdom.” There were breathing exercises to be practiced out of doors, with a regular count of inhalations, held breath, and exhalations, all to fill my being with the Breath of the Sky.

Around mid-day, when all the sitting and contemplating was driving me to distraction, Lydia and I would run part way down the mountain and back up, trading stories of the masters’ latest quirks and absurd requests. Yet it was all starting to make a strange kind of sense. On each run, Master Arngeir sent us to a different shrine on the Seven Thousand Steps. One day it was about Jurgen Windcaller choosing silence and defeating the seventeen disputants. I actually thought I understood that.

In spare moments between meditating and running, I would read from the retreat’s many books. Yet my assigned text continued to give me difficulty. Maybe it was something about Prior Emelene’s writing style. When I got to the part about the Blades, who originated with the Akaviri warriors, I was reminded of a book I had seen on one of the shelves, Mysterious Akavir. I put the Dragonborn book down and went to find it. Of course I knew that Akavir was one of the five continents of our planet Nirn, along with Atmora, the continent from whence the Nords sprang, and our own Tamriel. Beyond that, I knew little. Taking up this new tome, I found much that was strange, yet fascinating. There was talk of a “Snow Hall” and a “Snake Palace,” of monkey-folk and serpent-folk and a Tiger-Dragon. Though I understood little, it was certainly more interesting than the book about Tamriel’s emperors.

So it was not until the third day at High Hrothgar that I came to the end of The Book of the Dragonborn. It concluded with a prophecy, said to have originated with the ancient Akaviri or in an Elder Scroll. The prophecy read:

When misrule takes its place at the eight corners of the world
When the Brass Tower walks and Time is reshaped
When the thrice-blessed fail and the Red Tower trembles
When the Dragonborn Ruler loses his throne and the White Tower falls
When the Snow Tower lies sundered, kingless, bleeding

The World-Eater wakes, and the Wheel turns upon the Last Dragonborn.

I stared blankly at the page. I puzzled over the first five lines, but couldn’t glean much. Yet the last line I understood clearly – it heralded my doom.

I put the book down and stared up at the black stonework of the ceiling. My fate was sealed. Alduin, the World Eater, God of Destruction, had returned to Mundus, and it was my doom to face him.

I had no doubt which of us would prevail.

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Comments

  1. larryhogue says:

    Errgg. While reading The Privilege of the Sword by Ellen Kushner, I discovered that I don’t know the difference between “lineament” and “liniment.” Fixed that now.

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