The Song of Deirdre – Chap. 17

 

The Vilemyr Inn

 

I don’t know how long I sat there pondering my fate, searching for some way out of it. Maybe the prophecy hadn’t yet been fulfilled, or it referred to some other Dragonborn than I.

I read the lines over and over, to no avail. It seemed that the first prophecy had been fulfilled long ago – misrule had indeed swept across much of Tamriel. I knew nothing of the second line, but could the Red Tower trembling in the third line refer to the eruption of Red Mountain? I didn’t know what the thrice-blessed meant, however. The Dragonborn Ruler losing his throne, surely that referred to Martin Septim, whose tale Lydia had just read? Then the White Tower would be the White-Gold Tower of the Imperial City. One could say that it had fallen to the Altmer during the Great War, though it had been regained by Titus Mede when he retook the city.

That left the Snow Tower, sundered, kingless, bleeding. I couldn’t think of snow without thinking of Skyrim – it was certainly kingless and would soon be bleeding if Ulfric pressed ahead with his Civil War. Its people were already sundered from one another. The Snow Tower could refer to the very mountain on which High Hrothgar perched.

If the prophecy was being fulfilled, did that mean … No, it couldn’t be … Alduin could not be among the dragons who had already returned, could he? Then I had a flash of memory, from that day in Helgen. At the time, I thought I couldn’t understand dragon speech, but now the dragon’s first words came back clearly: “Zu’u Alduin. Zok sahrot do naan ko Lein!” “I am Alduin.” I couldn’t make out the second part. Some dragon boast, no doubt. Then I remembered the way the dragon had looked at me, as if recognizing me – the Dovahkiin. Then why hadn’t he put an end to me then and there?

This couldn’t be. The task was impossible. Some viewed Alduin as one aspect of Akatosh himself. And it was my destiny to confront him? To stop him? That was impossible – wasn’t it?

I ran out of the council chamber where I had been reading and found Arngeir meditating in the long hallway before a stained glass window. “Master Arngeir!” I exclaimed as I came to a halt next to him. “Is the prophecy coming true? But how can it be? I’m not … I can’t … Alduin … It cannot be!”

“Ah, I see you have finally come to the end of The Book of the Dragonborn,” Arngeir said, rising slowly to his feet. “I thought that part would get your attention.”

“But it can’t be true! I’m no match for Alduin, the World Eater.”

“That remains to be seen. Did you understand the signs that would foretell his awakening?”

“Some of them,” I said. I told him my guesses.

“Yes, very good, although I believe a true loremaster would quibble with your interpretation of the eight points of misrule. The first four lines of the prediction came to pass in the last four decades of the last era. The fall of the thrice-blessed refers to the Dunmer, whose three ‘living gods,’ Amalexia, Sotha Sil and Vivec were destroyed, leading to the eruption of Red Mountain at the beginning of this era. It has taken nearly two centuries for the last omen to appear.”

“But what about the Brass Tower? Maybe that hasn’t come to pass yet,” I said hopefully.

“I’m afraid it has, young Deirdre. The Brass Tower refers to strange events in the provinces of High Rock and Hammerfell. Tiber Septim’s Totem, the Dwemer machine known as the Numidium, was revived. That event transformed the nature of time in that region, allowing several contradictory outcomes to occur at once. Thus the Brass Tower walked and time was reshaped.”

“So it’s all true?” I said, sitting on a nearby bench. Suddenly I didn’t even have the strength to stand.

“It seems so. We have been expecting you since Ulfric murdered High King Torygg last spring, leaving Skyrim – the Snow Tower – kingless. Even more so, since we heard Alduin’s shouts at Helgen. But come, you are agitated. Now is the time to follow the Way. Use your breath. Draw on the power of the sky.”

I did as he asked, breathing in, holding the breath, breathing out, three times in a row. It did make me feel calmer. “So my fate is to confront Alduin in battle?”

“Perhaps. It is clear that if you do not prevent Alduin from destroying the world, no one will. That is, if preventing the world’s destruction is a thing you desire.”

That caught me off guard. “Certainly, why wouldn’t it be?” I said.

“It is said that our own world was created out of the World Eater’s destruction of the previous one. If the cycle is to continue and a new world is to be born, then our world must in turn be destroyed. Would you interrupt that cycle? Just a thought.”

“And that is what he wants? To destroy the world?”

“That is the role he has played in our creation story. It would be rash to assume the World Eater will not live up to his name.”

“Yet as you said before, I was given the gift of dragonblood by the gods for a reason. Surely I must play my role and try to stop Alduin. But … I cannot best a god.”

“You have only begun to discover your full power. Follow the Way, hone your Voice, and you will be ready for what is to come.”

He left me there contemplating my fate. Soon Lydia found me in the darkening hallway – the sun was sliding lower, dimming the stained glass window.

“Arngeir told me of your discovery, and the prophecy,” she said.

I looked up at her, and for the first time I saw something like fear in her eyes. “I imagine you’re regretting being chosen as my housecarl,” I said, “with what we face now.”

“Didn’t I tell you?” she replied. “I volunteered for the duty.”

“You did?”

“Yes, of course. I vowed to protect you with my life, and I will stay with you to the end, World Eater or no.” She reached out to put her hand on my shoulder – to buck up my courage, I thought – but it was her left arm. I saw her wince and her hand fell back to her side.

“I wish there was something I could do for you,” I said, standing up, glad to have something to take my mind off the future. I had tried healing spells time and again, and had given her all the potions I carried up the mountain. Nothing seemed to work. “If only I had packed that liniment!”

“I suppose I could just run down to get it,” Lydia said, grinning.

“You could, but you’d have to stay the night, of course. You couldn’t make it down and back up in one day.”

She grew more serious then, and wouldn’t look at me. “Well, to tell you the truth, my thane, I could use a break from all this reading and silence. I don’t think I’ll ever get far with the dragon tongue. And, well, you seem pretty safe here.”

“You’re right. Listen, I hope my training won’t take more than three or four more days. It would almost be a waste for you to come back up. Why don’t you wait for me at the Vilemyr Inn and I’ll see you when I’m done?”

“No,” she said, her dark eyes growing stern. “I swore to protect you, and I mean to. I will return here to escort you down the mountain. Just name the day.”

 “You forget how long I lived on my own in the wild. This mountain holds no terrors for me. As your thane, I will rule you in this. I will not have you climbing the Seven Thousand Steps just to walk back down with me. Is that clear, housecarl?” I tried to sound as I imagined Irileth would when giving an order, but I couldn’t help smiling.

“Yes, my thane.”

“Good. Apply that liniment daily, and I will expect to find you in full health when I arrive four days hence.”

She sighed, but I could tell that she was not altogether unhappy with the plan.

The next morning I watched from the steps of the retreat as Lydia began her journey down to Ivarstead. I stayed there until she turned and waved, just before going around a corner. I waved back, and then she was gone.

The next three days were some of the most difficult of my life. It wasn’t just that the training grew harder each day. The weight of what I would soon face was settling on me, and it all seemed too much. “One step at a time,” Arngeir kept saying to me. “The greatest journeys are accomplished by putting one foot in front of the other.”

Too, the silence and the gravity of High Hrothgar weighed on me. I was a young girl surrounded by silent old men. Certainly they had wisdom, but where was the life? I longed for noise and the bustle of a city, the uproar of a tavern, or even just the babbling of some mountain stream. I was only seventeen and I wanted to laugh, and not to be burdened with achieving wisdom beyond my years, much less saving the world. Could I tell Arngeir a joke? No. I missed my friends from the college – as difficult as they could be, Onmund, J’zargo and Brelyna could bring a smile to my face. I missed having tea with Mirabelle and listening to her stories of my mother’s home. I missed jesting with Ralof, though I had known him for just two days. What I wouldn’t give to be able to punch him in the arm once more! And I missed Lydia, more than I had expected. With her here, the solemnity of High Hrothgar had been bearable; without her dry wit to buoy me, my mood grew darker by the day. I stalked the dark, cramped halls of High Hrothgar, trying not to scowl, but no doubt failing.

Worse, a storm raged the day after Lydia left, and the mountain was cloaked in fog and rime ice the day after that. I was trapped indoors, and High Hrothgar began to feel like a prison. It seemed as if all light had been withdrawn from Mundus. I tried to concentrate on my meditations, but it was little use. The answers I gave to Arngeir’s questions felt more than half made-up, though they seemed to satisfy him.

Finally, at the end of the third day after Lydia’s departure, and the sixth since my arrival at High Hrothgar, Arngeir called me into High Hrothgar’s council chamber, a large room with a long stone table in its center.

“Dovahkiin,” he said. He only called me that when he had something formal to say. “This phase of your training is at an end. You have made good progress in balancing the inner with the outer. You already have developed a calm that you hadn’t when you came here. Now we will see whether you can follow the Way when put to the test. The time has come for the quest I mentioned before. You are to retrieve the Horn of Jurgen Windcaller from the ancient fane of Ustengrav, in the wilds outside of Morthal. It is a dangerous journey to get there, and even more dangerous within. But the horn is sacred to us. If you follow the Way, you will return. And while your housecarl is welcome to accompany you there, she must not enter. The task is for you alone. She would not survive, in any case.”

The truth was, I was more than ready for an adventure. Travelling through the wilds? Exactly what I needed. A catacomb filled with draugr and wights? A fine challenge. Anything to be out of High Hrothgar and back in the world!

“Don’t worry, Master. I will return with the horn.”

“Sky guard you,” he said, and left me to pack for my journey.

 

*~*~*

 

The Vilemyr Inn was crowded and hot, a welcome change after my icy trip down the mountain. It was after dark when I arrived, and I was tired, footsore, and chilled to the core. To be sure, it was easier descending the mountain than climbing up it. But I had started late, having waited for the weather to break at the top. Half-way down, a freezing rain moved in, and I had to pick my way carefully over patches of black ice. Then an ice-wraith caught me unawares, giving me a chilling blast that froze my soaked robes to my skin. It took me some time to drive it off with a flame spell. So it was good to feel the rush of heat as I opened the inn’s door, and to hear voices raised in song.

The place was filled with a smattering of townspeople, but mostly off-duty guards, both women and men. In the midst of the soldiers sat Lydia, singing along with the rest. She held a mug in her left hand, and occasionally she would clink it with her neighbors to punctuate the drinking song. She certainly looked in her element. I couldn’t help wondering if this was what she had been doing, drinking and singing for three days, while I toiled away in the darkness and silence of High Hrothgar. I stood just inside the doorway watching her and her new friends, trying to put such thoughts aside. Yet somehow I couldn’t just break in on their merriment.

Finally Lydia looked up and saw me. “Deirdre!” I saw more than heard her exclaim, since her voice was drowned out in the din of the music. She stood from her place and came over to give me a hearty hug. “You’re so cold!” she said, looking at me with concern. “I’ve been wondering when you’d arrive.”

“Yes,” I said. “It looks like you’ve been out of your mind with worry.” I tried to smile, to hide the icy tone I couldn’t keep out of my voice.

“Just passing the time until you got here,” she replied.

“I’m glad you were having a good time,” I said. “One of us had to, at least.”

“Those old men were finally too much for you, weren’t they? But come, let’s get you a hot drink and some food, and you can meet my friends.”

We went over to the table and Lydia began naming off her companions: Drahff, Garthar, Britte, Iddra, until I couldn’t keep up. “Lads and lasses, this is Deirdre, whom I am proud to serve.” Most of the guards at the table greeted me politely, if not too warmly – except for one, a large Nord down at the end of the table. He just sipped his ale and looked at me. His eyes were bleary from drink.

The tavern lass brought me a mug of hot cider and a bowl of steaming soup made from onions, potatoes, and peas in a beef broth. The cider was fermented and the first sip went straight to my head. I concentrated on the soup for a time, Lydia seated beside me drinking her ale and telling the guards about High Hrothgar. I could tell this wasn’t the first time they had heard her tale. How much had she told them, I wondered.

“So you’re learning the Voice up at the Greybeards’ place, eh?” said the Nord at the end of the table. I had forgotten his name already.

“That’s right,” I said warily. The last thing I needed was this lot finding out I was the Dragonborn.

“So how ’bout it then? Give us a shout. Let’s see what ye can do.”

The other guards nodded and shouted in agreement. “I’ve always wanted to hear someone use the Voice,” said one of the female guards. “Especially after Ulfric shouted down High King Torygg.”

“The first thing the Greybeards teach,” I told them, “is that the Voice is to be used only for True Needs. I can’t use it just for show.”

“Sod the Greybeards and their rules,” said the large Nord. “What good’s a weapon like that if you don’t show people you mean to use it? You should be going to Windhelm and joining Ulfric’s cause, that ye should.”

“No,” I said firmly. I held his gaze until he went back to his mug.

He didn’t stay quiet for long. I was half way done with my soup and into my second mug of cider – feeling considerably warmer and even more light-headed – when the fool spoke up again.

“What are ye, anyway?” he said, glaring toward me. “Ye don’t look like any Nord I’ve ever seen.”

I took a breath. I could feel Lydia tensing next to me. “My mother was a Breton, and my father was a Nord,” I said as evenly as I could. With difficulty, I refrained from asking if he had a problem with my parentage. I tried taking another deep breath, filling my mind with the serenity of the sky, but the hulking brute went on.

“A mixed-blood, eh? Pfft! We don’t get a lot of that around here, nor none of the other races. Just true Nords here in Ivarstead. Never seen any but Nords go up the mountain, neither. I’m surprised they took ye.”

My breathing wasn’t working. I felt the blood rushing through my head and my heart pounding. My arms and legs felt numb. I don’t know what would have happened if Lydia hadn’t stood up just then.

“That’s my thane you’re talking about, Lars!” she said. Lars – of course! What else could his name be? Large Lars. I stood up too, trying to calm her down. I was still enough in my right mind to remember that we were supposed to be anonymous pilgrims.

“Thane, eh?” Lars said, tipping back in his chair and smiling. “Thane of what, some Nine-forsaken bit of Breton rock?” That got some laughs from his friends.

“Deirdre is as true-hearted and brave as any Nord you’ll find, no matter who her parents were,” Lydia said. “If you could only hear the stories they’re telling in Whiterun of the day she fought…”

I stepped on her boot under the table before she could say more. “Come, Lydia,” I said, taking her by the arm, “I think it’s time we retired. We have an early…”

But Lydia would not be calmed, short of magic at least. “Speak of my th… my friend in that way again, and you’ll have me to answer to.”

Now it was Lars’ turn to stand up. He really was large, looming over Lydia by more than a head. To me, he was like a giant. His muscle-bound arms rippled as he clenched and unclenched his fists. He jabbed a finger at her and said, “You had a sweeter tongue when I was rubbing that salve on your back!”

Everything seemed to stop then. The tavern had grown silent and I could feel dozens of pairs of eyes on the three of us. I could only stare at Lydia. She stared at Lars, blinking.

Finally, she said, “That was before you started insulting my friend.”

Suddenly I wanted to be shut of all of them. Let Lydia sort this problem out. “Right then,” I said. “I’ll leave you to it. I’m off to bed.”

I turned to leave the main hall, and I heard Lydia turn to follow, when one of Lars’ friends spoke up. “Leave the lasses be, Lars. We’ve got ale to drink.”

“Aye,” Lars said. “What do I care who the wench hangs about with?”

I closed my eyes and groaned. By the time I could turn around, Lydia had rushed up to Lars, her finger thumping him in the chest. “What did you call me?” she demanded.

“A sharp-tongued wench, and I’ll call ye that again.”

Lydia moved so fast I couldn’t see exactly what happened. In two blinks Lars found himself on his back, Lydia’s knee driving into his belly, her dagger at his throat. With her left hand, she held his head down while jabbing a thumb into his eye. Her shoulder must be feeling better, I thought.

“I gave you a chance, you arrogant bastard, now tell me why I shouldn’t cut out your tongue.”

“I’m sorry,” he said through gritted teeth. “Ow, not my eye! I just … I didn’t mean any harm. I was just sportin’ with ye, and the Breton lass.”

“Sport is what you call that, eh?” she said. “I’ll show you a few sports you won’t much like. One’s called ‘Watch the Nord Chase his Balls.’ How does that sound?”

“No, no, you’re not serious!”

“Swear you’ll go home and sleep it off and never bother my friend or me again!”

“I swear,” he gasped. I could see the fear in his eyes, but there was also hatred. Finally she let him up off the floor.

“Go on home, Lars,” said the tavern keeper, who was now standing nearby. “You’ve caused enough trouble for one night. How am I supposed to stay in business if you chase away every pilgrim who passes through?”

Lars staggered from the building. “About time someone taught that bully a lesson,” said one of the female guards. Several other women, and even a couple of men, applauded. Someone spoke up in Lars’ defense, and soon the whole tavern was debating the altercation. I turned and headed for our room.

I began to change out of my still-clammy robes. Lydia came in and we went about our business in silence. I dried my hair and re-braided my plaits. I was about to get into bed when I heard her give a half-suppressed grunt of pain. She had tried to take the bottle of salve down from the top shelf of the room’s wardrobe with her left hand. “Gods!” she groaned, rubbing her shoulder.

“Is it no better?” I asked.

“It was, but I think I just reinjured it,” she said. “By the Nine, how could I be so stupid?”

“You don’t have to tell me about anger,” I said. “It’s a good thing you stepped in when you did. I wish you hadn’t attacked him though – we’ll have to return here soon enough. There are worse things to be called than wench.”

“If they’re calling you wench to your face, they’re calling you worse behind your back, I reckon. I won’t stand for any of it.”

She pulled her cuirass over her head with difficulty, then undid the leather laces holding together the neck of her tunic, shrugging it down off her left shoulder. Then she tried awkwardly to apply the liniment with her right hand. I sat silently on the edge of my bed, offering no help.

Finally she got up and came over, holding out the bottle. “Here, would you? It’s difficult to reach.”

I took the bottle from her – it was already half empty. She sat down on the edge of the bed with her back to me and I rubbed a dollop of the salve into the spot just below her shoulder where she hadn’t been able to reach. I noticed she was still breathing hard from the confrontation. I was none too gentle, telling myself the injury must be deep, and needed a good kneading. Lydia took her medicine without complaint.

“Is this how Lars did it?” I asked.

“Yes, very like,” she said. “Actually, he was a bit gentler, though his hands are strong.” She sighed.

“A minute ago you had him on the ground with your knife at his throat, and now you’re sighing over his strong hands?”

“Yes, strange, isn’t it?” she said.

I stood up, jamming the stopper back into the bottle. “How could you let that brute touch you?” I demanded.

She re-tied the laces at the neck of her tunic, then stood up too. “You’re just a lass in many ways, my thane. What do you know of what a woman wants?”

She was right – I had no idea. I doubted I ever would. But surely not that – not Lydia and that lout. “You don’t mean…?”

“What, me and Lars?” she said. Now her eyes flashed at me, as if I was the one who had called her a wench. “Not to worry, it was just the shoulder rub once or twice. You don’t think I fall into bed with every rugged Nord who comes along, do you?”

“No, no,” I said as she turned and began putting her armor back on. “It’s just that, it was so lonely up there for three days with the Greybeards, no one to talk to or joke with, and then it was such a long cold trek down the mountain, and I was looking forward to seeing you, and then there you were, surrounded by your new friends. What was I to think, coming from three days of solitary meditation only to find you’ve spent those days making merry?”

Her voice became quiet then, and dropped half a register. “My thane,” she said, tugging at the straps and buckles on her cuirass, “I have spent the last three days exercising the horses, which they sorely needed after five days cooped up in a pen. I laid in stores and sorted our gear in preparation for journeying to wherever we’re off to next, which you still haven’t told me. In between, the guards here allowed me to practice with them. I worked on my archery, my hand-to-hand, my axe-and-shield, and both one- and two-handed sword skills, all to be ready for whatever we might face. I even practiced some of the dragon tongue Arngeir taught me. If I could shout Shul at you now, I likely would. Now I’m going to bed before I say anything else. I imagine we have an early start tomorrow.”

With that, she pulled her knife from its sheath and laid it on the table next to her bed. Her axe and shield were close to hand. Angry as she was, she still took her duty to protect me seriously. Then she got into her bed, facing the wall.

I went to my own bed, and lay there, staring at the ceiling and feeling more alone than I had at High Hrothgar.

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