The Song of Deirdre – Chap. 18

 

Ustengrav

 

The next days of traveling were difficult – and not because of bandits, rogue mages, or wild beasts we met along the way. We ate a silent breakfast that next morning, just the two of us in the silent tavern. We packed our gear onto our horses in silence and departed Ivarstead silently in a raw, gray dawn. Even the autumn leaves with their bright reds and golds couldn’t cheer us, nor could the better weather we found as we descended the bench upon which Ivarstead sat.

I knew I should apologize. I remembered apologizing to my parents for my lack of diligence in their shop, but it had always been difficult. There was something prideful in me that couldn’t admit to being wrong. It was the same now. But I knew I must make amends, or we would face many a difficult mile as thane and housecarl.

“Lydia,” I began.

“I don’t blame you for being angry with me, my thane,” she interrupted. Her voice sounded stiff and formal. “No housecarl should ever speak to her thane the way I spoke to you. I am sorry for my words, and beg you not to release me from your service before it has truly begun.” She must have been rehearsing that for some time, I thought.

“No, Lydia,” I said. I tried to catch her eye, but she only looked down at her horse’s mane. “No housecarl should hesitate to speak freely when her words are just. I am the one who must apologize. I shouldn’t have doubted your sense of duty, and as for those with whom you keep company – and how you keep it – it is no business of mine or anyone else’s. I hope you will forgive me, and agree to continue in my service.” I held out a gloved hand. “Friends again?”

She looked up at me finally and reached across between our horses to shake my hand. “Friends,” she agreed and smiled for the first time that day. It was a welcome sight.

Yet she remained quiet, even after we struck the main road between Riften and Whiterun. When we did talk, our conversation lacked the easiness I had grown used to on our journey to the Throat of the World. I tried pointing out the hardy late-blooming flowers along the roadside – a welcome sight for me after a week in the permanent winter of High Hrothgar – but nothing seemed to catch her attention or lift her mood. She didn’t even protest when I proposed that we take the Windhelm road rather than the one that passed Whiterun. I knew Lydia would surely welcome a visit home, yet how could I show my face in Dragonsreach before gaining a weapon to wield against the dragons? She merely nodded in silent assent to my plan.

So we rode north mostly in silence, arriving at a junction of roads just west of Windhelm in mid-afternoon of the second day. It was my first view of the imposing city, with its high, sturdy walls of square-cut stone. The Palace of the Kings was set well back from those walls and loomed above them. Where Dragonsreach towered into the sky, this castle was solid and fortress-like. It was easy to see how it had survived the thousands of years since Ysgramor had it built. Its square-topped battlements were covered in snow, for we had traveled out of the country of autumn into the lands of permanent winter.

As we paused to take it in, I thought idly of stopping in the city to visit Ralof – it was not far out of our way. Then we heard a roaring from far off. At first I thought it was a bear, but it was much deeper. Lydia spotted it first, pointing to the north. “Look! A dragon!”

She was right. The beast’s wings stretched out over the mountains north of Windhelm as it soared toward the city, its long tail trailing behind. When those wings flapped, we could feel their beating even from this distance. I remembered the feeling of my dream dragon flight, as we rushed through the mountain passes. Even now, as the sky-winger flew in a straight line toward the city, I thought it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. Was it Alduin? I couldn’t be sure.

“It’s going to attack Windhelm!” Lydia exclaimed. “Let us meet it!” She turned her horse toward the city. Her first view of a dragon, and she showed not a hint of fear, wanting only to rush into battle.

But as we watched, the dragon sailed high above Windhelm and continued its way south and east, disappearing over the mountains between Eastmarch and the Rift. In a few minutes it had covered ground that would take us half a day to ride over.

“Should we follow?” Lydia asked.

“We cannot chase a dragon that way,” I said to her. “Nor do I think we are ready to face one on our own. But we must complete our task all the quicker!”

So we turned away from Windhelm. We pushed our horses hard and camped near Fort Dunstad that evening. The next morning we descended from the ice-clad mountains to the low marshlands of Hjaalmarch. Cedars and a few scrubby trees grew sparsely here, clinging to life in the boggy soil. The rest was bare, lichen-covered rock with a few sedges and the poisonous nightshade growing in between, interspersed with channels of open water. Though the sun was out, patches of low fog hung over the lowlands. We arrived at Ustengrav at mid-day.

It was not what I expected – neither a pit in the ground with a door leading to catacombs within, nor a mountain temple like Bleak Falls Barrow. It was an ancient walled fane with the remains of out-buildings around the perimeter. At its center stood the hof, remarkably well preserved for its age. It was built of stone, partly crumbling, with one supporting arch visible where the roof had fallen away. Tall gabled windows decorated its sides. The roof ends and one set of arches bore carven dragon heads guarding the four directions. With its great height and soaring buttresses, it must have struck awe in the people who once worshipped here. Now, the place seemed deserted.

Well preserved though it was, the whole place was sinking. Ustengrav sat next to one of Hjaalmarch’s many wetlands, and water was reclaiming it. Its western wall stood a foot deep already, and the temple itself tilted to that side. Boggy patches spread across the temple grounds, and green growth covered every structure – moss, lichen, or mold, we could not tell.

“I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” Lydia said as we sat our horses on a low rise to the east, looking down on the place. She would not look at me, but I could tell she was worried for me. “This is wrong,” she protested. “I am sworn to protect you from all danger. How can I let you go in there alone?”

“I must pass this test on my own,” I said. “Arngeir must think I can survive, or why would he send me? But he was certain you wouldn’t. I won’t have you dying needlessly on my behalf.”

“Swear to me you won’t die in there, my thane,” she said. “I couldn’t show my face in Dragonsreach if anything happened to you.”

“Don’t worry,” I told her. “I will pass this test.” Yet she still looked worried as I dismounted and made a final check of the potions and weapons I would take with me. Then I walked through one of the archways in the wall.

I was surprised that the place seemed so deserted, since bandits usually took up residence in ruins like this. The low wall with its openings to the four directions certainly wouldn’t keep anyone out. I had simply walked in. Now I had to decide where in this compound to begin my search for the Horn of Jurgen Windcaller. Little was left of the out-buildings but stone foundations and one or two arches where doorways had been. The rest must have been made of timber. I decided that the temple itself was the obvious hiding place.

I had taken only a few steps toward it when a spectral figure appeared before me. So this explained Ustengrav’s desolation – it was haunted. The figure looked much like one of the Greybeards. It wore the same robes, but its hood was drawn so low I couldn’t see the face, only a bit of beard tied in a knot. Perhaps this wasn’t a ghost, but some sort of magical projection from High Hrothgar?

“Master, I am ready…” I began, but the figure shouted at me.

“Faas-Ru-Mar!”

The shout shook me, but I knew those words. The Masters had taught me only two shouts, but I had taken time to look at the book of dragon speech Arngeir had given Lydia to study. It was not the same as a rune wall etching a word into my mind, but it had to be good for something. They are only words, I told myself. “Fear. Run. Terror.” They cannot harm me. I can ignore them if I choose. At the same time I breathed, filling myself with the emptiness of the sky. How could words hurt nothing? I felt fear creeping through me and my heart beating faster, but I did not run away.

“I do not fear you, Master,” I said.

The figure gave a little chuckle. I had never heard Arngeir or the other masters at High Hrothgar laugh.

“Strun-Bah-Qo!” he shouted. Storm-Wrath-Lightning. Those might be just words, but now real clouds blotted out the weak noonday sun, and the wind began to blow. Soon real rain was falling, then hail. Lightning struck the hof, leaving a phosphorescent glow in the moss clinging to its sides. Thunder clapped a split-second later, shaking the air and ground.

I breathed again. “Kynareth, goddess of sky and the elements, I have devoted myself to you. Do not slay me now. Let me be empty like the sky and let the storm pass through me.”

Lightning was striking all around, yet it did not come near me. But the hailstones had grown larger and my hood and mage’s robes offered little protection from the sting of the pellets. I made my way over to one of the standing arches and huddled beneath its shelter, hoping to wait for the storm to pass.

Then I heard the clatter of hail on metal and turned to see Lydia. She had entered the compound the same way I had, and now crouched under her shield. Lightning flashed all around her.

“No!” I shouted, leaving my shelter and running toward her. “Go back! This storm will kill you!”

Before I could reach her, a thunderclap shook the air and everything around me lit up. I felt a vibrating power coursing through me. I had just time to think that this is how it feels to be struck by lightning before I hit the ground. But then it was over, and I was still alive. The bolt seemed not to have hurt me at all, other than to leave a tingling at the ends of my fingers and toes. I gathered myself and got to my feet.

Lydia still crouched under her shield, her eyes wide as she gaped at me. Whether her luck or Kynareth had protected her, the lightning had not struck her, and now the storm grew less.

“You fool!” I said when I reached her. “That storm could have killed you.”

“As it could have killed you, my thane,” she said, though she still stared at me in wonder.

“Yet as you can see, it did not. Now go wait outside the walls before I cast a fear spell and make you run away.” The sky was growing lighter within the walls, and beyond them it looked as if there had never been a storm at all.

She did as I asked, though she looked none too happy. Then I turned back to my task. The Greybeard’s specter had disappeared, and the way to the temple was clear.

I reached the massive iron doors, only to find them locked, with no keyhole to pick. Making my way around the structure, I found no other entrances, just sheer walls and stone buttresses soaring into the sky. The windows were all too high to reach. Even then, they were too narrow to allow me passage. I quickly discarded the thought of climbing up to the opening in the roof – the stone blocks were so close-set that such a feat surpassed my skill. Surely the horn would be inside the hof, yet how could I retrieve it if I couldn’t get inside?

Frustrated, I began exploring the rest of the temple grounds. I found stone foundations of what must have been dormitories, a large fireplace in what was once a kitchen, and a circular arrangement of stone columns forming an outdoor shrine. If there had ever been a statue or an altar within the circle, it was gone.

Then I saw five large, grass-covered mounds at the farthest corner of the compound. Paths sloped down to doorways set in their faces, all shut save one, which stood ajar. Of course! How could I explore a Nord temple without going into its catacombs?

The door creaked open as I pushed on it, revealing a stone chamber beyond. The weak sunlight illuminated only the first few feet. Beyond that, it was pitch dark. I took a step inside. A half-inch of water and green slime sloshed around my leather boots. Rats squeaked in the far corners of the chamber. I stood there for a moment expecting skeevers – or something worse – to attack out of the darkness.

I needed light. Heat wouldn’t go amiss either, so I chose a torch rather than cast a spell of magelight. The rats scampered away as the light filled the room, but otherwise it was empty. The chamber formed a long hallway, with an arch supporting the roof halfway down its length. Stone crypts lined the walls, each in its own alcove. Fortunately, the caskets’ occupants remained sleeping as I passed.

At the far end of the chamber, I descended a spiral wooden stairway, accompanied by the sound of water dripping down the stairwell. The water on the floor was deeper on the level below, which extended at a right angle to the one above it. That was good – the upper passage led away from the temple, maybe this one would lead toward it. The hall was lined with alcoves like the one above, but these contained no crypts, only the remains of ancient Nords lying in the open. These were no draugr, but skeletons whose flesh had rotted away long ago.

Of course I had read of skeletal walkers in many a storybook, but I still gasped as two of them awakened and began laboriously to unfold their limbs from the alcoves in which they had slept for millennia. Blast the flame! I had been sneaking, but the heat or the light must have given me away. Still, the torch proved useful – I bashed the nearest walker with it before he could fully rise from his resting place. He exploded into a scatter of bones. A flame spell took care of the second one. I should have known that skeletons would be less formidable than draugr, but that had been too easy. I wasn’t even breathing hard.

Still, it wouldn’t do to awaken all of Ustengrav’s undead denizens with a torch. I reluctantly extinguished it, but not before casting magelight at the far end of the corridor. The glowing ball stuck where it struck the wall. I drew my bow and hid in the shadows, waiting for anything else to awaken. When there was no sound, I crept to the end of the corridor, turned the corner, and cast another ball of light to its farthest end. In this way, I made my way along the hall as it twisted and turned in what I hoped was the direction of the temple. I disturbed no more skeletal sleepers.

After three or four turns in the passage, I came to a wider hallway containing neither skeletons nor crypts. Three stone pillars stood in a line and beyond them was a narrower corridor barred by three portcullises in a row. As I approached the pillars, I wondered if they could be a door puzzle like the ones I had seen before. But these had no markings, and they would not turn. Nor was there an obvious trap, no spiked gate and no dart-holes in the walls nearby. Then I noticed circles of stone in the otherwise irregular flagging next to each pillar. I put my full weight on the first one, and the first portcullis withdrew into the ceiling. The next two gates opened in similar fashion. An easy puzzle, I thought as I stepped toward the open passageway.

Then the first portcullis slid shut, followed quickly by the second, then the third. Not so easy after all. I tried running and then sprinting as hard as I could, but still the gates closed before I could get through. I sat down, leaning against my knapsack and the first pillar, pondering my predicament. If ever there was a place for the Whirlwind Sprint shout, this was it. Yet Master Arngeir said I must follow the Way, using the Voice only for true needs. Was this a true need? If I hoped to retrieve the horn, I could see no other way.

I stood once again before the first pillar, then sprinted toward the portcullises. The instant my foot struck the third plate, I shouted “Wuld!” I felt the same exhilarating burst of speed I had experienced at High Hrothgar, and in an instant found myself on the other side of the third gate.

Now I was in a larger, round chamber. Water dripped from its walls and a tangle of roots grew from the ceiling and along the floor. At its opposite end was a word wall, illuminated by dim rays shining through a skylight. I approached the wall and heard the chanting and saw the glowing runes. This time Feim was the word that echoed in my mind, etching its way deep into my memory. That was Fade, the first word of the Become Ethereal shout. That could be useful, I thought, but not until I absorbed another dragon soul or Master Borri shared its deep meaning with me. If I had to learn all the shouts in this way – first learning a word from one of these walls, then slaying a dragon or traveling to High Hrothgar – it would be long indeed until I was ready to face Alduin.

Only one narrow passage led out of the word wall chamber, and it was the wettest yet, with slimy green water up to my ankles. The leather uppers of my boots had soaked through. I guessed that the passages had taken me beyond the temple nearly to the open water of the marshes. The walls were dripping and covered with glow mushrooms. I didn’t pause to collect them, I was that focused on my task. I was glad to see a ladder leading up a level, where I hoped it would be drier.

I emerged into a small ante-chamber. Beyond it was another long hall, its walls adorned with crude engravings of dragons, and the lintel above the far door with a carven dragon head, its jaws thrusting wide toward any who dared to pass beneath. But the mute dragon was not the doorway’s only guardian. A spectral Greybeard blocked the passage, and there were two more masters, one on either side of the hall. They stood on low galleries raised two steps above the main floor. The one at the far end beckoned me forward with a slow wave of his hand.

I took two deep breaths, then walked slowly forward, still focusing on breathing, though communing with the sky was difficult in such a dank place. Would all three shout at me at once? I needed to be prepared.

On my fifth breath, I drew even with the two masters in the middle of the hall. At first they only stared at me as I looked from one to the other. Then they drew breath at the same time and I knew they would shout. Taking shouts from two directions at once – that couldn’t be good.

Without thinking, I dropped to my belly and flattened myself on the floor, breathing and trying to concentrate on the words of their shouts. But each spoke different words and I couldn’t sort them out. I thought I heard Iiz from one, and maybe Shul from the other. How could I deflect the Words of Power if I couldn’t understand them? Then the blast of the shouts came.

I don’t know why I covered my head with my hands. I could feel one glove scorching and the other glove freezing. Either the main force of the shouts passed over me, or I was able to understand enough of each to deflect them, or perhaps both. One side of my body felt warm and the other felt cold, but I was neither burned nor frozen. Then the shouts met in the air above me, neutralizing each other. The fire turned the ice to vapor and a fine mist fell all around me.

As I got back to my feet, the two masters gestured for me to continue forward to the third, then disappeared. I walked slowly forward, trying to recover my breathing. The spectral Greybeard seemed to be inviting me forward. Then he too drew breath for a shout. We were on the same level. There would be no ducking beneath his voice. I could only stand and take it.

Maybe it was a lucky guess, but I thought I knew what this master would shout. “Ro!” I said to myself, and tried to let the meaning of the word, balance, suffuse my being. Breathe in, Ro, hold, Ro, breathe out.

When the master shouted, he put his whole body into it, taking a step toward me to add force and striking at the air with his fists. His face jutted out at me then, and spectral though he was, I thought I recognized Master Wulfgar. “Fus-Ro-Dah!” he shouted.

I had braced myself, but still the shout knocked me back a step and left me gasping for air. But it had not flung me across the room, nor had it torn me apart. I had survived. When I recovered my breath, the master stood aside and ushered me through the doorway, beneath the dragon’s gaping maw. Beyond it I found a ladder leading upward, with natural light shining from above.

I emerged from the catacombs into a small ante-chamber. The sun must have come out now, because beams of light shone through the two narrow windows, creating shafts of brilliance separated by motes of darkness. A set of iron doors stood at one end of the chamber, barred by a stout oak beam. I realized I was in the temple. I had passed all of the tests and obstacles set for me by the Greybeards. Now where would I find the Horn of Jurgen Windcaller?

Brighter light came through the archway opposite the iron doors. I stepped toward it, thinking the horn must be somewhere within. Then all thought of my quest left me as I gasped at the sight of the temple’s main hall. Shafts of light shone through the narrow windows, suffusing the carven stone buttresses and rows of stone pews in a warm glow. But what really drew my eye was the temple altar, illumined by the brighter light shining through the gaps in the roof. Mosses hung from the walls and ivy clung to the stone arch spanning the empty space where the roof had fallen in. All glistened with droplets from the recent rain storm.

The altar was a stone table with stylized stone dragon heads at each corner. But the dragons’ features weren’t simply etched into the stone, they were inlaid with silver that reflected the sun’s rays in dazzling radiance. High up on the wall behind the altar was another carven dragon head, this one worked in exquisite detail from white stone rather than the usual black. Short curved horns sprouted from its head, and there were more around its chin, rather like a beard. Its scales were inlaid silver and its eyes were red rubies. In the brilliant sunlight the dragon glowed with both fire and frost.

Beneath the dragon’s head, raised up to a place of prominence on a tall dais, sat an elaborately worked chest, banded in silver and gold and rich with silver inlay, giving off its own radiant glow. Surely, the Horn of Jurgen Windcaller lay within it, I thought, and I began making my way up the long aisle toward it.

Then the spectral Greybeards appeared in front of me, one before the altar, and one on either side of the aisle and about halfway along it. I noticed too a pedestal in the center of the aisle between the two masters. Above it, floating in mid-air, was a large silver key, its handle encrusted in rubies. It revolved slowly, giving off flashes of light.

The three masters turned in my direction and bowed – but not to me, to someone behind me. I turned, and there was another Greybeard. His hood was far back on his head so I could see his face. It was incredibly old and reflected that same deep calm the other masters had, but it was one I did not recognize. He spoke to me.

“Dovahkiin, you have done well. You face one more test of your Voice, and one final challenge, then my Horn will be yours. You have only to take the key and open the chest you see on the altar. Do you understand?”

“I think so, Master Jurgen,” I said. “But it must be more difficult than that, am I right?”

“Indeed,” he said. “You must reach the key before Master Bolli, who stands before the altar. Since you know only the first word of Whirlwind Sprint, he will refrain from using it. You, however, should attempt to reach the key by whatever means necessary. Understood?”

“Yes, Master.”

“Good. Let the race begin when the key drops to the pedestal.”

I turned to face the pedestal and prepared myself to spring and shout Wuld at the same time. But Master Bolli just stood there calmly with his hands clasped before him. Then the key dropped and the race was on.

I lunged forward as Bolli took a slow and deliberate step toward the key. Then from behind me I heard a shout. It was not Fus-Ro-Dah, though it shook me just the same, it was so strong. “Tiid-Klo-Ul!” I heard. Time-Sand-Eternity. The Slow Time shout. Suddenly I was frozen. I was straining to run but my arms and legs barely moved. Across from me, Bolli continued his slow and deliberate stroll down the aisle to the key. He would reach it in less than a minute while I moved imperceptibly.

I tried to breathe, to call on the power of the sky, but my breathing was just as slow as my running. Only my thoughts moved apace with the rest of the temple’s occupants. I gave a silent prayer. “Akatosh, Master of Time, if you hear me, remove this shout and let time return to normal.” It was a weak appeal, but it was the best I could do in the time available. Master Bolli was more than halfway to the key.

Whirlwind Sprint was the only way I could beat Bolli now, slowed time or no. I couldn’t utter the shout, but I could think it. “Wuld!” I said to myself. I concentrated on the word as hard as I could, tried to let its meaning suffuse my being. I closed my eyes, because the sight of Master Bolli reaching toward the key was too distracting. “Wuld!” I tried to hear in my mind as loud as if I had actually shouted.

When I opened my eyes, my hand rested on the key. Master Bolli’s spectral hand was only inches away. Then he withdrew it, folded his hands together, and bowed. It was strange – I never felt the lurch of speed I had felt the two other times I had used the shout. Maybe Akatosh had intervened after all.

I turned back to Master Jurgen. “Very good, Dovahkiin. You have the key, and the way to the chest is clear.” Then he disappeared. I looked down at the key in my hand. I had only to walk a score of paces and my quest would be fulfilled. I would have the horn to deliver to High Hrothgar. I turned and looked up the aisle. The three other masters had disappeared as well. The way really was clear. Yet somehow it seemed too easy. Had I really demonstrated my mastery of the Way of the Voice?

Then I heard a sound from behind me, in the temple’s nave. I turned to look. The light was dimmer there, and it was hard to see, but it seemed I was no longer looking at the nave. Instead, I saw a house – my house, the one where I grew up.

A woman’s voice called from the shadows beside it. “Deirdre, darling, is it really you?”

I knew that voice, but it couldn’t be. I moved toward that end of the temple, but it was still difficult to see into the gloom. Then a man’s voice: “Deirdre, lass, we’ve missed you.”

Now I could see two figures. “Mother? Father?” I called. I took two more steps and finally I could see that it really was my parents. There was my father, with his long blonde hair and beard. He was dressed in the finely woven tunic he always wore on his trading trips. My mother stood next to him, petite, with dark hair. I saw her kind eyes and remembered how many times they had gazed gently down at me, as she soothed some hurt. I almost sobbed.

“Yes, dearest, we’re here,” she said. They took a step toward me.

I was about to run to them when another voice called out. “You there, Silver-Tongue!” A man stepped out from behind a stone column and I recognized Osmer’s father. He was carrying a torch. Behind him Osmer cowered with his hands out, as if trying to restrain him, but afraid to do more than plead. “What kind of Breton witchcraft have you brought to our village? You should have seen what your daughter did to my son!”

“No, father, it’s all right,” called Osmer. I had never heard his voice sound so timid before.

Then there were more shouts and a crowd of men appeared behind Osmer and his father. “Breton witch!” they yelled. Then I saw my father turn to my mother and push her toward the house. I couldn’t hear what he said to her over the shouting. Nor could they hear me as I shouted, “No, not that way, run to me!” It all looked so real, I wanted to run to them and save them. But something held me back and I just watched in horror as my mother disappeared inside.

Father turned back to the mob and began arguing with Osmer’s father. I couldn’t make out the words, but soon another of the Nords approached Father from one side and knocked him to the ground. Father was tall, but not as tall and strong as the woodcutters, and they were many. He got up and ran into the house.

I could not watch what I knew would happen next. The yelling of the men grew louder and angrier as they debated what to do. They passed a jug of some type of alcohol around between them. When the first torch flew through a window, I turned my back on the scene, covering my ears. Now I saw that four spectral masters stood before the altar. There was no escaping the vision that way. I dropped to my knees and buried my face in my lap, stopping my ears with my arms. But still the screams I had heard in my nightmares came through, more real than I could ever have imagined, until I drowned them with my own screams.

 

*~*~*

 

Some time must have passed because quiet had come to the temple once again. The only sounds were those of the last flames flickering in the remains of the house. I rose and turned to look. I had no fear of it – the image was already seared into my mind. Then I saw three figures approaching – Osmer’s father and two of his friends, even larger than he. Somehow, they were able to come closer to me than my parents had been able to do. They stopped just three paces away.

“This is all your fault, you Breton slut,” Osmer’s father almost spat at me. “You bewitched him! You lured my son away from his work and then you tried to kill him! Your foreign sorcery didn’t work, and now your parents are dead. But it should have been you!”

His face was nearly purple with rage, and my own anger had risen to meet his. I was breathing hard, and not in a way that let in the serenity of the sky. My heart was beating fast and my fists were clenched. Just a shout, just a spike of ice, or a burst of flame, and my parents would be avenged. I was so angry I felt I could tear the three of them apart with my bare hands. And they were only three steps away.

I’ll never know if I truly mastered my anger that day. Did I really find balance with my dragon nature, or did I simply realize that this was just a vision, and not my parents’ murderers? Whatever the reason, my heart’s beating finally slowed and I drew a deep breath. I turned to look up at the patch of sky visible through the hole in the roof. “Kynareth give me strength,” I breathed. I took three more breaths, ignoring the men taunting me for my cowardice. Then I turned back to them.

“No, go away,” I said in an even voice. “I will have justice upon you another day.” The men said nothing, but simply vanished.

I turned back to the Greybeards’ specters. “Was that really necessary?” I asked, though I knew I wouldn’t get an answer. I realized my cheeks were wet and I tried to dry them on my sleeve. Surely I’ve passed the final test, I thought. As if confirming it, the masters bowed toward me, then vanished.

Key in hand, I went around the altar and approached the dais where the chest sat. Only then did I notice that the light from the windows and the openings in the roof had grown dimmer. What rays there were slanted in from the west, casting shadows far into the temple.

Climbing the steps of the dais, I quickly found the lock on the front of the chest. I inserted the key. It turned easily, with a gratifying tumbling of blocks, and the chest’s lid popped ajar. I took a moment to admire the intricately inlaid engravings of shapes both dragon and human. Then I lifted the lid.

The chest was empty, save for a single piece of paper.

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