The Song of Deirdre – Chap. 19

 

The Nightgate Inn

 

“Well,” Lydia asked, “did you get it? Do you have the horn?”

I leaned against the arched opening in Ustengrav’s outer wall and shook my head, holding the note out to her. Something about enduring the Greybeards’ shouts, or perhaps the confrontation with my parents’ killers, had sapped my strength.

“‘Dragonborn, I need to speak with you,'” Lydia read from the message. “‘Urgently. Meet me at the Blade and Dragon in Windhelm. Ask for the upstairs room. A friend.’ What does this mean? Do we have to go to Windhelm now?”

“Yes,” I said, “and as soon as possible. Whoever left the note must have the horn, though they don’t…” Suddenly my legs felt weak and the world began to spin.

“Deirdre? Are you all right?” Lydia said, reaching out to steady me.

“Just tired,” I said, “but we must keep moving.”

“I’m guessing you didn’t eat while you were in there, did you?” I shook my head. “That and whatever you went through – it must have been a trial, if it was anything like what I saw out here.”

I shook my head. “No, worse.”

“Well no wonder you’re feeling weak. Could you eat anything?”

My belly felt empty, but also nauseated. “I don’t think so,” I said.

“I could set up camp, build a fire. You look awfully pale.”

“No,” I said, as sternly as I could. “I want to be away from here.”

“All right, I know where we can go. Can you ride?”

She had to help me to my horse, and then I didn’t have the strength to lift my foot to the stirrup.

“You can’t ride on your own like that, my thane. Why don’t we ride double and lead your horse?” She wrapped my cloak about me before boosting me onto her mount. Even then it took all the strength I had to get myself into a sitting position. Then she got up behind me, grasping my horse’s lead in one hand. She put the other arm around me to keep me from falling off, then pointed the horses eastward.

In a short time we were back in snow country, yet I began to feel warmer.

“Where are we going?” I asked her.

“To that Stormcloak camp we saw on the way here. It’s not more than an hour away, and they’ll have a fire and food.”

I wanted to argue, but I was too tired. I didn’t want to get involved with the Stormcloaks, but the thought of a warm fire and something hot to drink was too enticing. My head dropped back on Lydia’s shoulder and I slipped into a dream. It must have been a pleasant one because I awoke with a smile on my lips. I wished I could remember what I had dreamt of – so many of my dreams had been disturbing of late.

I opened my eyes to see a fire blazing in a little hollow below us. A guard was challenging us. “We are travellers seeking shelter,” Lydia responded. “My friend needs food and warmth.”

“Well, come forward where I can see you,” said the guard, lifting his torch to see us better in the dim light of dusk. He nodded toward Lydia. “You look all right, but we don’t much hold with mages.”

“Does she look like she’s in any condition to hex a band of soldiers?”

The guard looked at us uncertainly. “Very well then,” he said finally. “Let’s take you to the captain and see what she says.”

The captain, a short Nord woman wearing a cuirass that was too large for her, was more amenable – at first. She soon had us in prized spots before the fire, with steaming bowls of venison broth in our hands. She offered me a dram of brandy, which I declined. My strength was returning somewhat with the warmth and the food, but I doubted I could hold strong drink. As I began to regain my senses, I noticed that most of the camp’s soldiers had gathered around the fire and were eyeing us watchfully. Only the cook went about his business, stirring a large pot over the fire.

Then the captain began to question us, and we had trouble convincing her we weren’t Imperial spies. I let Lydia do most of the talking, as my head was still swimming.

“Come on, Captain,” broke in the cook. “Can’t you see they’re adventurers? Back from plundering Ustengrav, I bet.”

“Ustengrav!” exclaimed one of the other soldiers. “That place is haunted!”

“No more than most, I reckon,” the cook replied. There was something wistful in his tone as he turned to us. “I used to be an adventurer like you. Then I took an arrow in the knee. Now look at me.”

“But you make an excellent broth, my friend,” Lydia said. “It’s much appreciated.”

“Yes, well, this is all very nice,” said the captain, “but the title of adventurer can cover a multitude of sins.”

Finally I mentioned Ralof’s name, and told her I had escaped Helgen with him.

“That’s right, Captain,” one of the soldiers broke in. “When I was in Windhelm last, Ralof told me the story. Said he escaped with a blonde-haired Breton lass. Everyone else is calling her the Assassin of Helgen, after the tale Galmar told. But not Ralof. He hoped she would join our cause. Couldn’t seem to stop talking about her, really. Come to think of it, he mentioned she had a tattoo around her eye. He couldn’t get over how she had marred such a pretty face.”

Lydia elbowed me in the ribs and I turned to see her grinning at me. At least her sense of humor was back, even if it was to tease me.

“Is Ralof still in Windhelm?” I asked. “That’s where we’re bound.”

“Last I heard,” said the soldier. “Anyway, Captain, her story matches Ralof’s.”

With that the captain agreed to let us go on our way, as long as I promised to report to Ulfric when we arrived in Windhelm. “Will you take some rest here?” she asked.

Lydia was ready to say yes, but I interrupted her. “No, we must press on. Our business in Windhelm will not wait.” Ustengrav had taken its toll on me, but I knew we must hasten to find the horn. I felt I had regained enough strength to sit my horse for a few hours.

And so we left the Stormcloak camp an hour after we arrived. The captain still didn’t trust us completely, and sent an escort part way with us, on the pretext of seeing us safely past the bandits who had taken over Fort Dunstad. It was pleasant riding cross-country through the snow with Masser and Secunda shining bright, Lydia bantering with the soldiers in that easy way she had. Once our escort turned back, she reined in beside me. We were back on the road east of Fort Dunstad, and our horses’ hooves clopped along the cobbled roadway.

“It seems we’re killing two birds with one stone by going to Windhelm,” she said. “You’ll get the horn, and get to see Ralof as well.” I didn’t need the moons-light to tell she was grinning at me.

“I do want to see Ralof,” I said, “but he’s a friend, nothing more.”

“In Windhelm they said he was quite the ladies’ man – strong, good looking, red hair. I’d like to lay eyes on him myself. That is, if you’re sure he’s not spoken for.”

It had been long since I had felt jealousy – not since the days when two of my playmates would go off on their own, abandoning me. But this was a grown-up jealousy. Was this the only way to know I was in love – by growing jealous when someone else threatened to take my loved one away? But no, I was sure I didn’t love Ralof, more than I would love a brother.

“Do as you please, I care not,” I said, though I felt something cold in me as I said it. Then to change the subject, I said, “Really, we may kill three birds by going to Windhelm.”

“Really? What’s the third one?”

“I would look on this Ulfric, see if he is deserving of the esteem in which Ralof holds him. He seemed little worthy in Helgen.”

“I thought you wanted to avoid getting caught up with the Stormcloaks?”

“I do, yet I feel that something began on that day in Helgen, and I must see it through. Too, I promised the captain that I would report to Ulfric when we arrived in the city.”

Then we rode in silence, but this time it was a comfortable one, befitting the quiet of the night. Our horses clopped along the roadway and an owl or other night-bird called occasionally, but other than that, all was still. Occasionally I would remark on a flutter of luna moths or the moons-light striking the peaks in a particular way.

If I had hoped to journey all the way to Windhelm that night, it was not to be. No matter the urgency of my errand, I found my eyelids growing heavy and my shoulders sagging. By midnight I could hardly sit my horse, and I was ravenously hungry. Lydia looked tired as well. When the sign outside the Nightgate Inn, with its crescent moon and stars, came into view, we urged our horses ahead.

The place was as rustic as I remembered it, little more than a fishing lodge that happened to sit on the main road between Windhelm and the cities to the west. A pier jutted out into the waters of a small pond, and fish were strung out on drying racks nearby. I went inside to see about a room while Lydia tended the horses.

Inside, the place was equally crude. A plaque of a fish was mounted on the wall behind the small wooden bar, and various bits of fishing gear adorned the hall. There were two tables and a firepit, but not much else. The sleeping rooms adjoining the main hall lacked doors. The same drunkard I had seen last time sat in his usual spot. But tonight a lone woman sat at the one remaining table. She had dark hair and an exotic look, and wore a fine dress that could only have come from Skyrim’s capital, Solitude.

Hadring, the innkeeper, greeted me as I entered. “Welcome, stranger!” I felt comfortable enough that I threw back my hood, and then he recognized me. “Ah, it’s you!” he said. “Deirdre, wasn’t it? I love getting repeat visitors. Have you come over the Wayward Pass again? You’re late enough.”

“No, from the west,” I said, leaning on the bar top. “I’m headed to Windhelm this time.”

“Windhelm! Well, you certainly get around. Weren’t you travelling to Whiterun last time? In a bit of a hurry if I remember.” Lydia entered just then. “I see your choice of travel companions has improved,” Hadring said, smiling at her. “Aren’t you going to introduce me?”

“This is Lydia, my housecarl.” As I turned to introduce her, I noticed the woman at the table was staring at us.

“Housecarl, eh? Haven’t you come up in the world? And Talos strike me if I can remember the last time we had three women here at the same time. Maybe I’ll have to put doors on the rooms after all. Your fellow traveller there gave me quite an earful about the lack of privacy.” He gestured in her direction. She was still looking at us curiously. “My grandfather never put doors on when he built the place, so I figured, why should I? But maybe times are changing and we’ll get more business. Lot of people moving about what with the Civil War and rumors of dragons. Now what can I get you? Feel free to order anything you like – as long as it’s fish!”

It was a difficult decision, but we finally settled on the fish, along with ale for Lydia and mead for me. I paid for our meals and two single rooms, then we took our drinks over to the dark-haired woman’s table. “Do you mind if we sit here?” I asked.

“Oh, sure,” the drunkard called in our direction. “Ignore an old man. What’s wrong with my company, I ask you?”

“Pipe down, Fultheim,” Hadring called from the bar. “You haven’t had a bath in a month and you stink of ale. Who would want to sit with you?” Fultheim went back to grumbling into his mug.

“It would be a pleasure,” the woman said, and we both sat down heavily on the bench opposite her. I tried to place her accent – it reminded me of Cyrodiil. Up close she seemed slightly older than Lydia.

“I’m Deirdre, and this is Lydia,” I said. A basket with sliced bread sat in the center of the table. I reached for a piece without asking, I was that hungry.

“I heard!” the woman said. “I’m Malukah. I’m so glad you’re here. If you let me play a song for you, I get tonight’s room and board for free.”

“Really?” Lydia asked through a mouthful of bread. “This place looks too small to have a tavern singer, especially one dressed so nice.”

“Yes, certainly, but I’m just passing through,” she said. “I’m headed for Windhelm. I come from the Bard’s College in Solitude, and I’ve been going from town to town along the way, playing for my room and board.”

“We’d love to hear a song,” I said as Hadring brought our food over. “It’s not every day we get to hear a true bard.”

“Oh, good,” she said. “Let me get my lute.” We tucked into our food as she got up from the table.

Malukah returned from her room with a strange type of lute whose design I’d never seen before. She took a position at the head of the hall in front of the bar and plucked a few notes. It was a special instrument indeed, more resonant than any lute I’d heard.

“This is a song that’s being requested all over Skyrim,” she said, “but I’ve given it a twist.” She looked at me meaningfully, then launched into the opening notes of “The Dragonborn Comes.” I nearly banged my head on the table. Not that again! I’d had enough of it in Whiterun. Why couldn’t she just sing “Ragnar the Red”?

But then she began to sing and I forgot my objections. She had the most beautiful voice I’d ever heard, as sweet as Mara’s and as resonant as the lute she played. I imagined this is how singers in Sovngarde would sound. In a less-skilled musician’s hands the tune to the song sounded awkward, but Malukah smoothed its rough edges and made it a thing of beauty. A look of joy came over her face as she sang, and anyone could see that she had found her true calling. By the second verse, she had me convinced that I would be the end to the evil of all Skyrim’s foes, whoever they turned out to be. Tired as I had been, my fatigue lifted.

Then, just where the song usually ended, she brought in a different melody. There were no words, just the purity of her voice. She must have learned some sort of musical magic at the Bard’s College, because instead of one singer, she now sounded like two, then four. It was as if an Aetherial choir filled the small inn.

New lyrics came in here too, but this time they were in Dovah. “Dovahkiin, Dovahkiin, naal ak zin los vahrin.” She went on like that for another verse, and her eyes bored into mine until I had to look away. She finished and both Hadring and Fultheim began to applaud loudly. Even Balagog, the Orc who lived in the basement, came up to give a cheer. I could only sit there, stunned. Lydia looked over at me, no doubt wondering what was happening.

“Would you like to hear another?” Malukah asked. “Maybe ‘The Age of Oppression’? Or there’s a new one written by one of my fellow bards, ‘Legends of the Frost’.”

I stood and went up to her. “No,” I said. “But tell me what those words meant.”

“You mean you don’t speak the dragon tongue?” she asked, looking a bit surprised.

“No, why do you think I would? Please tell me what the song says.”

“I can do better than tell you. Come to my room.”

We followed her into the small chamber, and now I too wished for doors that we could shut behind us. As soon as we were inside, she put down her lute and turned on me. “I am surprised you are travelling openly … Dovahkiin!” she said in a low voice.

“How did you know me? Who are you?” Next to me, Lydia was loosening her dagger in its sheath.

“Don’t worry, I am one who means you well – luckily for you. But I could have been anyone. An Imperial agent, or a spy for the Thalmor.”

I looked her up and down. “I ask again, how do you know me? And why do you think anyone is after me?”

“Reckless girl! You’ve made too much of a name for yourself to go about undisguised – especially with that tattoo on your face. The Thalmor have broadsheets with your name and likeness all over Solitude and the western holds. Jarl Balgruuf was either a hero or a fool not to turn you over to them. Now the elves want his head too.”

“But why do they want me?” I asked, though of course I knew.

“Officially, you’re wanted for undermining the White-Gold Concordat and organizing an attack on a band of justiciars. The interesting part is that they want you alive.”

“And the Imperials?”

“They were willing to overlook your escape from their executioner, but now they suspect you will side with Ulfric. And you had to give them your name at Helgen. Then Deirdre Morningsong is named Thane of Whiterun after some strange event with a dragon, and the Greybeards call the Dragonborn to High Hrothgar. They can’t risk a power like yours going over to Ulfric’s side.”

“How do you know all this?”

“I sing at both the Winking Skeever in Solitude and at the Blue Palace. I hear a lot of talk. Bards travel about and bring news as well. The rest I put together on my own. When you walked in here, a young, blonde, Breton woman with a peculiar face tattoo, calling yourself Deirdre, and accompanied by your housecarl Lydia, it was easy to spot. No, you can be sure the Thalmor know exactly who you are, and they are even more afraid of you than the Imperials.”

“Why is that?”

“They cannot bear to see another Ysmir rising to power. They are quite content to let this skirmish between Ulfric and the Empire go on indefinitely, but you are the one who can unite Skyrim against the Aldmeri Dominion. And not just Skyrim, but all of the Empire.”

“Another Ysmir? You must be joking.”

“I assure you I am not. It has been just ten days since you revealed yourself, but already the true Nords in Solitude whisper that you are Talos come again, in woman’s form.”

I mulled this for a long moment. “But I just want to stop the dragons, to keep Alduin from…”

“So it’s true then? Alduin is the dragon that has returned? Akatosh save us!”

“Yes, it seems so. But how could you know about Alduin?”

“It’s in the song. You wanted to know what the lyrics meant. Here, let me show you.” She went to her travelling bag and pulled out a scroll. When she unrolled it for me I saw it was in Dovah, with Common Tongue translations side by side. It was much longer than the one verse she had sung for us.

“Where did you get this?” I asked.

“The master at my college discovered it ages ago in a barrow. He has labored over its translation, making many trips to High Hrothgar, where they know Dovah best. He completed it only recently.”

I quickly found the verse about Alduin:

And the Scrolls have foretold, of black wings in the cold,
That when brothers wage war come unfurled!
Alduin, Bane of Kings, ancient shadow unbound,

With a hunger to swallow the world!

“Yes, that’s the prophecy,” I said. “Do you know what it means, ‘to swallow the world’?”

“He and his dragon followers will kill many and destroy their homes, maybe even returning us to the days of the Dragon Lords. It would be awful.”

“No, worse,” I said. “For the prophecy speaks of four towers. These are not just any towers – they support the very existence of Mundus. Three have already fallen – the Brass, the Red, and the White. That leaves one, the Snow Tower or the Throat of the World. If Alduin and his dragons can break that, our entire world will be destroyed. That is the meaning of World Eater.”

“By the Nine, you have to save us!” she exclaimed. She pointed to the next verse, and sang the words softly. They spoke of Alduin being silenced forever. It ended:

Fair Skyrim will be free from foul Alduin’s maw,

Dragonborn be the savior of men!

“So you see,” I said. “It is Alduin I must face. That’s quite enough, thank you, without also going to war with the Thalmor and the Empire.”

“Ah,” she said, “but you skipped this part, the chorus: ‘Dragonborn, by his honor is sworn, to keep evil forever at bay.’ That’s the evil of all Skyrim’s foes, remember? And if anyone is evil, it’s the Thalmor.”

“You sound like you actually want to help me. I thought everyone in Solitude was on the Imperials’ side.”

“I’m not from Solitude, as you might guess from my accent. I’m from Bravil, far to the south in Cyrodiil. Titus Mede was none too gentle with our city after it declared independence during the Stormcrown Interregnum at the beginning of this Era. My whole family was nearly wiped out back then, and we bear the grudge to this day.”

“Then weren’t you glad when the Aldmeri Dominion sacked the Imperial City?”

“How can you say such a thing? The Thalmor are far worse than the Medic emperors. Our problem is not with the Empire. It’s that there hasn’t been a legitimate ruler since Martin Septim.”

“Wait,” I said. “You’re not saying…”

“Skyrim is not the only place where Talos is revered. My family, and many more throughout southern Cyrodiil, will not accept a ruler who is not Dragonborn. It’s in the covenant Akatosh made with humans.”

“But that covenant was broken with the Amulet of Kings.”

“We knew Akatosh would not abandon us. For two hundred years our people waited, through the chaos of the Interregnum, through the depths of crime and violence to which the Empire brought our city, through the Great War. And still we waited. We could not abandon hope. At last Akatosh has heard us, because here you are.”

I swallowed hard. This was too much to take in. “No, that is asking too much,” I said.

“It is your destiny.”

“Why were you in Solitude anyway, if you hate Imperials so much?”

“I came to study at the Bard’s College, of course. And it was a welcome relief after the chaos that has befallen my city under the skooma trade. A secret plot of the Empire to weaken us, many believe. But I have grown sick of the Imperials and the Thalmor strutting about. General Tullius makes me ashamed that I am Cyrodilli with the way he treats the Nords and other races, and his groveling to the Thalmor. Too, it would be dangerous to sing this new song openly in Solitude. I am but a starving student, and I need to earn some gold. I hope by taking this song to Windhelm I can make my name and enough gold to return home. They can’t have heard of your return so soon. I will be the one to bring them this news of our renewed hope.”

“Please,” I said. “If you want to help me, tell the people of Windhelm that I want nothing to do with the Civil War, but only to stop the dragons.”

“Yet to do that, I would have to admit that I had met you, and that would be dangerous – for both of us.” She thought for a moment, looking at the scroll. “I will emphasize the parts of the song that focus on Alduin, and omit the others that hint at a greater destiny. But one day I hope to add new verses of your victories over the Thalmor and this false emperor.”

“That should be enough. If the Imperials and the Thalmor become convinced that Alduin threatens all Mundus, maybe they will let me go about my work.”

“I’m afraid they view Alduin as little more than a Nord fairy tale. They know for certain that one dragon came back and one dragon was killed. They doubt the tales that there are more.”

“But we saw one just the other day, flying in the distance. There can be no doubt that the dragons are returning, and even the Thalmor must realize that eventually.”

“Until they do, promise me that you will be more discreet. I don’t know what errand you are on, but I could have been anyone. I could have kept my suspicions to myself, discovered your destination, then handed the information over to Thalmor spies.”

“You are right,” I said. “It was foolish of me. In future, we will keep our faces hidden, use false names, and avoid towns and inns where we can.”

“That is good. It would be a tragedy to lose our savior to the Thalmor before your work is even begun.”

“I will try,” I said, “but at some point I must go where the dragons are, no? If that takes me to a western city, so be it.”

Malukah just shook her head, as if she didn’t know how to counsel me.

“Would you like to travel with us tomorrow? Or should I say, later today? We’ll be off at dawn.”

She shook her head. “We bards never rise that early. Perhaps I will see you in Windhelm.”

With that, Lydia and I retired to our rooms. I spent a sleepless night going over and over all that Malukah had said. I must have dozed at some point in the wee hours, because when I awoke in darkness I heard someone else’s breathing in my room. I cast magelight and saw that it was Lydia, asleep on my floor, axe at her side. After Malukah’s warning, she was taking no chances.

 

*~*~*

 

As late as we had gone to our beds, we did manage to leave just after dawn the next morning. We had not gone far when we came to a meeting of roads. A lone Khajiit in a traveller’s cloak stood there, as if awaiting us.

“Greetings, friends,” he said as we approached. “You look weary this morning. This one thinks you’re in need of a lift.”

“A lift?” I asked. He seemed the one who needed a lift, as I saw no horse nearby.

“Yes,” he said. “You will find only the finest skooma here.”

“That stands against the High King’s doom, does it not?” I asked, intending to ride on.

His attitude changed instantly. “Ah, a snitch, eh? You’re not going to report me to the guard!” He drew a sword from beneath his cloak. Now I saw he also carried a bow slung across his back. I’m not sure what he hoped to accomplish. He must have mistaken us for two unarmed, helpless women, since our cloaks covered our weapons and Lydia’s armor. It would have been a minor incident if not for Lydia’s bravado.

She leapt from her horse, drawing her axe from its scabbard at the same time. “You never should have come here, fur-face!” she yelled. “Skyrim is for the Nords!”

I had readied a fear spell to cast at the witless skooma dealer, but now I gaped at my housecarl. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. Lydia’s bigotry had been there all along if only I had paid more attention. There was the way her family had treated me. They must have brought her up the same way. And then there was her treatment of my college friends, and the way she over-looked Lars’ roughness. “No matter who her parents were,” was all the defense she had been able to muster when he was accosting me. I felt anger rising in me. I didn’t stop to think that I was perhaps being over-sensitive, having so recently relived the day when those awful words were directed at my parents and me.

As I sat my horse reflecting on all this, the fight had begun. Fortunately for the hapless skooma dealer, he was capable with a sword, or Lydia would have cloven his skull by now. Neither of them had yet to land a blow.

“Come, my thane,” Lydia called. “I could use some small measure of help here!”

“Well, if it’s help you want,” I said, more to myself than to her. Then I cast the fear spell, not really caring which one of them it hit. Luck was with Lydia, however, as the glowing red ball of light skimmed past her and hit the Khajiit full in the chest. He turned and ran up the road in the direction of Winterhold, screaming, “No, no more, I cannot best you!”

Lydia turned to me, surprised. “That was close, my thane!”

I jumped down from my horse and ran up to her. “And it will be a lot closer,” I said, jabbing her in the shoulder for emphasis, “the next time I hear you utter words so disgusting” – jab – “bigoted” – jab – “and vile!” – jab!

She drew back, hurt and confused. “But that … it doesn’t mean anything. Those are just words we yell when we go into battle, or any fight. I never thought about what they meant.”

“That’s what’s wrong with you, Lydia – you never think! Those are just the words my parents heard when the filthy Nords burned them to death!” Her face, flushed from the fight, went pale then. “What a mistake I made to think you were any different!” I jabbed her again in the shoulder, but it didn’t seem to be enough. My anger had risen and I doubted all the breathing in High Hrothgar could keep it in. The words were right there, waiting to be shouted. With an effort of will I made myself turn away and climb back on my horse.

“What are you doing?” Lydia called to me.

“It’s time we parted ways, housecarl,” I said through clenched teeth, almost spitting out the last word. Then I dug my heels into my horse’s flanks and we galloped down the road east.

“No,” I could hear Lydia calling. “Wait! I’m sorry…” Then her words were lost in the clatter of hooves and the rush of the wind.

I don’t know how far we galloped, but eventually my horse tired and I let it slow to a walk. I could barely see the road through my tears anyway. I turned the horse off the road and let it have its head as we wandered down a shallow draw. I lost track of where we were going, seeing nothing but an image of Lydia riding away toward Whiterun – I had sent her away, hadn’t I? Finally the horse found a trickle of meltwater in a small stream and began to drink. I got down and sat on the snowy bank and buried my head in my arms.

Of course it was easy for Lydia to track us there. I think now that I must really have wanted her to find me – I had done nothing to cover the horse’s tracks, despite telling myself I never wanted to see her again. I heard her horse crunching through the snow, then Lydia dismounting, but I didn’t look up.

“My thane, I am so sorry,” she said as she approached. Then I felt her hand on my shoulder.

“Don’t touch me!” I exclaimed, jerking away. I looked up at her and saw only concern in her eyes.

“I didn’t mean to…” she began, but I cut her off.

“I never told you how my parents died, did I?” I asked. She shook her head. Then I told her – all of it, of Osmer’s strong grip and his rubbing himself against me, the nascent shout that blasted him away from me, the hateful tones of his father as he called me a Breton witch, the shouts of “You never should have come here! Skyrim is for the Nords!” The sight of our house burning, my parents’ bodies being dragged out of it. The grief and anger I nurtured for three years until I was ready to return to Skyrim to take my revenge – not just on my parents’ killers but on Nords, any Nords. Of getting my face tattooed in token of the depth of my resolve, every prick of the tattooist’s needle an inkling of the pain I hoped to inflict on Skyrim’s people. Then my capture by the Imperials and the dragon interrupting my plans. I learned then that there were bigger troubles in the world than my own single story, that there was blind rage that had killed my parents and then there was the true wickedness I had seen in the dungeons of Helgen. I told her of Ralof and Gerdur showing me that Nords could be good and kind – which I should have known, as Sven Silver-Tongue’s daughter – and that maybe my life had a better purpose than revenge.

Before I was halfway through my story, Lydia’s cheeks were wet with tears. Meanwhile, I had cried all mine out. By the time I finished she was weeping openly and took a moment to compose herself. “My thane – Deirdre – if I had known…”

She reached out to hug me but I held up my hand to stop her. “What you and the rest of your kind need to learn is that all people have the same feelings. It matters not whether you’re a Nord, a Breton, a Dunmer or a Bosmer, a Khajiit or an Argonian, we all weep over the death of a loved one. What the Atmorans felt on the Night of Tears, the Snow Elves no doubt felt when the Nords pushed them out of Skyrim. Everyone feels the same pain. I want it to stop – all of it.”

“Yes, but how?” she asked, looking hopeless.

“I don’t know, but I mean to start with these dragons. If I can, I’ll make sure that Huldi and Harry are the last children to lose their parents to the beasts. After that, I don’t know.”

“My thane, don’t send me away, I will try to be better.”

She reached out to touch me again, but I grasped her hand and held it to my forehead. “There, do you feel those ridges?” I said. “Those furrows in my brow come from my Breton side, and from the mer before that. You don’t know how many times as a child I would sit in my room rubbing at them, trying to flatten them so I would look more like the beautiful Nord children in our village, the ones the adults were always calling pretty. I wanted to be called pretty too, not teased for my elvish features. My mother would find me rubbing at my forehead and I couldn’t even look at her, I was so embarrassed.”

I stood up. “If you esteem me – as I think you do – and if you respect me – as I think you do – then you must esteem and respect what is merish in me as well. And if you esteem and respect the mer in me, you will esteem and respect the Dunmer, the Bosmer, and yes, even the Altmer, and all peoples. Or, if not esteem and respect, at least show them the treatment you feel is due the Nords. For I will have no housecarl who harbors hatred and bigotry in her heart.”

Lydia was crying again. “I will try to do better, my thane. I bear no ill will toward anyone, I promise you. It’s just that, other peoples are so different. Maybe I just need to be around them more.”

“I have heard that Windhelm is home to many Dunmer since the eruption of the Red Mountain, and many Argonians as well. It will be a good opportunity for you to practice your tolerance.”

She brightened then. “You mean I can come with you? You’re not sending me away after all?”

“Yes,” I said. “You proved your value to me when you saved me from that archer at Valtheim Towers, and I may need you again.” I could see the hurt in her eyes as she reacted to the coldness in my voice. “So you may continue to serve as my housecarl, as long as I never hear such vile words from your mouth, and you endeavor to banish all such feelings from your heart. For the time being, I feel it’s best if we ride a bit apart. Perhaps you should take the lead, the better to guard me from danger.”

I watched as she absorbed these words, mastering who knows what feelings. Then she went to one knee and took my hand. “It will be an honor, my thane,” she said. “I will protect you with my life.” Hurt as she was, she still said it in that same earnest way she had in Whiterun. I felt something flutter in my chest then, but I was determined not to let it show on my face. We mounted our horses and Lydia led up the slope. I followed behind, wondering how long this ice around my heart would last.

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Comments

  1. Enjoyed the ‘Arrow to the knee’ reference. I laughed out loud. Wasn’t expecting it.

  2. larryhogue says:

    🙂

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