The Song of Deirdre – Chap. 21

 

Ulfric’s War-Chamber

 

“You!” the Stormcloak leader exclaimed, his eyes wide. “I told Ralof we couldn’t trust you after your speech at Helgen, and here you are, dagger in hand! Tell me why I shouldn’t have Hans finish you now.”

“Do with me as you will, but I cannot stand by while you talk of shoving a sword in my liege lord’s gullet,” I said. I looked at Galmar. “I seem to remember sparing you a similar fate, Galmar, though I think that torturer would have made it slow and painful.”

Galmar eyed me uncertainly for a moment, then relaxed. He now wore a head-dress and cowl made from the head and pelt of a bear. “The lass speaks true. I owe her my life. And if she hadn’t saved us, we would never have gotten you out of Helgen, my jarl.”

“Yes, yes, the Assassin of Helgen, as you call her. And Ralof says she’s a good fighter and hoped she would join us. But now here she is, bent on killing again.” He looked at me for a long moment while I pondered whether I could wriggle free of Hans’ grip before he opened my throat. Finally Ulfric nodded at the soldier, who let me go but kept the dagger. “You were silly to think you could get anywhere armed only with a dagger, Deirdre … what was your name again?”

“My name is Deirdre Morningsong, Jarl Ulfric. In Whiterun they call me Deirdre Death-Dealer, after I helped slay the dragon Mirmulnir. For that, I was named Thane of Whiterun. They also name me Deirdre Thu’um-Wielder. The Greybeards named me Dovahkiin, after I absorbed Mirmulnir’s soul.”

Ulfric was speechless for a moment, his eyes having grown wider with each bit of news. “You? You’re the Dragonborn? We’d heard of the events in Whiterun, and the Greybeards summoning the Dragonborn to High Hrothgar. But this cannot be. You’re not even a full-blooded Nord!”

“No,” I said icily, “that seems not to be a requirement.”

“But how can I trust what you say is true? What proof do we have that you’re the Dragonborn?”

“The Greybeards don’t give out badges. Do you want me to demonstrate my Thu’um?”

“You can’t tell me you’ve already learned a shout?” Ulfric said.

“Yes, that’s how it works when you’re the Dragonborn.” I thought he would have known that, having had so much training in the Voice. “Should I test my Voice on you?”

“Yes, I would like to feel what you can do, if you really are Dragonborn.” He still sounded skeptical.

Hans stepped forward. “No, Jarl Ulfric, it might be some kind of trick.”

“It’s all right, Hans,” Ulfric said. “Her Thu’um cannot possibly match my own.” Then he turned back to me. “Just one word, are we agreed? That will be enough to demonstrate your power.”

“As you wish,” I said. “Are you ready?” He went over to stand in an empty part of the room across from us and braced himself. “Fus!” I shouted.

The shout staggered him, and he took a step back. He was breathing hard as he straightened his fur cloak – the same one he had worn at Helgen – and returned to us. I could see he was trying not to appear shaken.

“That was strong, for just one word of the full shout. How long did it take you to learn that?”

“A day, maybe less,” I replied. “It just takes learning the word of power, then killing a dragon and absorbing its soul.”

“Oh, is that all!” mocked Hans.

“It took me years to learn that one word of power,” Ulfric said, shaking his head. “You must know dozens of shouts by now.”

“No, just two, although I am on my way to High Hrothgar to learn more, as soon as I retrieve … an object here in Windhelm. But the Greybeards won’t teach me more quickly. They say I shouldn’t get ahead of myself, that I should develop my wisdom along with my power.”

“Yes, that sounds like the Greybeards. That’s why I grew impatient and left their halls. But listen, with that kind of power…”

Just then Ralof came running in, with Lydia and several guards following behind. “Deirdre!” Ralof exclaimed. “I knew you’d come sooner or later, though I hoped it would be sooner!” He came up to me and grasped me by the shoulders, looking happily into my eyes. “Are you here to join us? And what was that shout I heard?” He looked around questioningly at the others in the room, then noticed Ulfric. “Oh, begging your pardon, my jarl!”

“No, I was just asking Deirdre the same thing. Are you here to join us? We could use a power like yours.”

I looked at Ralof. He seemed older somehow. He looked confused by Ulfric’s mention of my power. I only wished we could meet now under different circumstances. “I’m sorry, my friend,” I said to him. I think I had known what my decision would be all along, from that first day when he had described the glories of the Stormcloaks to me.

Then I turned back to the jarl. “I had my doubts about you from the beginning, Jarl Ulfric, though your cause is just. In honor of my father, who was a worshipper of Talos, I would support that cause. But now I come to your city and see how you treat the Dunmer and the Argonians, and I see that the justice you seek does not extend to any beyond the Nords. And you would even murder your Nord brothers and sisters to achieve your aims. So I ask you, why are you fighting this war? Is it for justice, or your own ambition to be high king?”

“Damn the kingship,” Ulfric snarled. “We have been ruled by these puppets of the Empire for too long. Now we will choose our own high king, a true Nord chosen by true Nords. Whether that’s me, or someone else, I care not. But whoever it is, he will need the support of my armies, and of the people. So I will tell you why I fight, why we all fight, as I am about to go out and tell the people of Windhelm one last time before we start this war in earnest.”

He took a moment to collect himself, as if rehearsing his speech in his mind, pacing back and forth behind the war table. Then he thought of something and came over and looked down at me. I was surprised to see gentleness in his eyes. I held his gaze.

“You told us about your parents in that speech you gave at Helgen,” he said. “And Ralof told me more about how you lost your parents when he arrived back here. So you know the pain of losing those closest to you.” I nodded. “But have you ever seen anyone die, up close, seen the light go out of their eyes?” I nodded again. I couldn’t help thinking of Olaf Brittle-Spear. “And have you ever had to confront their loved ones, try somehow to comfort them when no comfort is enough?” Again I nodded. Of course I was thinking of Olaf’s wife, and of Huldi and Harry.

“Good,” he went on. “Then you will understand why I fight.”

Now he began pacing back and forth again, his voice rising higher and higher, as if delivering his speech to the crowd. “I fight for the men and women I’ve held in my arms as they died on foreign soil. I fight for their husbands and wives and children, to whom I had to deliver grievous news. I fight for we few who did come home, only to find our country full of strangers wearing familiar faces. And what did we gain from our sacrifice? Slavery to the Thalmor! That is why I fight – so that all the fighting I’ve already done won’t be for nothing. Now I say again, in honor of your father, will you join us?”

I admit, I was moved. “Your words sound heartfelt, Jarl Ulfric,” I said, “and I only wish you had similar compassion for all the peoples of Skyrim. For I too fight for those who have died in my arms. But my fight is with the dragons. They’re returning  to Skyrim, if you haven’t noticed. And not just dragons, but the master of all dragons, Alduin, who would destroy all Mundus. You must realize this is a bigger threat than the Imperials or the Thalmor.”

The room was silent then, as the Stormcloaks absorbed this news. I looked over at Ralof, who looked as incredulous as the rest. “Is it really true, Deirdre?” he asked. “You must fight the dragons? But how…?” He had missed the part about me being the Dragonborn, but it was too late to fill him in now.

“So the best I can say to you, Ulfric, is that you must let me fight my battle while you fight yours. As well, it would behoove you to make some preparation in case a dragon attacks here. And as Thane of Whiterun I tell you that Balgruuf does mean to stay neutral in this war. His hirth is loyal and well trained, and you will waste many lives fighting for Whiterun. It is a distraction you need not undertake. But if you carry through with this talk of assassinating my jarl, or attack his city, you must face my wrath.”

“And mine!” shouted Lydia, reaching for her axe, only to remember she had left it at the door of the hall.

Ulfric sighed. “I thought that might be your answer. Yet I can’t take the risk of letting a power such as yours fall into the hands of the Empire, or worse, the Thalmor.” He nodded to the guards. “Take them,” he said.

The guards moved in and Lydia made to fight. I shook my head at her, and for once she relented. “We will not fight you, but you will regret this,” I said.

Meanwhile, Ralof was pleading with Ulfric. “My jarl, Deirdre would never fight for the Empire, not after what we saw in Helgen.”

“It’s what they might force her to do that’s the problem,” said Galmar. “You saw their methods, Ralof. Besides, you’ve always had a soft spot for the lass.”

“Galmar’s right, Ralof,” Ulfric said. “Now get out of our way. I’ve got a speech to make, and then we have a war to fight.”

We walked out of the war-room together, Ulfric and his lieutenants heading to the large front doors of the hall, and the guards leading Lydia and me to the dungeon, whose door was near the front of the hall. I don’t know why Ulfric didn’t think to have me gagged – maybe he was preoccupied with the speech to come, or with Ralof, who was walking beside him, continuing to plead my case.

As the massive palace door opened I saw a clear path out to the courtyard beyond. A crowd had gathered for the speech.

“Wuld!” I shouted. The burst of speed pulled me from the grasp of the guards, and I hurtled through the door and halfway down the length of the courtyard beyond. The crowd gasped as I appeared in their midst, and the guards nearby were too surprised to do anything. I had only one chance for freedom, and it was to get the people on my side.

I broke into a run down the remaining length of the courtyard, the guards who had been with Ulfric giving chase and shouting for the others to stop me. It was full dark now and our torch-cast shadows leapt wildly after us. I arrived at the speaker’s platform and climbed its steps before any could prevent it. Beyond the platform and down the steps toward Candlehearth Hall, more of Windhelm’s residents had gathered to hear their jarl.

I raised my hands for quiet, though I didn’t need to. I had already gotten their attention. “People of Windhelm,” I said, “I am Deirdre Morningsong, and I am here to save you from the dragons, when Ulfric will not!”

They were silent for a moment, not sure what to make of me. Finally one voice rang out, “Someone’s got to do it!”

“Seize her!” I heard Ulfric call from behind me. “Gag her!”

“Ulfric and his guard mean to stop me. Will you hear me speak?”

“Let her speak!” a few people shouted.

Two guards were climbing the steps toward me. I turned on them, hoping the power of my Thu’um had replenished itself by now.

“Fus-Ro!” The shout knocked them falling backward off the platform in a clatter of mail. The crowd gasped again.

“Your jarl is not the only one with the Power of the Voice,” I said. “The Greybeards name me Dovahkiin.” Surely, news of that event had reached the people here, if it had reached Ulfric. It was my only hope. “You have seen what I can do. It is my destiny to defeat the dragons. I pledge to you that I will do all in my power to prevent them from attacking here.”

“The song has come true!” someone called out. “The Dragonborn is here to save us!”

“People of Windhelm,” I asked, “has Ulfric done anything to protect you?”

“No! Nothing!” came the shouts. “Save us! Slay the dragons!” called others.

Halfway down the courtyard, Ulfric stood surrounded by his lieutenants and his guards, watching with a scowl as he lost the crowd. Nearby stood Lydia, still in the grip of two guards, though they seemed unsure what to do. Ralof was there too, a stricken expression on his face.

I raised my hands for silence once again. “Ulfric would detain me here because I will not join his war. But what say you, people of Windhelm? Should your jarl let me leave here and carry the fight to the dragons?”

“Yes,” came the cries. “Save us! Slay the dragons!”

Then a familiar figure ascended the steps of the speaker’s platform. It was Malukah, and she had her lute. “You really aren’t very good at staying under cover, are you, Dragonborn?” she asked. I shook my head. She gave me a wink, and then broke into “The Dragonborn Comes.” For once, I was glad to hear it. In moments the whole crowd was singing the tune.

I descended the steps and approached Ulfric. “It seems I upstaged your speech,” I said.

“Yes,” he growled. “I doubt they’ll want to hear about the war now.”

“You hear them, Jarl Ulfric. Will you let us go?”

He nodded to his guards to let Lydia free. “Just get out of my city before I change my mind,” he snarled.

There was an awkward moment then as the guards retrieved our weapons from inside the hall and brought them to us. Ralof looked as if he would speak to me, but didn’t know what he could say in front of his jarl. Galmar seemed ready to cleave my skull with his axe. Lydia stood next to me, glowering at him.

“And remember my warning about Balgruuf, Jarl Ulfric,” I said. “Moving against Whiterun would be a mistake in more ways than one.”

Then we were moving toward the city gate, the crowd’s song ringing in our ears. We passed over the speaker’s platform and down its steps. The crowd beyond parted for us, and now they were chanting “Dovahkiin! Dovahkiin!” over and over.

The massive doors opened for us and we came out onto the walled bridge over the White River. Only then did I realize Ralof had followed us. As the doors closed behind us and the sound of the crowd died out, he came up to me, but stood a pace or two apart, confusion written across his face.

“Long have I looked for your coming,” he began, “but I didn’t expect … I didn’t know…”

“No, how could you, or anyone?” I said. “But come, is this any kind of greeting for old friends?” I opened my arms and we hugged. “Much has happened since we last met,” I went on. “Too much to explain now.” Then I realized Lydia was standing there patiently. “This is Lydia, my friend and housecarl. Lydia, this is Ralof.”

“Well met,” she said, with a tip of her head. “I’ve heard much about you.” There was just the barest trace of a smile on her lips as she looked from Ralof to me.

Ralof was still full of questions. “I thought you were at the college. But now Balgruuf has made you a thane? And you’re the…”

“My thane is full of surprises,” Lydia interrupted. “For instance, I had no idea she could make a speech like that. Where did you learn it?”

I shrugged. I really had no idea. “Books, I suppose. I remember reading about the speeches of Bero.”

“I’m not surprised,” said Ralof. “I heard her give a speech once before, in Helgen. But I can’t believe what you did back there. And you’re the Dragonborn! How can that be? And you have to fight these dragons? And Alduin himself?” His voice was full of awe, and worry.

“It’s true,” I said. “A great task has been laid upon me.” I didn’t know what else to say. The Nine knew I was full of doubts, but I dare not express them, and anything else I could say would sound arrogant. I had already boasted enough in front of Ulfric.

Lydia rescued me. “Yes, Ralof, the fate of the world rests with our friend Deirdre. It takes some getting used to, doesn’t it?”

We stood there looking at one another for a moment, none of us sure what to say or do next.

“Look,” said Lydia, always practical. “In the rush we left our things at the Blade and Dragon. Why don’t I get them? I’m sure the guard won’t let you back in the city, my thane, not after the jarl ordered you out. I’ll meet you at the stables.”

The guard at the gate gave her some trouble about re-entering, but Ralof vouched for her. Then we began walking across the bridge.

“Deirdre,” Ralof said, “you don’t need to leave like this.”

“You heard Ulfric. If I go back he’ll throw me in the dungeon. I have a task before me, and I will be delayed no longer.” Only then did I remember that we hadn’t achieved our purpose in coming to Windhelm – to retrieve that blasted horn. How was I to proceed in my training without it? I paused, wondering what to do.

Ralof took this as indecision. “I could disguise you, sneak you back into the city. Ulfric will forget his displeasure in a day or two.”

“No, my friend,” I said. “I wish I had more time to spend with you, but it’s not to be. Unless you want to come with us? The last time I killed a dragon, I needed the help of a squad of guards. Lydia and I would be glad to have you by our side.”

Ralof considered the offer for a moment, but then set his jaw. “No, my place is here with Ulfric and my fellow Stormcloaks. I can’t leave just when the war is about to begin.”

“Come then, help me with the horses while you tell me how you have fared since last I saw you. And that reminds me, Gerdur sends her love.”

“You’ve seen her?”

“Yes, a fortnight ago, on my way to Bleak Falls Barrow. She’s worried about you, of course.”

“Bleak Falls Barrow! Why on Nirn did you go in there?”

“Farengar had something that needed retrieving. Seems people are always asking me to get things for them.”

“You didn’t go in there by yourself, did you? And were there … draugr?” He shivered a bit when he said it.

“Only a few. They’re not bad if you can manage not to wake them. And one wight lord. He nearly did me in, but I squeaked through.”

“I knew you were a good fighter, but you must have learned much at the college. And this Dragonborn business – how did you come about that?”

“It’s incredible, I have to admit,” I said. “I doubt you’ll believe the half of it.” We had arrived at the stables, and Ralof began helping me with our horses while I told him of the word wall in the barrow and the fight with the dragon.

“So you absorbed its soul! How that must have felt!”

“I can’t describe it,” I said. “But come, tell me how you have been. How go the war plans?”

“Ach, training and waiting, waiting and training. I’m glad this war is finally going to begin. Every day we hear of a new outrage of the Thalmor against our people.”

“But you haven’t seen any fighting?”

“There have been a few skirmishes between our advance camps and the Imperials, but nothing serious. It’s taken time to amass our force. So many war-bands, coming from all over Eastmarch, Winterhold, Riften, and the Pale. And volunteers from the western holds. Many of the recruits are farmers, and they had to get their harvests in before they would join our fight. Too, I think Galmar wanted to wait until winter, thinking the colder weather would give us the advantage.”

I cinched the last strap tight on my horse’s saddle. “I’m glad I found you here, my friend,” I said, turning to him.

“And I’m glad you came. You’ve put on weight since last I saw you. It becomes you well.” He reached out and put a hand on my cheek. Then a bell rang in the city, and he pulled away. “Deirdre, that’s my watch being called. I wish we had more time together.”

“Maybe next time we will.” I didn’t tell him I thought that wouldn’t be until the dragons were dead and the war was over – if either of us survived those calamities. We hugged, and he headed back over the bridge.

Lydia returned shortly after Ralof left. “Your friend looked downcast as I passed him,” she said. “You’re breaking hearts wherever you go, my thane.”

“Is this any time for idle chit-chat?” a voice asked from behind us.

I turned to see a woman in a hood and cloak step round the corner of the stable. She was leading a horse of her own.

“Who are you?” I asked. Lydia had already drawn her axe. “What do you want with us?”

“That was foolish, what you did back in the city. The Thalmor have their spies, even here.”

“If so, then they know I mean not to join Ulfric’s cause against them. But again I say, who are you?”

“My name is Delphine,” she said. As she reached into her cloak, a coat of mail beneath caught a glint of torchlight. She withdrew a large white horn and held it out to me. “I believe you are looking for this.”

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