The Song of Deirdre – Chap. 22

 

Kynesgrove

 

The horn was as plain as could be – just a ram’s horn like many I had come across on my rambles in the mountains. I looked for runes, secret writing, hidden mechanisms, enchantments, but found nothing. It hadn’t even been fashioned for use as a trumpet.

This is the Horn of Jurgen Windcaller?” I asked the woman who called herself Delphine.

“Not much to look at, is it?” she replied. Her face was still hidden by her hood, but something about her voice seemed familiar. “I believe this is the Greybeards’ idea of a joke, and you are the brunt of it. You’ll have to get used to that, if you continue as their student.”

“Wait,” I said. “So you’re the one who left the note in Ustengrav? Why would you take the horn?”

“The Greybeards are nothing if not predictable. When I heard that they had called the Dragonborn to High Hrothgar, I knew they would send you to Ustengrav. It’s one of their favorite tests for their initiates, not just the Dragonborn. Most fail it abysmally. And as to why I took it, I had to contact you. I thought taking the horn would get your attention.”

“Well, now you have it,” I said. “But how did you manage to get into Ustengrav?”

“Most of the challenges you faced are meant only for the initiate. To anyone else, the place merely appears haunted. Cracking that chest was a bit of a challenge, but I am not without my own resources. I am the last survivor of the Blades. I wouldn’t have escaped the Thalmor all these years if I lacked skills.”

“The Blades!” exclaimed Lydia. “I read about them in The Oblivion Crisis. They used to be the emperor’s private guard. But I thought you were replaced by the Penitus Oculatus and then the Thalmor wiped you out?”

I shuddered at the mention of the Penitus. They had a garrison in Dragon Bridge, yet they hadn’t lifted a finger to help my parents when the Nords put our house to the torch.

“The Thalmor nearly did finish us, but I have survived on the run since the Great War. As far as I know I am the last of my kind. We were sworn protectors not just of the emperor, but of the Dragonborn. That is why I set out to find you, Deirdre.”

“Then why didn’t you meet us at the Blade and Dragon? You could have saved us much trouble. Or you could have found me at High Hrothgar.”

“The Greybeards are no friends of the Blades. We are too active in the affairs of the world, while they content themselves with contemplating the sky, no matter what befalls Tamriel. No, they would not have let me near you. And as for meeting you here – I was delayed. It could not be helped. If I had known you would make such a spectacle of yourself, I would never have risked leaving the city.”

“Why, what were you doing that kept you?”

“Investigating dragon mounds. The serpents were not vanquished in the Dragon Wars, you see. The dragon cult interred their remains, hoping they would one day rise again. And now the dragons are returning, coming to life from the ancient burial mounds where they have slept for thousands of years. “

“How do you know that?”

“I have visited several of the mounds and found them broken and empty.”

“And how did you find them?”

“I have a map.” She withdrew a scroll from within her cloak and unrolled it. The torchlight was too dim for reading, so I cast magelight at the wall of the stable. The scroll was a map of Skyrim. Here and there were black Xs that I assumed represented the mounds. Some were circled in red with numbers next to them.

“This map looks familiar,” I said.

“It should,” said Delphine. “You’re the one who brought it to me – or the version of it etched on a stone tablet.”

I looked up from the map. Now that I could see her in the better light, I did recognize her. She drew her hood back and I saw that she was a Breton. The furrows in her brow were deeply etched with years of care. She wore her blonde hair pulled back severely in a single plait.

“You were in Farengar’s chamber the day Mirmulnir attacked the Western Watchtower!”

“Yes, and had I known that the Dragonborn stood before me on that day, I never would have left Whiterun. But I knew I had to start tracking down these mounds before more dragons came to life. As you can see, I found five of them empty. The mounds seem to open in succession, moving from the southeast. If we’re in luck we can stop the next rebirth tonight.”

“What? Where? How?” Lydia and I asked all at once.

“Here,” she said, pointing at a spot south of Windhelm. “Near Kynesgrove. If the pattern holds, that’s where the next dragon will be reborn. I don’t know how to stop it, but if we’re in time, maybe we’ll think of something.” She went to her horse. “Are you coming?”

I nearly ran to my own mount. More than a fortnight had passed since we killed Mirmulnir. That had been difficult enough; and now to learn there were five more! I was tired of studying and being sent on foolish errantry. I was ready to kill a dragon, or even better, stop one from being reborn.

“Wait,” said Lydia. “How do we know we can trust her? How do we know that really is the Horn of Jurgen Windcaller? And even if it is, maybe she stole it just to lead us into a trap.”

“Your caution is commendable,” said Delphine. “I only wish you had exercised it before drawing so much attention to yourselves. At any rate, I will make for Kynesgrove whether you’re coming or not. Although I would dearly love the opportunity to see you absorb a dragon’s soul. That would be the final proof I need that you are the Dragonborn.”

With that she wheeled her horse and rode off into the darkness. I mounted my own horse. “Come, Lydia. Whether we can trust her or no, I cannot pass up a chance to confront a dragon. And you’re always looking for glory. What better opportunity?”

“As you will, my thane,” she said, and I could tell she was eager to finally see some action, despite her reservations.

We followed after Delphine and soon caught up to her. “Good!” she said as we drew abreast. “I knew you couldn’t pass up this chance. Maybe you really are the Dragonborn, and not just a foolish girl who learned some parlor tricks with the Voice.”

I let the insult pass. I was more interested in finding out what this woman wanted with me. “Why have you been looking for the Dragonborn?” I asked.

“As I said, my order has protected the Dragonborn since … well, for time out of mind. But more than that, we remember what most do not – that the Dragonborn is the ultimate dragonslayer, the only one who can kill a dragon permanently by devouring its soul. Can you do it?”

“Yes, that’s how I learned to shout,” I said.

“Good. Then together we will take care of these dragons. The Blades have been without a purpose since the death of Martin Septim. And if we can frustrate the Thalmor’s plans at the same time, all the better.”

“The Thalmor? What do they have to do with the dragons?”

“Who else could be behind their return? Anything that creates chaos for the Empire plays to their advantage.”

“Maybe so,” I said, though I knew better.

“You seem doubtful,” she said. “Do you have any other ideas?”

“Nothing for certain,” I said. “Just an old prophecy. But I won’t speak of it until I know for certain.”

“If only Esbern were here,” she said, “he would help us interpret your prophecy, whatever it is. But I’m sure the Thalmor must have gotten to him long ago.”

“Esbern?”

“The Blades’ loremaster. He knew all the old prophecies and legends about the dragons. Fairly skilled in the dragon tongue as well. But he was getting on in years, and I doubt he could stay ahead of the Thalmor, skilled fighter though he was.”

A mass of clouds was moving in from the north and covering the stars as we approached Kynesgrove. Fortunately, the moons still shone in the south to light our way. We found the hamlet in an uproar – if such a tiny place was capable of creating an uproar. A lone woman ran out of the inn as we were tying our horses at the stable.

“A dragon!” she screamed. “A dragon is attacking!”

“Where’s the dragon?” Delphine asked. “I don’t see one.”

“Well,  it flew over a while ago,” the woman admitted. “It was headed toward the old dragon mound up the hill.” She pointed to the east.

“Where are the guards?” Lydia asked.

“They headed up there right after the dragon flew by,” she said. “They haven’t been back since.”

As we climbed the steep road out of the  village, snow began to fall and the wind from the north picked up. The moonlight illuminated the snowflakes in brilliant swirls, but it was hard to see anything ahead. I thought I heard a familiar roaring above the groaning of the wind.

Then a shadow crossed our path and I looked up to see a huge, winged shape silhouetted against Masser. Even through the blowing snow, I could make out the dragon’s long, double-curved horns and the intricate spines running down its back to its tail. It had to be Alduin. The dragon soared past us in a great arc and headed back up the hill.

“Gods, would you look at that monster!” Delphine exclaimed. I wondered if this was the first dragon she had seen.

When we came near to the dragon mound we found the body of a village guard lying in the road. The mound itself, a low dome of stone work and packed earth, sat in a large clearing. I had seen these here and there in Skyrim and never thought too much about them. Ancient ruins dotted the land, their original purposes long forgotten. I always thought the name “dragon mound” was just a bit of fanciful folklore.

I was about to learn how wrong I was. The dragon hovered above the mound, its giant wings beating the air to keep aloft, swirling the snow in great eddies.

Delphine stood gaping for a moment. “I never imagined…” she said quietly, her voice trailing off. If possible, her face looked even more pale.

But not even a dragon could daunt Lydia. She drew her bow and made ready to attack. “You never should have come here, dragon!” she shouted. The beast paid her no heed.

“Delphine, now’s our chance,” I said. “Let’s spread out and attack it from range.”

Lydia’s shout had awakened Delphine from her stupor. “No, get down, you fools!” She took cover behind a rock, and gestured for us to follow. “We need to see what this dragon is doing. If it is going to revive another dragon from within that mound, we need to see how it’s done.”

I thought we had come here to stop the rebirth of a dragon, but I had to admit, the opportunity to see a dragon reborn was intriguing. Lydia and I joined Delphine in her hiding place.

Now the dragon addressed the mound: “Sahloknir, ziil gro dovah ulse!” I caught the words dragon and spirit, no more. My Dovah was still none too good. Then the dragon shouted. “Slen-Tiid-Vo!” Something about flesh and time.

The dragon mound burst apart in an explosion of stone and flame. Out of the rubble rose the skeletal shape of a dragon, smaller than the one hovering above, but powerful nonetheless.

Delphine gasped. “This is worse than I imagined,” she said. Lydia stood on my other side, equally wide-eyed.

I would have been just as aghast as my companions, had the scene not seemed so familiar. Now flame was swirling about the dragon, and dark shapes formed within the flame. It looked very like the swirl of energy that had engulfed Mirmulnir when I devoured his soul, only in reverse. When the swirling fire ended, the new-born dragon stood replete with flesh and scales. It was lighter in color than the dragon hovering above, with fewer spines and a triangular tail.

So we had learned the dragons were being resurrected. It seemed slim knowledge to gain at the price of now having to face two dragons at once.

Then this new dragon spoke and my worst fears were confirmed. “Alduin, Thuri!” “Alduin, Master!” it had said. Then it went on in words I couldn’t understand.

I looked at Delphine. She looked yet more pale. “No, this cannot be!” she exclaimed. Even she had Alduin’s name.

Lydia had notched an arrow to her bow. “Come on!” she shouted. “What are we waiting for? This is the dragon we’re meant to stop!”

“Wait!” Delphine hissed. “You’ll get us all killed! And perhaps there is more to learn.” Reluctantly Lydia lowered her bow. I could see how Delphine had survived all these years, if she constantly shrank from battle.

Alduin was speaking again. “Geh, Sahloknir, kaali mir.” Then the great dragon’s massive head turned toward us. “Ful, losei Dovahkiin? Zu’u koraav nid nol dov do hi.”

How had he recognized me? I thought I was well hidden, though my companions had been none too quiet. I didn’t know what he had said, other than to address me. Then he spoke in the Common Tongue, a language I didn’t even know dragons could speak.

“You don’t even know our tongue, do you? Such arrogance, to take for yourself the name of Dovah.

All my training at High Hrothgar was forgotten, as well as Delphine’s warnings to stay hidden. This was the dragon that had killed Huldi and Harry’s parents, the one that had somehow forced me to witness its marauding. “I’ll show you arrogance,” I muttered as I stood out from behind the rock.

“Deirdre, no!” Delphine shouted, but it was too late.

“Fus-Ro!” I shouted – it was all I knew of the Unrelenting Force shout. At the same time, Lydia fired her bow, only to see the arrow glance harmlessly off Alduin’s thick scales.

Alduin just laughed, a deep, guttural chuckle of amusement. “So, you think you can shout? Your Thu’um is weak.” He turned back to the reborn dragon. “Sahloknir, krii daar joorre.”

I understood enough Dovah to know that Alduin had just ordered Sahloknir to kill us. Then the master dragon soared off into the sky. Sahloknir took flight as well, but not before Lydia hit him in the belly with an arrow. I was glad to see it sink up to the feathers.

Sahloknir took a wide turn around the clearing, perhaps feeling his newly resurrected power before joining the battle. I took this time to give my companions quick instructions, being the only one who had fought a dragon. “We need to spread out. Lydia, for Talos’ sake, have that shield ready – you don’t want to take a hit from its fire breath. Delphine, that studded armor isn’t going to do you any good. Try to stay out of its line of fire and let Lydia and me take its breaths.”

“I’ve never run from an opponent in my life,” she said, but there was no time to argue. The dragon had turned at the end of the clearing and was now flying straight for us.

“Scatter!” I shouted. Lydia and Delphine ran to either side. I knew it was futile to run from an onrushing dragon, so I ran toward it. It swooped down at me and released a breath of frost rather than fire – “Fo-Krah-Diin!” I dove and rolled beneath the dragon, missing the worst of the blast, concentrating on the words of the shout.

The dragon spoke as it rose back into the air and turned for another pass. Like Alduin, he used the Common Tongue. “My master Alduin requires your deaths. I am happy to oblige him.”

I could hear the twang of Lydia’s and Delphine’s bows off to the sides. “Slay the dragon!” Lydia called.

“Remember, friends, those breaths are just words,” I called to my comrades. “Fo-Krah-Diin. Frost-Cold-Freeze. Words cannot hurt you! Keep concentrating on that.” I hoped Lydia’s studies with Master Arngeir had helped.

Sahloknir swooped toward Lydia now. She fired one last arrow then quickly crouched behind her massive shield. The dragon’s breath still hadn’t recovered so it tried snapping at her as it flew past. Its jaws glanced off the strong iron of the shield, nearly knocking her over.

The beast circled again, and this time I summoned my flame atronach. We would fight ice with fire. Now the dragon hovered in the air in front of me. “Fus-Ro!” I shouted at it before it could get out a frost breath. Then I rolled to one side as the icy blast missed me by inches. When I came back to my feet I saw arrows and fireballs flying at the dragon from all sides. It looked this way and that, wondering which one of us to attack next. I drew my own bow and fired at its belly, drawing a gush of steaming blood.

“Ah, so it is to be a true battle,” Sahloknir said. “Good!” He still sounded full of arrogance, but his wings beat with less energy as he flew off to make another circle.

We got several more arrows and firebolts into the dragon, then he came crashing down in the clearing, gouging a great furrow in the ground. He was too weak to fly, yet dangerous. Lydia happened to be nearest to him. She advanced toward his snapping jaws, axe in one hand, shield in the other.

“No, Lydia, watch out!” I called. I could see that he was drawing breath for another blast of frost. She was just getting her shield into place when the icy cloud enveloped her. Through the blowing snow and the frost of the dragon’s breath, I couldn’t see what was happening. The dragon took a step in her direction, snapping here and there.

Someone had to distract the dragon. If it felt my arrows stinging its sides, it gave no hint. I had lost Delphine in the confusion of the dragon’s circling and landing. My flame spell was the only thing I had left that could get its attention. But for that, I needed to be closer. “Wuld!” I shouted, and the burst of speed took me to within a pace of the beast. I began blasting it with fire. The plan worked: it turned on me with snapping jaws. Once it snapped, and I jumped out of the way. I hit it with the flame again, but its jaws opened wide once more and thrust toward me. Its fangs were longer than my hand.

Then I saw a glint of steel from behind the dragon’s head and heard a cry: “Oh, no you don’t, dragon!” Lydia’s axe plunged down, nearly severing the dragon’s head from its body. Sahloknir slumped to the ground and lay there, lifeless.

Lydia smiled triumphantly and sheathed her axe. Her hair and arms were coated in ice and her shield, which she had cast aside to wield her axe with two hands, had a foot-high cornice of frost along its upper edge.

Before I could move to thank her for saving my life or cast a healing spell on her, the soul-devouring began. Delphine, who had been exulting over our defeat of the dragon, now took a step back. “Wait, something’s happening!” she exclaimed. Lydia backed up a pace as well. The dragon’s flesh dissolved in streamers of smoke and flame, and I felt power entering my being. I also found I had a new, deep understanding of “Iiz,” or ice, that word of power I had learned so long ago.

Would I really need to slay one dragon for each word of power I learned? How long would it take to develop my power sufficiently to meet Alduin? The enormity of my task weighed on me.

When it was over, Delphine came up to me. “So it’s true, you really are Dragonborn!”

“Of course she’s Dragonborn,” said Lydia. “Didn’t she tell you she was?” Then she looked at the now fleshless dragon skeleton. “Although, I didn’t quite believe it myself until I saw that. It’s a wonder!” There was something new in her eyes when she looked at me. Wonder? Fear? Awe? I could not tell.

“Here, you must be frozen,” I said to her. “Let me heal that.”

As the glow of the spell enveloped her, she winked and said, “A healing spell! Are you a priest?”

This had been our little joke, ever since that first time I healed her after the fight with the frost troll on the Seven Thousand Steps. She asked me the same thing then, having never heard of a mage outside the priesthood who specialized in Res­to­ra­tion. She would repeat the question every time I healed her, poking fun at herself. Usually I would come up with some half-witty reply, “No, but I do accept tithes,” or some such. Today I could think of nothing.

“Aren’t you happy with our victory, my thane?” Lydia asked.

I didn’t know what I was feeling. Shouldn’t I exult at the victory over another dragon? But I couldn’t. The task before us just seemed too daunting. At least five resurrected dragons still lived. And if Alduin could resurrect a dragon as quickly as we had just witnessed, how would we ever keep up?

Delphine still stared at me. Then she bowed. “As a Blade, it is my sworn duty to protect and guide you, as we hunt these dragons.”

“I already have an able protector here, as you have seen. And isn’t it the Greybeards’ job to guide me? They were the first to hint that Alduin was behind the return of the dragons.”

“But what will they have you do about it? Sit at High Hrothgar and contemplate the sky? Go on useless quests for worthless relics? I’m guessing they told you the World Eater plays a vital role in the cosmic scheme of things, am I right?”

I couldn’t admit that she was, so I held my tongue.

“I see,” said Delphine. “Meanwhile, I have led you to one dragon, and I can lead you to more. Let us work together and put an end to these monsters.”

The offer was tempting, I had to admit. Glad as I was at slaying the dragon, flush with the feeling of power that came from absorbing its soul, I would eagerly repeat that victory again and again. Yet who knew how many dragons there were? Del­phine’s map showed more than twenty burial sites. And could there be more dragons beyond the ones in the mounds? We didn’t know. How much destruction would they cause while we hunted each one?

“Can you tell me how we can stop Alduin?” I asked. “For that seems the only way we can put a stop to the dragons’ return.”

That put the Blade at a loss. “No,” she admitted. “As you saw, Alduin seems impervious even to your attacks, and he’s willing to let his dragon allies do his fighting. But if anyone knows about Alduin’s return, my guess is it’s the Thalmor.”

“You still think the Thalmor have anything to do with this?” I asked, incredulous. “What control could they have over the World Eater?”

“I don’t know,” she admitted, “but do you have any better guesses?”

I shook my head.

“Well then, it can’t hurt to find out what the Thalmor know, can it?”

“I suppose not,” I said. “How do you propose to do it?”

“I’m not sure yet,” she said. “It bears some thinking. Meanwhile, we can study the Dragonstone map for more clues. If the pattern holds and the resurrections continue spreading north and west, the next one should happen west of Windhelm within the week.”

I shook my head again. “I cannot go with you. I must return to High Hrothgar, whether or not the Horn of Jurgen Windcaller is important. Perhaps the Greybeards have some knowledge about Alduin they have yet to impart. And I need to develop my own power further, if I ever hope to defeat him.”

Delphine sighed. “Always it has been thus, the Greybeards holding the Dragonborn back from his true destiny. If they had their way, Tiber Septim never would have united Tamriel. But I see that you are set in this, and I will not delay you.”

Before parting we agreed that we would try to meet Delphine at the dragon mound near Anga’s Mill, west of Windhelm. Failing that, we would send messages via the Blade and Dragon, which served as Delphine’s base. With that, we made ready to depart, Delphine to Windhelm, Lydia and I to High Hrothgar with the mysterious Horn of Jurgen Windcaller.

After we had reclaimed our horses and were mounted for the journey, Delphine left us with a parting thought. “Be on the lookout for likely recruits for the Blades. I mean to fight every dragon that is resurrected, and to do that, it will take an army.”

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