The Song of Deirdre – Chap. 23

 

Council Chambers

 

“The Blades!” exclaimed Master Arngeir. “Always meddling where they should not; always seeking to turn the Dragonborn aside from the path of wisdom. Tell me, how did you get caught up with them?”

We had just arrived at High Hrothgar and found the old master in the refectory. I had never seen him so disturbed. His brows knit together the tiniest bit as he stared at me. He didn’t even seem to notice the Horn of Jurgen Windcaller, which I was holding out to him.

“Only one Blade remains, Master Arngeir,” I said. “And I got ‘caught up’ with her when she stole the horn from Ustengrav. We had to travel to Windhelm to retrieve it.”

He was even angrier with this news – I could see just the slightest flicker in the otherwise calm pools of his eyes. “And what did she want in exchange? To enter your service as your protector and guide? To go off and fight the Thalmor together? Did she fill you with dreams of one day becoming emperor like Talos before you?”

“No,” I said, with a vigorous shake of my head. Then I told him about Delphine guiding us to Alduin himself and helping us put an end to Sahloknir.

“Ah, so you met your nemesis once more,” he said. “And did you confront him?”

“My shout did not touch him,” I said. “He told me I was unworthy of the name Dovah.

“As well he might. You are just coming into your power as Dragonborn. You do not yet know the full Unrelenting Force shout.”

“There is a reason for that,” I reminded him.

“Yes,” he said. “We will not allow you to proceed more quickly than is prudent. But still, the World Eater underestimated you if he thought a newly reborn dragon could defeat you. And now you have absorbed that dragon’s soul, making you all the stronger.”

I remembered the horn in my hand. “I thought this would give me power somehow, or it would be a weapon I could use against the dragons. But it seems to be a plain ram’s horn.”

Taking the horn from me, Arngeir looked at it reverently, as if seeing it for the first time. “The Horn of Jurgen Windcaller is important to us precisely because it once belonged to our founder. But it has no use as a weapon; it has no magic.”

“So Delphine was right, it really is just a useless relic. Why did you send me for it?”

“It is useful as an expression of our faith in the Dragonborn, that we would risk losing it in Ustengrav. And the reason we sent you was to provide you with a test.”

“Couldn’t you have found easier ways to test me, even here at High Hrothgar?” I asked.

“I believe Ustengrav was not the only test you faced on your journey, am I right? You came quite close to falling from the Way at one point.”

He looked at Lydia, who had been quietly observing our conversation, then back at me. I could only nod in assent.

“Yet you passed the test,” he said. “You have made good progress in balancing your dragon soul, and your Thu’um has grown stronger. So now it is time to formally recognize you as the Dragonborn. Come, to the entrance hall.”

We gathered once again in the hall where I had first met the Greybeards and begun my training. The masters arranged themselves around us in a circle.

“Before we begin,” Arngeir said, “Lydia, will you stand off to one side? We don’t want anyone getting hurt. Now, Deirdre, Master Borri will give you his knowledge of Dah, or Push, the final word of Unrelenting Force. With all three words, you will find the shout much more powerful.”

Borri waved his hand and three glowing runes appeared on the ground before me. When I had absorbed the word “Dah” from the runes, the glowing streamers of light flowed from Master Borri toward me. I felt the power coursing through me, and knew that Arngeir was right. If only there had been a dragon nearby to test my Thu’um upon!

“Now, to complete our recognition of you as Dragonborn, we would speak to you in the Dragon Tongue. Stand between us and prepare yourself, for our Thu’um is strong. But we know that you are ready.”

When they spoke, the whole castle seemed to shake. The waves of force nearly buckled my knees, but I was able to ride them out and remain standing. Three times they spoke to me. I caught words here and there, Ysmir, suleyk, balaan, the names of gods, but I understood little.

When they were finished, Arngeir came up to me and gave a slight bow. “Welcome to our order, Dovahkiin. High Hrothgar is now open to you and your companion. You are free to come and go here as you please. You may make free use of our library, food stores, and other supplies you might need. And you will find we have arranged quarters for you next to the refectory. I hope that is satisfactory.”

“Yes, it sounds fine,” I said. “But is that all of my training? Certainly there is more that you can teach me. The rest of the Ice shout, for instance. I don’t even know what it does, though I have learned a word of it.”

“If you have questions, we will be here to answer them. And we occa­sion­ally hear of a source of power that could add to your array of shouts. But there will be time for that. It is late, and you must be tired from your journey.”

“Wait!” I said. “My knowledge of the Dragon Tongue is still weak. I’d like to know what you said to me in that ceremony.”

“Ah, yes, I forgot,” he said. “Of course you don’t. Roughly translated, we said that the Stormcrown has long languished with no worthy brow to sit upon. By our breath, we bestowed it on you in the name of Kyne, Shor, and Atmora of old. Now you are Ysmir, Dragon of the North – listen well!”

“Ysmir?” I exclaimed. “First you tutor me in humility, and now you name me Ysmir reborn, Talos come again? No, it cannot be, it is too much. How am I to bear such a burden?”

“By following the Way. By always striving to serve the will of Akatosh above your own ambition. And above all, by keeping your power hidden for as long as possible.”

I wondered if I should tell him about my speech to the people of Windhelm. “I’m afraid it is late for that, Master” I said. “You are not the first to name me Ysmir.”

“Where have you heard it before?”

“From a bard in a tavern. She said the people of Solitude have taken to calling me by that exalted name.”

“And so it begins,” Arngeir said. “The people will expect much of you, possibly more than even the Dragonborn can give them. And you can see the perilous position in which this talk puts you, given the Thalmor’s view of Talos.”

I was surprised the Greybeard was aware of the goings-on in the world outside High Hrothgar, and said so.

“We are not completely aloof from events in Skyrim,” he said, “though it is not our place to intervene. But you walk a different path than ours, and it will take the utmost wisdom to navigate this world. Now is the time to stay true to the Way, and not let this talk of Talos fill your head with pride. Remember, your purpose is to serve the will of Akatosh.”

If only I could know the will of a god, I thought. But I was too tired to argue. Lydia and I retired to the converted storeroom the Greybeards had provided us. There were two single cots, a wardrobe, two chests, and a small table.

“How long will we stay this time, my thane?” Lydia asked, surveying the cramped quarters. Her enthusiasm for High Hrothgar seemed equal to my own.

“Not long, I imagine,” I said. “It seems there is little left for the Greybeards to teach me. But as long as it takes, I must stay here and learn what I can. I must prepare myself to face Alduin.”

“I wish I could be more help,” she said. “It seems we aren’t making much progress.”

We had been two days on the road to the Throat of the World. In that time the elation of killing a dragon had faded as we contemplated the destruction the remaining five could be wreaking. It did not help when we sighted one of the great sky-wingers far to the east, over the Velothi Mountains between Skyrim and Morrowind. It was too far to give chase, which only added to our feelings of impotence.

We were more somber now than we had been on that warm fall day as we set out from Whiterun. The weight of our task now seemed too great and too much had happened to allow for the light banter we had enjoyed at the beginning of our journey.

Yet things had grown easier between us. The morning after Kynesgrove found us in the blasted lands of Eastmarch. The fuming, sulphurous pools and barren, bone-strewn ground weren’t much to look at, but here and there we found a strange plant with yellow flowers. It grew in thin stalks with spiny green leaves. At the top of each stalk was a large flower with yellow and orange petals like wings, out of the center of which grew a cluster of purple.

“Look!” I said when we encountered the first of these. “Those must be Dragon’s Tongue! I’ve heard about them but never seen them before.” I got down from my horse and went to see them up close. They looked strange surrounded by snow from the previous night’s storm. Some of them still bore little crowns of frost. Nearby, the hot pools hissed as the cold meltwater hit them.

Lydia reined up nearby. “What are they used for?”

“A potion of fire resistance, if I remember correctly,” I said.

“Well that will be useful,” she replied. “I imagine some of these dragons will breathe fire and not just frost.”

“Don’t you think they’re beautiful?” I asked, holding them up where she could see them better.

“Sure, I suppose so.”

“Wait,” I said. I ran around gathering up more of them until I had a bouquet. “Here,” I said, handing them up to her. “For you.”

She took them, allowing half a smile as she held them to her nose. “Mmm, they smell good. No one’s ever given me flowers before.”

“Really?” I looked at her in surprise. “And you’ve never gathered any yourself?” She shook her head. “Flowers are some of my favorite things,” I said. I gathered another spray and climbed back on my horse, tucking the little bouquet under the strap of the bridle. Lydia did the same, and we continued down the road, our horses wearing little yellow and purple crowns.

“I thought you just picked flowers for their useful parts,” Lydia said.

“No, not at all!” Then I told her of the many hours I had spent as a child in the forest looking at flowers, gathering them, and learning their names.

“You’re a strange one, Deirdre Morningsong,” she said when I had finished, but she smiled when she said it.

Both our moods were considerably lighter after that. We faced who knew what dangers ahead, in addition to the one certain, unimaginable threat of Alduin. It was good to have a companion with whom to face them.

Now, settling into our chamber in High Hrothgar, even the ever-stoic Lydia was chafing at our lack of progress. It must be something about these dark, silent walls, I thought.

“But you have helped!” I exclaimed. “You dealt the killing blow on Sahloknir. I might not be here now if not for you, thrice over.”

“Still, it seems we must kill a dragon every day if we are to keep up with Alduin’s resurrections. And how are we to do that if we’re stuck up here?”

“I agree, it’s frustrating,” I said, sitting on the edge of one of the beds and pulling off my boots.

Then Lydia smiled. “Who knows? Maybe the Greybeards have the secret to defeating Alduin and they’re just waiting until tomorrow to reveal it!”

“From your mouth to Akatosh’s ears,” I said, and prayed fervently that it was true as I tried to fall asleep.

But the next morning it soon became clear that Arngeir had no such plans.

“No, Alduin is far too great an opponent for you at this point,” he said as he poured out tea in the refectory. “You should consider yourself lucky that he has not yet sought to confront you directly. Perhaps it is his dragon’s arrogance that leads him to underestimate you, but you must avoid falling into that same trap. Killing his lieutenants is one thing, killing Alduin himself, another entirely.”

“Then how am I to proceed, Master?”

“Have you been practicing the meditations on your journey?”

I admitted that I had not. There had barely been time to sleep, much less sit and focus on my breath – a fact I was feeling all the more this morning after a fitful night in which I dreamt of facing five dragons at once.

“Getting back to your meditations would be a good place to begin,” he said. “And when you are ready to develop your power further, I believe we know of a word wall from which you could learn the beginning of another shout. If along the way you happen to battle a dragon, that will not only be good preparation to face the World Eater himself, it will also allow you to absorb the word’s deep meaning and use it in a Thu’um. And if you don’t chance to find a dragon, Master Borri will be here to share his deep understanding of the word.”

“A word wall!” I said. “What word? Where is it? And come to think of it, I don’t even know what shouts there are, or which ones will be most useful against dragons.”

“All will become clearer with time as you absorb each word of power. With luck, by the time you return here to receive Master Borri’s understanding of the word, we will have heard of a new location of power.”

“Wait,” I said. “So I am to go in search of a word without knowing what it is? Then I’m to return here to finish learning it before I can get the location of the next unknown word?”

“Yes, that is the usual way. Learning them more quickly would be quite dangerous.”

“But that will take a week or more for each word! That is time I do not have. And what if I learn a shout that’s no good against Alduin?”

“Well, I must admit that the Aura Whisper shout won’t help you against a dragon,” he said, a flicker of doubt showing in his eyes.

“You are the Masters of the Way of the Voice, and you have been teaching it for Akatosh knows how long. Now you mean to tell me you don’t know the locations of each wall in Skyrim, and which word each contains? No, this is not to be believed. I think you know exactly where each word is, and you just parcel them out one at a time to keep your students in check. But I am no ordinary student, and I will not be constrained by these rules.”

Arngeir looked surprised – his eyebrows rose slightly. “Young lady, what you are proposing is highly unusual, and very dangerous.”

“What’s dangerous is a dragon attacking a defenseless farm,” I said, before I could stop myself. Then I thought of something. “Master Arngeir, did you know your mother?” He was so old, it was hard to imagine him having a mother, but he must have had at least this in common with the rest of humanity.

He was silent for a moment, and his eyes looked not at me but deep back in time. There was hurt there, and sadness. “Yes, I knew my mother,” he said. “But I never saw her after I left home in my teens and began following the Way. We were required to renounce all our ties with the world.”

“And what happened to her?”

“I heard she lived to a ripe old age,” he said very quietly. He must have been thinking of all that he had missed, because I thought I saw just the beginning of a tear forming in the corner of his eye.

“Master Arngeir, it is your turn to meditate. I would like you to concentrate on how that felt, leaving home knowing you would never see your mother again. Think about those early days away from her when you must have been terribly homesick.” His eyes had lost their usual equanimity now. He looked profoundly sad. “Meditate on your mother, alone for all those years, wondering what had become of her Arngeir. And now remember, that was your choice.” He gave a great sigh and tugged at his knotted beard.

“Now what if, instead of it being your choice, your mother had been ripped from you when you were just a boy, at an age when you depended on her the most. Imagine if she died a painful death in the jaws of the cruelest creatures that exist. And imagine if you had to witness her dying.” He nodded his head, and he was trembling.

“Four children, maybe more, have already suffered that pain at the hands of Alduin and his dragons. Now imagine that pain multiplied many times as more and more dragons come back to life. The pain will swallow all of Skyrim. That is the danger, and that is what I cannot let happen.” He rose from the table and paced over to the end of the refectory, as if he would escape my words. But I followed him. I would not relent.

“It is easy to maintain your equanimity,” I told him, “when you cloister yourself away from the pain of the world. But those who have felt that pain realize something you don’t: that it is our duty to prevent what pain we can, and to heal the pain of others, where we can. That is why I must stop Alduin, and that is why you will tell me the locations of all the Words of Power I need.”

I wasn’t shouting, though I wanted to. I spoke calmly and finished by laying a hand on his bony shoulder.

I was surprised when he whirled on me. Now he really was angry, his eyes narrowed to slits and his nostrils flaring. He shook with rage as he spoke. “None has dared speak to me in such a fashion for … for ever! I will leave you now and hope you regret your harsh words.” With that he turned and disappeared into the hallway, leaving Lydia and me staring after him.

 

*~*~*

 

We spent the rest of that morning wandering the halls, wondering what we should do – leave immediately or wait for Arngeir to have a change of heart. But going away without further guidance in developing my power seemed pointless – I knew Arngeir was right that I was not yet ready to face Alduin, but I hadn’t a clue where to look for more word walls or how else to strengthen my Thu’um. No, we would need the Greybeards’ help, but Arngeir had disappeared, and the other masters went about their business, silent as always.

Our fruitless search for Arngeir did reveal one thing: a tome titled The Rise and Fall of the Blades lying on a table in the Greybeards’ sleeping area. Thinking it might explain the hostility between Delphine and the Greybeards, I sat down to read it. I was disappointed to find nothing about interactions between the two orders, but I did discover something else. The Blades had grown out of a group of Akaviri warriors who had invaded Tamriel long ago. That explained the curved katanas, Akaviri swords that still served as the symbol of the Blades. But this had been no ordinary invasion: the Akaviri came to Tamriel pursuing dragons, which they had already exterminated in their homeland. No wonder Delphine felt she had found a purpose for the remnants of the Blades – it was a return to their original mission. Of course the people of Tamriel, especially the Nords, weren’t eager to accept an armed force in their lands. The Akaviri fought their way across Skyrim, and were finally stopped by Emperor Reman Cyrodiil at the Battle of Pale Pass on the border between Cyrodiil and Skyrim.

It was at this point that something exceedingly strange had happened. The Akaviri, it seemed, were not only hunting dragons, but also searching for a Dragonborn who could help them in their quest. Recognizing Reman Cyrodiil as the Dragonborn they sought, they knelt before him and swore him their allegiance. Thus was the order of the Blades established, protectors of the Dragonborn rulers.

This much I should have known from reading histories of Tamriel, but the surprising thing was the late date at which all of this had happened. The Akaviri invasion took place at the end of the First Era, thousands of years after the Dragon Wars. That meant that a number of dragons lived after the Nords had overthrown their rule – scores of them at least, according to the text. How had the dragons and humans coexisted for all that time? And if some had persisted after the Dragon Wars, perhaps a few had even survived to this day, escaping their Akaviri hunters. Could it be that we faced not just the dragons that Alduin was resurrecting, but others who had lived in hiding for all these ages? If so, our task was all the greater.

Lydia and I were in the refectory, sharing a desultory noon meal of old cheese and hard-tack bread, when Master Wulfgar came in. He gestured for us to follow him, leading us to High Hrothgar’s little-used council chamber. It was larger than any other room in the monastery, containing a long oval table made of stone, with stone chairs ringing it. Arngeir and the other masters were seated around the table, and now Arngeir invited me to take a seat next to him.

Arngeir sat there silently for a time, looking at me. Something about him had changed – the calm was still there in his eyes, but behind it, a deep sadness. When he finally did speak, he lowered his eyes. “Dovahkiin, you must forgive me. Your words of this morning made me experience such feelings as I have not known for an age. I had almost forgotten the depths of such emotion.” He paused, and his eyes were moist. “I have spent the last hours in silent meditation at the top of the courtyard tower. I have come to see that in removing ourselves from the world, we have gone too far in cutting ourselves off from all human emotion. But you, you are a true follower of the Way, for you would use your Voice in service to the gods. Only it is not the will of Akatosh you serve, but the will of Mara, goddess of compassion.” He was silent once more, as a tear ran down his cheek. The other masters looked on, stoic as always.

“And so we have decided to help you,” he said, finally. “What would you have us do?”

“I thank you, Master Arngeir,” I said, dipping my head. “Without your help, we are lost. To begin, I will need to know what shouts are available. Then I ask that you advise me on the ones most suitable to stopping the dragons. Then show me where I will find the word walls for each shout.”

He looked at Borri, Wulfgar, and Einarth. They must have silently assented because Arngeir nodded and said, “I will do that. But you will still have to absorb each word’s deep meaning. How do you propose to do that?”

“I must kill the dragons in any case. I will use the knowledge I absorb from their souls to master what shouts I can. If there are too few dragons I hope I can return here and Master Borri will honor me with the gift of his knowledge for the words that remain.”

“Very well,” said Arngeir. “You run a great risk by learning the Words of Power so quickly, but perhaps the task of locating them, as well as hunting and slaying the dragons, will help you temper your growing power with growing wisdom. I must again remind myself that you walk a different path than any Dragonborn before you, for your task is that much greater.”

Arngeir rose and went to a cabinet at the end of the chamber. Unlocking it with a key he kept in his robes, he withdrew two scrolls from it, one quite large. Returning to the table, he unrolled the smaller one for me. “This is a list of all the shouts you can learn from word walls,” he said.

The list contained sixteen shouts, each consisting of three words of power. One of the shouts I already knew – Unrelenting Force. And I knew one word each of the Whirlwind Sprint and Ice Form shouts. I had already experienced both the Fire Breath and Frost Breath shouts, as well as Storm Call and Slow Time at Ustengrav. The list also contained details on the effect of each shout, how long the effect would last, and how long my Thu’um would take to recover after using it.

The larger scroll was a map of Skyrim with the location of every word wall marked on it.

“Thank you, Master Arngeir,” I said, “this is exactly what I needed. I promise, you won’t be sorry for showing it to me.”

We spent the rest of the day going over the list, discussing which shouts would be most useful when confronting a dragon, and which might aid us in our travels across Skyrim. Lydia was invaluable here, with ideas about tactics combining a particular shout with each of our particular attacking skills. And Arngeir was unstinting in his insights into the subtleties of each shout’s use.

In the end, we chose a list of four shouts that would be most vital, and four more that would help us along the way. The Marked for Death shout would weaken an opponent’s defenses and drain its life force – vital against a powerful creature like a dragon. Slow Time would allow me to get in several attacks while my opponent was slowed to a near standstill. I had already experienced the power of that shout. Whirlwind Sprint would also let me move more quickly than my opponent, while not affecting Lydia. Become Ethereal would transform me into a spectral being, incapable of being harmed for the duration of the shout, or until I attacked another. Frost Breath and Fire Breath would be useful when my magicka ran low. Dismaying Shout and Disarm would be less useful on dragons, but could help when encountering bandits, rogue mages, or undead in our travels.

Then Lydia and I studied the map late into the night, laying out a plan for travelling from wall to wall, beginning in the east where we might also encounter the recently resurrected dragons. We would save the lands to the west for later, because we would need to keep our identities hidden and perhaps even invent disguises before venturing into lands controlled by the Thalmor and the Empire.

Several of the word wall locations on the map were marked with strange emblems that looked like masks. When I asked Arngeir about them his face grew grim. “Those word walls are guarded by the ancient Dragon Priests. They are the most powerful of the draugr, more powerful even than the Draugr Scourge Lords. They are not to be trifled with. Seldom, if ever, have we sent an initiate against them – another reason I resisted showing you this list.”

I looked at Lydia. “They can’t be more powerful than Alduin if they once worshipped him, can they? They’ll make good practice in developing our power to eventually face the World Eater, am I right, Lydia?”

“Yes, my thane,” she said, all eagerness. “Bring them on!”

Arngeir looked at us both appraisingly. “I can only hope your youthful bravado won’t be the end of you.” I think I saw fear in his eyes then – fear for us.

When we left in the morning, Arngeir was nowhere to be found.

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