The Song of Deirdre – Chap. 27

 

The Hall of the Elements

 

We were all of us swaying in our saddles when we arrived in Winterhold late in the afternoon the day after we emerged from Labyrinthian. We had ridden as hard as we dared in darkness cross-country, traveling north of Whiterun, through the WaywardPass, down past Saarthal, then up over the pass above Winterhold. Lydia and I had been awake for thirty hours, and the mages for longer.

“Thank goodness you’re here!” shouted a villager, running up to us as we dismounted. It was the first time I had received a warm greeting in the town. Usually they were suspicious of college mages, if not openly hostile. “Something terrible is happening up at the college! They need help! Please, don’t let the rest of Winterhold slide into the sea!”

A glance at the college was enough to show he was right. A glowing cloud enveloped the circular walls, and here and there within it were flashes of light and bright, moving things.

“We’re on our way there now,” I said.

“Well, what are you waiting for? Get going!” said the villager.

When we reached the foot of the walkway leading up to the college, J’zargo stopped us. “Wait, we’re all tired. J’zargo has something that will revive us for what’s ahead.” I had been hoping for something to restore my flagging energy, a mug of mead or maybe just some strong tea, but I wasn’t ready for what J’zargo withdrew from his pack: five small, identical bottles. “This one has been saving these for our uttermost need. Now J’zargo thinks we all need to take a drink.”

“Is that … skooma?” Lydia asked.

“Yes, though not as fine as the skooma from my own land.”

“But, it’s outlawed!” I protested. “And won’t we become addicted?”

“No, as J’zargo said, this is not the finest skooma, but watered-down Skyrim stuff. It will restore your energy, but you will not become addicted from just one drink. Besides, what’s more important: saving the world from the Eye of Magnus, or keeping yourself pure?”

Reluctantly, I reached for one of the bottles. The taste was sweet, but there was also a burning sensation as it went down. It had a faint aroma of cloves. I felt instantly revived. The three mages each drank, but Lydia refused. “A Nord doesn’t need skooma.”

“Well I needed it,” I said. “And now I’m ready for whatever is ahead.”

Yet, as it turned out, I wasn’t. I could never have prepared myself for what we were about to find at the college. So I led up the pathway, oblivious of what awaited us, confident in our powers and in the staff I carried.

The ascending walkway was narrow, punctuated by circular landings. At the first landing we found Tolfdir and Phinis Gestor battling strange balls of energy that dodged this way and that, occasionally swooping in to strike one of the mages. We helped the wizards defeat the last one, blasting it with lightning bolts of our own. Then Tolfdir turned to us.

“So you made it! Do you have the staff?”

I pulled the staff from its sheath on my back and showed it to him. “This is the Staff of Magnus. But what’s happening? Where’s Mirabelle?”

Tolfdir’s eyes grew far away for a moment. “She … she didn’t make it. When it became clear we were going to have to fall back, she stayed behind and made sure the rest of us were all right.”

The floor beneath me seemed to tilt like one of the small icebergs in the Sea of Ghosts. I reached out to the landing’s parapet to steady myself. “What? How could you let her do that?” I could barely speak.

“Believe me, I tried to convince her to let me stay and cover the retreat, but she would have none of it. And she is … was … a powerful wizard. Without her sacrifice we might all be dead.”

I leaned with both hands on the low wall now. “Mirabelle was right! You should have left the orb where it was, sealed it away forever.” I thought about Savos Aren’s thirst for knowledge about the orb, coupled with what we had learned about him in Labyrinthian. How could Mirabelle have trusted such a man? I blinked back bitter tears.

Tolfdir put a hand on my shoulder. “Come, Deirdre, we will have time after this is over to mourn for Mirabelle. We all loved and respected her. But now we must fight to save the college, and the very world. Ancano doesn’t know what he has unleashed. We have the staff now, and we need your help.”

I knew he was right. I straightened myself and dried my eyes. I was glad I had drunk the skooma or I might have curled up in a ball right there and tried to find solace in sleep. “All right, what do we do?” I asked.

“Try the staff on that cloud. It’s our only hope.”

Usually it took some time to bend a staff to one’s will, to discover just how to get it to unleash its effects with the merest of thoughts. I aimed the Staff of Magnus at the cloud and pictured in my mind the forked lightning that had come from it when Morokei wielded it. After a few moments of concentration, the ball of energy at the staff’s tip began to glow brighter and then a streak of lightning shot from it. The branched lightning played over the cloud in an intricate network of energy. Just as it had done with me, the staff drained the cloud’s magical energy. Soon, the way into the college was clear.

“I believe Ancano is still in the Hall of Elements with the Eye,” Tolfdir said.

I didn’t see any sign of Mirabelle’s body as we crossed the courtyard – a good thing, or I might not have been able to go on. The statue of Shalidor glared down at us from its spot in front of the Hall of the Elements, battling an unseen wind. I cursed the ancient mage for his labyrinth that had so delayed us. Without it, we might have arrived in time to save Mirabelle. Then we entered the hall.

“There he is, just as we left him,” said Brelyna.

“Only now there’s no shield protecting him,” Onmund pointed out.

The Altmer wizard stood just beyond the orb on the other side of the hall. The Eye of Magnus looked much as it had in Saarthal, only now it was suspended over the magical well at the center of the hall. It still glowed with that mysterious blue light coming from within its ornately patterned metal-work, rotating slowly this way and that.

An arc of lightning connected Ancano to the Eye. Whether he was doing something to the Eye or drawing energy from it, I couldn’t tell.

He barely glanced in our direction as we stepped into the hall. “I wield the power to unmake the universe, and you think you can stop me?”

“Hit him now!” Tolfdir commanded, and the four mages hit him with different spells of Destruction. I tried the staff on him, and Lydia fired an arrow. None of it appeared to affect him. Lydia’s arrow flew past him, as if the energy surrounding him had deflected her shot.

“Spells have no effect!” Tolfdir exclaimed.

“Ha!” Ancano exulted. “I am beyond your petty attempts at magic. You cannot touch me.”

“The staff!” Tolfdir shouted. “Use it on the Eye!”

I did as he said. I aimed the staff at the orb and an arc of lightning leapt across the gap. It was hard to tell if it made any difference. Perhaps the Eye grew slightly dimmer, but that was all.

“Enough!” Ancano shouted and broke off from the Eye long enough to aim a spell in our direction. My five companions were all instantly paralyzed, and fell heavily to the floor. The staff must have protected me from his spell. Ancano reestablished his connection to the Eye and the sizzling, crackling bolts of energy returned.

“Still you persist?” Ancano asked. Then he seemed to recognize me for the first time. “You! You’re that Breton who discovered the orb. But then you disappeared. Where have you been? What have you been up to?”

“Oh, here and there, this and that,” I said, trying to sound bolder than I felt. “I learned this, for instance.” I used Unrelenting Force on him. Nothing happened. Then I grew truly afraid for the first time. That shout had staggered dragons, yet he was unharmed.

“You can shout! You have been busy. But little good it will do you. Look, see what I can do.” He seemed to redouble his efforts with the Eye. The orb’s outer covering began to come apart in segments like a carefully peeled apple skin, revealing the blinding light of Aetherius within. Then there was a burst of energy from the Eye.

“No!” Ancano shouted in surprise. Out of the openings in the orb’s outer structure came more of the balls of energy Tolfdir had been fighting outside the college.

Before the situation could get worse, I began blasting the Eye with a steady stream of lightning from the staff. Slowly the walls of the orb began to move back together. While I tried to maintain my connection to the orb with the staff, one of the balls of energy began attacking me. I felt a shock every time it came near. I tried moving away from it, keeping the staff focused on the Eye. Ancano was having his own trouble with several of the magical entities and had lost his connection to the orb.

Finally the outer armature of the orb came back together and the Eye was once again a glowing ball. Ancano still hadn’t attached himself to it, so I tried attacking him once more. This time my firebolts pushed him backward. My Thu’um had revived as well. I used it on him again, knocking him into a pillar. The magical entities closed on him, attacking from all sides. Ancano screamed, then lay still.

With Ancano dispatched, my companions were released from their spell of paralysis. They got up stiffly and began dealing with the balls of energy. I was too tired to help. A great wave of exhaustion washed over me and I sat down on the steps surrounding the hall.

Of all that happened after defeating Ancano – of my friends and Tolfdir congratulating me for saving the college and the world; of the appearance of Nerien and two of his fellow Psijic monks; of Nerien praising me for doing exactly as they had foreseen and opining that I should be made arch-mage of the college; of the monks vanishing along with the orb – I would remember nothing. I only know these things because Tolfdir told me of them later. One thing only do I remember: Nerien’s green eyes gazing at me as he told me that they would now remove the Eye of Magnus from Skyrim because it was too dangerous to exist on this plane of Mundus.

Now you’re going to step in?” I exclaimed. “Why not before, when Savos and Mirabelle were still alive? Why couldn’t you have interfered then?” I felt my rage and grief boiling inside me, and I knew I could not control them. My anger spilled out in a shout: “Fus-Ro-Dah!” I bellowed at the monk.

But this was, after all, just a projection of Nerien from whatever plane the Psijics inhabited. The shout did nothing.

“You are tired, over-wrought…” he said, and waved his hand. A white light swept over my eyes, and I knew no more.

 

*~*~*

 

I awoke in a strange bed. The chamber was large and round, with an atrium in its center. A curving wall separated this sleeping area from the atrium and the rest of the chamber. I realized it could only be the arch-mage’s quarters. I had been here once before. I had marveled at the garden of herbs, flowers and other potion ingredients growing in the atrium, but had never been past the wall to this private area.

I rolled over in the bed, and noticed I was wearing only my shift. Someone had stripped me out of my apprentice’s robes, boots, and bracers. Lydia sat in a chair next to the bed. She was dressed for indoors for once, wearing a simple tunic and calf-skin slippers. She was engrossed in a book, her elbow propped on a crossed knee, below which her well-toned calf was bare. She bounced her foot nervously to some rhythm only she could hear as she read.

“Lydia, you’re becoming quite the reader,” I said.

She looked up. “You’re awake, my thane!”

I sat up. I hadn’t felt so well rested in weeks. If any dreams had troubled my sleep, I couldn’t remember them. “What do you have there?” I asked. She showed me the cover: The Cabin in the Woods. “Well, your taste needs some improvement, but it’s a start. How long have I been asleep?”

“Most of a day,” she said. “The battle with Ancano was yesterday afternoon and now it’s afternoon once more. I just awoke an hour ago myself.”

Ancano – yes, he was the reason we had returned to the college, I reminded myself. But it was all fuzzy.

The covers on the other side of the double bed were undisturbed. “Where did you sleep?” I asked.

“Tolfdir had a bed brought up for me.” She pointed to a small cot on the other side of mine, not far away. “They would have given me your old cell, but I told them I must stay by your side.”

“My old cell? What am I doing here, anyway?” I could not think of a reason that I should be sleeping in Savos Aren’s chambers.

“Tolfdir and the other masters named you arch-mage, my thane.” She beamed with pride for me as she said it. “There was a bit of resistance from Faralda, but the rest of the staff overcame it.”

“But why?” I asked. If I couldn’t think of a reason for sleeping in the arch-mage’s chambers, I certainly couldn’t think why they would name me arch-mage.

“Why?” she repeated. “Because you defeated Ancano and saved the college! Because without you – and a little help from me, I do admit – your three friends never would’ve retrieved the Staff of Magnus in the first place.”

Then it all came rushing back – the news about Savos Aren’s death, the long crawl through Labyrinthian and the terrible things we had learned about our arch-mage there, the even worse news about Mirabelle’s death when we arrived back at the college. But of everything after that, there were only bits and pieces – Ancano taunting us, the orb opening, the strange balls of energy converging on the High Elf. And then Nerien revealing that the Psijics had the power to deal with the Eye all along.

The reality just seemed too terrible to contemplate. “No!” I wailed, turning my back on Lydia. “I have failed! How can they reward me?” I sobbed into my pillow. A flood of guilt washed over me, and not just for failing to save Mirabelle and Savos. Now I remembered the bedraggled family of refugees we had met on the road here. A dragon had burned their farm, leaving them with nothing but their lives and the clothing on their backs. Where was this Dragonborn they had heard so much about, they asked. Why hadn’t the Dovahkiin come to save them? When we stopped at the Nightgate Inn, Hadring told us there had been a constant stream of refugees from lands to the west, all asking the same thing.

“What good is it to be dragonborn if all I ever do is fail?” I buried my face in the pillow, my body racked with sobs.

I felt Lydia’s hand on my shoulder, and her weight on the bed as she sat beside me. “But you did not fail, my thane! You saved the college! And more, Tolfdir says the Eye could’ve destroyed all of Nirn itself. Or, if Ancano had found a way to control it, the Thalmor could control all Tamriel. You saved the world, my thane!”

“But Mirabelle!” I said. “And that family we met on the road! How many more have died since we became diverted by this business with the Eye? How many more dragons has Alduin resurrected?”

“Mirabelle was important to you, wasn’t she?”

I nodded. “Like a second mother.”

“I know it must be hard. But listen – Mirabelle gave her life valiantly to save others. And no battle is won without casualties, sometimes even those closest to us. Remember when I told you that I spent most of my time with Nords when I was in the Imperial Army?”

I nodded.

“That wasn’t quite true. There was Lashana, a Redguard. We were new recruits together. We bunked together, ate together, trained together, fought together. She was as close to me as my own sister used to be.” She paused for a moment. “Do you remember I told you Redguards are sometimes reckless in battle? When we met that Khajiit incursion, she foolishly rushed in and was impaled on the lance of one of their riders. It happened right in front of me, yet I had to keep fighting.”

I turned to look at her. She sounded so sad, I expected to see tears in her eyes, but they were dry. “How did you go on?” I asked.

“In the moment, there wasn’t time to consider what had happened. It seemed like a dream. But later, when I went back and found her body and realized I had truly lost her, then I had to ask myself what she would want me to do. Would she want me to quit the army and the life I had built as a soldier? And the answer was no. To honor her memory, I knew I had to go on.”

I looked up at the ceiling far above the bed. Where would I find the strength to go on? It seemed I had made no progress in my task of stopping the dragons. I still had not avenged Harry and Huldi – and how many more orphans were there by now?

“You said Mirabelle was like a mother to you,” Lydia said. “What would Mirabelle want you to do? What would your own mother want you to do?”

The answer was obvious. “They would tell me not to give up,” I said.

“Of course,” she said. “You have done all any one person could do, even the Dragonborn. You have slain many dragons. As for Alduin – short of learning to fly, how are you to confront him, if he will not come to you? No, no one could expect you to have done more than you already have. And if you keep battling the dragons and building your power, maybe you will find a way to confront Alduin himself.”

“I suppose you’re right,” I said.

She gave my knee a slap through the covers. “But you’re not going to do any of that by lying about in bed.”

“I’m not lying about!” I protested. “I only just woke up.”

She smiled that half smile of hers. I could tell she felt she had won a small victory by pricking my sense of pride. I would have to prove to her that I was no layabout. “But now it is time to start the day,” she said. “Will you rise and break your fast with me? Colette brought up a tray of food. Then we must plan what we’ll do next. The rites for Mirabelle and Savos Aren are tomorrow morning, and I imagine we should leave soon after.”

I nodded. I knew she was right. “You’re a hard task-master, considering you’re my housecarl,” I said.

“That’s my thane,” she said, and leaned down and kissed me on the forehead. Then she touched the wrinkled spot on my brow, gently. She looked as if she would say something more, but then she got up to see about the food.

 

*~*~*

 

The smoke from Mirabelle Ervine’s funeral pyre wafted up into the cloud-covered sky as the snow came falling down. I watched the smoke melding with that other grayness. What would happen to her essence now? The Nords had their Sovngarde, the Redguards their FarShores, but Bretons had other choices. Would Mirabelle follow Y’ffre on the wild hunt, as my mother had hoped for? Or would she simply merge back into Aetherius, becoming one with the energy of Mundus?

Mostly, I simply wept inconsolably for my own loss. I held myself together through the service, through Tolfdir’s moving eulogy for Mirabelle, and Faralda’s more calculating comments about Master Aren. It was only when the torches were set in Mirabelle’s pyre that I finally broke down. Lydia stood on one side of me, a consoling hand on my arm, and Onmund on the other. As the flames crept higher, I could watch no longer. I buried my face in Lydia’s shoulder and abandoned myself to grief. When I looked up again, the fire was nearly out, and nothing was left of Mirabelle but ashes and smoke.

Savos Aren’s body was nearby. He would be transported to Mournhold for interment in his family crypt. But Mirabelle had wanted her ashes to remain here at the college to which she had devoted so much of her life.

I was not the only one crying. There were few dry eyes in the college’s courtyard by the end of the ceremony. Only Faralda seemed unaffected, remaining remarkably sanguine about it all. I couldn’t help thinking it was because she still wanted Savos Aren’s job. She had been fawning around me all morning – until she learned that I had named Tolfdir acting arch-mage.

That had been my one act as leader of the college: naming my replacement. I had taken Tolfdir up to the top of the arch-mage’s tower and delivered my decision. He was none too happy about it, trying to convince me to stay.

“I may be the Dragonborn,” I told him, “but I’m still only seventeen. What do I know about running a college?”

“If you stay, I will guide you,” Tolfdir said. “You have great magical power, and you have experienced more than most of the college’s wizards combined. You showed more wisdom about the Eye than did either Savos or I. The newer students look up to you as their leader. You are the obvious choice!”

“No, Master Tolfdir, my task lies elsewhere.” I looked off to the lands to the west. Somewhere over those mountains were the lowlands near Morthal, where I must go next. “You will make a much better arch-mage than I. I will leave the appointment of an assistant to you, but I highly recommend Brelyna. She has gotten over her block with Alteration magic, and truly came into her own in searching for the Staff of Magnus. Too, she has never engaged in the petty games those higher up in the college have indulged in. I hope that you will be able to put an end to the infighting in the college.”

“The college can survive some infighting,” Tolfdir said. “But I wish you would reconsider. I feel awfully old to be taking on such a responsible position at this time in my life. But if I must, then an energetic young assistant like Brelyna will be a great benefit to me.” Tolfdir leaned on the parapet and looked out across the Sea of Ghosts. “I still find it hard to believe your tale about Savos Aren. That was not the Dunmer I knew.”

“Perhaps the experience changed him,” I said. “He certainly sounded contrite as he left Labyrinthian.”

“You must be right,” said the old Nord. “He was always concerned for the safety of the college and its students, especially after the White-Gold Concordat, when the Thalmor began snooping around. He was quite skillful in fending off their interference, at least until this last episode with Ancano. Still, it does explain his rather loose attitude toward magical experimentation. I think he was in favor of anything that would add to the power and reputation of the college, not to mention his own. Perhaps I fell under that lust for knowledge as well, when it came to the Eye.”

I was glad to see Tolfdir showing some bit of remorse for his and Savos’ obsession with the Eye. Mirabelle had the right of it – if only she had spoken up! I hoped Tolfdir’s new-found wisdom would last in his guidance of the college.

Now the funeral rites were over and it was time for Lydia and me to take our leave. Tolfdir and the three apprentices – now advanced to the rank of scholars – walked us to the bridge over the chasm between the college and the town to say their farewells. Onmund continued with us over the bridge and down the pathway.

At first he had little to say. “Those arch-mage’s robes fit you nicely,” he said finally. The robes were the one appurtenance of the arch-mage’s position I could not turn down. They were too magically powerful and would be of great help against Alduin – if I ever discovered how to come face to face with the World Eater. Colette had volunteered to refit them for one of my size.

“Why?” I asked Onmund. “Do you mean they are becoming to my figure?” I held up my arms and spun around, mock-seductively. In truth, they were loose-fitting, heavy garments with a sewn-in hood that did more to hide than reveal their wearer’s charms. Onmund seemed to miss the fact that I was teasing him, though Lydia did not.

She winked at me and said, “In that garb, it’s hard to imagine any man withstanding your advances, my thane.” She seemed to think teasing Onmund was good sport.

“No, I didn’t mean they were attractive,” he said, blushing.

“Well, that’s a relief,” I said.

“Not that you’re not attractive! I just meant, you’re so well suited to be our next arch-mage! Please, won’t you change your mind?”

“Yet my magical power still cannot equal that of Faralda, Sergius or the other wizards. How would it look if I took this position ahead of them? Too, I am not finished with the task I set out to accomplish. I am anxious to return to it even now.”

He looked down at the cobbled village roadway over which we walked. “I suppose it would be foolish to ask again if I could accompany you, after my behavior in Labyrinthian.”

We had almost reached the stables now, and I turned to face him. “Yet you fought bravely in the end,” I said. “And we never would have solved that maze if it hadn’t been for your knowledge. So don’t be so hard on yourself.” I reached out to put a hand on his arm, but he mistook the gesture, and gathered me into a hug.

“So you will let me come with you? You’ll see, two mages can work well together.”

“No, I didn’t say that,” I replied, pushing him away. “A mage and a warrior make a better combination, I have found so far. Besides, you’re needed here. Brelyna will need a friend and supporter if Tolfdir names her his assistant. Faralda and Nirya will give her no peace.”

Onmund looked stricken. “Do you remember that night after the party? The night we kissed? I thought that meant something to you!”

“I’ll go saddle the horses,” Lydia said, too brightly, excusing herself before the situation could grow even more awkward.

Now I did put my hand on his arm. “My friend … Onmund … I cannot give you what you want. My head was full of strong drink on that night. I was confused. But in the sober light of day, I can only be your friend. I cannot love you in that way.”

Onmund looked over to where Lydia was hefting a saddle onto one of the horses. “It’s her, isn’t it?” he demanded.

“What do you mean?”

“I’ve seen the way you look at her. You turned to her for comfort this morning, when I was right there beside you. Don’t think I don’t know what’s going on.”

“What could you imagine is going on?” I demanded. “Lydia is my closest friend and companion. We have grown close over these weeks, how could we not? And it’s not as if we haven’t had our difficulties.”

“Well, I hope you find her a better comfort than me. Now, I will say no more.” He turned back toward the college.

“Onmund, don’t let us part in this way!” I called after him. “We can still be friends!” But he kept walking away, not even glancing over his shoulder.

I went to help Lydia finish loading our bags onto the horses. “I suppose you heard all of that,” I said.

“Couldn’t help it, could I?” she replied. “It’s absurd what notions men will get into their heads, isn’t it?” Was there a twinkle in her eye as she said it? I couldn’t be sure.

“It’s beyond belief!” I exclaimed. My horse stamped its hoof as I cinched a strap a bit too tight.

“You could have just given him a kiss, you know, maybe a bit of hope for the future,” she said.

“No, I couldn’t, Lydia! How could I lead him on in that way when I know I’ll never love him?”

“You know, the bards write songs about heartbreakers such as yourself, my thane,” she said, and now I definitely saw a twinkle in her eye.

“Oh, really?” I said as I climbed onto my horse. I tried to make it sound as if I were jesting as well, but I don’t think I succeeded entirely. “And do they also write songs about housecarls who are sent home for offending their thanes?”

She had nothing to say to that.

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