The Song of Deirdre – Chap. 28

 

Westward

 

We pushed our way west over the next fortnight, visiting word walls atop mountain peaks or deep within ancient crypts, and slaying dragons wherever we found them. My power was growing, I had a greater arsenal of shouts, and Lydia and I were learning to work better together. Not even the blood dragons, with their lethal, leaf-shaped tails and seemingly unending stamina, could stand against us now.

Despite these successes, I felt we were merely wandering, with little purpose to our efforts. We had seen neither scale nor talon of Alduin, ever since that night in Kynesgrove weeks ago. Time was a blur, and only the bitterness of the weather told me that we were getting to the end of the month of Sun’s Dusk and onward to the very depths of winter. Wherever we went, we saw that our labors had not been enough. Refugees streamed along the roads, making for the larger cities. Many had lost their homes; some, their loved ones. A few had even fled their farms out of the mere fear of a dragon attack, having seen destruction wrought upon their neighbors.

Ulfric and his rebellion had played a part, too. For now the talk in the inns and at the stables was not just of the dragons, but of the first open hostilities of the war. The Stormcloaks had taken Falkreath, somehow attacking by surprise over the passes east of Helgen. No one had thought that possible with winter weather already settling in over the heights.

“Smart,” Lydia said, and I could see she admired the tactical skill of the maneuver. “Falkreath is on the main supply line between Cyrodiil and Skyrim. Now the Empire will have to bring supplies and troops the longer way round by ship to Solitude. They’ll face winter ice in the Sea of Ghosts, and worse.”

I didn’t know how to feel about the Stormcloak victory. I supposed I should be glad that the Imperial torturers and their Thalmor allies had suffered a loss, but then I thought about the Bosmer and other peoples living in Falkreath. How would life change for them under Stormcloak rule? Although, come to think of it, I remembered one Nord shopkeeper in Falkreath from travels with my father. He hated anyone who wasn’t a Nord and always looked at me, the mixed-blood, with a malicious glint in his eye. It was a wonder he would stoop to do business with my father. So maybe the Stormcloak takeover of Falkreath wouldn’t mean much of a change for its people – except for those loyal to the Empire. They were heading north, joining the refugees of dragon attacks on the roads and crowding the inns and stables along the way.

But if people talked of the war, it was mainly to grumble that it had taken all the good fighting men and women away, just when the towns and villages needed every defense against the dragons. And everywhere, people railed against the Dovahkiin, whose coming had raised hopes that the dragons would soon be defeated. With those hopes dashed, it was almost as if I were to blame for the dragons’ maraudings.

I was glad for the disguises we had donned when we stopped over in Whiterun. The talk in the town was that Jarl Balgruuf was now forced to choose one side or the other in the war. Not only had the pressure from both sides increased, but he had lost a portion of his hirth in a battle with a dragon during my absence. The beast had raided a farm south of the city, and Balgruuf thought it his duty to lead a troop against it. He had taken a serious burn and lost half a dozen of his best fighting men, but prevailed against the dragon in the end.

Now I dared not climb the steps of Dragonsreach to see him. We stole into town in the darkness and went straight to my new house, where we finally spent our first night. In truth, the floor of Arcadia’s would have felt more like home to me, and I’m sure Lydia would have felt more comfortable in her old quarters in Dragonsreach than in the house’s cramped second bedroom, but we made do.

The next morning, we went to Arcadia’s before she opened her shop for business. She made up a dye that turned my hair black and a flesh-toned paste that covered my tattoo. It blended well with my own skin, as long as one didn’t get too close. I hoped that between my hood and keeping my distance, no one would notice that I was hiding a mark on my face. I still wore the arch-mage’s robes, but covered them with my woolen cloak.

Lydia’s disguise was riskier. Her steel plate armor would be obvious even beneath a cloak. She chose instead to wear a plain dress to appear as a common traveler. This would leave her poorly protected should fighting arise. I knew it would be difficult for her, accustomed to traveling armed and armored as she was. Another problem was finding a dress that fit her. We had no time for one to be tailored to her size. Fortunately, Belethor’s General Goods had one that nearly fit. Then we took it to the house of a woman nearby who did piece work.

Lydia seemed somber as she looked into a mirror, the seamstress making final adjustments to the dress.

“You must feel half-naked without your armor,” I said.

“No, it’s not that,” she said. “It’s just, there was a time when I so wanted to wear a dress and be like all the other lasses.”

I almost laughed, but held it back. “What, you, in a dress, indoors, playing with dolls?” She had told me a bit about her childhood, growing up on her family’s farm. She had been much like me, always playing outdoors with the boys.

“No, but when we got older, when the lads began to be more interested in the girls in their dresses than play-fighting with me. The boys were my only friends since we were young, since I first grew so much taller than all the other lasses. You can’t imagine the names the girls called me. ‘Large Lydia’ was the nicest. And then my best friends wanted only to be with them, and nothing to do with me. I was still just one of the lads.” Her dark eyes looked far away as she stared into the mirror.

I was surprised. Lydia always seemed so wedded to the soldier’s life, bent on gaining glory and renown. “Do you wish you’d gotten married like one of those lasses?” I asked.

She smiled a wistful smile. “No. I saw where that life led. The other farmers would come around to our house and eye me as a prize for one of their lads. ‘She’ll make a fine farm-wife someday,’ they’d say. ‘Strapping girl, she’ll do twice the work of any o’ these other lassies.’ I’m surprised none of them ever checked my teeth like they were buying a horse. And I had done enough farm work since I grew big that I knew it wasn’t the life for me.” She sighed. “No, I don’t regret becoming a soldier. I just wonder what the lads would say if they saw me now.”

The dress was plain, but it outlined her figure well, small as it was. But did she see that? Or did she just see “Large Lydia”? “Any of those lads would regret missing their chances with you, if they saw you now,” I said.

Lydia kept looking into the mirror, but I thought I saw her blush.

 

*~*~*

 

We set out the next day, Lydia in her too-tight dress and a fur wrap, covered by her traveling cloak. She kept a short sword near to hand when on horseback, hidden by a blanket draped over the pommel of her saddle. She had her armor packed into one of her saddlebags. She would have to don it before approaching any dragon’s lair, and we could only hope none would ever take us by surprise.

The disguises seemed to work. With our heads covered by our hoods, we passed for two anonymous women, just part of the steady stream of travelers on the roads. No one would take us for thane and housecarl, or “blonde mage and dark-haired sword-sister.” That was the description the Thalmor gave out for us. Malukah had told us about those handbills, and we soon began to see them ourselves.

Yet traveling as anonymous women had its drawbacks. It was not long before we began to attract unwanted male attention. Everywhere there were bandits ready to take advantage of the weak, and brutish men ready to force themselves on any woman they thought defenseless. In normal times, Nord law exacted strict punishments for men who abused women, ranging from fines and the stocks for unwanted touching to death for rapers. The village guard and road patrols captured and punished any man who dared to break these codes, and prevented even more crimes from occurring.

But these were not normal times. Between the Civil War and the dragons, the norms of civil society in Skyrim were fraying. Rape and pillage were common in times of war, Nordic codes or no. Though Ulfric had ordered his soldiers not to treat the women in Imperial territory as spoils of war, there were always thugs and scoundrels ready to take advantage of the chaos.

Inevitably, we ran across brutes who confused us with their usual defenseless prey. They were more a nuisance to us than anything. We fended them off with ease, though not without risk of revealing our true identities. I knew I must never shout where anyone would hear it. But I was more worried about the innocent, defenseless travelers, the women and children who had lost their men to the dragons or the war, and who now found themselves beset by brigands and rapers. The refugees often traveled together in caravans for mutual protection, but this was not always possible.

We had not even left Whiterun Hold when we came across two louts accosting a woman while her two small children cried on the wagon seat. The men had somehow lured them out of sight of the road, but the woman’s cries were enough to bring us to them. One of the men had her stripped to the waist and was unlacing his breeches when I slipped up behind him and slit his throat. The thrill of joy I felt at seeing him flopping on the ground – I put that down to my dragon soul. But in truth there was no part of me that could feel compassion for a raper.

His partner was so busy rummaging about under a tarp that covered the wagon, he didn’t notice when Lydia stepped up behind him. She gave him a sporting chance, shouting “Ho there!” and allowing him to turn around to face her before running him through.

Another time, we came across a Khajiit trading caravan beset by a group of bandits. The traders had a tough-looking, armor-clad warrior with them, but the bandits were too many and the battle was not going well for the Khajiits. One of the traders had already fallen, and the warrior was nearly surrounded. I sent a frenzy spell at one of the bandits at the edge of the fray and he began attacking his nearest comrade. That caused enough confusion that the Khajiits were able to gain the upper hand, along with the help of one or two of our arrows. The remaining bandits ran off before they could notice who had come to the aid of their victims.

“Thank you, friend,” said the Khajiit warrior as we approached. “Without your help, we would all be dead. Such a thing has happened to other Khajiit caravans, but never to one Kharjo has guarded. These roads here on the boundary between Stormcloak and Imperial territory are most unsettled.”

“What brings you to these cold lands?” Lydia asked, and she sounded truly curious, not at all hostile.

“Yes, Skyrim is much colder than the warm sands of Elsweyr, but I feel warmth in your presence,” Kharjo said. He gave a little bow. “Ahkari released me from prison in Cyrodiil, and now I must repay the debt I owe her. A word of advice – never mix gambling and drink, my friends. And you are?”

I don’t know why I decided to tell him our true names rather than our traveling aliases. Perhaps I felt the news would not likely spread beyond the Khajiits, who were rarely asked about anything other than the prices of the goods they carried.

“Well, Deirdre Morningsong, this one will return home one day. All of Kharjo’s friends will hear that Skyrim is not without those willing to help a stranger from a distant land.”

“That Khajiit was much more polite than J’zargo, I thought,” Lydia said as we rode away.

“I believe you’re right, Lydia,” I said. “We’ll make a cat-lover out of you after all.”

“At this rate, my thane, we will gain notoriety despite our disguises. It won’t take long for the Thalmor and the Imperials to learn our true identities.”

She was right. The week was not out when we began hearing talk of the “avenging maidens” who came to the aid of defenseless travelers, and people we encountered began looking at us and whispering. When the Thalmor heard these stories, it wouldn’t take them long to guess that the two maidens with the considerable fighting prowess were actually the Dragonborn and her housecarl traveling in disguise. And from there, how long would it take for them to track us down?

But it could not be helped. I could never pass by when the defenseless and the weak were falling victim to the venal and the cruel. Least of all when it was a dragon attacking a farm. That came to pass as we traveled north of Rorikstead. We saw a dragon swooping and diving on a barn just off the road, sending freezing blasts of frost all around. There was no time for Lydia to don her armor. And I would have to shout. There was no way around it.

“Hin laan krif?” the dragon asked as we stepped in front of it. “You would fight me?”

It looked surprised when I replied in Dovah, “Ahrk krii hio!” I had been spending evenings around our campfire studying the book on the dragon language Arngeir had given me.

The battle went quickly, but not before I noticed that this was a particularly beautiful frost dragon, its scales patterned in white on black. They really were the most magnificent beasts in all of Tamriel, I thought as I screamed Marked for Death at it. Then, just for a moment, I wondered why things had to be this way. Why did the dragons have to wantonly maraud and destroy? But I quickly put this thought aside. I could not let myself feel compassion for the corpse-makers that had orphaned Huldi and Harry and slain Olaf Brittle-Spear and so many others. I felt no remorse at making the beast pay the death-price.

I had not finished absorbing the dragon’s soul when the farm family burst from the root cellar where they had been hiding. The woman and children cowered in fear as the last bits of the dragon’s flesh came away in a whirlwind of fire and the last wisps of dragon energy swirled around me. The man of the farm, a tall, dark-haired Nord clad in a plain woolen tunic, breeches, and tough hide boots, stood before them, unsure whether to thank me or keep me from his family.

“By the N… Eight!” he exclaimed at last. “You’re the Dragonborn! We heard you shout. Then you…” he looked at the dragon skeleton again. “You saved our lives!” He paused, not knowing what else to say.

“You’re quite welcome,” Lydia said, her voice dripping sarcasm.

“You’re right … how could I not thank you? It’s just that … I’ve never seen such a thing!” He shook his head and looked back and forth between me and the skeleton. But then he frowned. “But where were you last week when the dragon killed Rongnar Red-Hand? It destroyed his farm and left his family fatherless and homeless.”

Now he looked around at his own farm, surveying the damage for the first time. His ox lay on its side in its pen, encased in frost. “And it’s killed our ox! How am I to plant in the spring?” He looked back at me angrily. “You’re the Dragonborn! You were supposed to stop the dragons, but there are more and more of them, more and more farms and towns destroyed. Skyrim will not survive at this rate, between the Stormcloaks and the dragons! And you’re not doing a thing to stop it!”

He spat on the ground in disgust, then turned to take his family back to their house. I wondered if he knew how lucky he was to still have a house, but I let the thought pass. I could not blame him. He was in shock, as were most of Skyrim’s residents.

Lydia was less forgiving. “No, you’re wrong!” she exclaimed. “She’s doing all she can! Who knows how many more would have suffered and died were it not for the dragons we’ve slain!”

The farmer turned back to her. “Tell that to Rongnar’s children. They’re making their way to Rorikstead even now.”

I spoke up before Lydia could say more. “Come, Lydia, we’re not wanted here. And good farmer, the only thanks I ask is that you tell no one what you saw here. If anyone asks, we were already gone when you came out of your cellar.”

The man looked perplexed for a moment then the realization broke across his face. “That’s right! The Thalmor are after you! But you don’t look much like your picture on the handbill I saw in Rorikstead.” He came a step closer and looked at my face. “Ah, disguised, I see. Tell me, why shouldn’t I go straight to the Thalmor?”

Lydia reached for her axe. “Tell me why I shouldn’t kill you right now! That would keep you quiet.”

I put a hand on her arm. “No, we won’t do that. Yet if you would have me go on saving what people I can, and slaying what dragons I can, then you will remain silent. I can do no one any good in a Thalmor prison. As futile as my efforts may be, I seem to be Skyrim’s one slender hope.”

“Aye,” the farmer said finally. “I do owe you that much at least. And I’m no friend of the Thalmor either, though I’m loyal to the Empire. But I warn you, my family comes first, should the Thalmor’s questioning grow too sharp.”

“I understand, and you have my thanks for that much.” Then we mounted and moved on.

“You seemed so calm there,” Lydia said when we were a distance from the farm. “Didn’t he make you angry, the ingrate?”

“Not calm, Lydia, just sad. For the farmer was right – we are failing every day. Yet what choice do we have but to go on, though our hope is so slight?”

She had no answer for this, and we rode on in silence.

 

*~*~*

 

As our journey took us farther west, we approached those lands I had once called home. We came to the Karth River flowing through its rocky gorges. I was glad to see it, having spent so many happy hours on its banks. Then, when I thought that just a few hours’ ride downstream was the scene of my life’s happiest memories and also its greatest tragedy, I knew that I could not go there – not yet. I did not trust myself to control the anger that still burned within me. Too, finding my parents’ murderers would take time, and I would not be distracted from my task.

So when it came time to visit word walls in western Haafingar Hold, we came at them by difficult fords across the Karth River and circuitous routes through rugged country, avoiding the easy road through Dragon Bridge. What paths there were roamed up and down over rocky fells and through boulder-strewn glens covered in snow knee-deep to our horses. It was wilder country than that around Whiterun, and my heart thrilled at the ruggedness of it. I only wished I could be here in spring and have the time to enjoy it. But we hurried through it as best we could.

The latter part of Sun’s Dusk found us in the Reach, that still more rugged province of Skyrim hard up against High Rock. The mountains here were not so high as the Throat of the World or the other ranges around Whiterun, but there were more of them and closer together, each ridge separated by a narrow gorge with a boulder-filled stream. The ways went straight up and down the mountain sides and our horses struggled mightily. It was as if the land had been pushed by some mighty force up against the borders of High Rock, and had folded like a forge bellows. The vegetation changed here too. Now there were no lush cedars and pines, just hardy junipers with a few bitter, withered berries lingering from the fall and gnarled, leafless oaks, stunted by the incessant winds.

Some supposed the hold had earned its name when the Nords reached out and took it for Skyrim. The native Bretons, or Reachmen, continued to make up the bulk of the population. Some adapted to Nord rule, working the mines and doing other menial jobs. Those who resisted became known as the Forsworn, a wild tribe as gnarled and twisted as everything else in the hold. While their plight might have induced some sympathy, they had strayed far from traditional Breton ways and fallen into worship of the evil and debased hagravens, those hideous minglings of woman and crow. Whether the hagravens were the product of some twisted cross-species mating or the work of dark magic, no one knew. But they led the Forsworn in gruesome sacrificial rituals that would turn the most hardened Imperial torturer’s innards to water.

For their worship of the hagravens more than their constant attempts at insurrection and petty mischief, the Forsworn were reviled throughout western Skyrim and even in High Rock. They made the roads dangerous, ambushing any travelers they encountered. Off the roads, it was even more perilous. You never knew where you might stumble upon a Forsworn camp hidden in the folds of the land and find yourself fighting half a dozen barbarian warriors along with a deadly hagraven wielding powerful magic and bird-like, slashing talons. The reach-men and -women wore little armor, and indeed little clothing at all – just scraps of fur covering strategic areas of the body, and sometimes an antler head-dress. Woe to the unwary who assumed this lack of armor made them easy to kill.

And now our road led us through that country, into the Forsworn fortress of Hag Rock Redoubt. Long did we debate the wisdom of going there. It was deep in Imperial territory, near to the hold capital of Markarth as the crow flew, but a good day’s journey distant by convoluted pathways. The Thalmor were rumored to have a strong presence in the Reach, as Jarl Igmund supported the Empire’s alliance with Summerset. I remembered something about Talos worship having persisted here longer than anywhere else after the Great War. Perhaps that explained the Thalmor keeping a close eye on the place.

Whatever the history, our way was now threatened both by the Thalmor and the Forsworn. We would not have risked the journey to Dead Crone Rock if it hadn’t contained the rune wall for Maar, or Terror, the last word of the Dismaying shout. I didn’t think it would be much use against dragons, but the full shout would be a great help against other foes. Illusion magic worked to calm or cast fear into the hearts of one person at a time, but with this shout I could scatter many at once and avoid killing them.

Too, it was the last word on our list. Once I had it, we could return to High Hrothgar to finish my training.  I had learned the forms of over twenty words of power, but I had absorbed far fewer dragon souls. I hoped Master Borri would share his understanding of those words whose deep meanings I had yet to learn. And I hoped that Master Arngeir would have some further insight into how I could lure Alduin into battle, or else stalk him to his lair. Or perhaps we could find Delphine and she would have learned something more of the dragons’ movements. Then I could get on with hunting Alduin at last.

“I’ve got a bad feeling about this, my thane,” Lydia said when I announced our destination. “It’s a well known fact that a soldier’s last mission before returning home is the most perilous.”

“Well then, you’ll just have to keep a sharper eye out for me, won’t you?” I winked at her as I said it, but she did not take it as a joke.

 

*~*~*

 

We were on our way to Hag Rock, stopping to feed our horses in the mining village of Karthwasten, when we overheard an impassioned conversation nearby. A man who seemed to be the village elder was listening to a younger man, dressed in the dust-covered garb of a miner. Both were Bretons.

“I can’t believe they took her!” the younger man was saying. “And just when she had been called to the temple! You have to help us get her back!”

“Enmon, it’s all I can do to keep the Forsworn from raiding the village and closing the mines, even when the Silver-Blood mercenaries aren’t occupying them. Maybe you can get some of those brigands to help you, but I can’t spare my guards.”

“But my daughter!” the younger man exclaimed. “You can’t leave her to those savages!”

“Come Lydia, let’s see what this is about,” I said.

Loyal as my housecarl was, I saw her roll her eyes. “Don’t they have hold guards for things like this?” But she followed me anyway.

“Can we be of help here?” I asked as we approached the two men.

They both looked at us, speechless for a moment. I thought about how we looked – Lydia in her dress and cloak that hid her fighter’s physique, me with my mage’s robes well covered, and both of us seemingly defenseless. No wonder they just stared.

“I don’t see how,” said the elder. “Two women, alone, what help could you be?”

“I am Fiona Pure-Spring, and this is my companion, Trudi. Why don’t you tell us what has happened and let us judge whether we can help?” I asked.

“It’s the Forsworn!” exclaimed Enmon. “They’ve taken my daughter, Fjotra. She’s only ten. She was just named the Sybil of the Temple of Dibella. The priestess came to tell us yesterday afternoon, and we said we’d have to think it over for a night, great honor though it is. It’s a big step, you see, giving up your daughter at such a young age. But Fjotra wanted to go and … then in the middle of the night the Forsworn broke into our house and made off with her. There was nothing we could do to stop them. My wife and I are lucky to be alive.”

“Do you have any idea where they’ve taken her?”

“Yes, we think it was to Dead Crone Rock, above Hag Rock Redoubt, southwest of here near Markarth. I heard one of them say Drascua would be pleased with their work. It’s well known that Drascua is the hagraven that holds rites in that abominable place.”

I looked at Lydia. “Well, isn’t this a happy coincidence?” I said.

“If that’s your idea of happy…” She left the thought unfinished.

“Why, how could that be a happy coincidence?” the elder asked.

“I was thinking the same thing!” said the younger man, as if I had taunted him.

“I only meant we also have an errand at Hag Rock Redoubt. We are on our way there now, and we will retrieve your daughter for you.”

If the situation hadn’t been so serious, I’m sure both men would have burst out laughing.

“The two of you?” the elder exclaimed. “Alone? Or do you have a war-band hidden about?” He made a great show of peering around at the nearby rocks and houses, as if searching for the hidden troops.

I ignored him and turned to Enmon. “I assure you, we will succeed in returning your daughter to you, trusting to the Nine that she yet lives. The only question is whether we should bring her here, or to the temple you spoke of.”

The young man looked us both over, gauging whether we could be true to my words. He looked longest at Lydia. Even in her dress, her height made her an imposing figure. “I should come with you, it might be dangerous,” he said at last.

“It will be dangerous,” said the elder. “The Forsworn don’t take kindly to travelers in their territory, especially Bretons who haven’t joined their cause, and even less to Nords.”

Now it was my turn to look the miner over. He seemed strong, of course. “What skill do you have with a sword?” I asked.

“Little,” he admitted. “I spend my days in the mines, not fighting.”

“You’re right,” Lydia said to him. “It might be dangerous. You should stay here.”

The elder shook his head at us, but the younger man looked at us thoughtfully while considering. “Very well,” he said. “I will trust that you can do what you say you can, since no one else can help us. My wife and I will wait for you at the Temple of Dibella in Markarth and pray for Fjotra’s safe return.”

“Markarth!” Lydia exclaimed. “We had no thought of going there!”

“It’s all right, Trudi,” I said. “I would look on the city of stone, since we are so near it. My father told me much of its beauty, though he would never take me there.” I turned to the two men. “Now, the only thanks I would ask in return for our service to your village is that you speak to no one of our presence here. If anyone asks after two women traveling alone, you never saw us. Are we agreed?”

Both men nodded. “Few would believe the existence of two such boastful women, in any case,” said the elder.

“Well?” I asked Lydia as we rode out of town. “It seems we now have no choice but to go to Hag Rock Redoubt.”

Lydia looked at me thoughtfully. She knew I could not turn away from a child in distress, having seen the depredations of the many dragons we had not managed to stop. “As you will, my thane,” she said. “More chances to protect you with my life – they are what I live for.”

What was that I saw in her eyes? Resignation? Frustration at my bull-headedness? I could not tell.

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