The Song of Deirdre – Chap. 29

 

The Reach

 

Hag Rock Redoubt was an elaborate fortress, its stone columns, arches and towers blending in to the gray rock spires and outcrops of the box valley in which it sat. Eons of ice, wind and rain had weathered the stonework, eroding the dragon heads atop each column almost beyond recognition. From below, all we could see were the tops of these columns and towers ascending the valley in tiers to a lofty, mist-shrouded balcony standing above the rest – Dead Crone Rock, where I would find the word wall I was after. But would the Forsworn have Fjotra up there, or in one of the many stone towers of the redoubt?

We dismounted just out of sight of the first tower. I looked doubtfully up at the redoubt, thinking about the last time we had encountered the Forsworn. That was at Hag’s End, and it had not gone well. They were so many, and so aggressive, that I could not cast calming spells quickly enough. My fear spells only sent them running deeper into the fortress to alert more of their comrades. With only two words, the Dismaying shout was not powerful enough to scatter all of them. I finally had to cast frenzy spells and let them annihilate one another while Lydia and my atronach took care of the rest. We ended by wading through bodies to reach the word wall.

“Lydia, I’m thinking it’s best if you stay here, while I sneak inside,” I said.

“What? No, my thane! My place is by your side.”

“I know you want to protect me, but on my own I can sneak past them with ease. You must admit you’re not equipped for stealth. You would alert every Forsworn in there, and then it would be another Hag’s End. I cannot stomach that.”

“But they are barbarians, my thane!” she protested. “How can you feel such compassion for those who would slaughter the innocent?”

“Slaughtering the Forsworn in turn makes us no better than they are. I will gladly kill any I find in the act of sacrifice, and they will feel my wrath if they’ve harmed Fjotra, but I will not butcher them wantonly. Perhaps one day they can be made to see the error of their ways.”

“As you will, my thane,” she said, “though it violates my vow to protect you with my life.”

With that settled, I made ready to enter the redoubt on my own. I had acquired quite a few enchanted items in our explorations and now I donned a ring of sneaking.  A shrouded hood I had pilfered from the Dark Brotherhood Sanctuary would also help me go unnoticed. With these items, along with my muffling spell, my natural stealth, and a few invisibility potions, I hoped to sneak past all but the most alert of the Forsworn.

As it turned out, the Forsworn were no more watchful than the bandits I had encountered in the past. I made my way up to the first of the redoubt’s terraces, finding only one oblivious guard. Stone huts dotted the terrace, along with the hide-covered shelters of the Forsworn. Here and there I could see other warriors going about their business, making potions at an alchemy table or sharpening weapons at a grindstone. They didn’t notice me as I crept to the door of a tower that would lead to the next level.

Inside, I found the tower more populated than the terrace outside, but the pillagers, shamans, and archers shared a common flaw: they looked, but they did not see. It would have been too easy to creep behind them and slit their throats one at a time, or to loot the many chests and shelves I passed on the way.

I did take the chance to pilfer a set of the Forsworn shaman armor. There was so little to it that I easily tucked it away within my own robes. I wanted to take it to an arcane enchanter and discover whether it had some sort of magical armament. That seemed the only explanation for such fearsome warriors wearing such skimpy protection. The men wore kilts, calf-high leggings, bracers, perhaps a fur cape over one shoulder. Now I passed a woman wearing even less: a short skirt that rode low on her hips and a skimpy halter that barely contained her. There must be some magic involved, I thought, just to keep that garment from falling off.

I emerged onto the second level of the fortress to see great stone stairways ascending the cliffs in tiers. It was a simple matter to creep up them to the final level of the redoubt and enter the last tower. My closest call came when I nearly triggered a gate trap that would have smashed me to bits. At the top I found a wooden stair leading to the level above – Dead Crone Rock.

I crept upwards and peered across an expanse of stone to see the word wall I was after. But my way to it was blocked. A hagraven had taken the space in front of it for her sacrificial altar. Two long slabs raised to table height stood parallel to each other. On one lay a Forsworn warrior, his hands gripping the edge of the slab so hard his knuckles were white. On the other lay a little girl wearing a plain dress. Her hands and feet were bound to the slab. Her eyes were closed, but I could see her lips moving, no doubt reciting a prayer.

Drascua, the hagraven, stood between the two tables reciting an awful incantation:

“Blood of virgin, bones of the wild,
heart of thorn, innocence of child…”

 

She was even more dreadful than the other hagravens we had encountered. She was dressed in rags that hung about her body. Feathers protruded here and there and formed a skirt around her waist, whether growing from her body or attached somehow, I could not tell. Her hair was mere wisps of gray, stringy, matted stuff that hung down her back. Her face might have been human once, but now it had the appearance of a bird’s beak made flesh. Her fingers were awful talons, bird-like but many times the size and power of an actual raven’s. She crept about on clawed feet, bent over like a crone. Yet I knew better than to take her for a frail old woman. I notched an arrow to my bow and waited for my moment to strike. I would have to be careful if I was to face both hag and warrior on my own.

As it turned out, I didn’t have to. The hag took up a wickedly sharp dagger in one taloned hand, its edge glinting in the morning sun. Would she turn it on Fjotra? I pulled my bow taut, ready to let fly. But she kept up with her chanting, holding the knife aloft, then turned to the Forsworn.

“Heart of Briar for heart Forsworn;
This gift of life, in death reborn.”

 

Now I saw the briar heart on the slab next to the warrior – the red and yellow center of the briar shrub, so common on the heath of the Reach. Next to it, the poor fellow’s body shook with fear, but he kept his grip on the edges of the slab. Then Drascua placed one clawed hand on his chest, leaning her weight on it to hold him down. The other hand rose into the air, its talons clacking together, then with a cry she plunged it down into his ribs, just below his chest. Blood gushed out, and the man’s screams were awful to hear. I looked over at Fjotra. She still had her eyes shut, but was praying out loud now. “Lady Dibella, save me!” she called to the skies.

The warrior had gone limp. With practiced motions, the hag twisted her claws in his chest, wrenched upward, twisted again, then jerked to the side. Even from where I crouched, the stench of blood was strong. There was a squelching sound, and her clawed hand came away, the warrior’s still-beating heart clutched in its grasp. She placed it gently, almost reverently, into a bowl waiting to receive it.

So this was the hagraven’s briarheart ritual! A Forsworn warrior would give up his life to achieve even more power in death, drawing on the life force of the briar heart. In exchange, the hagraven got the human heart for her own dark purposes. It wasn’t a great leap to conclude that Fjotra’s blood or even her own heart would somehow be used to enliven the dead piece of plant material. Perhaps the hagraven believed that the heart of one chosen by the gods would lend the warrior extra power.

A wave of nausea passed over me, similar to what I’d felt in the Helgen torture chamber. Yet I knew I could not falter – Fjotra was depending on me, though she didn’t yet know it.

The hag began chanting again:

“Heart of the thorn, blood of the child,
Power reborn from innocence defiled!”

 

She began turning toward Fjotra, her taloned hand held aloft, and I knew what would happen next. My arrow caught her beneath the rib cage, entering at an upward angle that should have found her heart.

But maybe hagravens don’t have hearts. Drascua screamed and turned in the direction from which the arrow had come. Only I was no longer there. I had crept off to one side, remaining as stealthy as I could. But she found me soon enough, hitting me with an ice spike spell. As I felt my blood run cold and my limbs become heavy with frost, I realized I had forgotten to cast stoneflesh on myself. “Very well,” I thought, “I’ll fight your ice with my fire.” I cast my flame atronach between us, taking advantage of that diversion to move farther to the side. Now the table where Fjotra lay was between us.

That’s when the hag made her first mistake, moving out from between the tables to advance on the atronach. Now I could attack her without worrying about hitting the girl. My Unrelenting Force shout knocked her against the corner of the curving word wall. While she recovered herself and sought to rise, my atronach hit her with two firebolts and I launched an ice storm spell. The effect was to surround her in scalding steam. She stood there for a moment, paralyzed by the pain of her melting flesh.

Then she dashed toward me, claws outstretched. But I had drawn my sword of frost. Slowed though I was, I managed to get it pointed in the right direction just as she reached me. She ran onto the sword, impaling herself on it and pushing me backward. She screamed, raked out at my shoulder with a claw, then died.

As I withdrew my sword from her limp body, I looked over at Fjotra. She had her eyes open, staring at me. She looked even more frightened than she had with them closed.

“It’s all right, Fjotra,” I said, sheathing my sword. “Your father sent me for you.”

“You’re not … one of them?” she asked, still frightened.

“No, child, I’m here to save you.” It felt strange, calling her child. It wasn’t that long ago that she could have been my playmate. “These two won’t hurt you now.” I looked over at the warrior. With no hagraven to revive him, he would never rise again.

“Dibella answered my prayers!” she exclaimed. “I knew she wouldn’t let them hurt me.”

I unbound the girl’s feet and hands, and she sat up. “Are you all right?” I asked. “Did they hurt you in any way?”

She shook her head. Then she noticed the Forsworn with the gaping, bloody hole in his chest, and screamed, covering her eyes with her hands.

I hugged her. “I told you, it’s all right. The bad man can’t hurt you now, and neither can that hag.” I lifted her down from the slab and made sure she could stand on her own.

“Come over here, there’s something I have to do,” I said. I took her by the hand and led her toward the word wall. “Now, don’t be afraid. My friends tell me this can look a bit frightening, but it won’t hurt you or me. Just stand right there.” I let go of her hand and walked the rest of the way to the glowing runes. When I had finished absorbing Maar, or Terror, I turned back to her. Her eyes were wide with awe, but not with fear.

“See, that wasn’t so bad, was it?” I asked.

“What did you do?” she asked in return.

“I’ll have to explain later. We have to get out of here now.”

“Did you kill everyone in those towers?” she asked.

“I’m afraid not,” I said. She looked frightened again, and her lip trembled. I knelt down so I could look her in the eye. “Fjotra, I can’t imagine what you’ve been through, but you need to be brave for just a while longer. Can you do that?”

She looked at me for a moment then nodded. “I’ll be brave while I’m with you.”

As if to punctuate our conversation, I saw a Forsworn shaman’s head pop up at the top of the stairs. She saw the dead hagraven first. Then she noticed us over by the word wall and made ready to cast some Destruction spell. I caught her with a calming spell first. “Carry on then,” she said, and went back down the ladder.

“Come on,” I said to Fjotra. “She’ll be back soon. They must have heard my shout.”

“I’ve heard about people who can shout. You … you’re…”

“There’s no time for that,” I said, taking her by the hand. “Let’s see what’s over here. Tell me, do you like to climb rocks, Fjotra?”

“I love climbing on the boulders by our house, but daddy tells me not to.”

“Good lass,” I said. Perhaps this would be easier than I had thought. From below, I had noticed a series of ledges to the right of Dead Crone Rock that looked like they led to the base of the cliffs. We came to the end of the stone platform, and I saw that the ledges were there, and they indeed looked passable.

“What do you think, Fjotra? How do these rocks look to you?”

“Easy!” she exclaimed. With practiced hands she reached down and tied her skirts up so they would be out of the way, then jumped up onto the first ledge. “Come on!” she called back to me.

I followed her, wishing my own mage’s robes were as easy to tie out of the way. But we made good progress, disappearing around a corner just as half a dozen Forsworn came running out onto the terrace we had vacated. The ledges were wide, nearly four feet across, and though the drop was long, Fjotra showed no hesitation. Occasionally we would stop and confer about the best way forward. I let her take the lead lest I take a step that was too great for her. But I needn’t have worried, she was so agile.

I wondered why the Forsworn weren’t following. Surely they must know of this route down from the heights? Then we came to a blank spot on the cliff where our ledge disappeared into the sheer face of the rock. For a space of fifty feet there was nothing but vertical rock, with no ledges to walk across, nor even hand and toe holds for a skilled climber. Directly below, the cliff was equally sheer. Maybe the Forsworn knew there was no escape this way and were just waiting for us to come back – or fall to our deaths.

Beyond the gap, a grassy slope butted up against the cliff. This led down by roundabout ways to the path just below the redoubt where Lydia was waiting. Peering down, I could just make out our horses.

“What are we going to do now?” Fjotra asked.

“Let me think,” I said. I examined the cliff face again. Now I noticed a horn of rock protruding from it, about thirty feet above us, and halfway across the chasm. “I have an idea,” I told Fjotra. “I have a friend down there; maybe she can help.”

I cast my candlelight spell, the blue ball of light hovering over my head. I only hoped it would stand out clearly on this partly cloudy day. Fortunately, the rock of the cliff face was of a dark color. It took a couple of tries, but soon I saw movement down by our horses. They were so far below us that I could barely tell that was Lydia moving around between them. Then I cast a ball of magelight at the  grassy slope where I wanted Lydia to come to help us. I could just make out Lydia mounting her horse, then both horse and rider disappeared behind protruding boulders as they moved along the base of the cliff.

“There she comes,” I said. “All we can do now is wait. Are you hungry?”

“Starved!” she said.

“How about an apple?” I asked. I always kept one or two hidden in the folds of my robes. She took the fruit and began devouring it greedily. “Your father tells me you’ve been called to the Temple of Dibella. What do you think of that?”

“It’s a great honor,” she said between bites. “I’m to learn to commune with Dibella. They say I’m the only one who can. Then when I’m a woman grown, they’ll teach me – other things. They were a bit mysterious but they said I would understand when I got older.”

“What do you know about Dibella?” I asked.

“She’s the goddess of women and beauty, everyone knows that!”

That was about as much as I knew as well. “I hope you will be happy at the temple,” I said, though I wondered how a girl who loved scrambling around on rocks would adapt to such an indoor life. I knew it wasn’t for me, at least. “Won’t you miss your family?” I asked.

“I know I will, and they’ll miss me too. But my brother wasn’t much older than me when he was ‘prenticed off to a blacksmith in Rorikstead. And besides, my family will be well taken care of.”

We waited perhaps a half hour before we saw Lydia climbing the slope toward us, now on foot. She reached the edge of the precipice across from us and looked down at the long drop.

“She’s … she’s a shield-maiden!” Fjotra exclaimed with admiration, looking at Lydia’s shining plate armor. I wanted to ask her if she hadn’t chosen the wrong profession, but I held my tongue.

“Looks like you’ve gotten yourself in a pickle, my thane,” Lydia called from her side.

“I hope you brought your rope,” I called back.

“Wouldn’t be without it!”

It took her a couple of tries, but she finally managed to shoot an arrow with the rope attached over the horn of rock, landing it within our reach.

“Now, Fjotra, how do you like swinging on ropes?” I asked.

“My favorite!” she said. I helped her tie the rope around her waist, while Lydia tied the rope fast on the other side. With barely a glance at the drop below us, the girl swung out onto the cliff face, using her feet to bounce along it. She thought it was such a game that she had to swing back and forth several times. I was astounded by her resilience. It was as if she had never been through her ordeal with the Forsworn.

“All right,” I said. “You’ve had your fun. Now it’s my turn.”

She finally swung up within Lydia’s reach and was soon safe on the grassy slope. Then Lydia swung the rope back to me and I took my turn. It had been some time since I had done anything quite so daring of that nature, or at such a height. My heart was beating fast as I stepped off the ledge, and I almost forgot to breathe as I swung across and reached out for Lydia’s outstretched hand. She put her other arm around me and hauled me in, spinning and setting me down on the grassy edge of the cliff.

She must have noticed how hard I was breathing as I sought to catch my breath. “A lot of trouble just to spare the lives of a few barbarians, don’t you think?” she asked.

“What, and miss all this adventure?” I gasped.

 

*~*~*

 

Markarth was everything my father said it was – a vast city hewn from the living rock. No wood or brick here. The buildings were all of stonework extending back into the bedrock itself. Everything here was vertical, with stone stairways leading this way and that to the city’s many levels. Great waterfalls poured out of the rock at the head of the great cirque in which Markarth was built, their streams flowing through the city – all frozen now in winter. The waterfalls looked like giant icicles extending up the cliff face. The sun was already behind the peaks, but I imagined the frozen waterfalls and river must sparkle brilliantly on a clear winter day.

The city was laid out in two halves separated by a tall ridge of rock known as the Crag. Most of the houses, shops and businesses were on the Highside, where we entered the city, while the mining district occupied the other, or Riverside. But it was to the top of the Crag in between that the city guards directed us as we entered the gates. “Welcome to Markarth,” one said, “the safest city in Skyrim.”

We climbed steep stairs mounting the ridge, passing the shuttered Temple of Talos. Then after still more stairs, we came to the Temple of Dibella. It was a steep climb, but Fjotra had no trouble keeping up with us. I wondered again how she would take to her indoor life, but she seemed all eagerness. Finally we arrived at the temple’s porch. Across a chasm and below us, we could see the great doors of the jarl’s palace, the Understone Keep. One of the frozen waterfalls poured over the keep’s façade, which was intricately hewn in a pattern I’d never seen before, with many straight lines and the suggestion of grim faces at the top of the columns. There were no dragons. It certainly wasn’t Nordic stonework.

We all caught our breath for a moment, taking in the sight. “I’ve never seen anything quite like that,” Lydia said in wonder.

A priestess in hooded robes stood before the bronze doors of the temple, apparently waiting for us. “Greetings, and welcome to the Temple of Dibella,” she said. She was a pretty Breton woman. “And most especially, welcome to our new Sybil.” She knelt before Fjotra, took her hand, and held it to her forehead for a moment. Fjotra looked as if she didn’t know what to think.

“I am Sister Senna, a priestess of Dibella. Now, your parents and Mother Hamal are waiting within.”

Then she turned to us, and I gave her our traveling names.

“Fiona and Trudi,” the priestess said, “as the saviors of our Sybil, you are welcome as well, and we would not let you leave without reward. However, we allow no weapons of war within the temple, for we are devoted to love and beauty, not the arts of the battlefield.” She looked at the Staff of Magnus I had strapped to the side of my pack. “Yes, and even that magic staff you carry.”

I noticed she wore a dagger on her hip, and pointed it out.

“Yes, we do carry weapons of personal protection. It is a rare Fredas night that some drunken Nord doesn’t stagger up the steps to the temple, hoping to have his way with one or more of us priestesses. You are welcome to keep any such daggers or small weapons you have about you.”

Lydia and I looked at each other. Most of our gear could be replaced, but I was loath to leave the Staff of Magnus lying about. There was nothing else like it in the world.

“I’m not much for temples anyway,” Lydia said. “Why don’t I take our things down to that inn we saw near the city gate while you go in? Too, there are some things I would see to.” She seemed quite eager to avoid entering the temple. It was strange, I had never known her to show any hostility to religion. I told her I would be happy to meet her back at the inn, but she insisted on returning to the temple in one hour, as she would not have me walking the streets of a strange city alone.

“I survived a Forsworn redoubt on my own, what could happen here?” I asked. “And the guards said it was the safest city in Skyrim.”

Yet she insisted, and I thought it not worth arguing over. She hefted my knapsack and weapons along with her own. “Remember, just wait for me here, my thane, in case I am delayed,” she said, then turned heavily back down the steps.

Inside, the temple was laid out in a long hall with columns running down either side. At each column stood a statue of the Lady Dibella in her characteristic pose. I had seen small statues of Dibella, but these were large, at least twice the size of a living woman. She was naked from the waist up, her only covering a strategically placed swath of fabric that fell far below her navel, revealing the sensual curves of her belly and hip. Her arms were raised, showing her full breasts to best advantage, and above her head she held that universal symbol of womanhood, a many-petalled flower. The overall impression was one of voluptuous womanly beauty. Still, I had always thought it odd that the pose obscured the goddess of beauty’s face.

Fjotra paused at the threshold, taking all of this in. Then, off to the side of the hall, we heard a woman’s voice.

“I know you’re worried, Enmon, but give them time. They could barely have traveled to the redoubt and back again by now.”

“Mama! Papa!” Fjotra called out and ran around the corner to meet her parents in the side hall.

We followed and found Fjotra hugging her father and mother at once. When the tears and laughter of the reunion subsided, Enmon came over to me and took me by the shoulders.

“Thank you, thank you, for returning our daughter to us!” Then he couldn’t restrain himself from giving me a hug. “How can we ever repay you?” he asked.

His wife came over and hugged me too. “You have my thanks as well,” she said. “We brought this for you.” She pulled a silver necklace from a purse she carried. “It was my mother’s. It’s the only thing we can use to repay you.” She held it out and I saw that it was beautiful, with an amethyst set in its pendant.

“No, no, I couldn’t possibly,” I said, pushing it back into her hands. From the sound of it, this must be the one bit of silver these miners of silver owned. “As I told your husband, we had our own business in the redoubt. I would have saved your daughter regardless.”

“Mother Hamal will have a reward I hope you will accept,” Sister Senna said. “Come, we should make our way to the Inner Sanctum, where she is waiting to receive our new Sybil.”

The way led down winding stairs until I knew we must be deep within the great ridge of rock upon which the temple sat. On the way, Fjotra and her parents talked of how they would miss each other and how often they would visit. I took the opportunity to ask Senna about Dibella and the temple’s rites and practices.

“Dibella is the goddess of women and beauty and life’s simple, natural pleasures,” she said. “We spend our time communing with the goddess and instructing other communicants in the sensual arts. Fjotra already has a profound, innate connection to the goddess, and she will spend the next years developing it. She will become the conduit through whom we commune with Dibella. When she is of age, she will also learn the sensual arts and become an adept in their instruction.”

“The sensual arts?” I asked. “This is an unusual sort of religion.”

“There are many paths to the divines, young Fiona. Those of us who worship Dibella feel that when we experience erotic rapture we are seeing the true faces of the Divines. Haven’t you found that to be so?”

I didn’t know what to say. I just shook my head.

“You mean you haven’t experience such pleasures … not even on your own?” I shook my head, and she looked a bit shocked. “A poet once said that self-love is not so vile a sin as self-neglecting. And you’re a woman grown! How old are you, eighteen, nineteen?”

“Just seventeen,” I replied.

“Still … and your parents, they never instructed you in these matters?”

I shook my head again. “I was orphaned when I was but fourteen.”

“I’m so sorry to hear that,” she said. “But at fourteen, surely … Well, you’re not too old even now, but remember, the ability to experience sensual pleasure is a faculty like any other – it can be developed and nurtured, or it can wither and die. It is not too late for you. I only wish things were not so unsettled at the temple, but Mother Hamal has decreed that we will have no new communicants until our new Sybil is well along in her training. But we will talk more of that later. Here is Mother Hamal.”

We had now entered the temple’s inner sanctum. The chamber was smaller than the main hall, and darker, with braziers burning in its corners. There were more of the large statues of Dibella and a raised circular fount in the center.

Mother Hamal was an older woman wearing simple robes like the other priestesses gathered around her, though without a hood. She was also exempt from the temple’s rule about weapons – she bore a one-handed axe on her hip.

She came toward us and greeted Fjotra formally. “The Temple of Dibella welcomes its new Sybil,” she said, and knelt in front of the child, taking her hand and holding it to her brow. Fjotra looked around, uncomfortable with the new attitude toward her. Then Hamal stood up and smiled at her. “I know this must be a lot to take in. I am Mother Hamal, and I want to welcome you personally to your new home. We will do all we can to make you feel comfortable here.” Then she gave Fjotra a hug and the child smiled for the first time. Her parents looked on with relief.

“But first,” said Hamal, turning to me, “we have your savior to thank. You have done our order a great service…”

“Fiona Pure-Spring,” I told her.

“Fiona Pure-Spring, it is our honor to welcome you to our temple. In thanks for your service we would bestow upon you the Blessing of Dibella. It will cure all ills and give you a defensive advantage if you ever find yourself in battle against one of the opposite sex.”

“Thank you, Mother Hamal. I just might find myself in such a situation one day. But how do I accept this blessing? I’ve never prayed to Dibella before.”

“It is quite simple,” she said. “Come to the fount. Now, kneel before it and simply ask Lady Dibella for her blessing. Then dip your hand into her sacred waters and drink from them.”

I walked up the few steps to the fount and did as she instructed. The water was cold and pure, almost sweet. I felt instantly energized, and my thoughts seemed sharper. Ever since the fight with the hagraven, my mind had felt sluggish and my magicka seemed weak. But now all such feelings vanished.

“Thank you,” I said. “I feel much better.”

Now it was time for me to say farewell to Fjotra and her family so they could have some time alone for their own goodbyes. I knelt down before the child and took her by the shoulders. “You are a girl after my own heart,” I said, “and I hope you will be happy here.”

“I think I will,” she said, hugging me. “Thank you for saving me. And I still think I know who you are.”

I had told her I learned to shout from the Greybeards. She hadn’t believed me then and still didn’t. “Well, I’m not saying you’re right,” I said, “but let’s keep that part secret, all right?”

It would be some time before Lydia returned. Sister Senna accompanied me to the temple’s main hall, where we spent the time admiring the artwork placed here and there in alcoves in the walls. The priestess commented on each piece as we came to it: sculptures and paintings and tapestries of women in various states of undress. Occasionally, rarely, a man was involved – a man and woman kissing, or a man offering a woman a goblet of wine or a bunch of flowers.

As we wandered through the hall, I couldn’t help expressing my doubts about Fjotra’s fitness for an indoor life.

“You’ve no need to worry on that score,” she said. “A sound body is the basis of all our practice. You may have noticed Markarth has many levels connected by stairways. We walk them regularly and find that this satisfies the body’s need for rigorous effort. Fjotra will join us in these outings at once. Later, when she is of age, the sensual arts provide their own form of exercise.”

Now I realized something else was troubling me. “I have to say, it doesn’t seem quite the right environment for one so young, to be surrounded by the sensual arts, as you call them.”

She stopped and looked at me. “Hmmm. I’m not surprised you would view it that way, having had no education in these matters. But needless to say, we do not view intimate relations as sinful, as do some of the other orders of the divines – the Vigilants of Stendarr, for instance. Perhaps your parents were devotees of Stendarr?”

“No, far from it!” I said. “It’s just that … it seems, not quite proper somehow.”

“Yet as I said, Fjotra’s training in these adult matters will wait until she is of age, just as would happen in her own family. Our goddess abhors nothing more than one who molests another against their will. And of course, children are too young to know their will in these matters, so they are never to be touched in this way. In our order, the penalty for violating these rules is death, a more strict code than you will find in the world outside our temple. You may have noticed the axe Mother Hamal carries? Fortunately she has never had to use it since I have been here. No, you need have no fears about Fjotra’s safety on that score.”

Her words made me feel better. We continued our tour, passing more tapestries and sculptures. I began to wonder what was taking Lydia so long. Surely it had been more than an hour by now.

Then I came to a small sculpture that made me stop. It showed two nude women locked in an embrace, kissing passionately, their naked bodies pressing together, and on their faces, a look of the most intense rapture. My heart began to beat fast and my breathing became shallow, as if I could not get enough air. I felt I might be ill.

Senna went on in her commentary, oblivious to my distress. “Ah, here we have one of my favorites, the Dibellan Sisters of the Rose, engaged in an embrace of the purest erotic bliss. It’s quite skillful, the way the artist has captured the moment of their rapture, don’t you think?”

“I must leave,” I said, turning toward the temple’s door. “An engagement elsewhere … I just remembered.” It seemed as if my legs could not carry me quickly enough out of the place, yet I would not make even more of a fool of myself by running.

Senna followed me as I strode up the steps. “Why? What’s wrong?” she asked. “Have I offended you in some way?”

“No, not at all, I just have to go,” I said.

“I hope you will return when things are more settled here,” she said as we arrived at the door. I paused there, and she reached out and caressed my cheek. “I quite look forward to instructing you myself.”

I pushed through the doors without a further word, and Senna did not follow. I grasped the marble railing of the temple’s porch and looked down at the frozen stream far below, trying to catch my breath. The air was sharp and cold after the over-heated interior of the temple. My arms and legs tingled, and I felt faint.

When I had recovered a bit, I turned to head down to find Lydia at the inn. The sooner we left Markarth, the better. As I descended back into the Highside district, I thought of all that my parents had taught me about sex, or the facts of life as they called it. It wasn’t much, in truth. Mainly they had let me watch farm animals in rut, and told me it was much the same with men and women, only more loving and gentle. “Well, maybe not so gentle, sometimes,” my mother had said, with a twinkle in her eye for my father. That had made me think of the noises I sometimes heard coming from my parents’ bedroom, bangings and creakings, moans, sometimes a stifled scream. That was frightening. Why would my mother scream? It was all still a mystery.

And if I knew little of the ways of men and women, I knew nothing of two women together. Of course I knew that women in Skyrim, and less often men, sometimes lived together into old age, but I had always thought that was more for companionship, for those who had never found a partner of the opposite sex. Most in Skyrim viewed them as rather odd, tolerating them at best, but more often whispering behind their backs. And I knew that these women sometimes had wedding ceremonies in the Temple of Mara, the goddess of love. But I never thought that also mean that they … How could they? How would it work? And thinking about it, I began to feel that ill feeling again. How could my parents have left me so uninformed? They were no prudes, at least I didn’t think they were.

And then I thought, this must be why Lydia wouldn’t enter the temple. Perhaps she knew what went on inside and was as sickened by it as I was – or bothered, or whatever it was I was feeling.

I was nearly to the inn now, and found myself jolted out of my thoughts by a man in miner’s clothing rushing toward me, blade drawn, and a wild look on his face. “The Reach belongs to the Forsworn!” he shouted, the dagger held high, ready to strike.

There was just time to think that Lydia had been right to worry about my safety after all, and then he was upon me.

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