The Song of Deirdre – Chap. 30

 

Markarth

 

I crouched to avoid a blow that never came. My attacker ran past me, knife still raised, toward a woman standing at a vending cart a dozen paces away. She was turning to see what the shouting was about, but seemed oblivious to her peril. Without thinking, I cast a calming spell on the assassin – if such he could be called, his work was so crude. The attacker’s knife hand dropped to his side, and he turned to look at me.

“Oi, what’d ya do that for?” he exclaimed. He was a Breton, but he didn’t look much like any of the Forsworn I had encountered out in the wilds.

Then the city guards were there. “What’s going on here?” their leader demanded. He came over to me while two of his colleagues took the knife from the would-be murderer. “We don’t allow magic in public places here in Markarth, mage,” the captain said.

“Oh, but you do allow murder?” I asked.

“No, course not!” he replied. “Markarth is a safe city.”

I heard a derisive snort from the growing crowd around us. “If you call a murder every week safe!” someone shouted. “He’s a Forsworn assassin!” another called out.

The woman at the cart spoke up. “This man tried to kill me! I would be dead if it weren’t for this mage.”

The captain gave a sign to his subordinates and they laid hands on the attacker, tying his hands behind his back. “It’s off to Cidhna Mine for you, Breton,” the captain told the attacker. “We don’t allow mayhem in the streets of Markarth.” This brought more hoots and jeers from the assembling crowd.

A cluster of people had gathered in front of the inn to watch the commotion, and Lydia was among them, looking surprised to find me at the center of a group of guards and townspeople. She had changed into her dress and her hair looked damp, but I didn’t have time to wonder about that.

“There are no Forsworn in Markarth,” the captain of the guard was saying. “This is a safe city.”

“So the miner gets to return to the mine?” I asked.

“Cidhna Mine is Markarth’s prison,” the captain explained. “No one escapes. That villain will probably spend the rest of his life in there. Now, about you. We don’t allow anyone to disturb the peace, for any reason. You took the law into your own hands, now you’ll have to come with us. The jarl will decide whether to show lenience.” He nodded to two more guards who came up. “We’ll have to bind your hands. We can’t risk you using your magic again.”

Lydia made to come over to us, but I shook my head at her. I knew we couldn’t fight our way out of the city. Too, she was unarmed and could do no good for me if she got herself arrested as well. I was glad when she stopped and simply watched them lead me away, hands bound behind my back. Now it was her turn to shake her head at me, in reproach for my failure to wait at the temple.

The guards led me up steep stone stairways following the frozen stream that ran through this half of the city. At its head was the Understone Keep, its massive stone facade interrupted by the frozen waterfall at its center, with sturdy doors of Dwemer metal on one side. Beyond the doors, the guards led me into a large chamber of elaborately designed mason-work. But the masonry was not the most astounding thing about this place. The chamber was large, at least four stories high. Beneath that high ceiling ran intricate steam-powered pipe-work, jets of vapor escaping here and there from spinning vents. I wondered if anyone now living in Markarth knew their purpose.

Strange contraptions, the human-shaped machines left behind by the Dwemer, stood on pedestals at the top of the stone stairway we now climbed. Some had wheel-like bases, as if they could move by rolling, and bore metallic crossbows. Others, twice the size of either man or mer, stood on two legs, their giant arms shaped like axes and hammers. I remembered Onmund shivering when Brelyna described battling them, and now I couldn’t blame him – they looked invincible, clad in bronze-like Dwemer metal. I hoped these would remain in their inert state.

The stairway gave onto a broad balcony, beyond which was the jarl’s throne room. The guards led me before Jarl Igmund, who reminded me much of Balgruuf. His dress was similar, and he had the same way of slouching on his throne. He was very like in all ways but that he was bald, and he was fiercely loyal to the Empire. So loyal that a Thalmor wizard stood among his advisors. I kept my face down so my hood would shadow it, worried that the paste covering my tattoo was too obvious.

The guards began recounting the events near the city gate. At least they were fairly accurate in their account. When they were done, the jarl turned to me.

“What is your name, lass?”

“Fiona Pure-Spring, Jarl Igmund.”

“So, Fiona, tell me why you saw fit to interfere with guards’ business here in my city.”

“That is easily answered,” I said. “I would not see a defenseless woman savagely murdered, and I saw no one else coming to her aid.”

“Protecting citizens is the business of my city guard. We run a safe city here.”

“Yes, that’s what I keep hearing,” I said. “But your people disagree. And the assassin shouted a Forsworn battle cry before he attacked. Could it be that the Forsworn have brought their rebellion to your city?”

The jarl looked sharply at his advisors, an elder Nord man with gray hair, a Redguard woman, and the Thalmor. Something seemed to pass silently between them, I knew not what. Then the jarl spoke. “Guards, leave us for a moment.”

The captain looked as if he would argue, but then said, “Yes, my jarl,” and he and the two other guards retreated to the foyer.

The jarl’s advisors moved closer to the throne, and beckoned me to approach a step closer as well.

“Perhaps this young lady could help you with your little problem, Jarl Igmund,” said the Thalmor wizard.

“You may be right, Ondolemar,” said the jarl, looking at me appraisingly. “She does have some power if she could stop that assassin so easily.”

“Not much of an assassin, truth be told,” I said. “The Dark Brotherhood could teach that one a thing or two. But I don’t see how I could help you with this sort of problem. I know nothing of Markarth or its intrigues. I am here only briefly, and have important errands elsewhere.”

“What do you know about the Markarth uprising?” the jarl asked.

“A little,” I said, wondering why we were discussing history. “The Reachmen took control of the hold during the Great War, correct?”

“That’s right,” Igmund said. “My father took the city back, with help from Ulfric Stormcloak – but that’s another story.” He glanced toward Ondolemar. “The point is, when it was all over, most of the Reachmen and their allies in Markarth were dead. But Madanach, their king, was pardoned at the behest of a prominent citizen here in the city, Thonar Silver-Blood. You may have noticed his name on the inn when you came into the city.”

I nodded. That must have been the inn where Lydia had taken our gear.

“Thonar saw to it that Madanach was held in Cidhna Mine, the prison owned by Thonar Silver-Blood himself. Since then, Thonar’s power has only increased. His competitors conveniently disappear or suffer unfortunate mishaps. Now he controls nearly all the business in our city, especially the silver trade, Markarth’s life blood. This all seemed fine, as he paid taxes and levies to the hold. As he prospered, the Reach prospered, my family prospered, everyone was happy.”

“All but Thonar’s victims,” put in the Redguard.

“Quite right,” said the jarl, staring at her pointedly. “But then, a year or so ago, these murders began. Random killings, with the murderers yelling about independence for the Forsworn. Now our citizens lie sleepless in their beds for fear of the next attack. Meanwhile the Forsworn in the hills of the Reach have begun attacking every trade caravan that comes into the hold. At this rate, our city will starve. We cannot eat the silver from our mines.”

“My jarl,” the Redguard said, “it is time we put an end to this Silver-Blood treachery.”

“Not without proof, Faleen.”

“The Silver-Bloods?” I said. “I still don’t understand.”

“We believe that Thonar Silver-Blood and Madanach are somehow in league, that Madanach’s people took care of Thonar’s rivals in exchange for Madanach’s life. But now Madanach has gotten out of hand and is orchestrating this rebellion from within Cidhna Mine. At the same time, Thonar has become so powerful that he has bought off much of my city guard, who do nothing to stop the killings. I will put an end to both Madanach and the Silver-Bloods, but first I need proof, and that is where you can help.”

“What could I possibly do?”

“Go into Cidhna Mine. Earn Madanach’s trust. Learn how he and Thonar operate. Find proof of their collusion so I can strike at them both with authority.”

“Jarl Igmund,” I said, “as I told you before, I am here only briefly. I have already been of some slight service to your city, aiding the priestesses at the Temple of Dibella, and saving the life of an innocent woman. Now I would be on my way.”

“But I’m afraid you have no choice,” Igmund said. “You now stand convicted of disturbing the peace in Markarth. I sentence you to an indefinite term in Cidhna Mine. You will stay there until I see fit to release you, and that won’t happen until you get the information I need. Guards!”

The guards returned and two of them led me back down the steps toward the keep’s doors.

Ondolemar, the Thalmor, followed. “I will escort her out of the Palace,” he said to the guards. They shrugged and walked away.

I stole a glance at the High Elf as we walked down the corridor and into the palace’s cavernous ante-chamber. He was tall and had the Altmer’s aquiline nose and jutting chin. His black robes and hood fit him well. Then he looked over at me and I quickly looked away. I could feel his eyes upon me as we walked.

Though he had requested to escort me, he didn’t seem eager to begin a conversation. “Tell me,” I asked, “why do you take such an interest in the affairs of this city?”

“Ah, that is a long story,” he said. “What Igmund didn’t tell you was the way in which the Nords took back their city. Igmund’s father made a deal with Ulfric, who had just returned with a battalion from the Great War. Ulfric would drive the Reachmen out of Markarth in exchange for the freedom to worship Talos, even though this violated the peace treaty the Empire had just signed. How they hoped to get away with it, I don’t know. Ulfric’s assault on the city was quite a bloodbath, from what I heard. Then for a short period, the vile heresy of Talos worship continued here. But we put an end to it soon enough, and had Ulfric arrested.”

I decided to play the innocent Breton. With my hair dyed black, nothing marked me as part Nord. “I’ve always wondered, why do you High Elves care so much about which gods these barbarian Nords worship?”

“I can’t expect one of a mixed race such as a Breton to understand, but maybe you will be more proud of your merish side. Suffice to say, mer were created as superior to men at the dawn of time, closest to the gods themselves. So for a human to attain godhood? No, it is not possible, it is heresy. Snuffing out Talos worship is just one step in our campaign to prove the superiority of mer over man. And we will do it if we have to wipe humans from the face of Nirn.”

There it was. I knew the High Elves felt themselves superior to all other races, especially their ancient nemesis, the Nords. But I had never before heard it put in such bald terms. I had no doubt that if Ondolemar and his ilk had their way, humans would be returned to the bondage they suffered before the coming of Alessia, along with the rest of Tamriel’s non-elven races. The thought sickened me, but I couldn’t let that show.

“Then why were you so eager to help these Nords send me into the mines?” I asked. “Really, I have better things to do.” We had arrived at the large doors of Dwemer metal at the keep’s entrance. Ondolemar stopped, but I still would not look at him. He reached out and put his hand on my chin, turning my head until I was facing him. Would he recognize me as the fugitive his colleagues were hunting? I held his gaze steadily while he studied my face. Then he seemed to come to some decision.

“I probably shouldn’t tell you this, but I do feel some sympathy for these natives of the Reach. Barbarians though they are, the merish blood runs strong in them, and it pains me to see them crushed under the boot of the Nords. Too, the Silver-Bloods are notorious Stormcloak sympathizers, and they have gained far too much power in this city already. With the information you obtain, perhaps we can put a quick end to them. Far easier that way than bringing a Thalmor battalion. Now, enjoy your time in Cidhna Mine. I hear it’s quite lovely at this time of year.”

He pushed open the doors and turned me over to the guards outside, giving instructions to escort me to the mine.

 

*~*~*

 

“So, a Breton who can shout,” Madanach said. “It is very strange. And you frightened one of my men half to death.”

He eyed the shiv I held in my hand. Though it was just a bit of metal sharpened to a lethal point, the shiv was both a weapon and a symbol of power within the mines. It had not taken me long to acquire it.

The gaolers had made me exchange my arch-mage’s robes for a tattered tunic and a pair of holey breeches, locked a collar of magicka draining around my neck, then led me to the pit they called Cidhna Mine. But no one was mining. The prisoners sat about in groups of two or three, some taking their ease, others playing at knucklebones or arm wrestling. Across the pit from the entrance, a large Orc guarded a gated tunnel.

“New prisoner!” the guard called out as he shoved me down the wooden stairs leading into the pit. Instantly the men – for they were all men – took notice, several of them jumping to their feet and approaching me. The others egged them on with cries of “Fresh meat!”

One fellow, a Breton with a long scar down his cheek, stopped a few paces away, the others coming to a stop behind him. He gestured with a shiv toward one of the many passages leading out of the pit.

“All right, you and me, sweetie, down that tunnel.”

“I’m fine where I am, thank you,” I said. “Where’s Madanach?” The Breton was not that much taller than I, and I held his gaze.

“You don’t have a choice, sweetie. But you be sweet to me and I can be sweet to you. Now let’s go.” He took a step toward me.

“I’m warning you, not one more step.”

“You hear that lads? She says not one … more … step!” He took three more steps until we were face to face, the shiv pointed at my belly.

Though I had no weapons and no magicka, I still had my Thu’um. It only took one word of my Dismaying shout to send him running in fear for the nearest tunnel. He was so startled, he dropped his shiv as he went. The rest of the group who had stood with him shrank back. “She can shout!” someone exclaimed.

I dashed to pick up the shiv, then turned to face the men. “Anyone else want to have a go?” I demanded. They all shook their heads and stammered “No!” and “Wouldn’t think of it!”

“Good. Now where’s Madanach?”

No one answered, but the Orc at the gate grinned at me around his tusks, then turned and entered the tunnel, locking the gate behind him.

Madanach kept me waiting long. I tried to stay awake, keeping a vigilant eye on my fellow prisoners, who had retreated to corners of the pit or farther down the tunnels for the night. But after a time my eyelids grew heavy, and the next thing I knew I was awakened by torchlight. The Orc was back, standing over me. I leapt to my feet, shiv in hand as I drew breath for a shout, but the Orc just jerked his head at the open gate and said, “Madanach will see you now.”

I soon found myself in a larger chamber at the end of the gated tunnel. It was nicely appointed compared to the rest of the mine, with a table and chair, a bed, and a chest. The back wall looked strangely cracked and fissured. A quill, ink jar, and a roll of paper lay on the table, as if Madanach had just been writing. I wondered if that could be a letter to Thonar Silver-Blood. Maybe it contained the bit of information I needed to get out of this prison.

Madanach sat in his chair, but did not invite me to do the same. There was only the bed, in any case. Borkul, the Orc, remained standing at the door as Madanach questioned me.

“I will not apologize for sending your man running,” I said. “I felt his welcome wasn’t all it could be, so I taught him a lesson in courtesy.”

“Ha!” he snorted. “Too nicely put, when it comes to that lot. The truth is, I let them get out of hand. This prison life is too soft and they grow idle. But I’ve been busy with … business.” He gave the roll of paper a flick with his finger. It rolled against the ink jar and bounced back. “Running a rebellion is a never-ending task,” he said, more to himself than to me.

I waited while he remained lost in thought for a moment.

Finally he turned back to me. “I care more about the assassination you prevented yesterday. Why would you, an outsider and a Breton as well, interfere with our rebellion?”

“I saw an innocent woman about to be murdered and I couldn’t keep myself from stepping in. It’s a bad habit I have, maybe one day I’ll break myself of it. The gods know, my life would be simpler if I could look the other way.”

“That woman is a wealthy noble from Cyrodiil, and we believe she is an Imperial spy. Her assassination would have sent a strong message about the power of the Forsworn. But you stepped in and the guards arrested both you and our assassin. They sent Weylin down here but took you to the keep. Then it all becomes murky. The jarl talked to you in private, sent you here, and then you demand to see me. It’s all very suspicious.”

“You know a lot, don’t you?” I asked. He must have a spy within the guard, I thought.

“I have my ways,” was all he would say. He couldn’t resist looking at the paper.

“Well,” I said, “no one was more surprised than I when they threw me in here. It was almost as if the jarl wished your plot had succeeded. He said spending some time in Cidhna Mine would teach me not to interfere with his guards. I don’t think he expected I’d ever get out.”

“So now you know how the Forsworn feel, living with the boot of the Nords on our necks. The more Bretons they throw in here on a whim, the more our ranks increase. But tell me, you were seen leaving the keep in the company of a Thalmor agent. What could Ondolemar have wanted with you?”

“I really have no idea,” I lied. “He expressed some sympathy for the plight of the Forsworn. He hinted that he would be pleased if I helped you and your rebels escape from here, and so I asked to see you straight away. The sooner I’m out of here, the better.”

“Curiouser and curiouser,” said Madanach, thinking out loud now. “Could the Thalmor have an interest in our cause? What purpose would that serve? Igmund is loyal to the Empire and to the Aldmeri alliance.”

“He said something about our common merish blood.”

“Really? And I thought the Altmer only looked at us Bretons with contempt, mixed-bloods as we are.” He eyed me for a moment. “So, what do you say? Will you join our cause? We Bretons need to stick together.”

We Bretons need to stick together. I remembered Mirabelle had said the same thing, but she would never have approved of this King in Rags, nor his people’s methods. Yet the sooner I won his trust, the sooner I might learn his secrets and get out of here. At the same time, I couldn’t appear too eager to join his cause.

“So you think I can help you,” I said. “But tell me, why should I? I don’t hold with these random murders. They are the acts of cowards.”

“Well then, you’ll be glad to hear that I’ve decided it’s time we left the mines. We’ll rebuild the Forsworn out of Druadach Redoubt, then take the Reach by open war. I grow tired of this skulking and plotting.”

“Yet there is another problem,” I said. “I have been to your redoubts. I have seen too much of your people’s vile practices with the hagravens.”

“You encountered a hagraven and survived? Impressive!”

“Yes. The hagraven did not, however.”

“A pity. The hags are our greatest allies and provide us with some of our fiercest fighters.”

“And slaughter the innocent in the process. Your cause may be just, but your methods drive away those who might otherwise become your allies.”

He grew stern. “You, a mere girl, dare to advise me, the King of the Forsworn? I was ruler here before you were even born! But I will tell you this: you make a great mistake thinking the Nords and the Imperials are any better. Tell me, what do you know of the Markarth Incident?”

Why did everyone keep bringing up this ancient history? This seemed no time to be debating the past. “I know that the Reachmen controlled Markarth during the Great War, and you were their king. Then the Nords threw you out.”

“Well, there’s more you don’t know,” he said. He went over to the chest at the foot of his bed and pulled out a book. “Here,” he said handing it to me, “this should enlighten you.”

The book was titled The Bear of Markarth. It was by an Imperial scholar named Arrianus Arrius. I skimmed it quickly. It described the period of Reachmen’s rule over the hold as a time of peace and justice. Then it told the story of Ulfric besieging Markarth. When his men entered the city, they quickly overwhelmed the Reachmen. That was war, the book said, but what came after went beyond the bounds of combat. Any who didn’t take up arms on Ulfric’s side was put to the sword – women, elders, any child who could lift a weapon, Nord or Breton, it did not matter. Markarth’s river flowed red before Ulfric was through.

I wish I could say I was surprised. I wondered for a moment how accurate this account could be regarding Ulfric, given its Imperial author. Then I remembered Galmar Stone-Fist’s saying, “If they’re not with us, they’re against us.” And I remembered my parents growing silent every time Ulfric’s name was mentioned. No, I didn’t find it hard to believe that Ulfric had ordered this butchery.

“Is this true?” I asked nevertheless, looking up at Madanach.

“Every word, and more,” he said. “Before Ulfric’s atrocities, before we became the Forsworn, we retook the Reach with little bloodshed. I ruled our land with justice. If Nords bent their knee, I treated them well. And what did it get us? Death and butchery. But perhaps you need more proof. Borkul, bring Braig.”

The Orc left the room. While he was gone I read more from The Bear of Markarth. I was shocked by Ulfric’s blood-lust. It seemed all of Skyrim’s rulers and would-be rulers were blood-thirsty and power-mad. Where was a leader who would treat the people with a just and benevolent hand? But perhaps that was nothing more than a child’s fantasy.

Borkul returned with an older Breton I hadn’t seen before.

“Braig,” said Madanach, our guest here needs proof of the Nords’ cruelty. Tell her the story of your daughter.”

“Aethra?” he asked, looking from Madanach to me and back. “It is painful to relive, but if you think it will help our cause.” He took a deep breath. “I did have a daughter. Aethra would be near thirty now, maybe married to some hot-headed silver worker or on her own, practicing the herb trade. But no, the Nords had to punish me, and for what? I had only spoken to Madanach once, I wasn’t part of the rebellion. But that was enough for Ulfric and his men. They didn’t care who was or wasn’t a Forsworn. Instead of punishing me, they took Aethra. Made me watch while her head rolled from the executioner’s block. I just thank the gods she was too young for the brutes to do anything else to her first. As if that wasn’t enough, they threw me in here. You must understand, it’s not just me. Every Breton family in the Reach has a story like mine.”

I looked back and forth between Madanach and Braig. It was a sad story, sadder even than my own. It went against nature for a father to have to watch his child murdered. Then I felt my old anger against the Nords returning. Why had I ever let Gerdur and Ralof deter me from my revenge? They had convinced me that not all Nords were like the people who killed my parents, but could those good Nords outweigh the bad? And Ralof was fighting in Ulfric’s army. What brutalities had he committed, I wondered? No, maybe it was best to wipe the Nords from all of Skyrim.

Then I remembered Huldi and Harry. They were the reason I was fighting Alduin and the dragons, Nords though they were. And Fjotra – Enmon and his wife would have had a story even more terrible than Braig’s, had I not intervened. No, these Forsworn were no better than the Nords. My anger subsided, and I wondered at the dark corners where my thoughts had led.

“There is still the matter of the hagravens,” I said.

Madanach sighed, and flicked the roll of paper back and forth for a moment, lost in thought. “Our alliance with the hagravens goes back to Red Eagle, Faolan as we name him, thousands of years ago. He was the first to make that bargain, trading his own life for greater power in undeath. Yet it brought his end. Then the practice fell out of favor among our people. Most viewed it as a vile and cruel practice not worth the power it gained us.”

“They were right,” I said. “These rites with the hagravens put you and your people beyond all human sympathy.”

“Yet many of our people now feel that we brought our downfall upon ourselves when we forsook the old ways. And so they have taken up with the hagravens again. Perhaps it is a mistake. I will look into it, once we get out of here.”

I looked at him carefully, weighing my options. “Very well,” I said. “You have convinced me. I can help you escape this prison, at least. How do you plan to do it? Do you have some contact in the city?”

I knew by Madanach’s look that I had gone too far. I was new to deception and guile.

“Not so fast, lass,” he said. “True, I invited you to join our cause. But before I divulge any more of our plans, you’ll have to prove your loyalty.”

“And how am I to do that?” I asked.

“There is one in these mines I want dead. He’s a Breton who has refused to join us and knows too many of our secrets. We cannot leave the prison while he lives. Take care of this problem, and I will consider you a part of the Forsworn.”

“Madanach, I cannot murder a man I do not know on such flimsy evidence.”

Madanach rose from his chair and faced me. “If you can’t trust my word, you’re no part of the Forsworn.” I could hear Borkul giving a guttural growl behind me.

“Perhaps I can show my loyalty by helping you break out of here.”

“And how are you going to do that? It has taken us years to get as far in our plans as we have.”

We stood glaring at each other for a moment, but our standoff was interrupted by a tapping noise coming from the rock wall at the back of the chamber. At first the taps were faint, but then they became louder and more rapid.

“What’s this?” Madanach exclaimed. “Could someone have found our tunnel?” He drew his shiv. I still had mine in my hand. I moved to keep my back against the wall, keeping an eye on both Madanach and Borkul. I had no idea what would happen next.

Then the wall split apart along one of the fissures and half of it fell into the chamber. Lydia stood on the other side of the opening, pick in hand, sweat pouring from beneath her horned helm. She looked into the room and saw me.

“Well met, my thane,” she said.

“What is this, some sort of trick?” Madanach exclaimed.

“I told you I could help you get out of here,” I replied. I turned to Lydia. “It’s good to see you, Trudi.” I supposed keeping up our disguises might still be worthwhile. If Madanach made anything of her calling me thane, he didn’t show it.

“If you think this Nord stranger is going to help you gain my trust…” he began.

“It’s all right, my king,” came a voice from behind Lydia. “She’s with us.”

“Kaie? Is that you?”

“It is, my king. Just let us finish widening this opening and I’ll explain.”

Madanach relaxed. “Braig, help them,” he ordered. Braig went off to find a pick and in a few more moments he and Lydia had made the opening passable.

Lydia entered the room followed by a man and a woman, both Bretons dressed in the Forsworn’s usual skimpy, fur-lined battle gear. The woman looked fierce with her hair shaved at the sides and standing up in a shock on top.

“You’re a week early by my reckoning, Kaie,” Madanach said to her.

“Your position in Markarth is deteriorating, my king. Igmund is onto our alliance with the Silver-Bloods. He is about to make a move against them, and against us.”

“So you completed the tunnel ahead of time. But why bring this Nord with you?”

“She was lurking about the entrance to the mine,” Kaie replied. “She said her thane was unjustly imprisoned by the jarl and she would do anything to get her out. I don’t know why, but I felt she was telling the truth, Nord though she is. She looked like a strong warrior, I figured we could use her if we have to fight our way out of here.”

“And you trusted her?” Madanach demanded. “Do you know this one broke up Weylin’s assassination attempt?”

“She says her master has always been a peace-maker, and knows nothing of Markarth’s politics.”

“Still, I smell a trap,” Madanach said.

I was tired of waiting to get out of the mine. Kaie had just given me the proof Igmund wanted, but now escaping with Madanach and the Forsworn seemed the quickest way out.

“Look, if you don’t trust us, we can fight it out now, and I promise you it will be bloody,” I said. “Or we can work together to get out of here, then go our separate ways.”

Madanach considered this for a moment. “Very well, but you and your partner will take the lead. I will not have you stabbing us in the back.”

“The feeling is mutual,” I said, “but as you will.”

“Borkul, have the others prepare to leave right away.”

Two more Forsworn came in through the escape tunnel, each bearing knapsacks full of gear. “My king, we raided the store room for the prisoners’ gear. We found armor, but few weapons. And we found these as well.” He held up my robes and the rest of my clothing.

“Those would be mine,” I said.

Madanach nodded and the man brought them over to me. I went through them – the only thing missing were the potions and lockpicks I had hidden away in the robes, and my ring of sneaking.

Lydia came over and handed me my knapsack and weapons. “I brought your gear from the inn, my thane,” she said. “The rest of our things are packed and the horses are ready to ride.”

“Excellent work, Trudi,” I said, then whispered, “and remember, I’m not your thane, I’m Fiona.”

“Oh, right,” she said. Then she saw the collar I was wearing. “Nice necklace,” she said.

“It’s a collar of magicka draining.”

She put her hands on her hips and looked at me sternly, her dark eyes flashing. “I leave you alone for a moment and you get into trouble,” she said as I began to put on my gear, throwing my robes directly over the tattered tunic and breeches. I certainly wasn’t going to undress in front of Madanach and his men, though they seemed busy discussing plans for the escape. “You were supposed to wait for me in the temple, my … Fiona. What happened?”

I was glad I was still pulling the robes over my head, because I was sure I was blushing. I had almost forgotten about my sudden flight from the Temple of Dibella. Now I was too chagrined to explain the reasons for my sudden departure. “It took much less time than I expected to get Fjotra settled,” I said, sitting down to lace up my boots. “Then there was nothing else to do, and it seemed you took more than an hour to return.” I remembered her delay, and I turned to face her. “Why were you late, anyway?”

“Oh, just … things I needed to attend to,” she said. Now it was her turn to blush, but she covered it well, looking even more stern. “But you should have stayed there, no matter how long it took me.”

I could feel her eyes on me, as I went back to lacing my boots. Was she judging me? I couldn’t tell, but I felt my face growing even redder. “Trudi, do you think I did the right thing, taking Fjotra to the temple?” I asked.

“Why? It’s up to Fjotra and her parents, isn’t it? I thought she wanted to go.”

“Oh…” I said, now at a loss. She didn’t seem to think anything one way or the other about the Temple of Dibella. “No reason, really. Listen, do you have any lockpicks?” I asked, trying to change the subject. “They’ve taken all of mine.”

She fished in her own knapsack and brought out three. I took one and began fiddling it into the lock at the front of my collar. I didn’t have much luck, not being able to see what I was doing.

“Here, let me,” Lydia said, taking the pick back.

“I think I’m still the better lock-breaker, even when I can’t see what I’m doing,” I said.

“We’ll see about that.”

She stepped up to me and bent down so she could get a better look at the lock, lifting my chin with two fingers. Her face was just inches from mine, still flushed and glowing from her earlier exertion. Beneath the smell of sweat, there was the sweeter aroma of soap and lavender water. I noticed how smooth her skin was, and the sharp line of her cheekbone.

She really was making a meal of her task. The lock on a collar like this should not have been so difficult. “Just another minute,” she said, “almost got it.” I could feel her breath on my neck.

“There!” she said, and I felt my magicka resurging as the collar came free. Lydia stepped back and looked at me, the collar in one hand.

“Are you all right, Fiona? You look flushed.”

“Oh, no, I’m fine,” I stammered. “It was just hard to breathe with that thing around my neck.” Again I could feel Lydia’s eyes on me as I turned to see about the rest of my gear. It seemed to take forever to get my sword and scabbard, bow and arrows, Staff of Magnus, and knapsack all into place. When it was done, I felt more confident than I had in a day. Having my magicka restored helped as well. I turned around, and Lydia looked away, pretending she hadn’t just been watching me curiously.

A crowd of a dozen or so Forsworn prisoners had crowded into Madanach’s chamber now, spilling over into the tunnel beyond. The lout I had chased off wasn’t among them. Madanach called for silence and stood on a chair to address them. He now wore a kilt decorated with human skulls, calf-high fur boots, and an elaborate headdress featuring the antlers of a deer. “Forsworn brothers and sisters, today is the last day of our imprisonment, and the beginning of our fight to free our people! No more skulking here in Cidhna Mine, no more petty murders. We will build a new army of Forsworn and fight for our liberty like honorable men and women!” The men and one woman roared their approval.

“But what about these two?” said one of the men, gesturing to Lydia and me.

“As you can see, we lack arms, but we may need to fight our way out of the city. These two are capable fighters and are as eager to leave this prison as we are. Does anyone have a problem with that?” There was a lot of head-shaking, then Madanach turned to us. “Ladies, you lead the way, as we agreed.”

 

*~*~*

 

“Quickly, we’re nearly there!” Kaie called from behind as we climbed yet another stairway. The escape tunnel had led us into the old Dwemer ruin within the cliffs of Markarth. We must be high above the mining district by now, I thought. Just then we turned a corner and found ourselves facing five Thalmor warriors.

Madanach already had his sword drawn and turned toward me. “I knew this was a trap!” He raised his sword, but before anyone could do anything rash, one of the High Elves spoke up.

“Wait, good king, lower your sword before there is any unfortunate bloodshed. I assure you, this is no trap, and you and your followers are free to go.” He stepped aside and pointed the way down the hall from which they had come. “We only have business with Fiona Pure-Spring here, and her companion.”

“Business?” I asked. “With me?”

“Yes, I bring word from Justiciar Ondolemar. He would reward you for your service. Now, if you will come with us.”

“But I have done you no service, and I need no reward. I plan to accompany my new friends out of this city. And you can tell Ondolemar that his vile notions of elven superiority sicken me.”

“But, don’t you see, Fiona – or should I say, Deirdre Morningsong? – you will come with us whether you want to or no. Seize her!” he commanded, drawing his own axe.

The justiciars made for me, but Madanach stepped in front of them, with Lydia right beside him. Kaie and the rest of the Forsworn rushed forward, surrounding the elves. “You’ll not be taking her anywhere, elf,” Madanach said. “If there’s anyone I hate more than the Nords, it’s the bleeding Thalmor.”

The elves lowered their weapons, then handed them over to the Forsworn fighters. “An alliance between the Forsworn and the Dragonborn? Now that is something we didn’t foresee.”

Madanach turned to me. “Dragonborn, eh? We had heard inklings of events in the east, but I never thought the Nords’ Dovahkiin would be a Breton.” He eyed me doubtfully for a moment longer. “Well, Dragonborn?” he said at last. “Should we cut them down where they stand, or would you have me spare them?”

I looked at the five elves, now as defenseless as that Nord woman had been yesterday. “Had we met in open battle, I would gladly have slain you,” I said. “But I will not lower myself to your level by slaughtering the defenseless. Bind them!”

“See?” Lydia said to Kaie. “I told you she is a peace-maker.”

“But we have nothing to bind them with,” Kaie objected. “Does anyone have a length of rope?”

Everyone looked at one another for a moment, then Lydia groaned. “All right, all right,” she said, unslinging her knapsack and digging through it. “Waste of good rope, I say, just to save the lives of a few damned elves.” She handed the rope to Kaie, then took me aside.

“My thane,” she whispered, “are you sure this is a good idea? These elves know who you are. They’ll be back to their superiors and on our trail as soon as they’re freed.”

“It cannot be helped,” I said. “If I allow them to be slaughtered on my behalf when they are so outnumbered and defenseless, then I am no better than they are, no better than the Imperials who would have beheaded me for nothing.” And no better than Ulfric, I couldn’t help thinking.

“As you will,” she said, looking glumly at the shortened length of rope the Forsworn handed back to her.

When we emerged from the tunnels, we found ourselves on a balcony high above the mining district. It was early morning, with no one about.

“It’s the changing of the guard,” Kaie said. “The night watch will be weary, and the morning watch groggy from their beds. There should be few others about.”

“We will cut a bloody swath through them all,” said Madanach, “and show these Nords their suffering has just begun!”

“Madanach,” I said, “you want peace at the end of your rebellion, am I right?”

“And we will have peace, once we drive these Nords and Imperials and Thalmor from our lands.”

“Not if you continue on this path. Butchery cannot bring peace. Darkness cannot drive out darkness. For every Nord you mindlessly slaughter today, you create ten rebels to undermine your future rule. You will never have peace.”

“What would you have us do?” Madanach asked.

“Follow me out of the city. I will do my best to disable the guards and get them out of the way. Tell your men to attack only those who confront them directly. It will be your fastest way out of the city, and you will lose fewer of your fighters.”

“Very well, we’ll try it your way. But if it starts to go bad, I won’t hold my people back.” He leapt down the stairs, the rest of us in pursuit.

We were halfway across the mining district when we heard the first shout. An arrow landed on the cobbles right in front of Madanach.

“There!” Lydia shouted, drawing her bow and pointing to a guard on the steps leading to the closed Temple of Talos.

“Now, watch this!” I said to Madanach. I loosed a calming spell at the guard, but he was far above us, and able to step out of the way of the glowing ball of light. Lydia, always alert, was ready with an arrow. Her shot hit the guard in the knee. She was such an excellent shot, I knew this was no mistake.

“Onward!” I shouted and we continued across the river and up the steps toward the city gates. We encountered two or three more guards, but these were close by and I was able to calm them all. Madanach’s Forsworn were as good as his word, passing by as the Nord guards could only watch, dumbfounded. “Keep a sharp eye out,” he shouted to those in back. “We don’t want them taking us from behind when those spells wear off.”

We rounded the corner of the Silver-Blood Inn and saw a group of a dozen guards at the gate, no doubt directed there after the first guard’s shout. I paused and Madanach stopped next to me. I was almost out of magicka, nor did I have an Illusion spell strong enough for a dozen guards.

“Well, what now?” Madanach asked. “I think it’s time we fight.”

“Wait,” I said and stepped forward. My Dismaying shout scattered eight of the guards. The four who remained saw that they were outnumbered and ran after their comrades. The echoes were just dying out when I heard exclamations of surprise all around. Some came from my Forsworn companions, but now I saw that we had other onlookers, shopkeepers and the workers at the Silver-Blood Inn, who had come out to see what the noise was about.

I had revealed myself as the Dragonborn to the citizens of Markarth. The Thalmor would soon be on our trail. And nearly as bad, it wouldn’t be long before the story of the Dragonborn helping the Forsworn escape Cidhna Mine spread across the land. Skyrim’s people already blamed me for my slow progress with the dragons. What would they think of this? But it couldn’t be helped.

Now that the gate was clear, the Forsworn pressed forward and heaved it open. We all rushed through at once, the two guards outside staring as a dozen savage Forsworn ran past. One made to raise his bow after the Forsworn were out of sword range, but I managed to calm him with my remaining magicka.

While the Forsworn ran down the road, leaping and hooting for their new freedom, Lydia and I went to the nearby stables for our horses. They were saddled, loaded, and ready to ride. We mounted and dashed off after the Reachmen.

As we rounded a corner and the road turned eastward, the newly risen sun shone underneath the wintery cloud cover. Somewhere in that direction, it was lighting up the slopes of the Throat of the World, where I must travel next. My way forward was clear, yet the sun was blinding. I lowered my head against the glare and hoped our horses would find their way.

Chapter Navigation<< Previous ChapterNext Chapter >>

Your thoughts?

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Follow on Feedly
%d bloggers like this: