The Song of Deirdre – Chap. 32

 

Solitude

 

We approached Solitude with the sun disappearing behind the western mountains, its last rays catching a towering column of smoke rising through the trees ahead, turning it blood-red.

Lydia looked over at me, as if appraising my fitness for what was to come. “It looks bad, my thane.”

She needn’t have worried. A strange calm had settled over me after my fit at Dragon Bridge. I had practiced my breathing as we rode, and now I felt even more composed, ready to face whatever lay ahead. Perhaps it was the feeling that my fate was at hand, or maybe the effects of that tonic Lydia had given me, but I also felt a bit giddy.

“However bad it is, we will meet it,” I said. Then I winked at her. “Come, Lydia, this is our chance for glory! Victory or Sovngarde await!” I couldn’t help grinning.

“Do not mock me, my thane,” she said, still serious.

“I wouldn’t dream of it! But I am expected to rally my followers, am I not? Let us meet our doom together, glad in our hearts for this chance to show our valor.”

She shook her head at me. “Bravery is one thing, my thane, laughing at fate is another.” She spurred her horse onward and I followed, only somewhat chastened.

Soon we came to the meeting of roads near the city. The spot was familiar to me from the many trips I had taken here with my father. One road ran straight up to the city gate. The other sloped down to the right, toward the docks of Solitude Harbor. Just below the junction, Katla’s Farm was on fire – or what was left of it. The barn, stables, and stable-master’s house were down to their last embers, the great blades of the barn’s windmill smoldering to one side. I remembered my father chatting with the stable-master as we watered our horses there. Only the farmhouse remained untouched.

A crowd stood around at the junction – a couple of guards, a one-eyed man holding a lumberman’s axe, farm workers, children, and Katla herself. The stable-master was trying to calm two frightened horses. One of the children held a white cat, stroking it and burying her face in its fur.

One of the guards approached us. “If you’re headed for Solitude, I would turn back. The dragons are up there now.”

So we were not too late! We would face the dragons this day. “Was anyone hurt here?” I asked.

“No, thank the Eight, but they only managed to save the two horses. Katla’s Farm was the main stable for the city. I don’t think I’ll ever get the screams of the dying horses out of my head.”

“How long since the dragons made for the city?” Lydia asked.

“About half an hour. But wait, you don’t mean to go up there? Look, everyone is headed the other way.”

It was true. People were fleeing the city in a steady stream, women, children, and the elderly mostly, but also a few well-to-do men – merchants, no doubt, who wouldn’t know which end of a sword to hold or how to notch an arrow. Some carried knapsacks and bags, others had just the clothes on their backs. All looked terrified and kept glancing over their shoulders. As well they might. I doubted the wisdom of fleeing into the open, but then again, even the sturdiest house was no defense against a dragon.

The other guard approached us as we watched the procession. He looked at us briefly, then addressed his comrade. “Sven, if you can take care of things here, I will return to the garrison and see if they need help.” The first guard agreed, and the other turned toward the city.

We dismounted and led our horses over to Katla and her family. The farm’s horses calmed a bit when ours came near. Ours had seen much in their travels, including dragons and fire. Perhaps some of their even temper rubbed off.

“Ma’am,” I said to Katla, hoping she wouldn’t recognize me, “I realize this is a terrible time to ask, but we must leave our horses while we go into the city. Will you look after them and our baggage while we’re gone?”

She kept staring at her destroyed farm and didn’t seem to hear us. The one-eyed lumberman standing nearby spoke up. “The city? Why would you go to the city?”

“The dragons – we mean to stop them.”

Katla looked at me then. “You must be mad, but if you do as you say, you can board your horses with me for as long as you like, though I haven’t a proper place to put them. And if you don’t return, as is more likely, I will have two more horses to re-stock our stable.”

“Very well,” I said. “We have provisions and camping gear in our baggage – feel free to help yourselves. But see that everything else is safe, and most especially a magical staff you will find there.” I regretted leaving the Staff of Magnus with a stranger, but it would be little good against the dragons and would only encumber me needlessly.

With arrangements for our horses and supplies completed, we prepared ourselves for the battle ahead. Lydia took her large shield, her axe, and her bow and best arrows. I selected a variety of potions and scrolls, and took my sword of frost and my own bow and arrows. I gave Lydia a selection of potions as well, and we both applied frost and fire poisons to our arrows.

“Come. Let’s see about these dragons,” I said, still trying to sound bold, though my former giddiness was wearing off.

“I can’t wait, my thane,” she replied. “Fighting them one at a time was becoming such a bore.”

The guard shook his head as we moved up the road. “It’s your funeral pyre,” he called out. Many of those fleeing gave us surprised looks as we passed them heading the wrong way.

It was dark now, with full moons lighting the city’s stone walls. The buildings before the walls were aflame, the city gates knocked down in pieces. From the direction of Castle Dour, the Imperial fortress that stood above the heart of the city, we could hear the roar of the dragons. I wondered how the Imperial garrison was faring against them. They probably just needed a bit of help, I thought. All the better, because then I could avoid shouting and revealing my identity.

We passed through the gateway expecting the worst, but the shops and the Winking Skeever inn near the entrance were still untouched. A few foolish or brave onlookers stood gawking up at the castle. One vast winged shape perched on a castle tower, peering down at the bailey, which was hidden from our view. With its back turned to us, I could not tell if this was Alduin. The dragon just sat there, and I was surprised to see no arrows or other missiles flying toward it. It almost seemed as if it were waiting for something, but what?

I approached a nearby guard who seemed as helpless as the rest of the city dwellers. “They attacked the west gate this evening,” he told me. “Then they burned a couple of houses farther into the city, but that was all. Many of our citizens fled, but many more are holed up in the Temple of the Divines. Since then the dragons have been perched up there on Castle Dour. That one you see there on the Emperor’s Tower – that’s the fire-breather. The other one breathes frost.”

The dragons we had met so far had scorched and killed with reckless abandon, following no pattern or plan. Yet these two were working together and seemed to want something more than simple devastation. What could they be doing? Then I remembered the dragons that had surprised us as we emerged from caves and barrows. Did Alduin have some way of tracking us? Was he luring us into a trap even now?

We climbed the ramp leading up to the castle and found the portcullis open and unmanned. “Where are the guards?” Lydia asked.

I had no idea either. We continued through the tunnel beneath the castle’s curtain wall and looked into the bailey. But for two Imperial soldiers lying inert in the middle of the yard, it was deserted as well.

“This is very strange,” I said. “Where are all of Tullius’ troops? And the Penitus Oculatus? Why aren’t they out here saving the city?”

“I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” Lydia said.  “It feels like a trap. You don’t suppose Delphine was right about the Thalmor and the dragons working together, do you?”

In the weeks since we had last seen her, I had almost forgotten about Delphine’s outlandish notion. “I’ll believe Alduin and the Thalmor are working together when I see an elf flying on a dragon’s back,” I said. “Now, how are we going to attack these beasts?”

“Whatever we do, we must stay together,” she said. “We can’t let them separate us and then attack us singly.”

I had to agree with her. I didn’t know if either of us was ready to take on a dragon single-handed, since we had worked as a team so far.

The castle was built as a long, irregular rectangle hard against the sheer cliffs to the north. Large garrison towers and smaller guard towers stood along the high curtain wall. I knew the one called the Emperor’s Tower must be almost directly above the spot where we stood.

We edged farther into the bailey and had our first view of the Temple of the Divines at the far end of the rectangle. It rose up into the sky beyond a low interior wall that crossed the rectangle, separating the bailey from the temple courtyard. Unlike the squat towers on the castle wall, the temple had steeply pitched rooflines that soared to the heavens.

But we noticed none of that at first glance. No, it was the dragon perched atop the temple that first caught our attention. It was so large, it made the massive cathedral look like a child’s toy beneath its taloned feet. Yet I could tell this was not Alduin. It had long, sharp spikes down its back and on its tail. The white patches on its hide gleamed in the moonlight, marking it for a frost dragon. It paid us no attention as we edged farther into the bailey, past the door to the castle. I wanted to go in and drag a few of the soldiers out to help fight the dragons, but I was distracted by a deep voice speaking the dragon tongue. “Dovahkiin, hio lost meyz,” it said.

I turned to see the dragon sitting atop the Emperor’s Tower right above us. It was not as large as some of the other dragons we had encountered, yet it looked powerful. It was the color of rust, with short, curving horns and bony bumps down its back. I was almost disappointed it wasn’t Alduin.

Now the dragon spoke in the Common Tongue. “I am Nahagliiv, Dovahkiin. We knew you would come to save the city. We will show the world what you are – nothing but a mere mortal. Now, you will die, and your sword sister as well.”

“I told you it was a trap,” Lydia said.

“Then let us turn the trap on them,” I said, and she grinned. I turned to Nahagliiv. “Who sent you here, foul wyrm?” I challenged.

“Why, my master, Alduin, of course.”

“What if I choose not to fight you, vile corpse-maker?” I asked. “I would rather face Alduin himself. Is he too fearful to face me on his own?”

“Ah! My master said you were boastful. But if you do not face us, the city will burn. Those that do not die in my fire will freeze in my brother’s ice. And all of Skyrim will know you for a coward.”

“You both shall die before I let you destroy the city and its people. We have fought dragons before; we have no fear of you. Come, Lydia.”

Lydia gave a great battle shout and readied her bow. “You should never have come here, dragons!” We made our way to the steps up to the castle’s north wall, where we could take better aim at our foes.

“Good,” said Nahagliiv. “Your arrogance will be your undoing, puny mortal. For we are no ordinary dov. I have served Alduin since time began. Now, we fight.”

We reached the broad walkway atop the castle wall and began to move along it. Then the dragons launched themselves. Lydia fired shots at each of them before they were upon us. The poisoned arrows made silvery trails through the night as they arced up to meet the onrushing beasts. The Orcish arrowheads must have found their marks, because both dragons screamed as they strafed us, giving us a dual breath of frost and fire. The blast staggered me for a moment, but I concentrated on the words of their shouts and was neither burned nor frozen. Lydia got her shield up just in time. Our training in the ways of dragons was working, for now.

As they veered off to avoid the cliff rising behind us, I returned fire with a blast of ice aimed at Nahagliiv. Fight fire with ice and ice with fire, they had taught at Winterhold. I could see Nahagliiv’s red glow diminish as the spell took its effect.

The dragons retreated to their previous perches. This seemed too easy, I thought, but we took advantage of their positioning nonetheless. Lydia took shelter behind an arched tower that shielded her from the frost dragon. From there she had a clear shot at Nahagliiv on the Emperor’s Tower. I moved closer to Nahagliiv, then began blasting him with ice spells. I was too far for the second dragon’s frost breath to reach me. It was strange that these two dragons were allowing us to fight them one at a time. At this rate, maybe I would be able to avoid shouting and revealing my identity. But I knew the dragons’ strategic lapse couldn’t last.

As it turned out, they were just drawing us further into their trap. My magicka had run low and I was about to switch to my bow when we heard a great crash from the temple. The frost dragon had smashed a hole in the roof of the cathedral with its long tail. Terrified screams came from the townsfolk inside as they realized their sanctuary was about to turn into an icy death chamber.

“Dovahkiin,” said the frost dragon, “come feel my frost breath or these mortals die.”

I saw no choice. “Lydia,” I shouted, “hold off the fire while I get the frost.”

She edged toward me, launching arrows at Nahagliiv as she came. “But we must stay together, my thane. I am sworn to protect you!”

“It can’t be helped. You can protect me by distracting Nahagliiv while I follow this wall to the temple. If I can get to that first tower, I should be all right.”

“I’ve got your back, my thane,” she replied.

I felt safe from Nahagliiv as I crossed directly under his perch. Once I got out on the castle wall between the Emperor’s Tower and the temple, I would be exposed. Fortunately, Nahagliiv concentrated on Lydia as I stepped out into the open space atop the wall. From there, I could see over the parapet and down into Solitude. A crowd had gathered in the roadway between the castle and the Hall of the Dead. They were gazing up in wonder at the battle before them, cheering every time one of Lydia’s frost-tipped arrows arced through the night and struck the dragon.

I reached the intermediate tower and passed through the curving, arched tunnel that ran beneath it. Beyond, another stretch of wall led to the temple with the dragon perched atop it. Below the battlements and the temple, the cliffs dropped away a thousand feet to Solitude Bay.

“Now, prepare to die alone, Dovahkiin,” said the frost dragon. It leaned down and gave me a blast of ice, but I concentrated on the words – Fo-Krah-Diin – and was unharmed.

“Ha, ice-breather, your breath leaves me unscathed! It is mere words, and words cannot touch me. But you will feel my magic!” I blasted the dragon with a firebolt and heard a hissing noise as the fire hit its icy scales. Yet the dragon seemed unharmed. It launched itself from the temple and landed on the curtain wall behind me, cutting off my retreat. The dragons had succeeded in separating us. I drew my bow and fired an arrow at it.

I couldn’t see what was happening at the other end of the castle, but I could hear Nahagliiv’s roar as he breathed fire, and Lydia’s defiant shout of “Is that all you’ve got?” She sounded brave, but I knew she only said that when she’d taken a solid hit.

Now all my attention was taken by the frost dragon as it advanced on me, snapping its jaws and swinging its vicious tail. I had no choice but to shout. “Fus-Ro-Dah!” I screamed, with all the force the Greybeards had taught me. The dragon staggered, but did not fall. I used the momentary pause in its attack to conjure my flame atronach. Its flame spells would be more powerful than my own. The demon  hit the dragon with firebolts, while I launched more arrows. Still, the dragon hardly seemed to notice our assault.

And now the serpent was moving again, forcing me back toward the temple door, its snapping jaws reaching out for me. I knew I wasn’t likely to survive even one strike, my mage’s robes gave me such paltry protection. Where was Lydia? I could still hear the sounds of her battle with Nahagliiv at the Emperor’s Tower. Why wouldn’t the Imperials come out and help defeat the dragons? This was their city too. Even the crowd below was becoming less helpful. Their cheers had faded into dismayed “ohs” and “ahs” as the battle progressed.

Casting my bow aside, I drew my sword of frost and slashed at the dragon’s face just before it bit down. It shrank back, then drew breath for another frost attack. This time the blast more than staggered me, and I felt cold going through my body. My concentration was weakening. “They are only words,” I told myself.

 The dragon saw my weakness and came at me again with its jaws. But by now my Thu’um had recovered and I staggered it in turn. “Krii-Lun-Aus!” I shouted, marking the dragon for death. It stumbled then, and the icy sheen of its scales grew dimmer. I heard a cheer from below. A crowd had gathered in the courtyard of the Bard’s College. Why weren’t they up here helping to defend their city? Was everyone so content to let us fight their battles, or to watch us die trying?

Instead of pondering these unknowns, I should have been following my shout with more spells. The dragon was collecting itself as well, while my atronach disappeared in a fiery spray. Then a scream from the Emperor’s Tower froze my blood even more than the dragon’s breath. Lydia was hurt.

“Your friend is dying,” said the frost dragon, “and soon you will be dead as well.”

I had felt fear before, but that was nothing compared to the panic I felt now. A madness took me and I advanced on the dragon, pelting it with spell after spell, single-casting instead of dual-casting when my magicka ran low, then smiting it with my sword when the magicka ran out entirely.

The attack worked – at first. Weakened as the dragon was, it could still snap its jaws. As soon as I had no more magic, it advanced on me despite my slashing sword. The cheers and shouts of the crowd turned to groans as I backed toward the temple door once more. Then the dragon spun and caught me with its tail. Praise to the Nine that it was just a glancing blow, because a solid strike would have sent me over the parapet, if it hadn’t killed me outright. As it was, the razor-sharp spike cut my left shoulder, ripping a deep gash and throwing me backwards to lie in a heap against the temple door. Then the dragon hit me with another frost breath. It froze down into my bones and my whole body felt as if it were carrying a hundred-pound weight.

Gone were my thoughts of Lydia and defeating the dragons. I could only think of warmth, and I raised my hands for one more spell. My magicka had restored itself just enough that I could conjure my flame atronach, this time right in front of the dragon. Then I reached up for the door latch and tumbled inside the temple.

A priest stood inside, and he slammed the door behind me. “Gods, it sounds awful out there!” he exclaimed. “How did you survive?” Then he noticed my wounds. “Come, you’re hurt. We’ll take care of you.”

“No, I need to get back out there,” I said, trying to regain my wits. I had only a moment to wonder if the atronach could hold off the dragon while I healed myself. I took two potions from my robes, one of health and the other of magicka, and began drinking them in long draughts. With my magicka restored, I cast the close wounds spell on myself and felt the gash in my shoulder knit together.

Then I turned to the priest. “No one else is willing to fight the dragons, not the city guard, not the Imperials, not the townspeople. If I don’t stop them they’ll kill you, they’ll kill me, they’ll kill … everyone.”

“What can I do then, my lady? How can I be of help? I’m no fighter.”

“You can give me your blessing. You’re a priest of all the divines, correct?”

“I am, my lady.”

“Then give me the Blessing of Talos.”

He almost gasped at this blasphemy. “The Blessing of Talos! You know that’s outlawed, my lady. I dare not, not with the Imperial soldiers so nearby, and the Thalmor – they watch, they always watch.”

I looked around the temple. We were alone in the priest’s living quarters. “But you know the blessing, am I right? I need to strengthen my Thu’um if I’m to defeat these dragons.”

“Your Thu’um?” he said, searching my face to see if I was serious. “Yet I cannot, my lady, even if it means my death and the death of everyone in the city. Ask me for any other blessing, but not that.”

Fool! I thought, as I tried to decide what other blessing I could use. The Thalmor must have a very tight grip on this city for the priest to prefer death by dragons. “The Blessing of Mara, then,” I said finally.

“A fine choice, my lady. Mara is truly great, but how will her blessing help you defeat the dragons?”

“It won’t. But my housecarl is out there still and she may be gravely wounded. I will save her, even if I can’t save Solitude.”

“Very well,” he said, and performed the blessing on me. “What else can I do for you, my lady?” He shuddered as a great crash came from the wall of the temple. The dragon must have finished with the flame atronach.

“A flask of oil,” I said, as I drew an Orcish arrow from my quiver, and began wrapping a strip of cloth around its head, just behind the deadly sharp point. This would be crude, but I was out of ideas to defeat this frost dragon.

When I stepped back out through the doorway, I had a flaming arrow notched and ready to loose. The frost dragon had obliged me by rearing on its hind legs to take another bash at the temple wall. I let the arrow fly and it struck the wyrm square in the chest, exploding in a bloom of flame across its icy scales. The dragon staggered and beat at the spreading fire with its winged talons. The thrust from the beat of its wings pushed it back, its clawed feet caught the parapet, and it plunged backward, spiked tail over horned head, tumbling to crash onto the rocks a thousand feet below.

A great cheer rose up from the crowd at the Bard’s College, but I could not pause to watch the dragon’s ruin. For in the silence left by the dragon’s falling, I heard what I most dreaded. It was Lydia, and her voice was quiet, pleading. “No, not like this,” I heard her say. I couldn’t see her from the temple door. The view was blocked by the arched tower on the wall.

Neither could I see Nahagliiv, but I could hear him as well. “Do you hear me, Dovahkiin? Now I kill your little friend, then I come for you. You killed my brother. My anger burns within me and my breath grows all the hotter.”

Zu’u fen evenaar hin rahgol!” I shouted at him. I knew Lydia wouldn’t understand the words, but maybe just hearing my voice would hearten her, and strike fear into the dragon. “Hio fen aus, Nahagliiv!”

I dashed along the castle wall and through the curving, arched tunnel that passed through the tower, only to find my exit blocked by the dragon’s tail. I still couldn’t see Lydia, and there was no way past the dragon. I dared not use my ice storm spell because it could easily travel past the dragon and strike Lydia as well. I tried an ice spike, less powerful, but more focused. It just glanced off the dragon’s tail like a pebble hitting a boulder.

I ran back through the tunnel then along the top of the wall dividing the bailey from the temple courtyard. Now I could see Lydia cowering on one knee beneath the dragon, trying to drag herself away from it. She had dropped her shield and looked mortally wounded. I had seen her staggered before, but never had I seen her crawl. “Mercy!” she pleaded.

I had to distract Nahagliiv before he delivered the final blow. That, or get between her and the dragon. I still didn’t trust my ice storm spell not to hit her, and I knew she couldn’t get out of the dragon’s reach in time. There was only one thing left to do.

I leapt to the parapet on top of the wall, aiming my body at the walkway between the dragon and Lydia. Then I shouted. “Wuld-Nah-Kest!” The dragon must have been near as surprised as Lydia when I arrived between them so suddenly, and even more surprised when I turned my back on it and faced my sword sister. I looked around for her shield, but it was nowhere to be seen. I would just have to block Nahagliiv’s onslaught with my own body. I stood close to Lydia, looming over her as I cast the strongest healing spell I knew. I could feel the Blessing of Mara working through me to heal her, but it would take time.

Nahagliiv could have had us then if he had chosen to use his jaws or a smash from his tail. But in his arrogance he thought to match his Thu’um against mine, hitting us with his fire breath. I stood firm against the blast of the shout, and tried to concentrate on the words Nahagliiv was shouting – Yol-Toor-Shul. At the same time, I breathed in deep, letting the emptiness of the sky fill me. “Sky Above, Voice Within,” I could hear Master Arngeir intoning. Deep in my belly I felt my Thu’um growing stronger, but I would not shout. I would use it to turn this dragon’s puny Thu’um aside, just as Jurgen Windcaller had done when facing the Tongues long ago.

And it worked, for a time. The fire breath did not touch me and I was able to block most of it since I was standing so close to Lydia. Then I noticed her armor beginning to glow red at the edges, and I wondered if her skin was burning inside. The healing spell seemed to be reviving her and I focused all the harder on it. But it was too much to concentrate on all at once – my Thu’um, the words of the dragon’s shout, and the healing spell. Then I heard the crowd again, cheering and gasping all at once, and I felt my focus slip. The edges of my robes began to singe as I felt the heat growing behind me. How much longer could Nahagliiv’s fire breath last?

Then Lydia had found her strength again, just as the fire breath abated. She stood upright, axe in hand. “A healing spell!” she exclaimed, and I could swear I saw her wink. “Are you a priest?”

You should know by now that I’m not, I thought, but couldn’t put the thought into words as I staggered out of the way.

Then she rushed past me, gripping her axe in both hands.

“Now you’ll pay the death-price, dragon!” she shouted. “No one touches my thane!” Her fury was awesome to behold. She rained blows down on Nahagliiv’s head, and fire dragon though he was, the blows of her axe of embers had their effect. He seemed to have no fire left in him, and this made him more vulnerable. He tried to parry with his jaws, but each time she leapt out of the way.

I had recovered enough by now that I could get to my feet. I had also regained enough breath for another shout. I moved to a small ledge that extended out where the Emperor’s Tower met the castle wall. From this vantage I had a clear shot at Nahagliiv without fear of hitting Lydia. The next time she leapt back, I shouted “Fo-Krah-Diin!” and the force of the frost breath shout pushed Nahagliiv back against the tower wall, stunning him momentarily.

Lydia saw her chance and vaulted atop the dragon’s horned and scaled head. He swung his long neck to and fro trying to get his jaws around to her, but she rode him as if she were breaking a wild stallion. When his thrashing grew less, she planted her feet behind his horns and plunged the axe into his brain. Nahagliiv slumped to the stonework of the castle and spoke no more boasts.

The crowd had swelled during our battle, and now it roared its approbation. Their city was saved. Then they gasped as Nahagliiv’s flesh began to disintegrate in a fiery maelstrom, and the power of his soul rushed at me and into me. I felt my strength returning slowly as the dragon’s soul entered my being, but I was still spent, my magicka low, my breath a ragged, wheezing thing. I looked over at Lydia. She breathed heavily as she stripped off her steel gloves. They must have been scalding-hot because now I could see scorch marks on her forearms. For an idle moment, I wished she could be the one to absorb Nahagliiv’s soul. She had dealt the final blow, she deserved it.

When nothing was left of Nahagliiv but a bleached skeleton, the crowd below realized what had happened, and recognized me for who I was. They began chanting “Dovahkiin! Dovahkiin!” over and over again. Fireworks went up into the night from the Blue Palace at the east edge of the city, and I knew that Jarl Elisif and her court must also have been watching. I turned to the crowd and raised Lydia’s hand high into the air, as if declaring her the victor in a tourney.

But she would have none of the glory. She twisted her wrist from my grasp and grabbed my own hand, holding it above my head, almost lifting me off my feet. She gestured for the crowd to applaud even louder than they had before. They responded with enthusiasm, and the shouts of “Dovahkiin!” were even more deafening.

Then Lydia removed her horned helmet, dropped to one knee and bowed her head before me. “Proud to be of service, my thane,” she said, her voice catching.

I took her by the hand again. “Get up from there,” I said. “You don’t need to kneel.” When she stood once again I saw tears in her eyes. My own eyes were wet as well. Then we hugged. I felt her arms around me. Feeling only the unforgiving steel of her armor, my hands moved up and found her loose hair. I looked up at her and then somehow we were kissing. Did I kiss her or did she kiss me? Then it didn’t matter because she was kissing me back and lifting me off the ground in her strong arms.

Everything went away then for a while, the roar of the crowd, the pains in my body, our near brush with death. The whole world was Lydia’s arms around me, her mouth on my mouth, her breath in my ear as she whispered, “It’s about time, my thane.”

“Deirdre,” I whispered back. “I’m your Deirdre.” Then she put me down and her smile gleamed in the moonlight.

We realized then that the crowd had grown silent. I had only time to think, “What have we done?” as I turned to look out over them. Then they burst into roars of approval once more.

It had only taken them a moment to pass from shock to acceptance. And it was because they knew something I realized only later – it was neither my magic nor my Thu’um that had saved them; neither was it Lydia’s arrows, nor her axe. Our love had saved the city, though I had only just then learned to name it love. I saved Lydia, and Lydia saved me, and so we defeated not one dragon but two, and two of the most powerful we had ever faced. Without our love, Solitude would have been nothing but ashes and icy rubble.

We raised our arms to the crowd once more, and soaked in their cheers. This was none of the grudging thanks we had received in the past, but full-throated approval. We were both so spent we had to lean against the parapet to remain upright, but it felt good just to enjoy the victory for the moment.

The roar of the crowd went on and on, still at deafening volumes, which must explain why neither of us heard the sound of boots on stone approaching from behind. The next I knew, a gold-gloved hand had popped a bag over Lydia’s head, then all went dark as a bag went over my head as well. I could hear gasps and jeers from the crowd and even “Down with the Thalmor!” as the bottom of the bag was cinched tight. Then I felt myself lifted from my feet as darkness descended over my mind as well as my eyes.

End of Part II

Part III continues here.

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