The Song of Deirdre – Chap. 33

 

Two Dungeons

 

General Tullius was a small man, lean but tautly muscled, with close-cropped gray hair and smooth-shaven cheeks, the style favored in Cyrodiil. He wore an elaborately decorated cuirass of hardened leather with the Imperial dragon symbol worked in gold chasing across the front. He regarded me coolly as we sat facing each other across a table in Castle Dour’s interrogation room. I could only stare back at him, gagged as I was, my hands bound behind me.

“You must be hungry and thirsty,” Tullius said. “I would remove that gag if I could trust you not to use your Voice.”

He looked at me as if expecting an answer; I just glared back at him.

“Come,” he said. “I convinced the Thalmor to leave you with me. You should be grateful. And I have an offer for you. So, if Legate Rikke removes your gag, do you promise not to use your Voice?” He nodded toward a tall Nord woman in a legion uniform standing at attention nearby. In contrast to the general’s decorative armor, hers was purely functional: a full steel cuirass, steel-studded kilt, and steel bracers.

I had no interest in whatever offer the general might have, but I was parched and starved. A ewer filled with spring water sat on the table between us, along with a plate of fruit, bread, and cheese. I nodded in acquiescence.

As far as I could tell, it had been most of a day since I had come awake in the bleak cell in Castle Dour’s prison. Or at least, I assumed that’s where I was, judging by the Imperial guards patrolling in front of my cell. The place was circular, built of black stone blocks that reflected little light, with barred cells lining the perimeter of the prison chamber. Guards made rounds of the cells, and I could see more guards and the occasional Thalmor passing by on a gallery above. I had seen no sign of Lydia – the cells across the chamber from mine were empty – nor had I seen her when the guards brought me upstairs to this interrogation room.

Tullius gave a signal to the woman officer. “General, are you sure?” she asked.

“Yes, Legate Rikke. I believe Deirdre is a woman of her word.”

The truth was, I had no particular compunction about breaking my promise. The guards had fitted me with a magicka collar, however, and I didn’t think I could break out of this prison armed only with my Thu’um. Maybe I could talk my way out.

Grudgingly, the legate undid my gag and the cord around my hands, then stood behind me, dagger at the ready. I opened my mouth wide, working my jaw around and clearing my throat to regain my voice.

“Go ahead, you must be starved,” Tullius said, gesturing at the table.

Hoarse as I was, I left the food and water untouched. “My housecarl,” I said when I could speak. “Where is she? How have you treated her?”

“Your housecarl – and more, it seems.” Tullius couldn’t help smiling, though it didn’t suit his stern features. “Well, to each her own, as we say in the Imperial City. I’m surprised these Nords are so tolerant. These hinterlands are usually breeding grounds of narrow-mindedness and bigotry.”

“You still haven’t answered my question.”

“We haven’t harmed her, traitor to the Empire though she is.”

“She is no traitor.”

“So you say. Now, help yourself while I make my offer.”

I poured myself a mug of water, then chose an apple to break my fast, taking a careful bite. Though I was hungry, I wouldn’t lower myself in Tullius’ eyes by groveling at his trough.

Tullius rose from his chair and paced back and forth behind the table for a moment. “I have to admit, you have me puzzled, young lady. Don’t think I don’t recognize you from Helgen. It will take more than dyed hair and a bit of makeup to fool me. You swore vengeance on all Nords that day…”

“Perhaps I should have sworn vengeance on all Imperials as well, since you would have beheaded me for no reason.”

“Ah, well. I was impressed with the tenacity you showed – attacking those guards, giving that little speech. But I never like to overrule my subordinates in public, so I let the proceedings proceed. Then Alduin intervened. And so, here is my question: did Alduin attack Helgen to save you? Are you in league with the World Eater?”

I nearly spit out my bite of apple. “You think I’m working with Alduin?”

“Look at the facts. You were about to be executed. The World Eater arrived at that same moment, allowing you to escape with your life while many others died. Then it turns out you’re the Dragonborn. I thought it was all just Nord nonsense until I saw what you did on the castle walls yesterday. So tell me, why shouldn’t I believe you and Alduin are in league?”

“I’m surprised you believe in the World Eater at all.”

“Yes, some Nord prophecy is making the rounds, the Song of the Dragonborn or some such. Not many here believe it, especially the Thalmor, but I was at Helgen. We’ve seen what dragons can do since then, yet what happened at Helgen was far different. The sky itself rained fire. Flaming meteors demolished stone walls two feet thick. So yes, I believe Alduin has returned, though I thought he was just a Nord myth.”

“If you believe the prophecy,” I said, “then you know that I am here to stop Alduin. Why do you think I’ve been killing his dragons?” I tore a hunk of bread from the loaf in front of me.

Tullius regarded me for a moment. “Yes, you are fierce in your pursuit of the serpents. Last night I watched you from a window in this tower. I saw you fight with a fury I have rarely witnessed. Yet other reports show you have a peaceful nature. You refused to join Ulfric, by all accounts out of Windhelm. And you escaped Markarth with the Forsworn, leaving not a single dead guard in your wake. You even spared those Thalmor justiciars. You must know that was the mistake that led to your capture.”

“Call me foolish, perhaps, but I don’t see your point.”

“Which is it – are you a fighter or a peace-maker? I am perplexed.”

If he could only know that I shared the same quandary! But no, I couldn’t let him see my inner turmoil. “General, I know the pain of losing those most dear to me, so I seek to stop the dragons from inflicting more pain on others. Yet I do not enjoy killing. I have learned that by now, having done enough of it. I have learned that revenge will bring me no peace, though I still seek justice for my parents. And I will fight if someone threatens my life or the lives of those I love. I regret the death of those I have been forced to kill. Well, nearly all of them. As for your torturer, I feel little sorrow over his death.”

“Ah, you answered well. Dealing in life and death is not easy. And I hope to appeal to your compassionate side. You must see that the fastest way to end Skyrim’s suffering is to make a quick end of this Stormcloak foolishness.”

“No, I don’t see that,” I said. “The dragons have caused most of the suffering I have seen.”

“But this uprising has hardly begun. Think of the blood that will be lost as Nord fights against Nord! The Stormcloaks’ victory at Falkreath may embolden others to join them, even that fence-sitter Balgruuf.”

“So what would you have me do? My plate is quite full with Alduin and his dragons.”

“Just this, and I hope it will be a simple task for you: challenge Ulfric to single combat following these ancient Nordic customs. I saw the power you wield when you defeated those dragons. Use it on Ulfric! Shout him down as he shouted down High King Torygg. That will put an end to this Stormcloak nonsense.”

“Why do you think I would do your bidding?”

“Self-interest, for one,” he replied. “Just think what opportunities await the one who can shout down this pretend king! There’s nothing Nords admire more than those who wield great power. Too, with the Stormcloak issue settled, I could put the entire Imperial garrison to the task of hunting dragons, even Alduin himself. Peace and tranquility will prevail across Skyrim, and you will be the one to usher it in.”

I had to admit, Tullius’ plan did seem to offer the quickest route to ending Skyrim’s bloodshed. But at what cost?

“Tell me, General, do your peace and tranquility include an end to the Thalmor snatching Skyrim’s citizens from their beds?”

“I thought you might raise that objection.” He made a sign for Legate Rikke to move to the door. I heard her give a frustrated sigh as she left her position behind me. Then Tullius took up quill and ink and began writing on a scrap of paper. He kept speaking all the while, spouting the usual platitudes about peace and harmony between the Aldmeri Dominion and the Empire. “Young Deirdre, it is time for you and everyone else in Skyrim to realize that the Thalmor only seek to guide us through this transition into a new era of peace and prosperity for Summerset and the Empire, under the protection and guidance of the Eight.”

He finished writing and pushed the note across to me. It read: “Don’t you see that the Thalmor only benefit from discord in Skyrim? The Empire must remain unified and strong during these dark times, so that we will be ready for the next war with the Aldmeri Dominion. And we will need you on our side.”

I looked up at the general. His expression reminded me of a hawk trying to guess which way its prey would run. But did I see some note of beseeching in that gaze? “Well,” he demanded, “will you accept my offer?”

If I had possessed more wisdom and less youthful outrage over my treatment at Helgen, I might have accepted it. If he was serious, then it might indeed offer the quickest route to ending Skyrim’s suffering, from the dragons, from the Civil War, and even from the Thalmor. Yet I could not trust the man who would have seen me unjustly executed without a second thought, the man who oversaw that Imperial torture chamber. It was probably just a trick, I told myself – once I deposed Ulfric, I would be back in chains.

It wasn’t just my lack of trust in Tullius. It was my own self-regard. The truth was, I cared too much for my own reputation to kill Ulfric in cold blood, or to appear to be in league with the Imperials and the Thalmor, even if it was just a subterfuge. Vain girl that I was! In that moment I might have spared myself and Lydia and all of Skyrim untold suffering, but I turned it aside.

“No, General Tullius, I do not trust you,” I said. “And though I do not seek to fight the Thalmor, I will do nothing to aid their cause. I want only to fulfill my destiny to face Alduin. Now I ask you to release me so that I may return to my task.”

Tullius eyed me for a moment, and I thought I saw something of the battle-weary warrior in his expression. He gave a small sigh. “I tried my best to convince you. Your decision will plunge Skyrim into months, years, even decades of war. And I thought you were a peace-maker!” He nodded to Legate Rikke, who came up from behind and laid hands on me.

“But General, the dragons, Alduin!” I was suddenly desperate. “I am the only one who can stop them, if the prophecy is true.” I managed to get that much out before Rikke had the gag back in my mouth and cinched tight.

“We will have to deal with the dragons on our own,” Tullius said. “You are too valuable a weapon to risk the Stormcloaks using you, and after your rash words about the Thalmor we can’t trust you not to go over to Ulfric’s side. I’ll let you stew over your decision for a day, but after that I won’t be able to keep you out of Thalmor hands. You can rest assured that the justiciars will not treat you so kindly.” He looked at me sadly as Rikke dragged me from the room, hands bound behind my back once more.

As we made our way around the gallery that encircled the second floor of the tower, I looked down into the prison chamber. Lydia stood behind the bars of her cell. “My thane, are you well?” she called up when she saw me. Whereas the Imperials had left me in my arch-mage’s robes – though all the potions, scrolls, and lockpicks had been removed – they had taken Lydia’s armor and replaced it with a rough-spun tunic. I only had time to nod before a guard rapped the bars of her cell with his sword, forcing her back. “You! No talking!”

Then we continued around the balcony until her cell was out of sight. On the way we passed a room whose door had been shut when we passed it earlier. I now saw that it was a torture chamber, complete with rack. An inquisitor stood within, sharpening some dark instrument. He grinned at me as we went past. I supposed the open door was for my benefit.

I spent a sleepless night going over and over my decision. I tried to convince myself I could trust Tullius, but I kept seeing him at Helgen, coolly watching the proceedings as I was about to be executed. And to kill Ulfric on behalf of the Empire and the Thalmor? No, it was too much.

My quandary about Tullius’ offer was not the only thing keeping me awake. I couldn’t stop thinking of Lydia, and that kiss. Kissing Onmund had been nice enough, though I hadn’t cared to repeat the experience. But kissing Lydia – I wanted to kiss her again and again. A thousand times wouldn’t be enough. I remembered rubbing that lineament into her bare shoulder, the softness of her skin as my fingers kneaded it. I wanted to caress her skin again, run my fingers through her dark hair, kiss her lips, and … then … I knew not what. I only knew that I ached for her with my entire being – to hear her laugh or make a dry remark or vow to protect me with her life, even just to look at her face once more. Then it occurred to me that accepting Tullius’ offer would be the quickest way to see her again. I was soon back to pondering whether I could trust him and betray all that I knew to be right.

I was awakened from these quandaries by a figure creeping up to my cell. It must have been the dead of night because it seemed hours since I had seen a guard pass by.

I heard a whisper: “My thane.” I went up to the cell door, then I dearly wished I had not been bound and gagged. I could neither touch nor kiss the woman I loved. Lydia reached through the bars and caressed my cheek with the back of her hand, and that had to be enough. Even through my gag, I had to suppress a little laugh of relief at seeing her again.

“We can be glad the mason-work in this prison is none too good,” she whispered, drawing something from within her tunic. She fumbled in the dark with the cell’s lock, and I realized she must be trying to pick it. “There’s a tunnel behind my cell,” she continued. “It looks like it leads out of here. And I found the chest with the rest of our things.”

She was having difficulty with the lock. “Let me,” I tried whispering through my gag, but of course it came out as “Mmmm mmm.” I turned around, hoping she would understand to unbind my hands so I could pick the lock.

Lydia was no thief, but she was stubborn. “I’ve almost got it,” she whispered. Then the pick broke, a piece of it falling to the stone floor with a clatter.

“Oi, what was that?” we heard a guard call, and saw a flickering glow of moving torches from the stairwell.

“Here, quick!” Lydia said, finally reaching to unbind my hands, but too late.

Two guards and their captain ran into the circular chamber. In the light of the torch one carried, I saw that Lydia had armed herself with a short sword she’d found somewhere, and she now held it at the ready.

“No, Lydia!” I tried to shout at her. The words were unintelligible, but at least she looked at me to see me shaking my head. I heard the sounds of more guards running on the floor above and caught the gold glint of elven armor. She was far outnumbered, and to fight would be her death. If only she had thought to unbind my hands first!

Lydia relented and dropped her sword. Two guards grabbed her from either side. The one with the torch, the captain of the guard, stepped up to her and struck her across the face with the back of his hand. She was too proud to cry out, or even put her hand to her face.

“We’ll teach you to try to break out of Castle Dour, Stormcloak bitch!” he said.

“I’m no Stormcloak,” she spat back. “I’m Lydia Ravenwood, housecarl to Thane Deirdre Morningsong and retainer to Jarl Balgruuf of Whiterun.”

“As good as a Stormcloak then,” said the captain. “Balgruuf will soon regret his dallying, once we’re through with him.”

“That’s enough, Captain,” came Legate Rikke’s voice from above. “Take the prisoner to a different cell and do not mistreat her further. And find out how she escaped, or you will face the consequences.”

“Yes, Legate,” the captain said. As they took her away, Lydia kept looking back over her shoulder, as if to apologize for ruining our chance of escape.

I had felt my hopes soar upon seeing her again, only to have them dashed. But I only let myself feel dejected for a moment. I had seen Lydia again, I knew that she was well, and I had felt her touch once more. That was all the encouragement I needed. If her cell suffered from faulty mason-work, perhaps mine did too. I began feeling all around the walls for rotten mortar and loose blocks. It was slow work, requiring much squatting and stretching with my back to the wall.

An hour later I had found nothing, and dawn light was shining down into the chamber outside my cell from a skylight far above. I went up to the cell door to examine its locks and hinges for any faults, taking care that no guards could see me. I noticed the shard of the broken lock pick that had fallen to the floor just a few inches beyond the bars of my cell. It had broken off short, but its hooked point still seemed serviceable. I sat with my back to the bars, contorting my bound arms to get my fingers on it. I had just gotten back to my feet when I heard footsteps from the floor above, and then the sound of voices. I stepped away from the door and managed to drop the pick into a side pocket of my robes.

“General Tullius, since you can’t keep our prisoners from escaping, we will do the job for you,” said a female voice. I recognized the accent and the superior tone of the High Elves of Summerset. It seemed familiar somehow.

“Ambassador Elenwen,” came General Tullius’ voice, “we have checked all the other cells and they are inescapable. We are sealing up that tunnel even now. I still have one or two interrogation methods to try on the prisoners.” I was disgusted by the obsequious tone this usually overbearing general adopted before the Thalmor.

“You mean the barbarity I see here?” Elenwen asked, and I knew they must have stopped before the torture chamber. “You humans and your racks, your tongs, your metal wires. Our methods are much cleaner, and far more effective. No, you’ve had your chance. The prisoners are still in one piece, I trust? Still in their right minds?”

“They are, Ambassador,” the general said meekly.

“Justiciars, take them!” she commanded, and I heard metal-booted feet clumping down the stairs.

Two gold-clad justiciars appeared, and an Imperial guard opened my cell door for them. I could only sit helplessly as they placed yet another black bag over my head. The cloth must have been coated in an aromatic sleeping potion, because I fell instantly into a dream. It was not a good one, featuring much blind bumping along a rocky mountain road in the back of a wagon.

 

*~*~*

 

Lydia’s screams were awful to hear. She had held out for many hours against the Thalmor torturer, a pinched little Altmer named Naris. Yet when the screaming came it was like nothing human, more like the screech of a Skyrim wildcat crossed with the caw of some strange bird. Try as I might over the long years since our interrogation by the Thalmor, I have never quite purged those screams from my memory. I’ll still wake sometimes in the dark of the night, Lydia’s screams ringing in my ears. I’ll reach for her, and then remember … but I get ahead of myself.

By my reckoning, this was our second day in the Thalmor dungeon. On the first, I had awakened on a narrow cot whose mattress could have used a fresh bundle of rushes. I supposed I should have been grateful for even this small comfort: the cells on either side of mine were bare, manacles bolted to the back wall the only adornment.

Save for the iron bars that formed the front of each cell, everything in this dungeon was made of wood. Paneling separated my cell from those on either side. If I stood at the bars of my cell and looked to the left I could see a larger chamber beyond, also wood-paneled, with wooden stairs leading to a gallery above. Square columns of stout timber disappeared into the ceiling at the center of the room. There were no windows anywhere, and the only light came from torches and oil lamps made of cow horns. Directly across from my cell was a small storeroom with a trapdoor in the floor. I wondered where that led.

Elenwen, the Thalmor ambassador to Skyrim, treated us well that first day. Guards brought food and water to the cell to my left, and I knew this was where they must be keeping Lydia. She tried to call out to me once, only to be reprimanded by the guards. The cell on my right seemed empty – there were no sounds from that direction, at least. Of food and water, I had none, because they would not ungag me until I agreed to cooperate. Unlike Tullius, Elenwen didn’t trust me not to use my Voice. Yet at some point they would need to give me food and drink. I could be of no use to them if I starved to death.

 The ambassador was a tall, thin, almost gaunt High Elf in fine robes, with hair pulled back to emphasize her tall forehead and pointed ears. As soon as she entered my cell and spoke, I realized why she seemed familiar: she was the Altmer who had spoken to Tullius during the beheadings in Helgen. And she recognized me.

“My, but you’ve risen high since last we met,” she said. “Then, you were but a scrawny girl in rags. Now, the Dragonborn and, judging by those robes, arch-mage of the College of Winterhold. And you have thwarted us at every turn, with that business in Whiterun and then with our emissary to Winterhold disappearing as well. Don’t tell me you had nothing to do with that. The question is, why?”

I only glared at her.

“Ah well, you will come around to see my point of view – one way or the other.”

She left then, but it was not long before she was back. She would stand uncomfortably close to the chair on which I sat, caressing the side of my face or stroking my hair and talking in a patronizing voice as if showing concern for a small child. Or, if I was sitting on the cell’s narrow cot, she would sit beside me, her hand on my knee. She gave me many reasons for joining the Thalmor cause. Needless to say, I rejected them all, shaking my head and mumbling through my gag.

At first, she appealed to my Breton side. “You have merish blood in you, through your Breton mother,” she said. Damn my loose tongue, I thought. She had learned all she needed to know about me from my speech in Helgen. “Surely, your merish lineage is the reason for your power. And we can give you a position in which you can wield it. Perhaps you will become greater than Tiber Septim one day…”

I thought of what my mother would say about Elenwen’s proposal. The High Elves usually viewed Bretons with contempt, as a gross bastardization of their own people with the earliest humans of Tamriel. In return, my mother and many other Bretons nursed a hatred for the Altmer, diminishing the role the elves played as ancestors of their people. She would have laughed in Elenwen’s face to hear her praise the elven blood running in Breton veins – as I did now, through my gag.

“And these Nords,” Elenwen went on. “Surely you can see that we must put the barbarians down. A disgrace even to the name of man! I’m surprised that a Nord was able to produce such a powerful, capable child as you – that’s your merish blood at work. And what do you owe them? Aren’t they the ones who murdered your parents? Didn’t you return to Skyrim seeking your revenge on them? And with us on your side, you can have it!”

My heart did beat a little faster then, and I saw for a moment my parents’ faceless murderers brought before me by the justiciars. I took a breath, as deeply as I could through the gag. The vision passed. I had put thoughts of that kind of revenge aside in Dragon Bridge.

Yet Elenwen went on. “We would name you Marshal of Skyrim. You could mete out the Nords’ punishment as you saw fit, or wipe them from the face of Nirn, for aught we care. Saving your sweetheart, of course.” My sweetheart – that’s how she referred to Lydia. We must have put on quite a show for those watching from the safe windows of Castle Dour. “Or, we can find a more suitable bed-partner for you.” Her hand went back to my knee. “If your tastes run to the feminine, as it seems they do, we have many fine High Elven maidens we can present to you. Any – or several – of them would be happy to be the consort of the Dragonborn.”

I turned away from her in disgust, and she rose to leave. “I will give you some time to reconsider my offers. But if you remain obstinate, you will force us to resort to more brutal measures. And I promise you, neither you nor your sweetheart will enjoy them.”

She returned several hours later, after I had slept. “Well, have you changed your mind?” she demanded. I glared at her, not being able to speak. “Ah, well,” she sighed. “We must do what we must do. Yet it is a pity. Your sweetheart isn’t the sharpest blade in the rack, yet she is quite pretty, for a Nord.” She sighed again and caressed my cheek. “For you see, I too appreciate a comely face. Tell me, does she touch you here?” Her hand went to my chest, groping my breast through my arch-mage’s robes. They had left me in them, perhaps afraid to unbind my hands to strip me out of them. “Does she touch you here?” Her hand went to my crotch. With a groan of repulsion, I wrenched myself away from her, tipping sideways in my chair and falling to the floor.

Elenwen drew back, her face flushed, her breathing rapid. “As I said, it is a pity. Those cheekbones, that fair skin, those dark eyes. I doubt you will recognize her when we are through.”

With that she left and I heard the guards taking Lydia out of her cell and into the chamber beyond. Then the torture began.

If they hoped that the mere sound of her screams would convince me to cooperate, they were wrong. For Lydia did not scream, not at first. She did manage to shout, “Don’t give in, my thane, whatever hap…” before they silenced her with a blow. After that, she was so silent that I could not tell what they were doing to her. All I heard was a strange, crackling noise like the sound a staff of lightning makes as it hits its target, but much quieter. I could only imagine what that was, and what effect it was having.

After more than an hour, they brought me out of my cell and into the larger dungeon chamber. This had a table and chairs in the center and a desk to the left, pushed up to the cell Lydia had occupied. Unlike the others, this cell had a three-foot wall on the side facing the torture chamber, atop which bars stretched to the ceiling. I supposed this allowed the torturer to observe prisoners closely, and to take notes while they were being interrogated in the cell. Next to the desk on the wall to the left was a storage chest.

Against the far wall, a pair of manacles hung from a gauntree jutting out from the wall, no doubt to give the torturer access to his victim from all sides. Lydia hung from them, her head drooping forward as if she were unconscious. Above and behind her was a second gallery, not connected to the first. Several justiciars hung about up there, watching the action below.

Lydia looked up as they led me into the room and sat me in a chair opposite her. I even thought I saw her smile, before her head slumped forward onto her chest once more. Then I noticed the marks, red welts, up and down her arms, legs, and neck. They had stripped her to her shift, and there were blackened singe marks on it as well, more concentrated beneath her arms and between her legs. Naris, the torturer, held an instrument like a small staff, a glowing ball of energy at its tip. I began to regret not taking Tullius’ offer, or not finding some way to stretch out my negotiations with Elenwen, to play along with one of her proposals.

The ambassador stood beside me as the torture went on. “She really is quite remarkably stoic, your sweetheart,” she said. “I wouldn’t want you to miss her show of bravery. Yet she seems too sleepy to fully appreciate the pain she is about to endure. Guard!”

One of the guards went over to a barrel of water that stood in the center of the room. He dipped a bucket into it, then threw the water over Lydia. She spluttered and came awake, and looked around at her inquisitors defiantly.

Naris, the torturer, pressed the device to Lydia’s side, over the shift, and a small spark leapt out of the tip. The fabric began to sizzle, then smolder. She pursed her lips and looked fiercely at me. Then her head went down and her body went taut against the manacles, but she made no sound. The device kept shooting its charge into her and I wondered how long it could last, and what Lydia was feeling as the energy went through her. Then the torturer removed the wand and she took several panting breaths.

“You’ll notice we’ve left her face untouched … so far,” Elenwen said. “I wanted to give you one last chance to reconsider before we do irreversible damage to a spot not easily hidden.”

Lydia looked up again and shook her head as vigorously as she could. “Ah, such a loyal housecarl!” Elenwen exclaimed. “She really is quite remarkable. I’ve seen strong men cry like babes under much less treatment. But we must continue. Everyone has their breaking point.”

The torture went on for another hour at the least. It seemed a century. I didn’t know who would break first, Lydia or I. Yet I knew I had to be as strong as she was, since she was the one experiencing the pain.

At one point, one of the justiciars standing nearby stepped up to Elenwen and said, “Ambassador, if you command it, I will debase myself and rut with the Nord bitch. The she-Breton will not like that.” He almost managed to sound reluctant.

Elenwen looked at him sternly. “No, Aldaril,” she said. “I’ve told you, none of that.” She turned to me as the torture continued, speaking in a quieter voice. “They wanted to strip her naked, supposedly so nothing would impede the wand’s effects. And they wanted to do other things, but I wouldn’t allow it. Not that I care a whit for her modesty, I just wouldn’t give the beasts the pleasure.” If there was molesting to be done, it seemed, Elenwen would be the one to do it.

The torture went on, the torturer holding the wand to the bottoms of Lydia’s feet, the backs of her knees, and a spot just behind her ear. I was amazed at her endurance. So were Naris and the justiciars, who grew alternately tired, bored, then frustrated. Even Elenwen, who at first seemed so eager to witness Lydia’s pain, went over to the desk and sat at it, writing in a journal. Finally one of the justiciars disappeared from the gallery, then reappeared through a door at the back of the chamber. He went over to Lydia and began striking her with his fists between bouts with the wand.

As awful as it was, I couldn’t look away. I owed Lydia that much, as I was the one for whom she endured this pain. I was the one making her do it, because I had not agreed to Tullius’ demands, nor to Elenwen’s. Yet Lydia herself kept me from relenting. Every time I thought she would break, she looked up at me and gave a stern shake of her head. Though, each time, her head shook less vigorously, and a lost expression grew in her eyes, as if she were seeing something far away.

I know I could have stopped the torment sooner. I tell myself I should have done so every time I awake with Lydia’s screams in my head. But she never would have forgiven me, not before she had tested her own limits to the fullest. It would have driven her from me, and our lives after would never have been the same.

Finally, the torturer gave the justiciar a second wand and they began using the two devices on her at the same time. They chose the two spots they had found most vulnerable: her armpit and her inner thigh, just below the parting of her legs. They held the wands there for just a few seconds. Then she threw her head back and out of her mouth emerged the most inhuman cry of anguish I hope never to hear again. On and on she screamed, her body rocking back and forth, her head flinging wildly from side to side. I don’t know how she endured that pain, and I don’t know how I endured her screams. Even the torturer seemed taken aback.

I stood up, but the guards on either side kept me from going to her. I was yelling too, if not screaming, through my gag. I looked around at Elenwen beseechingly, but she just looked at Lydia with a satisfied expression. What kind of monster could take pleasure in the suffering of another?

Finally Lydia was done.

“Well?” Elenwen said. “Are you ready to relent?”

I was nodding my head, trying to get them to remove my gag so I could speak, when I heard Lydia.

“No, my thane,” she said, her voice weak. “Do not…” I turned to look at her and her eyes were pleading with me not to give in. She was still in her right mind. For that, at least, I could be grateful. I thought I had lost her, that her mind had broken beyond repair. But she was still Lydia, battered and weakened though she was. How could I give in, when she would not? My nodding head turned to shaking, and I sat back down in the chair, as if content for the show to continue.

“Ah, well,” Elenwen sighed. “Naris, we must resort to more brutal methods. You know I abhor such barbarity, but the prisoners have driven us to it. Bring the knives!” Naris grinned.

Another justiciar emerged from the door at the back of the chamber carrying a felt-covered box. He set it on the table in the center of the room and opened it to reveal knives of various sizes and shapes, most of them small. When Naris took one out, I saw that it was razor-sharp.

“Do your work, Naris,” Elenwen commanded, “but slowly, so that this one can relish the pain of her decision.”

“Yes, Ambassador,” the torturer replied.

Elenwen turned to me. “Now you will find out why he is called Naris the Wicked.”

The torturer approached Lydia with the knife, holding it up to her face. Meanwhile another justiciar held her head firmly with two hands so she couldn’t turn away.

Now, you may think me selfish, that I was able to endure hours of watching Lydia experiencing the most dreadful pain, yet I was brought to the point of breaking only when I saw that they would scar her beautiful face. Likely you are right, but I also saw how this affected Lydia. For the first time, I saw fear in her eyes as Naris brought the knife up before her face. That, I could not endure.

We made it through the first cut. The torturer made a fine incision, about an inch long, from the hairline at her temple across to a point beneath the corner of her eye. At first there was no blood. Then the line grew red and began to drip down her cheek. Lydia didn’t cry out. The pain must have been minor compared to what she had just endured.

Naris set the blade aside, then took up a cloth and gently, almost lovingly, wiped away the blood. Next, he took another knife from the case. This one looked like a barber’s razor, but shorter. He tested its edge by slicing one of his own hairs in half just by brushing it across the blade. Then he held the blade up to Lydia’s face, holding the skin taught around the first cut. He put the blade along the cut, and then I knew what he would do. Lydia realized it too, and now her eyes were closed, her chest heaving and falling.

I screamed. To my ears it was almost as shrill and inhuman as Lydia’s, even through my gag. I couldn’t look. I closed my eyes and screamed and went on screaming.

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