The Song of Deirdre – Chap. 35


The Aldmeri Embassy


And indeed, she was not.

“You had Titus Mede and that sniveling Jarl Elisif in your power, and yet they still live,” the ambassador said, glaring across her desk at me as a guard removed my gag. She closed a thin tome she had been reading when we came in, then put it in a drawer and locked it.

We sat in Elenwen’s solar, a floor above the dungeon. Rulindil stood nearby. I still had my hands bound behind my back and wore the magicka collar Rulindil had fitted around my neck after we left Solitude.

“I followed your instructions to the letter,” I said. “I poisoned the soup and delivered it to the emperor myself. I cannot be blamed if he detected your poison with his sensitive nose.”

“Jarrin root is reputed to be nearly odorless and tasteless,” she said, her eyes boring into mine, searching for any hint of treachery.

“I see you’ve neglected your alchemy. Jarrin root is undetectable when mixed with water, but its response to other ingredients is unpredictable.”

“You knew this was a fault in my plan, yet you didn’t alert me to it? This is not the loyal service I expect from my thrall! Yet once the poison failed, you were in command of your full powers. Surely one who can dispatch two fearsome dragons can overcome a frail old man and his guards.”

“You said nothing of using force against the emperor. I thought it best to follow your orders to the smallest detail.”

Elenwen eyed me for a moment. “Disingenuity will get you nowhere. I know you committed some treachery in the Emperor’s Tower. Now you will see the price your sweetheart has paid for your mistake.” She paused, noticing the look of shock on my face. “What, did you think I had not heard of your betrayal before now? Rulindil sent a rider the instant he heard the emperor still lived. That message arrived here hours ago. And Naris can work quickly when he needs to. I am quite pleased with his services, though you may not be. Bring her!”

No, they couldn’t have, I told myself as the guard pulled me to my feet. If they had murdered Lydia, then they had lost their hold over me. Or perhaps they had done something so terrible that death would seem merciful by comparison.

The guard led me downstairs, then pushed me into Lydia’s cell. At first, it didn’t seem too bad. She was manacled to the cell’s back wall, her head slumped forward. She still lived, at least. New welts showed red up and down her legs, but that wasn’t the worst. When she lifted her head, I saw that Naris had resorted to brute force in addition to his implement of pain. Her nose was bloodied and one eye blackened and swollen shut. And that was still far from the worst – those bruises could easily be healed. Then I noticed her left hand. It was bandaged crudely, and blood dripped from it. Still, I thought she smiled when she saw me.

“I told you I would return,” I said, trying to smile as well. She said nothing. “Your hand…”

“It’s nothing,” she managed to say, her voice hoarse and weak. “It’s only my shield hand… My little finger … they took it.” Then her head slumped forward once more.

“Sparing her sword hand … such mercy!” Elenwen said. “I’ll have to speak with Naris about that.”

“Mercy! You call that mercy?” I didn’t know what was happening to my body. I was breathing rapidly, yet I couldn’t get enough air. I seemed to float above the cell, looking down on myself and Lydia, trapped in a dungeon with Altmer all around us. A wild thought took me – I would turn on Elenwen, who stood behind me, and shout her out of the cell. Maybe her neck would break as she flew into the wall. Or a Fire Breath shout. Surely that would kill her, unprepared as she was. They would kill Lydia then, and I would fight them until they were forced to kill me, and then it would all be over.

But no, this was madness. I had felt so sure I was doing the right thing when I showed mercy to the emperor, and that feeling hadn’t abandoned me entirely, even now. I wouldn’t give up. I just needed to keep us both alive until I could discover how to get us out of here.

“I beg you,” I said, “don’t punish her further. I’m the one to blame – punish me if you must.”

“Oh, there’s no need to beg,” Elenwen said. “I wouldn’t dream of letting you off without tasting the consequences of your misdeeds. Take her!”

Once again they gagged me, then dragged me from the cell and into the larger chamber beyond, where they had tortured Lydia. Now it was my turn to be manacled to the torture tree, but first they stripped me out of my arch-mage’s robes. This was quite a procedure – they feared to let my hands free even for an instant, lest I rip the gag from my mouth and shout them to death. One guard stood on either side of me holding my arms as another stood behind me and undid the binds on my hands. Then they held my arms outstretched as the third guard pulled the robes off me, throwing them hastily into a corner. The guards only relaxed once they had the manacles locked tightly around my wrists, then went about stripping me out of my boots and breeches.

I quickly discovered that when it came to torture, I was no Lydia. The rings were just that much too high, so that I had to stand on tiptoes or else hang from my wrists in the shackles. Even just standing was a torment. And that was just the beginning. Naris applied his wand to my inner arm. The pain was instantly unbearable. I clenched my teeth into the gag and tried not to cry out.

“Oh, very good, try to remain strong,” the torturer said, removing the device from my arm. He held it aloft for a moment, pondering where to apply it next, then pressed it against my inner thigh. There was no tolerating this pain. I screamed. Through the gag it came out as a muffled shriek. And this, I knew, was only the beginning.

I was no stranger to pain. In battle I had been cut, burned, frozen, and shocked. Yet those hurts were as nothing compared to this agony. Perhaps the heat of battle somehow kept pain at a distance. Too, it seemed that the torture wand did something more than a mere weapon or spell. It delivered pure concentrated pain, most excruciatingly to the point on which it was pressed, but radiating throughout its victim’s body. I was one vibrating being of torment, from the tips of my toes to the roots of my hair.

Elenwen broke in when Naris pulled the wand away. “Ah, I see you have nothing of your sweetheart’s constitution. She didn’t even cry out as Naris sawed through the bone of her finger. But you – I can see that the pain will soon break your mind.” She gestured to one of her guards to remove my gag. “So now you will tell me what I need to know, or Naris will make you feel pain a thousand times worse than you already have.”

I didn’t see how that was possible, yet I didn’t want to repeat the experience I had just been through. “What do you need to know?” I asked.

“Tell me about the dragons.”

“I already told you, I am not in league with them. I want only to stop them.”

“Yes, you said that. Still, you held something back. Now, tell me all you know of them, and I will judge whether you are honest or no.”

She said she wanted everything, and I gave it to her – or almost. I began with Alduin at Helgen, what it was like seeing the World Eater for the first time. Then the fight with Mirmulnir, and how it felt to absorb a dragon’s soul. Witnessing Alduin resurrecting Sahloknir. Learning about the prophecy of the World Eater’s return and my part in it. I even recited verses in Dovah from the Song of the Dragonborn. Then I gave her advice on how the justiciars might best defeat a dragon should they encounter one. It really was quite a long disquisition. Anything to seem helpful – anything to keep that wand of pain away.

“Yes, yes, enough!” Elenwen exclaimed, interrupting me as I went into detail on the exact size and materials for shields that would protect her fighters from dragon’s breath. “I see you will talk forever if it keeps Naris away. But I know you still hold something back.”

“What?” I asked. “I’ve told you everything I know about the dragons. There is nothing more.” And it was true. I had told her everything I knew, save that the Blades had given me some of this information.

“Yet we now have proof that you are in league with the dragons.”

“Proof? There can be no proof for a thing that does not exist.”

“Yesterday, while you were pretending to be the Gourmet and failing to poison Titus Mede, a dragon attacked the justiciars who escorted you to Solitude. Could that be a coincidence? We have had no trouble with the dragons before now.”

“But how could I have told the dragon where your fighters would be?”

“Of course I don’t know, but that is what you are going to tell me. You have a connection with the dragons, you speak their language. Perhaps absorbing their souls gives you a means of communicating with them through the plane of Aetherius. I know not, but you will tell me. And the sooner you do, the less pain there will be.”

“You have to believe me, the only thing I have to do with the dragons is to stop them. If I had been free, perhaps that dragon wouldn’t have lived to attack your forces.”

“So now you threaten me? Your freedom, or there will be another dragon attack? Naris, the wand!”

“No, wait!’ I exclaimed, trying not to plead. My groping mind hit on something – something too devious to be true. Yet, could it be? “You’re right,” I said. “Alduin and I are connected, I know not how. He comes to me in my dreams. I do not control him, nor his dragons. Yet, somehow, he can track my movements. He must have seen that you held me captive, then sent his dragon against your fighters in hopes that you would come to just this conclusion, then execute me in your anger. With me out of the way, his path to the world’s destruction is clear.”

“You think highly of yourself, don’t you, with all this talk of saving the world? No, I don’t believe it for a minute. I think you are working with the dragons, perhaps even the Blades.”

“But how could I be working with the dragons? I have slain nearly a dozen of them. Your own emissaries saw us defeat two of the serpents in Solitude.”

“Do you take me for a fool, that I would believe this Dragonborn legend you’ve invented for yourself? Who has seen these dozen victories of which you speak? It is true that you managed to slay two dragons at Castle Dour, but I believe that is part of the plot. Every leader knows that sacrifices must be made to achieve victory. Even last night, we sacrificed Sanyon to carry on this charade of cooperation with the Empire. It is no different with the Blades. Two of their dragons sacrificed themselves to give the appearance that you oppose them. How else to explain your victory? I don’t believe this Dragonborn nonsense far enough to think you could defeat two of the beasts.”

“Even if the Blades do control the dragons, why would they use them to wreak destruction on Skyrim?”

“Who knows how people will react when stripped of their last shred of power and pushed into a corner? The Blades always were a paranoid, secretive sect. Perhaps they want to get back at the Empire for replacing them with the Penitus Oculatus.”

I was speechless. Elenwen had fit bits of truth together with bits of fantasy, concocting an explanation that made sense to her, no matter how far-fetched. But was it any less far-fetched to think that I was the Dragonborn, fated to face Alduin in a contest for the very world? No, in a time when the dragons had returned to Skyrim, nothing was beyond belief.

“So, one last time,” Elenwen said, “tell me what you have to do with the dragons, and where the Blades fit in.”

I could think of nothing else to say; that bit about Alduin was my last desperate attempt to say something that would satisfy her. “I can tell you no more, because there is nothing more to tell.”

“Very well,” Elenwen said, with a mock sigh. “Difficult as it is for me to witness the suffering of others, you’ve forced me to it. Just remember, this is your choice, not mine. Naris, you know what to do.”

A guard jammed the gag back into my mouth and tightened it. Then Naris approached me again, a disgusting leer on his face, and slid the wand between my legs and up beneath my shift, toward my privates. “No, you beast, not like that!” Elenwen broke in. “You know I have forbidden it.”

“But Ambassador,” he said, almost pleading. “The pain is so much more intense when applied directly to her, and inside her.”

Elenwen cuffed him across the back of the head. “No!” she said. “I will not have it! Too, this one will break without going to such extremes, I can feel it.”

“Very well,” Naris said, chastened. I shuddered as he took the wand away.

Elenwen turned to me. “You see, I can show mercy, and I would show you even greater mercy if you would only trust me. We females must stick together, whether Altmer or Breton. I would be your friend, yet still you deny me. Naris, proceed, and no more barbarity.”

If applying the wand directly to my privates was forbidden, applying it through the flimsy protection afforded by my shift was not. Naris pressed the instrument against my belly, then slid it slowly down toward my crotch. The pain was intense, and grew from there. Just when I thought it was impossible to feel more pain, I found that I could. I shut my eyes against the horrible leer of the torturer and screamed. I went on screaming into the gag until it seemed I was nothing but a scream in the dark.

I said before that the pain I felt at the beginning of my torture was unbearable. And this pain was more unbearable still. In truth, we either bear our portion of pain, or we die. Yet I found a third way. I went off somewhere – to a place in my mind, or another plane of Mundus, I know not which.

I was with Lydia. We walked hand in hand in a beautiful sun-dappled forest, a mix of pine, beech, and maple. Somehow it was both spring and fall, with purple columbines and larkspurs sprinkled across the sunny openings and wet places amidst the trees, while the maple and beech leaves shone red and yellow. Warblers and thrushes flitted about, their songs filling the forest. Lydia wore a short tunic belted at the waist, while I wore the dress I had bought long ago in Whiterun. Lydia’s hair had grown longer, falling to her shoulders, held in place by a simple silver circlet. It was warm, and we both went barefoot.

As we walked I looked often into her eyes. I felt I could hold their gaze forever. I knew not what we talked of, save that it was of happy things. I don’t know how long this lasted; I only knew I didn’t want it to end, though even in that dream-place I knew that it must, that eventually a darker reality would drag me back to the waking world.

Then something intruded that I did not expect. We came to a clearing, and in it was Alduin. “Dovahkiin,” he said, “why do you suffer needlessly? Make a pledge to join me, and I will smash your captors and free you and your companion.”

Whatever this dream-place was, I knew it was not real, or Lydia would have made some move to slay our adversary by now.

“You know I cannot join you, World Eater,” I said. I felt quite calm.

“Still you would cling to this barbaric world? The bestiality of these elves astounds me. The dov make a quick end to our adversaries, none of this vile torture.”

“I can think of one who did not die quickly at your dragons’ hands.”

He went on, ignoring me. “And these High Elves, such hubris, styling themselves as kin to the gods. One such as you should not be sullied by such barbarity.”

“One such as I? I thought I was not worthy of the name, dovah. ‘Zu’u koraav nid nol dov do hi,’ I believe you said.”

“Ah, but you have achieved much since that day. What you did to my lieutenants in Solitude – I did not believe it possible. And you even begin to speak our tongue. No, you have proven yourself worthy of joining our ranks. Together, we will create a new world, one without suffering and pain.”

I looked at him for a moment. His slitted eyes stared back at me, baleful as ever. “Alduin, destroyer of worlds, will create a world without suffering? No, this is not to be believed. My fate is bound to this world, come what may.”

“Such idealism! It will lead you to a bad end. I do not see how you will escape these beasts. They cannot let you live.”

With that, the great serpent launched himself into the sky and was soon lost over the trees surrounding the clearing. I was just turning toward Lydia, hoping to continue our pleasant walk, when I came awake spluttering in the Thalmor dungeon. A guard was setting a bucket down next to the barrel, having just thrown water over me. My gag was soaked and I struggled to breathe through it, though I was glad to have any water at all. The extremity of pain was gone, and I now felt dozens of pinpricks all over my body, most especially on the inside of my thighs, on the small of my back, and on my neck just above the magicka collar.

“Ah, there you are,” Elenwen said. “We thought we had lost you for a moment. It’s good to see that hateful glare in your eyes. It means you are still in your right mind, and able to give us further information.”

My look must have disconcerted her, because she stepped back and to the side a few paces, out of a clear line of my Voice. Then she had the guards bind my head to a board so I could look only straight ahead. Only then did they remove my gag. It took me a moment to recover my speech, while Elenwen paced impatiently about the room, always out of line of a shout.

I remembered she wanted something from me, but my dream had driven it from my mind. “Forgive me,” I said, “but I’ve lost the thread of our conversation. What were you asking?”

“Oh, very polite,” she sneered. “Do not mock me. The Blades! You were about to tell me what you know of them.”

I feigned another coughing fit while I pondered what bit of information I could give her. There had to be something, anything to keep that wand away. I didn’t think I could bear another trial. “Water,” I croaked.

“Very well,” Elenwen said, “I suppose we do need to leave you your ability to speak.” A guard brought a dipper of water from the barrel and held it up for me to drink. Finally there could be no further delay.

“I believe I did meet one of these Blades. I’m not sure. She carried a thin, curved sword. Wasn’t that the mark of their order?”

Elenwen couldn’t keep the look of anticipation off her face. “Where did you meet this woman? What did she look like? Did she give you her name?”

“Riverwood. In a camp just outside the village.”

“Riverwood? That seems an out-of-the-way place for the Blades. Still, they are in hiding. What did she look like?”

“Blonde. Breton. A strong fighter, though advancing in years. She told me her name … what was it? Yvette, I think.”

“Ha! Don’t think you can play games with me. Or perhaps she wanted to keep her true identity hidden from you. That is Delphine, supposedly the last of the Blades, or I’m not an Altmer. So, she is in Skyrim. We suspected as much. Tell me, what did you have to do with her?”

“When I witnessed Alduin resurrecting Sahloknir, she was the one who led me to the dragonmound. She had a map, and could predict the locations of the next resurrections.”

“So it’s true! The Blades and the dragons, they are working together somehow.”

“Yet she helped me slay Sahloknir.”

“Hmmm. So you say. But who witnessed this battle?”

“Only Lydia.”

“Very convenient. What else did she tell you about the Blades? What are their plans? What do they intend to do with the dragons? Did she mention a man named Esbern?”

“No, she told me nothing else. She wouldn’t even tell me where she got that map. I knew she was hiding something from me. Believe me, I wanted to know what she knew about the dragons as badly as you do. I thought it might help in my hunt for Alduin.”

She considered that for a moment. “Where is she now?”

“I don’t know. The last I saw her was a month ago. She was headed back to her camp outside Riverwood, but she could be anywhere by now.”

“Very well,” Elenwen said, surprising me. I had expected the questioning to continue, and doubted I could satisfy her curiosity without revealing more than I wanted. “I still don’t believe you’ve told us everything, but now we must question another prisoner. We will get back to you, have no doubt. While you nurse your hurts, ponder carefully the wisdom of withholding information from me. You think you have experienced pain so far, but we have only begun.” She turned to a guard. “Gag her and return her to her cell. Then bring the new prisoner.”

The guard did as she said. When he led me past Lydia’s cell, I saw that she still hung by manacles from the wall, seemingly unconscious. The guard pushed me, none too gently, into my cell, then locked the barred door behind me. I was so glad to be free of the torturer I didn’t mind being locked in this dank, cramped place. At least it had a cot on which to sit, and a slop bucket in the corner. Yet I found I had no need to relieve myself – that had happened at some point during my interrogation when I was too senseless to notice.

I sat on the cot and tried to collect my thoughts. I knew I needed to devise a plan to get us out of here, yet my mind kept drifting off, alternately to the horror and pain of my inquisition, then to the pleasure of that dream-place. For now, it seemed enough just to sit here and enjoy the relative lack of torment, though my welts still tingled and burned. I almost regretted not accepting Alduin’s offer. To escape this pain forever and take Lydia with me, to put an end to these damned elves – it almost seemed worth the price of the world itself. A price others would pay, not I, I reminded myself. This is the sad truth: there was little heroism in my choice to deny Alduin. Had I trusted the World Eater to make good on his offer, I might have taken it.

My scattered thoughts were interrupted by the guard opening the door of the cell beyond mine. “You, prisoner! It’s your turn.”

“No, I’ve already told you everything I know!” came a male voice.

“Naris will see about that.” A moment later the guard led a young Breton in a tattered tunic past my cell. His hands weren’t even bound, he posed so little threat.

“No, please no!” the prisoner screamed, and I heard the manacles clamping shut. “I heard what you did to that poor girl. I’ll tell you everything you need to know.”

“Yes, you will,” said Naris. “Everyone does, in the end. Let’s begin at the beginning. What is your name?” I wondered where Elenwen was. Apparently this prisoner didn’t merit her personal attention.

“Etienne Rarnis,” the Breton replied.

“And what are you, Etienne? A common thief, by the look of you.”

“A common thief?” Etienne said. “Certainly not! I’m with the Thieves Guild in Riften.”

“I’ve heard of the Thieves Guild,” the torturer replied. “I’ve also heard it has fallen on hard times. Confined to the Ratway beneath Riften, it seems.”

“We get out and about,” the thief protested. “That’s how your justiciars found me. I never should have opened my mouth to that damned Gissur in Morthal. Nocturnal, the night mistress, must have forsaken me that night.”

“All right, enough chit chat,” Naris said. “You know we are looking for an elder Cyrodiili named Esbern. What do you know of him?”

“Nothing! Only what I told Gissur. There’s a crazy old man holed up in the Ratway warrens. I only know about him because Vekel at the Ragged Flagon – that’s the Ratway bar – sends food and drink to him. I helped Vekel out once or twice, delivered the tray myself. All I saw was an old man’s eyes through a slit in the door, and I heard some raving about the end of the world. It was all madness. Although, with these dragons about, maybe it wasn’t madness after all. Then he made me go away before he would open the door and get the tray. You have to believe me, that’s all I know! I don’t even know his name, but he could be this Esbern you’re looking for.”

Elenwen had returned, and she took up the interrogation now. “Tell me more about these ravings,” she said.

There was silence for a moment, Etienne no doubt searching his memory for any scrap of information that would appease Elenwen and the torturer. “No, wait, let me think! There was something about … the World Eater, that was it! ‘The World Eater has returned,’ he said. Then something about the end of the world. Then he said, ‘If only the Dragonborn would come!’ This was months ago, before we began hearing about the appearance of the Dragonborn.”

“So this old man was getting news from somewhere, holed up as he was. Who was giving it to him?”

“I don’t know! I only saw him that once or twice! The rest of the time I stayed out of the warrens. Dodgy place, that is. Please, I’ve told you everything I can remember.”

“We’ll see about that,” Elenwen said. “But you’ve given us enough to be going on with. Naris, take him down.”

“Should I feed him to the troll, Ambassador?”

“Not yet. There may be more he can tell us. Put him back in his cell for now. But remember, thief, if it turns out you’ve sent us on a fool’s errand, you’ll pay the price in flesh.”

There was a pause in the conversation as the guard led Etienne back to his cell. Then Elenwen spoke. “Rulindil, round up as many justiciars as you can and make ready to set out for Riften with all haste. I’m sure this crazy old man is the Blades’ loremaster, Esbern. We must capture him and find out whether he is behind these dragon attacks.”

“But Ambassador, we cannot leave the embassy undefended, not with…”

“Esbern is still dangerous, ancient as he is – all the more so if his compatriot, Delphine, is with him. I wouldn’t send you against both of them with less than a full regiment. But Riften is deep in Stormcloak territory. You will need to travel in threes as usual, then regroup outside the city. And not to worry. Between Naris, the guards, and myself, we will manage during your absence.”

“Yes, Ambassador.” I heard the sound of many footsteps ascending the stairs leading out of the dungeon. Soon Elenwen appeared at the door to my cell. “So, we have found your friend Esbern. No, do not protest. If he was hoping for your appearance months ago, can I doubt he reached out to you as soon as your presence in Skyrim became widely known? Who knows how large an operation he is running from the bowels of Riften? Perhaps he and this Delphine have begun reviving the Blades, hiding under the cover the Stormcloaks provide with this rebellion of theirs. We’ve had little intelligence out of the Rift since hostilities began. But believe me, we will get every last bit of information out of you before the end. Think on that tonight. In the morning, we begin again. I believe I’ll allow you the choice of giving your sweetheart a quick death by your hand or a much more drawn-out and painful one by Naris’. A choice like that usually helps concentrate the minds of even our toughest subjects. Sweet dreams for now.”

With that she left me alone in the cell, with just a single guard patrolling back and forth outside.

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