The Song of Deirdre – Chap. 38

 

The Palace of the Kings

 

“What is it? Trouble?” the Stormcloak shouted as he charged in, then brought himself up short. “Oh…”

Lydia and I sat upright, clasping the cover about us. We must have been quite a sight, our hair tousled, our faces flushed, our breathing rapid from our exertions. For the soldier’s part, he blushed a deep red from his cheeks down to the roots of his blonde beard.

“Umm…” he stammered. “It’s time to be up. We leave in a quarter hour.” Then he went out, closing the door behind him.

“I’m glad Hadring put those doors on,” Lydia said, then we both fell back laughing. I was sure we would be the talk of the war-band, and even Hadring, but I didn’t mind. Lydia was my love, and I cared not who knew it.

I regretted just one thing. “You were wrong, Lydia,” I said.

“How so?”

“That was much more than nice. And I wish I could do the same for you, only…

“Only?”

“Only, you’ll have to show me how you did that.”

“All in good time, my thane.” She gave me a peck on the cheek and we got out of the bed and began to dress.

There was only time for a sweetroll and lukewarm tea before we were back in the wagon and headed for Windhelm once more.

 

*~*~*

 

Windhelm was as somber a place as ever – even more so on that gloomy winter morning. The ice had grown thicker on its square-cut rooflines and its walls seemed to drown in the snow that drifted against them as the guards shoveled the ramparts. Yet the place seemed even more broken down than before, with new-fallen blocks of stone littering the street at the city gate. Black scorch marks covered the walls nearby, and the wooden sign outside Candlehearth Hall lay in blackened wreckage.

“What happened?” one of the Stormcloaks accompanying us asked a guard.

“Dragon attack, last week. Two of my comrades died before we drove it off. Lucky for us this city is built of stone.” Then the guard recognized me. He was about to say something, then caught himself and turned silently away.

“I believe I will visit Ulfric immediately,” I said to Jorgen, the soldier leading the Stormcloaks. For the moment, I preferred to keep up the pretense that I was here of my own free will.

“Aye, that would be best,” he said.

As we walked past the inn and up the steps toward the palace, I noticed a bustle of both citizens and guards refilling buckets and making other preparations for another attack. So Ulfric is finally awake to the threat the dragons pose, I thought.

Then one of the volunteers looked at us as we passed and recognized me. A dark look crossed her face, and she nudged the worker next to her, whispering something in his ear and pointing at me. Others recognized me and stopped to stare. It wasn’t long before someone shouted out, “You pledged to stop the dragons, Dragonborn!” “What good are you?” another shouted. “Maybe we should call you Dragonfriend!” called a third.

Then they were following us and shouting, Lydia had her hand on her axe, and the Stormcloaks were pushing back at the growing crowd. A rock flew from among them and struck me on the arm. Lydia drew her axe and the soldiers had to hold her back as well. I kept my head down as we pushed our way forward, too chagrined to say or do anything. It was my walk of shame.

We passed through the archway in the wall containing the tombs of the ancient kings, and the crowd let us go on our way. The Palace of Kings loomed before us, long icicles dangling from its lofty eaves. The mighty doors opened for us and we entered Ulfric’s throne room, nearly deserted now. Instead of a bustle of servants preparing for a feast, a solitary housekeeper dusted a suit of armor in one corner of the vast room, while two servants brought plates and cutlery to one of the long mead tables. The throne itself sat empty, as before.

“If you will wait here,” Jorgen said, gesturing to the benches near the doors, “I will announce your visit to Jarl Ulfric, as befits one of your station.”

“Gladly,” I said, ignoring the touch of sarcasm in his voice.

“You’ll need to leave your weapons by the door,” he said, then turned away.

Lydia and I set our weapons and packs against the wall, then sat on the bench together as the soldier made his long walk down the hall to Ulfric’s war-chamber. Quite some time passed, with the other soldiers mingling about the entrance, talking with the guards. Lydia and I spent the time looking up at the banners and carvings adorning the throne room, saying nothing. I was glad to have a chance to calm down after our greeting by the crowd.

Finally, Jorgen appeared once more, waving us toward him. As if by arrangement, two soldiers accompanied us across the hall. We are here of our own choice, not as prisoners, I told myself again.

We entered the war-chamber to find Ulfric and Galmar standing behind the map table. They glared at us as we entered. I had expected that, but I had not expected to see Ralof there as well. I thought he would be off fighting the war, maybe even leading his own war-band. He had been in battle recently, I could tell that much by the bandage on his forearm and a barely healed welt on his forehead. He would not look at me as we entered, but stared resolutely at the floor, his face flushed red.

My heart broke for him then. I had hoped to make an account of myself in person, yet now it seemed that Jorgen had made a very full tale of our time at the inn. I wished there was something I could say to him now to ease the hurt I had caused him, but this was not the time.

“So you received quite a reception on your way through the city,” Ulfric was saying. “But no worse than you deserved. And don’t think you’ll receive a better one from me. I let you walk out of here once, but I won’t do it again.” He leaned toward me, his fists making balls on the table.

So he meant to challenge me? I looked over at Lydia. She still seemed pale and drawn. The lineament had cured her wounds, but only time could fully heal the effects of blood loss and starvation. Was she ready for a fight? “What do you reckon, Lydia?”

She looked around the room, counting up our opponents – Ulfric, Galmar, and Ralof made three, Jorgen and the two soldiers accompanying us made six, plus seven or eight others out by the palace doors. She looked back at me and shrugged. “All in a day’s work.”

The soldier standing next to her laughed. “What, an’ you without a weapon an’ all?”

An instant later he was on the floor, his axe in Lydia’s hand. The other soldiers had no time to react. “I have a weapon now, don’t I?” I was surprised that she was breathing hard from the exertion – usually such a move would cost her little effort.

The other Stormcloaks reached for their weapons just as Ulfric and I held up our hands, shouting “Wait!” at the same time. Then there was silence as everyone took stock of the situation, Ulfric and I glaring at each other.

“Deirdre, have you gone mad?” Ralof said finally. He was looking at me now, and I could hardly bear the look of anguish on his face.

“Aye, my friend. Imprisonment by the Legion and torture by the Thalmor may have driven me mad – mad enough never to submit to imprisonment again.”

“All the more reason to join us, then!” he said.

“I will never join the Bear of Markarth!”

The soldiers exclaimed in surprise and confusion, but Ulfric and Galmar both narrowed their gaze at me.

“Where did you hear of that?” Ulfric demanded.

“From the Forsworn whose families you slaughtered when you took the city. And from a book.”

“I know the book you mean. It should be burned, it is all Imperial lies,” Ulfric said.

“Then tell me, how many innocents died when you took Falkreath?”

“None, Deirdre!” Ralof said. “You have to believe me. I led the second wave of attack on the town. You don’t think I would let something like that happen, do you?”

“No, you wouldn’t. But what about your leaders? Isn’t their motto ‘You’re either with us or you’re against us’?”

Ulfric waved my objection aside. “Young Ralof here has convinced me that we need the people on our side, even the milk-drinking loyalists. And we spare Nords from the Legion as well, hoping they’ll come over to our side. A fair few have, too. The other Imperials we put to the sword. We’re not in the business of providing accommodations for enemy troops.”

“How noble of you.”

“I don’t have to account for my actions to you, Dragonborn. You need to explain to me what you were doing in Imperial territory.”

“Refusing to assassinate you, for one.”

He laughed. “You? Assassinate me? How? Why?”

“Tullius wanted me to challenge you to a duel in the ancient way. He was quite sure I would win after seeing us fight two dragons at once on the ramparts of Castle Dour. But I told him I would not, at great cost to myself and to Lydia. Now, don’t make me take back my words. I came here a free woman and I will leave here a free woman. I used a trick to get out of here last time, but I assure you, I need no tricks now.” I leaned on the map table and glared at him eye-to-eye.

He stared back, measuring my resolve, and whether I did have the power I claimed. “Why did you come here, then?”

“I have a proposal. I have certain information about Thalmor movements. In exchange, I could use your help.”

I could see I had piqued his curiosity. He eyed me a moment longer, then relaxed and stood up, his hands out in a gesture of peace. “We will speak, then, as … what? Friends? Allies?” He could not quite bring himself to say the word “equals.” I doubt he ever considered anyone an equal, and certainly not a diminutive half-Breton lass, Dragonborn though I was.

“If nothing better, then as adversaries who share common aims. For I have as much reason to hate the Thalmor as you. And I can lead you to one of their war-bands, which travels in your territory even as we speak.”

Galmar cut in. “No, my jarl, how do we know we can trust her? Maybe she was tortured, as Jorgen said, but maybe that’s just a story. If she was in a Thalmor torture chamber, where are the marks?”

Ulfric looked us both up and down, his eyes resting on Lydia’s left hand where it held the haft of the Stormcloak’s axe. “This one’s felt a Thalmor knife, I’ll warrant. And they’re both … changed, somehow.”

“Lydia got the worst of it, more to my shame.”

“As it should be, my thane,” she said.

“It’s true, my jarl,” Jorgen broke in. “They were in a bad way when they walked into our camp, with welts on their necks and arms and who knows where else. The Nord lass could barely walk, she was that weak from her injuries. Then this Dragonborn made up some sort of salve, and an hour later they were right as rain … or almost,” he finished, looking at Lydia’s left hand.

“But Ulfric,” Galmar said, “even if they were tortured, especially if they were tortured, the Thalmor could have turned them. Maybe they were sent here to lead us into a trap.”

Ulfric looked from me to Lydia and back again. “Ralof, I likely shouldn’t rely on your judgment when it comes to the lass, but you know her best. What do you think? Can we trust her?”

Ralof looked at me for a long moment. Not in matters of love, I’m sure he wanted to say, though I had done nothing to lead him on. Finally, he looked back down at the floor and nodded. “I think so, my jarl.”

“Come, Galmar,” Ulfric said. “Let’s at least hear what the lass has to say. Put your weapons away, everyone. It’s nearly time for the noon meal. Let us break bread together and see if we can come to an agreement.”

We filed out of the war-chamber and sat at the jarl’s mead table, Ulfric at the head, and Lydia and I nearest him, facing each other. Galmar sat to my right and Ralof to Lydia’s left. My friend couldn’t have looked more uncomfortable, while Lydia concentrated on her food as it came. I was glad to see her appetite was back – she would need it to regain her strength.

The meal was the best we had tasted in weeks, beginning with fresh-baked bread and a roasted squash soup seasoned with sweet peppers. Then came an herb-encrusted haunch of venison, roasted medium rare and sliced thin, served over root vegetables mashed with plenty of butter and cream and braised greens and leeks on the side. The two servants were kept busy refilling the flagons of mead. For dessert there was a tart made from the last of the stored apples mixed with snowberries. The food was certainly welcome, yet I couldn’t help thinking about the Dunmer and the Argonians in the city, and wondering how they were faring through the harsh winter. And here I was, eating Ulfric’s food and treating with him, one who seemed little better than the Thalmor themselves. Yet if Ralof had turned him aside from butchery, maybe there was hope for him yet.

We were silent as the meal began, then Ulfric began questioning me between courses. I told him about our battle with the pair of dragons, to looks of incredulity all around, then about our capture by the Thalmor, my interrogation by Tullius, then the worse inquisition by Elenwen and Naris.

“You realize that the Thalmor are Skyrim’s greatest enemy, don’t you, Ulfric?” I finished. “I have learned that they mean to enslave humans, if not wipe us out altogether. And the emperor realizes it too.”

“The emperor? How do you know what he thinks?”

“We had a good opportunity for a chat when Elenwen sent me to assassinate him.”

Ulfric’s eyebrows went up. “Tell me you dispatched that weak fool, and I will name you Thane of Eastmarch!” He leaned forward expectantly.

“That I cannot do. I could not bring myself to murder a weak old man – again, at great cost to myself, and greater cost to Lydia.” I looked over at her; she was having trouble managing her cutlery with her damaged left hand.

“You acted in the only honorable way, my thane,” she said.

Ulfric stood up, his fist pounding the table. “To Oblivion with honor! We are at war! You had the one who sold Skyrim to the Thalmor in your power, and yet he still lives?”

“You do realize you sound just like Ambassador Elenwen. Why would you have me do the Thalmor’s bidding? You might as well know that I spared Elisif too.”

“And Elisif too! Talos save me from such madness. She is as bad as her husband, worse! And now half the jarls want to make her high queen.” He paced up and down before the table, kicking aside his overturned chair. Then he turned on me once more. “I don’t understand you, Dragonborn. You have great power, yet you refuse to use it against your enemies!”

I sighed. I was growing tired of explaining myself. “As I told you before, as I’ve told everyone who will listen, I want one thing – to get back to the dragons and Alduin. It is my sworn duty, and my role as the Dragonborn.”

“Ach, the dragons! You swore to protect this city from dragon attack, yet you have failed. Dragons have attacked us weekly both within the city and without. We have lost many brave fighters, as well as common citizens. So why should I believe you can do anything about them now?”

I could only look down at my lap. Mara knew I was ashamed that I hadn’t stopped every dragon that Alduin had resurrected. I couldn’t help thinking of Huldi and Harry and the promise I had made them.

“Deirdre,” Lydia said. “You know he doesn’t speak true. Tell him of all the dragons we have killed.”

I looked at the ceiling with its ornate stonework, but found no help for my distraught feelings there. Finally I looked at Ulfric. “You have to imagine how much worse it would be were there twice as many dragons. For Lydia and I have slain a dozen of the beasts. They will never again be resurrected, for I have absorbed their souls. We killed one in Kynesgrove the day we left here, and one on Mt. Anthor, which looks down on your city. Surely you can see things would be far worse if those dragons yet lived.”

Ulfric pondered this for a moment. “You said when last you were here that you must face Alduin himself. Why haven’t you had your great battle with him, as the prophecy foretells?”

“You must believe I have tried,” I said. “I challenged him with a shout at Kynesgrove, yet he simply mocked me and flew away, leaving one of his minions to deal with me. As you can see, I don’t have wings, though sometimes I wish I did. Too, the Greybeards said I wasn’t ready to face Alduin, that I must develop my power before I meet him.” I went on to tell Ulfric of my travels around Skyrim, of the shouts I had learned, and of the delay caused by Ancano and the Eye of Magnus. His eyes grew wider as he imagined the power I must wield with the shouts I had learned. He had felt my Thu’um when I knew only parts of Unrelenting Force and Whirlwind Sprint.

“But now I have discovered the location of an Elder loremaster of the Blades. He may hold the key to finding and defeating Alduin. I have business with one here in Windhelm, and then I mean to travel to see him.”

“So how does this concern me or our cause?”

“Elenwen is after this Elder as well. She has sent a full war-band to capture him.”

“A full war-band,” Galmar put in, “traveling through our territory? Impossible!”

I explained their plans to travel in smaller bands, then regroup when they neared their target.

“And where is this loremaster?” Ulfric asked.

“In a place in Riften known as the Ratway Warrens.”

“The Ratway!” Galmar exclaimed. “The place has an evil reputation. Home to the Thieves Guild, and worse. It’s a perfect place for the Thalmor to spring a trap on anyone we send down there.”

Ulfric eyed me warily. “So, what do you propose?”

“A temporary alliance of mutual aid. Send a war-band to help me deal with the Thalmor. You’ll never have a better chance to strike a blow against the Aldmeri Dominion. I’ll have a clear path to Esbern. Then we’ll go our separate ways. I will get back to hunting Alduin, and your soldiers can get back to the war.”

Ulfric pondered this for a moment. I trusted that he couldn’t pass up a chance to confront the Thalmor directly. “Well, I hope you find the key to defeating Alduin and his dragons in the Ratway. Talos knows we’ve had no luck in stopping them. We might have taken Morthal by now if not for their attacks.”

“I may be able to help you there,” Lydia said.

Ulfric looked at her in surprise. “Go on.”

“Our armorers in Whiterun created special shields and weapons for use against the dragons. I lost mine when we were captured in Solitude. I’ll give your armorer the designs as long as I get his first batch. With stout shields and specially tipped arrows, your soldiers will be able to do more than drive the dragons away.”

“That sounds fair, and we will appreciate your help,” Ulfric said. “See the master-of-arms in our garrison here in the palace for a requisition.”

“You mean you’re serious about working with these two?” Galmar protested.

“I am, Galmar. What did we think was the worst that could happen if we let the Dragonborn go? That the Thalmor or the Imperials would capture her. Well, that has happened, and if she tells true, then we’re better off for it.” He looked at me. “Besides, she has become a power unto herself. The Thalmor can’t control her, and neither can we. Better to have her out there fighting dragons than in here fighting us to escape.”

I tipped my head to Ulfric in acceptance of this praise. It was the closest he would ever get to a compliment.

“But don’t think I trust you, Dragonborn. Your party will be followed by our cleverest spies. We have war-bands to spare in Riften, and one will be ready to move against you at the first sign of treachery.”

I nodded again, then Ulfric made plans with his troops. He would send Jorgen and two soldiers with us to Riften, while the rest of Jorgen’s party returned to the Hjaalmarch camp. Once in Riften, Jorgen would recruit one of the Stormcloak war-bands stationed outside the city to aid us in scouring Riften and the surrounding lands for the Thalmor.

The plans made and the meal finished, Ulfric and the rest of his retainers left the table, all except Ralof. Lydia cleared her throat and said she would seek out the Stormcloaks’ master of arms, and left us alone in an awkward silence. He stared down at his half-finished plate and wouldn’t look at me. I moved down one seat so I could at least face him directly.

“So, Jorgen told you all about Lydia and me?”

He nodded but said nothing.

“I wanted to tell you myself, I didn’t want you to hear it like that. But the walls of that inn are thin…”

“How long?” He glared at me for an instant before looking back down at his plate.

“How long since…  Last night was…”

“I don’t want to know about last night! How long have you loved her?”

I thought about that for a moment. “I think I’ve loved her since the day she became my housecarl, maybe before. Something about the way she…”

“You don’t need to tell me. Anyone can see she’s a comely lass.”

“Well, but I didn’t realize it until the night we were captured, after we battled that pair of dragons. You see, I was confused about my own feelings.”

“And now?”

“I’m as sure as I’ve been about anything in my life.”

“So you weren’t together the last time I saw you?”

“No! I certainly would have told you then, had I known my own feelings at the time.”

He looked up at me again, his eyes boring into mine. “It’s just, I thought I saw something in the way Lydia smiled at you then.”

“I wish you had told me! Although it mightn’t have done any good. Onmund tried to tell me the same thing, a fortnight later, but I was too blind to see it.”

“Who’s Onmund?”

“Another who loves me … or, loved me once. I think he hates me now.”

“Well, aren’t you the heartbreaker?”

“Ralof, you must understand…”

“I understand you love another. What more is there?”

I stared down at the table, taken aback by his anger. Then I had to tell him everything. “Do you remember when I told you about the day my parents died?”

He nodded. “How could I forget?”

“Remember, I said I panicked when Osmer pinned me to the ground? But there was something I didn’t tell you. I felt only disgust when I felt his manhood pressing against me. I wanted as far away from it as I could get. I think I knew then, though I never quite admitted it to myself, that I could never love any man in that way.”

Ralof didn’t say anything, but looked at me, as if trying to puzzle out how this made him feel.

I reached across the table to put my hand on his arm. “It’s probably small comfort, but if I could love any man, it would be you. As it is, I love you like my dearest friend, like the brother I never had.”

He stood up, brushing my hand away. “Duty calls.” He turned and walked across the hall, headed for the doorway leading to the garrison.

“Ralof, wait!” I stood up to follow him. “Let’s not part like this. I’ve already lost one friend, I would not lose another.”

He didn’t even turn to look back at me. “I return to the front in two days. Would that it were sooner.”

Lydia emerged from the doorway to the garrison just as Ralof reached it, the two stopping to look at each other. “Ralof,” Lydia said, tipping her head. He said nothing, but stood there, clenching and unclenching his fists. Then he continued into the garrison without a word.

“Ralof took it hard, I see,” Lydia said as she came up to me. There was no trace of gloating in her tone, only concern. I could only nod, I was that close to tears.

She put her hand on my shoulder. “I know it’s difficult. You don’t regret…”

“No, no, how could you think that? It’s just, I hate to lose any friends, I’ve had so few these last years. And especially Ralof.”

“If he truly loves you, he’ll decide your happiness is more important than his jealousy.”

“You really think so?”

“Well, we can hope it’s true, at least.”

I looked up at her, wondering if Ralof could possibly love me that much.

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