The Song of Deirdre – Chap. 39

 

The Blade and Dragon

 

Windhelm’s market district was a bustle of activity. Even with my face shadowed by the deep hood of my cloak, I knew it was just a matter of time before someone recognized me. Lydia walked me straight to the Blade and Dragon, then went to deliver the master of arms’ requisition to Oengul War-Anvil, the city’s blacksmith.

As I entered the inn, the same young Nord who had greeted us last time looked up. “You’re back! Delphine … I mean, your acquaintance, had given up hope long ago.” I don’t know why he was trying to be so secretive – we were the only two in the place.

“I need to see her. Is she here? It’s urgent.”

“Let me see if she’s available,” he said.

He went to one of the wooden columns supporting the ceiling and tugged three times on a cord that hung from it. A few moments later a door behind the bar opened. Delphine stood there, looking shocked. She looked short on sleep, with dark circles beneath her eyes and disheveled hair. She wore a dress that seemed ill-suited to her. “Come in, quickly!” Her voice was raw.

I walked past her into a large bedchamber, and she closed the door behind me. I was about to speak when she held a finger to her lips. “I have a place where we can talk.” She went to a bookcase on the far wall and removed several books, uncovering a lever. When she pulled it, the case swung away from the wall to reveal an open doorway leading to a steep set of stairs. She gestured for me to descend, then followed me down.

On the floor below, I found myself in a well-stocked war-room. A table stood at the center, piled with books and maps, the dragon burial mound map on top. Around the walls were weapon racks and chests; shelves with potions, scrolls, and soul gems; an alchemy table with plenty of supplies near at hand; and even an enchanting table.

I was still surveying the room when Delphine leapt on me from behind, throwing me face-first to the floor, twisting one arm behind my back. In the next instant I felt a blade at the back of my neck and Delphine’s hot breath in my ear.

“Did you think I hadn’t heard of your capture by the Thalmor, Dragonborn? Or of your attempt on the emperor’s life? Tell me, how did the Thalmor turn you? Am I the only price for your freedom, or must others pay as well?”

Oh, for the love of the Nine, I thought, trying to control my anger. Yet I was in no mood for Delphine’s suspicions.

“Let me go, or by Y’ffre you’ll regret it!”

“I would sooner kill you, since you must intend the same for me, but first you’ll tell me everything you know about the Thalmor.”

“If I wanted to kill you, you’d be dead already!”

She started to laugh, and that was the only opening I needed. “Feim!” It was the first time I had used the Become Ethereal shout. My Voice reached out to the Void, changing my form to one that could neither harm nor be harmed. Delphine lost her grip on me, and I spun beneath her, her knife unable to cut me. As I rolled I swept my left arm against her right, grasping her by the wrist and squeezing hard. That broke the spell of my shout, but now she couldn’t get at me with the knife. I was surprised at how weak she seemed as the blade clattered to the floor. I brought the heel of my right hand up hard into her jaw, then clawed at her eyes with my fingers. She pulled back out of instinct, throwing herself off balance. I soon had her pinned on her back, her own knife at her throat.

“I told you, if I wanted you dead, your soul would be on its way to Aetherius even now. Why will none of you realize that Alduin is the only one I would slay?”

Delphine glared back at me. She was too much of a fighter to show fear, though her fighting skills seemed somewhat lessened since last I had seen her. “You don’t really expect me to believe you escaped the Thalmor, do you?”

“I just escaped your clutches, did I not?” Doubt crept into her eyes, but then I heard footsteps descending the stairs behind me.

“Is everything all right, my thane?” Lydia asked. “I heard shouting.”

The barkeep was right behind her. “I’m sorry, mistress Delphine, she just barged past me.”

“It’s all right,” I said. “Delphine and I were just sorting out our differences. But I believe we can discuss them as adults now, am I right?” Delphine nodded after a moment and I let her up, handing her dagger back hilt-first. Lydia sheathed her axe.

“That will do, Lod,” Delphine said, rubbing her jaw. “I’m fine.” The barkeep headed back up the stairs to wait on the non-existent customers. “You’re quicker than I expected. And that shout…”

Feim, or Fade.”

“I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s as if you disappeared, but you were still there. Is that how you escaped the Thalmor?”

“No, but I wish I had thought of it.” I had hesitated to use it ever since learning it. It didn’t seem quite fair to Lydia to make myself impervious to attack but unable to attack our opponents without breaking the shout’s effect. “Let’s just say the Thalmor will need a new embassy. It was a mistake to build it entirely of wood.”

“And yet you escaped alive!”

“By the tips of our singed hair.”

“But what of your attempt on the emperor’s life? You can’t expect me to forgive that, or have you forgotten that the Blades are first of all protectors of the emperor?”

“So that news has spread this far? But let me remind you, the Blades are protectors of the emperors of the dragon blood. And before that, you were the greatest hunters of dragons. Have you forgotten whom you serve?”

She turned away from me and said nothing for a moment. I looked at Lydia, who was staring at me, her eyes wide.

“It’s true, these are confusing times,” Delphine said finally, her voice subdued. “Even when I took my oath long ago, the Blades had begun to lose their way – ever since Martin Septim’s sacrifice and the breaking of the Covenant. And now I am the last of our once great order.” She took up the map of the dragon mounds. Since I had seen it last, she had covered it with a cross-hatching of lines and arrows pointing every which way. Most of the dragon mounds were marked as open. She tossed it back onto the table. “I fear I haven’t lived up to the memory of the Blades of old. I gave up tracking down the dragonmounds weeks ago, it seemed so hopeless. And then I didn’t know what else to do. If only Esbern were here!”

“What if I told you Esbern may yet live, and I can take you to him?”

“Esbern? Where? How?”

I gave her the briefest account of our imprisonment and what I had learned from overhearing Etienne Rarnis. She was most surprised that the Thalmor suspected the Blades of somehow controlling the dragons, just as she had suspected the Thalmor, but then she laughed. “I suppose it makes sense – the ancient enemies each suspect the other of every calamity that befalls Tamriel. I should have known you were right that no one can control Alduin. If only we had some way of coming at him!”

“I’m hoping that Esbern will hold the key. You said that he was well versed in dragonlore, didn’t you?”

“I did. If only we had paid more attention to him! But we wrote him off as a doddering old man, and we had more pressing things to worry about, with the war and the Thalmor. Concerning ourselves about some vague prophecy just didn’t seem that important. But maybe he wasn’t so weak of mind after all! No, if there’s anyone who knows a way to stop Alduin, it’s Esbern.”

“Excellent! How soon will you be ready to leave?”

Delphine looked at the floor. “I … I won’t be going with you. We cannot risk bringing the last two Blades together, not without great precautions. Too, it might be a trap. I’m still not sure I can trust you. Or perhaps the Thalmor allowed you to escape, letting you believe you did it on your own. Bring Esbern to me here, and I will know I can trust you.”

I sighed. “I grow tired of people asking me to retrieve things or people for them,” I said. “But I suppose you wouldn’t have survived this long without an excess of suspicion.”

“If you think I’m suspicious, wait until you meet Esbern! You may have trouble convincing him to trust you. Ask him if he remembers the Thirtieth of Frostfall. That should get his attention.”

“It would be much simpler if you would just come with us.”

Delphine looked at me thoughtfully. “I can see I’ve disappointed you. To make amends, I will open our war-room’s stores to you. Feel free to take weapons, potions, scrolls, soul gems, gold, whatever you need. And of course, you are welcome to stay with us. Lod will see to your rooms.”

We made good use of the Blades’ stores, and were especially glad to find stout bows suited to our differing sizes. I chose a sword of frost as well, to replace the one the Imperials had taken from me. We thanked Delphine and left her thumbing idly through the maps and books spread across the table.

“You’ll be glad to know we have plenty of rooms,” Lod said when we returned to the inn’s mead hall. “No need to share a bed!”

I suppressed a giggle, and Lydia said, “One double bed will be fine.”

Lod looked a bit confused. “Well, to each their own, but I’m sure you’d be more comfor…”

Lydia stared at him pointedly and put her arm around me. Now I did giggle.

“Oh,” Lod said. “I see! Well, perhaps you’ll be wanting our Akaviri suite, still at no charge! Decorated as they used to on Akavir, so they say. Let me show you.”

The room was large, with its own blazing fireplace and a circular bed surrounded by gauzy curtains. There were overstuffed chairs and a bear skin rug in front of the fire, and two bottles of wine chilling in a bucket. An adjoining room had a tub and wash basin. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d had a bath.

The last thing we noticed was that the door locked from the inside. We both laughed.

“Yes, this will be perfect,” Lydia said.

 

*~*~*

 

We awoke late the next morning to find that Lod had laid out breakfast for us. He looked sleepy as he lolled behind the bar, greeting us with a “Good morning, ladies.” We sat ourselves side by side at the long table.

“And how did you sleep, Lod?” Lydia asked.

“Slept like the dead! Didn’t hear a thing!” He stifled a yawn.

Lydia smiled. “That’s good. I thought I might have been a bit loud.”

Lod turned a deep red. “Cheese! We need more cheese up here! I’ll just pop down to the cellar…” He disappeared through a side door as quick as he could without running.

Lydia laughed, then looked at me. “You learned your lessons well, my thane.”

“You enjoyed that, didn’t you?” I said, trying to adopt a reprimanding tone, but I was feeling such a warm glow I couldn’t quite manage it.

“Of course! For one so inexperienced, you were…”

“No! I meant just now. You enjoyed tormenting the lad.” I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t as embarrassed as Lod; perhaps something of Lydia’s frank and open nature was rubbing off on me.

“I admit it,” she said, “I enjoy making a Nord blush.” She leaned over and whispered in my ear. “Let’s go back to bed and torment him some more.”

“But don’t you need to see how the arrows and shield are coming along?”

“There will be nothing to see until this afternoon. Too, we need our rest after our terrible ordeal. Who can blame us?” She gave me such a charmingly wicked grin that I couldn’t argue with her.

We took our plates of food back to our room, locking the door behind us. We were not seen – though we were sometimes heard – until after noon.

 

*~*~*

 

By breakfast the next morning, we were well prepared for our journey. Lydia had her new shield and we each had a quiver of orichalcum-tipped arrows (with only a little complaining from Oengul about how messy it was to work with that orcish metal). The horses Ulfric had lent us were packed for an early start. Yet, as eager as I was to find the key to defeating Alduin, I was loath to leave the Blade and Dragon. Our nights in the inn had been so sweet, and now we were headed back into danger. I wasn’t so worried for myself, but for Lydia, and how she would fare if it came to battle.

“My Lydia,” I said taking her hand as we sat at the breakfast table, “are you ready for what’s ahead?”

“Of course, my thane, why wouldn’t I be?”

“It’s just, you still seem so gaunt.” I stroked her cheek. Color was returning to it, but she still looked drawn.

“My strength is returning. It is two days’ journey to Riften. I’ll be as fit as ever by then.”

“And what if we do encounter the Thalmor, who had this done to you?” I kissed the scarred spot on her hand where her little finger had once been.

I felt her stiffen. “Bring them on!” She pounded the table with her right fist. “Nothing would make me happier than to take them on in the Ratway, or wherever we may find them. Let the bastards feel my bastard axe!”

She had selected a Dwarven axe of lightning from Delphine’s armory. It was a hand-and-a-half axe, which a fighter of Lydia’s strength could wield one-handed. But in some situations she would have to use both hands, and then her missing digit could affect her power and control.

“You are sure you’re ready?”

“I practiced with it yesterday at Oengul’s. It wasn’t perfect, but I’ll get used to it. I’ll practice on the road, and by the time we reach Riften it will be as if nothing is amiss.”

“Well, if you’re sure,” I said.

“I am. And the worst thing you can do, my thane, is to keep gazing at me with that expression of concern.”

“I’m sorry. I just can’t help worrying about you.”

Her dark eyes grew darker. “Let me worry about you for a change, my thane. If anything happens to you, I…”

Just then the door to the inn opened. Ralof stood there, hesitating to cross the threshold. He took one step into the room, saw us, then looked down at the floor.

“Ralof!” I exclaimed.

Lydia made as if to rise, saying, “I’ll just see to our things,” but I put my hand on her arm and held her to the bench.

Ralof could not have looked more uncomfortable. He stared at his boots, then the ceiling, then the bar, anywhere but at us. Lod tried his best to mind his own business, polishing some tankards that didn’t need polishing.

With a deep breath, Ralof walked slowly over to stand across from us at the table. He cleared his throat several times. At last he spoke, all the while fiddling with the dangling end of his blue Stormcloak sash. “I … I wanted to say … how I acted the other day … it was wrong, and will you forgive me?”

“Oh, Ralof!” I said, leaping from the bench and running around the table to embrace him.

Before I could say more, I noticed how stiffly he stood there. Then he unclenched my hands from around his neck and held me away from him. “No,” he said, “not yet.” His hands dropped to his sides and he went on looking at his boots.

“My friend, I cannot blame you. I know I wounded you, even without meaning to, and maybe in the worst way a heart can be wounded. So of course I forgive you.”

He just stood there, nodding.

I stared at my own feet for a moment, then at the ceiling. Finally, not knowing what else to do, I gave him a punch in the arm. “Besides, I thought Nords were supposed to have hearts of ice!”

He grinned, and finally looked up at me. Then he laughed.

“What?” I asked.

“It’s just my luck. Of all the lasses in Skyrim, I fall for one who doesn’t go for the lads. I knew it was too good to be true. You were so easy to talk to, not like the other lasses.”

Lydia spoke up. “A strapping, red-headed Nord like yourself, you’re sure to find someone, someday.”

Ralof looked at Lydia, but spoke to me. “At least you’ve chosen a brave and honorable Nord for a companion. You could hardly have done better.”

“So we can still be friends?”

“Of course we can. I love you don’t I? What kind of love would it be if I didn’t want to see you happy? I will still love you and be proud to be your sword-brother.”

I looked over at Lydia, who winked at me. “That’s very … chivalrous of you, Ralof.”

“Chivalrous?”

“Yes, it’s an old Breton word my mother used to use. It means to be gallant, courteous, and honorable.”

“Aye, it’s my downfall. I’m too gallant, the lads all tell me.”

“No, you’re not. You’re perfect the way you are.”

“Would you join us for a cup of tea?” Lydia asked. “We’re off to Riften in an hour.”

“I know it, and I’m off to the front as well. Maybe a mug of mead would be better.” A dark look crossed his face as he looked at me.

“Don’t think such thoughts,” Lydia said. “I know we’ll see you again.”

“I hope you know you’re a lucky lass,” Ralof said to her.

“Oh, I do know it. I’m the luckiest lass in the world.” She beamed at me as she said it. I thought my heart would burst.

Soon Ralof and Lydia were trading war tales and memories of Whiterun like old comrades. I couldn’t remember ever being so happy.

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