The Song of Deirdre – Chap. 40

 

Riften

 

I had to laugh as we stood inside Riften’s city gate, surveying the scene of beggars, wastrels, and ne’er-do-wells loitering in dingy alleyways and shadowed alcoves, nearly all of them cloaked and hooded, as were we. “Well, Lydia, what do you think now?” I asked. “Will our cloaks make us look suspicious in this city?”

We had argued about whether to enter Riften rather than accompanying Jorgen to the Stormcloak troop encampment outside the city. Lydia felt it would be unsafe, since the Thalmor were likely prowling the place on the hunt for Esbern. But our road had been hard, especially on the first day, when a freezing rain beset us in the Bonestrewn Wastes south of Kynesgrove. A rough night out with little sleep hadn’t helped Lydia’s recovery, and I thought she needed a warm bed and better food than the Stormcloaks had provided.

I would appreciate the warm bed as well, and better yet, one with Lydia in it. Sleeping under a tarp on our separate bedrolls, with no privacy and Lydia in her leather and steel armor – it had been its own kind of trial. What can I say for myself? I was young and newly in love. What was a little danger compared to a night in Lydia’s arms?

The improving weather on our second day hadn’t helped my side of the debate. The morning dawned bright and cold. We had camped at the base of the uplands separating Eastmarch from the Rift, and by mid-morning we were climbing out of the shadows into the sunlight coming over the eastern mountains. We reached a promontory and had to stop for a look, letting our horses graze on grasses poking out of the snow nearby.

To the north and far below us now, the Bonestrewn Wastes sent up columns of steam from the many hot pools dotting that barren land. Streamers of cloud, golden in the morning sun, moved swiftly across the sky, dissipating as they reached the drier air of the lowlands. In the east were the bronze-roofed towers that must be Mzulft, the Dwemer ruin where Brelyna, J’zargo, and Onmund had discovered the location of the Staff of Magnus. South, higher on the steep upland face, we spotted the first maples and aspens, a few golden leaves clinging to the branches even now in winter. This was a peculiarity of the Rift – by a trick of the terrain or weather or maybe some Nirn-magic, it always seemed autumnal here, despite its elevation. The snows fell only lightly when they came at all, and the trees nearly always bore a riot of reds and golds.

To the west were the mountains at the heart of Skyrim, every crag and snow-fluted chute standing out in sharp relief in bright sunlight. Towering over all stood the Throat of the World, for once not shrouded in clouds except at the very summit. I had not forgotten that I must return there, and soon, to finish my training.

Lydia took my hand as we took in the view. The sun warmed our backs and glinted off the snow, making the day seem milder than it was. The color was returning to her cheeks and she did look hardier than I had seen her in days, though not well rested. She stretched like a cat now in the growing warmth and put her arm around my waist. I rested my head on her shoulder and wished we could just travel together like this, taking in Skyrim’s beauties, without a care in Mundus. But that was not to be. Our journey took us into danger and more danger, and it was time to get on with it.

By evening, as we approached Riften, I had won the argument. Lydia’s fatigue had returned and she could not argue with the need for a bed. Now we had just entered the city gates and I had my own doubts. What kind of city was it where the people kept their faces and forms hidden under hooded cloaks? As if the fogs rising off Lake Honrich weren’t cover enough for many a dark deed. And how many of these tall figures passing slowly by might be Thalmor in disguise? Every nook and doorway seemed to have its unconscious wastrel, passed out from too much drink, or worse. Riften was notorious for its skooma trade. Only the Riften guards went undisguised – them, and the obvious ruffians and sneaks of the Thieves Guild, who behaved as if they owned the town. One of them was eyeing us even now – a tall Nord with red hair in side braids. He wore leather armor with belts crossed rakishly over his chest.

“Come, Lydia, we’re too obvious if we keep standing here. Let’s try to blend in with the rest of these hooded figures.” She only nodded, she was that tired.

We made our way along the wood-planked causeway spanning the canals over which half of the city was built, soon coming to the Bee and Barb Inn. Inside, the mood was less sinister than on the streets. Riften’s citizens sat at tables and at the bar with hoods thrown back, as if the veiled threat of the city’s streets didn’t hold sway in this drinking hall. There were Bosmer, Dunmer, two strapping Nords, and a well-dressed, black-haired woman dining alone. I didn’t see any obvious Thalmor spies, but that meant nothing. We kept our heads and faces covered as we approached the bar.

I had to laugh again when the innkeeper, an Argonian named Keerava, showed us to the only room she had left, a single. It was quite cramped, with barely room for a second person to stretch out on the floor.

“I’ll take the floor, my thane,” Lydia said when Keerava left us to make ourselves as comfortable as we could.

“Now, Lydia,” I said, steering her toward the bed, “you need your rest if we have a fight ahead of us.”

Tired as she was, she didn’t put up much resistance. She barely had strength to take off her boots and steel gauntlets before falling back on the mattress. I put the fur coverlet over her.

“I’ll go back to the stable and get my bedroll,” I said. “I need to meet Jorgen as well, to make our final plans for entering the Ratway.”

She barely opened her eyes. “I should go with … Dangerous …”

“Hush now. I’ll be fine – just one more hooded figure in the crowd.” I stroked her cheek. “Go to sleep, my Lydia … my love.” But she didn’t hear me – she was already asleep.

I took my supper in the inn’s mead hall, hoping to overhear some gossip about Thalmor sightings. I heard no talk of suspicious Altmer strangers. Instead, the inn was buzzing with speculation about what had happened to the dragons. Everyone was relieved that none had been seen since the turning of Evening Star. Up to then the dragons had attacked the hold weekly.

A trader from Whiterun came in, and the well-dressed woman I had seen earlier accosted him. “You there, what news from Whiterun? Does the Honningbrew Meadery still stand?”

“Aye, Lady Black-Briar,” he said. “Whiterun Hold has been free of the dragons as well.” She looked somewhat disappointed at this news.

Had Alduin withdrawn his dragons after their defeat at Solitude? True, one had attacked Windhelm the week before the Stormcloaks escorted me there, but we had seen and heard nothing of them since.

If Alduin really could track my movements, surely he would have sent a dragon against us by now. It had been five days since we escaped the Thalmor, and if ever we had been vulnerable it was as we emerged from the tunnels beneath the embassy. Perhaps he was afraid to lose more of his dragons to us, after what had happened at Solitude. If so, this was a sure sign of progress. I felt things were moving forward – the day when Alduin must face me could not be far off. Now, if only this Esbern knew of some sort of weapon I could use against the World Eater! I almost wanted to search the Ratway myself at that very moment, Thalmor or no, but I managed to restrain myself.

With considerable time to wait until my midnight meeting with Jorgen, I went out into the Riften night, exiting by a different door. The city’s market plaza was before me, empty now, and beyond it, up flights of stone steps, stood Mistveil Keep, the jarl’s palace. It was the only stone structure in the place, the rest of the city having been built of timber atop ancient stone foundations. It was a wonder the dragons hadn’t burned the place to the waterline by now.

To my left, over a little bridge spanning the canals, was the Temple of Mara. What safer place to while away the time until my meeting at Riften’s back gate? Too, I remembered what Arngeir had said – that I served Mara, more than Akatosh, the one who sent me here.

Inside the temple, a statue of Mara greeted me from across the chapel hall. She was shown in her characteristic pose – hands out to the sides, her tear-stained face turned to the heavens in supplication. She was dressed modestly, in a full-length dress and a long cloak or shawl draping her from head to toe.

Before the statue was an altar with pews facing it on either side of a central aisle. A Dunmer priestess was sweeping up dried flower petals strewn over the floor and benches. She looked up as I approached.

“Oh pardon me,” she said. “I was just cleaning up from a wedding. I am Dinya Balu, priestess of Mara.”

“Turdas seems an odd night for a wedding,” I said.

“Not at all! Life in Skyrim can be hard, and short. When a couple decides they want the comfort of love and companionship, they seldom waste time on courtship, and will marry at the first opportunity.”

“And what of couples who do not marry, but still enjoy each other’s … companionship?”

“Each other’s bodies, I’m sure you mean. Ours is not to judge, but to show love, compassion, and understanding to all. Maramal, our head priest, differs with me in this, but I believe Dibella and Mara, as different as they are, are two sides of the same coin. One often leads to the other. But of the two, Mara is the greater, for she calls on us to love not just those special to us, but all beings of whatever race, appearance, belief, or custom, and yes, even our enemies. For we are all part of the greater All.”

Mara seemed a remarkably compassionate and loving god, I thought, yet how could we humans live up to such a standard of tolerance? “What of those who commit great evil – cold-blooded murder, for instance? Are we to love even them?”

“Justice must be served, of course, or society, such as it is even here in Skyrim, could not function. But even for them, we reserve the greatest compassion. All beings suffer, and having suffered, how can we not feel compassion and seek to ease the suffering of others? To forget this is the root of all evil actions, and we must work all the harder to bring Mara’s light to those who have forgotten it.”

It seemed to me that many in Skyrim, including myself, had forgotten this truth, if they ever knew it. “It seems we are all sinners, then. But Mara will redeem us?”

“Only acts of love and compassion can redeem acts of evil. Spread Mara’s light in the world, help ease the suffering of others, show compassion to all beings, and you will receive her highest blessing. But you began by asking about marriage. Is there one who is special to you?”

“Yes, I love her with all my heart.”

Dinya didn’t so much as raise an eyebrow that my loved one was a woman. “And does she return your love?”

“I … I think she does, though she has never spoken it aloud.”

“Then, if you are ready to be bound to her for the rest of your lives, you should propose to her. Are you familiar with Skyrim’s marriage customs?”

I had to admit I was not – one more area in which my parents’ teachings had been lacking.

“Let me show you.” She went to a chest and withdrew a beautiful gold pendant with intricate knotting flowing into a central cross shape, in the center of which was set a turquoise stone.

“Wear this amulet in your beloved’s presence. Assuming she knows more of our customs than you do, she will recognize it and ask if you are wearing it for her. Tell her that you are, and there you have it, you’ve made your proposal. But I would counsel you to wait until you are very sure of her love before putting the amulet on, in order to avoid embarrassment and heartbreak.”

I took the amulet from her, admiring the intricacy of its craftsmanship. “I will take this,” I said, “and I will remember your advice.”

“That will be two hundred gold.”

“Two hundred gold! That seems a bit expensive.”

“We often hear that. Yet the expense satisfies three purposes: it defrays the cost of the amulet’s exquisite craftsmanship; it furthers our good works among the poor, the sick, and the lost; and it demonstrates the seriousness of the wearer’s intent.”

I reluctantly handed over the gold and left the temple, amulet in hand. My mind was unsettled. Should I wear the amulet right away? Or was it too soon? Would I run the risk of driving Lydia away with talk of marriage? She hadn’t even told me she loved me yet. But I could see no reason to wait – our lives seemed even more likely to be cut short than the typical Skyrim couple’s.

Something else bothered me. Arngeir said he believed I served Mara, yet how could I possibly live up to Mara’s principles? I couldn’t imagine finding compassion in my heart for my parents’ killers, or for the Thalmor who had tortured Lydia and me. And she had said that Mara’s compassion extended to all beings. Did this include the dragons?

I pocketed the amulet and went on my way to meet Jorgen.

 

*~*~*

 

I was glad to have a baker’s dozen Stormcloaks at our backs as we entered the Ratway in the wee hours of the following morning. We had hoped to find the Ratway’s residents asleep or still in their cups at this hour, but we encountered two ruffians not a hundred feet down the first tunnel. Had it been just Lydia and I, they might have challenged us. I did not fear such lowly thugs, but it was gratifying to see them step meekly aside to let us pass. Lydia was fully recovered from her fatigue of the day before, and she seemed disappointed at this missed opportunity for a fight.

Two Stormcloak brothers, Hob and Lob, led the way further into the catacombs within the city’s ancient stone foundations, which served as both the city’s prison and sewer system. The brothers had been here before on recruiting missions, none very successful, given the nature of the Ratway’s denizens: wastrels, the mad, and other of Skyrim’s castoffs. The Thieves Guild had its headquarters here as well. The thieves’ only loyalty was to each other, and to whatever gold they could purloin from unsuspecting victims. Yet the guild had a better reputation than the Dark Brotherhood, eschewing violence and murder at all times.

After uncounted twists and turns, Hob and Lob led us into the Ragged Flagon, the Ratway bar frequented by the Thieves Guild. The stench of the place was incredible, as it occupied one side of a large circular chamber in the center of which was a pool of the most foul sewage. Yet the thieves must have grown used to it. Several of them lounged around the bar, men and women, all wearing the same leather armor I had seen on the ruffian when we entered the city. That gentleman stood among them, leaning against the bar.

“Steady on then!” he called out when he saw us enter the chamber across from the bar. “What’s such a large group of Stormcloaks doing down here? And who are these two?” he said, nodding at us as we crossed a bridge over the pool’s outlet stream and made our way up to the bar.

“We’re not here to disturb your business, Brynjolf,” Hob said. “We’re hunting an old man who’s said to live in the warrens, and any Thalmor who might be after him.”

“The warrens! Lot’s o’ old men down there, laddie, and elves after ’em, too.”

“Elves!” Jorgen said. “How recently? How many?”

“Three. They went through that door right before you got here.” He pointed to a door behind the bar.

“Thank you. You’ve earned the Stormcloaks’ gratitude.”

” ‘Bout time we earned somefing,” growled a man with a shaved head sitting at one of the tables. “Pickins’ve been mighty slim ’round ‘ere of late.”

Beyond the door we found a narrow hall leading to a large, three-storied chamber. Hob was immediately ahead of Lydia and me, and had just stepped out onto the gallery at the top of the chamber when there was a flash of lightning. The blast caught him in the shoulder and spun him into the wall. I peeked around the corner to see a black-robed Thalmor wizard standing in a dark alcove on the balcony opposite us. From the level below, I caught the glint of gilded elven armor. I ducked back into the hall just in time to miss a second lightning bolt.

The wizard shouted for his companions to join him, but the fight was soon over. Between my atronach, the Staff of Magnus, and the Stormcloak archers, the wizard could not stand. The warrior who came behind fell as he came through the doorway, before he could even see how many we were. The third was more cautious, lurking in the shadows where we could not get at him, occasionally launching a bolt of lightning at us, and shouting Thalmor boasts: “Kill me if you can, but the Thalmor will prevail!” and “The only truth is elven superiority!”

Perhaps it was the conversation with the priestess of Mara the night before, or perhaps my natural aversion to killing, but as I looked on the bodies of the two elves on the balcony opposite us I felt only a sickness in my stomach and a great sadness in my soul. I wanted no more of death, even the death of the Thalmor, yet death seemed to want more of me. But did it have to be this way? “There is always a choice,” I remembered Atmah saying in Labyrinthian.

“Hold, friends,” I said. When I caught a glimpse of gold, I launched a calming spell down the hallway where the elf lurked.

“Oi, keep your magic off me!” he called.

“Now for him!” Jorgen shouted, taking the lead. I made after him, Lydia and the rest of the Stormcloaks following us around the balcony to reach the passage where the elf was hiding.

“Jorgen,” I called as we ran, “let us take him prisoner, we don’t have to slay him!”

Jorgen slowed to look at me. “Aren’t these the Thalmor pigs who tortured you and your companion?”

“Most likely, but … he might have vital information for us. Maybe they’ve found Esbern already.”

“All right,” he said, stepping over the bodies of the two dead elves. “We’ll do this your way.” He held up his hand for the others to wait. Lydia and I followed him through the doorway.

The elf stood calmly in a dark corner. “May I help you?” he asked.

I cast a candlelight spell. He wore a confused expression, as if he had wanted to say something more belligerent. Then I recognized him as one of the justiciars who had witnessed our torture, the very one who had hit Lydia over and over.

Lydia recognized him as well, and I knew what was coming next. His blows had been far from the worst pain she had endured, yet the shame was great. With a yell she was upon him, striking him with her steel-gloved fists about the face and head. Then she made to draw her axe.

The elf was reaching for his own sword, Lydia’s blows having broken my calming spell. I calmed him again, then stepped between the two, reaching for Lydia’s axe hand. “Lydia, I know how you feel, you must believe me. But we cannot. We should not lower ourselves to their level.”

Her dark eyes went wide. “To their level! I will never understand it, my thane. We should vanquish our foes with courage and honor. This one should be glad to die a good death at my hands – it’s more than they would do for us.”

“Your thane is right, lass,” Jorgen said. “This one can tell us if there are more of his kind here, maybe where your Esbern is.”

“He’s not my Esbern,” she said through gritted teeth, and stalked back to the balcony with the other soldiers.

The elf proved uncooperative, however, swearing that they were the only three justiciars in the place, and that they had no idea where to find Esbern.

“What should we do with him?” Jorgen asked.

“Tie him up here and pick him up on the way out,” I said. Hob still looked shaken, even after a healing spell, so we left him to guard the bound elf.

We continued our spiraling way down into the depths of the Ratway Warrens, always returning to the same rectangular chamber as we passed each level. Along the way, we found the mad, the wasted, and the lost, hiding in nooks and old cells, often rambling on about Daedric lords or the price of skooma or nothing at all. If any of them were Esbern, he would clearly be no use to us.

Finally we entered a larger chamber, with barred cells on either side. “This is the last chamber,” said Lob, who was leading us now. “If he’s down here, this will be the place.”

The chamber had two levels. On this floor, all the cells and alcoves were empty, but we heard a woman raving from the balcony above. At the end of that gallery was a stout door, unlike anything we’d seen so far.

“Jorgen,” I said, “wait with your soldiers here. I don’t want to alarm him with such a large force.” Jorgen did as I asked and Lydia and I climbed the steps to the gallery above. “Esbern!” I called, giving the door a rap. “Friends are here to see you.”

A moment later the covering over a narrow eyeslit slid back and a pair of ancient Nord eyes looked out at us, reflecting the light of Lydia’s torch.

“Go away! I don’t know anything about any Esbern. You’re disturbing my rest with all that commotion.”

“It’s all right, Esbern,” I said. “Delphine sent us.”

“Delphine? So, you’ve finally tracked her down … and she led you to me … And now here I am, caught like a rat in a trap. But it will take more than two of you to defeat me, old as I am.”

“We’re not here to fight. Delphine needs your help, we need your help, to defeat the dragons. She said to mention the Thirtieth of Frostfall. Do you remember it?”

The eyes grew sad, remembering some long-ago day. “Aye, I remember it, as should anyone who has suffered under the tyranny of the Thalmor.” Then he looked at me more sharply. “So she really lives? And she trusts you? Who are you?”

“My name is Deirdre, and this is Lydia. We are working together with Delphine against the dragons, and Alduin most of all. We were hoping you know some way of defeating the World Eater, of forcing him into battle.”

“Forcing Alduin into battle? You are quite mad!”

“Please, just open the door and let us talk.”

He gave a grim chuckle. “Well, whether you’re mad or just extremely foolish, I would like to hear more. Just a moment.” With much scraping and grating of locks and bolts, he finally had the door open. He was a small man, balding, with a trim gray beard, dressed in a tattered tunic and leather boots. His chambers were quite luxurious by Ratway standards, with a bed, table, desk, and shelves containing books and maps, none of them in very good order. Potions, bottles of ale, and old crusts of bread were scattered here and there.

He closed the door behind us. “So Delphine keeps up the fight after all these years? I told her it was hopeless long ago.”

“What do you mean, hopeless?”

“After the elves sacked the White-Gold Tower, it was obvious to me that the ancient prophecy was coming true. It seemed just a matter of time before Skyrim would be kingless. Alduin would return. And now he has, and the world will be destroyed.”

“But if you know of the prophecy, then you know that it foretells the Dragonborn’s return.”

He nodded. “Yes, but who dares hope for such a thing in these dark days? No dragonborn has been known these past centuries, not since Martin Septim broke the Amulet of Kings. And could even those dragonborn emperors defeat Alduin were they alive today? I think not. No, the gods have abandoned us to our fate as the playthings of the World Eater.”

“Esbern, it is not hopeless,” I said. “I am the Dragonborn.”

He actually laughed. “And people say I am mad! You? A Breton? And a lass, no less?”

“I know it’s hard to believe. Others have doubted it, to their regret.”

Lydia stepped forward, stamping her foot. “She is the Dragonborn, I’ll swear it on a shrine of Talos!”

“How am I to prove it to you?” I asked. “Zu’u Dovahkiin. Dov bovul ko maar ahst dii Thu’um.”

“So you can speak the dragon language. But can you shout? Show me.”

“I dare not shout here and attract attention. The Thalmor are about, and we may not have caught all of them.”

“And they’re after me?”

I nodded.

“Well, if you won’t shout, tell me how many dragons you have slain.”

“Nearly a dozen, by my count.”

He looked at Lydia. “And you witnessed this?”

“I helped with most of them.”

He looked back at me, unsure now. “And? Did you devour their souls?”

“I wouldn’t put it that way, but yes.”

He looked at Lydia and she nodded. “You should see it! It’s as if the dragon’s body is on fire. Swirls of flame and smoke engulf my thane, but do not harm her. Then she takes that swirling energy in somehow, and the dragon is nothing but bones. She has absorbed its power, you can see it in her.”

I looked at her. “You can?”

“Aye, my thane, I can see it in your eyes.”

“So you learned to shout by absorbing the souls of the dragons?” Esbern asked. “That fits the ancient tales.”

“Yes, and by absorbing words of power from walls scattered throughout Skyrim. And from the Greybeards, of course.”

“The Greybeards! Of course they would get their hands on you, the pious fools. But the fact that they called you is one more proof that you are Dragonborn.” He looked back and forth between us, then stepped up to me and stared for a long moment into my eyes. I held his gaze, wondering if he could see what Lydia saw there.

Then he nodded. “I choose to believe you are the Dragonborn, for what choice do I have? You have renewed my hope. And if I am wrong, if this is some Thalmor treachery, it makes little difference. I can die today at the hands of the Altmer, or tomorrow in Alduin’s jaws. Come, we have much to do! Take me to Delphine as quick as you can.” He began stuffing clothes and books and potions into a knapsack.

“Wait! Delphine said you might know a way we can defeat the World Eater, since you are the Blades’ loremaster. I have to know I didn’t come all this way for nothing.”

“And I thought you came to free me! But no, I know of no such weapon. You’re the Dragonborn. If you don’t know how to defeat Alduin, who does?”

I can’t tell you how my heart sank then. All of these months of wandering, and Esbern had been my last hope for finding a weapon against Alduin. I explained to him the difficulty I had in getting Alduin to show himself, and the failure of my shout even to ruffle one of his scales the one time we did meet.

As I spoke, the hope gradually faded from his eyes. “No, if the Dragonborn knows no way to come at the World Eater, what hope do we have?”

I hung my head.

Suddenly he crossed the room to one of his bookshelves. “Wait! Alduin’s Wall! Why didn’t I think of it before?” The shelves were in disarray, with books piled every which way. “Just a moment, it’s here somewhere.” Finally he pulled down a thick tome and brought it over to the table, pulling a candle nearer.

The book’s cover bore the title The Annals of the Dragonguard. He opened it to a map of Skyrim with one spot marked in red, far to the west, nearly to Markarth. “Sky Haven Temple, hidden within the Karthspire at the site of an old Akaviri encampment. This is where we will find Alduin’s Wall, the repository of all the Blades’ accumulated dragonlore. If there is a clue to defeating Alduin, it will be there.”

I groaned. “We’ve just come from there! Why didn’t they just write down their dragonlore in a book – this one, for instance?” I poked at the page.

“Because books can easily be lost or destroyed. The Blades wrought Alduin’s Wall in stone, built to last an eternity, sequestered deep within the Karthspire. But its location was lost for centuries, until I found it in this book. I rescued this tome from Cloud Ruler Temple, shortly after the Thirtieth of Frostfall. The Blades’ archives held so many secrets … I was only able to save a few scraps.”

“So you’re sure this wall will hold the key to defeating Alduin?”

“Well, no, there are no guarantees. But the Blades used it to record all they knew of Alduin, his defeat in the Dragon War, and the prophecy of his return. The wall was famous, one of the wonders of the ancient world, though none remembers it now but an old man.”

I pounded the table, Esbern looking at me in alarm. I wanted to cry, I was so frustrated. We had been so close to an answer! If only the fool Blades had written what they knew of Alduin in the book we had before us! Instead, we faced a journey of many days, through hostile territory. And even then, there were no promises.

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

I took a deep breath and sighed. “As right as it’s going to be, I suppose. We must do what we must, though I would not go back into Imperial territory.” I looked at her to see if she was prepared for it. She seemed as eager as ever.

“We must take you to Delphine,” I said to Esbern. “It will add days to our journey, but she will not trust us fully until she sees you in person.” And just when I thought my wandering was at an end.

“Then we must make haste!” Esbern said, and returned to his packing. In moments, he was ready to leave, and we made our way down the steps to rejoin the Stormcloaks.

We had just emerged from the Ratway Warrens into the Winking Skeever and were making haste around the circular pool when I heard a cry from our rear. We turned to see a group of Thalmor justiciars ranged at the mouth of a passage to the side of the bar. I don’t know why I hadn’t seen that passage before, but I didn’t have time to think about it – more elves were pouring out of it and two of our fighters were already down. The thieves huddled off to the side, wanting no part of the action.

“I knew there was treachery afoot!” Esbern shouted.

“Thalmor treachery, not mine,” I said. “Now everyone, get down!”

They were glad to comply – all but Lydia, of course, who remained standing at my side. The Stormcloaks crouched behind their shields against a rain of arrows from four elven archers.

“Faas Ru Maar!” I shouted over the Stormcloaks’ heads. But these were powerful Altmer – only a handful turned to run in dismay. The rest were merely staggered by the shout.

“The prophecy is true!” Esbern exulted. “The Dragonborn has returned!”

“Now for it, Stormcloaks!” Lydia called, advancing with her axe drawn.

I conjured my flame atronach before the elves could recover. The justiciars looked to equal us in number – too many to attempt to calm them all. A tall wizard in the middle of the group was the first to recover, and I recognized him as Rulindil. An anger I had not felt since the embassy threatened to overwhelm me, and I struggled to master it.

“It’s her, the Dragonborn!” Rulindil called. “Get her, or all is lost!” I rolled to the side just as an arrow whistled past. I shot a spell of frenzy at the archer next to the wizard. The archer dropped his bow and drew his sword, turning on his leader.

Lydia and a group of Stormcloaks advanced on the justiciars not wielding bows and the melee began. Esbern and I dealt with the four remaining archers, my atronach hitting one with firebolts. I was amazed at Esbern’s agility and power as he moved about the room dealing lightning bolts and dodging arrows.

Lydia dropped her shield – it was too large for fighting in close quarters – and wielded her axe two-handed. If her missing finger cost her any advantage, I couldn’t see it. The Stormcloak next to her fell, and now Lydia whooped with battle frenzy as she was forced to take on two Thalmor fighters at once, whirling, blocking, and slashing with incredible speed and power. “You never should have come here, Thalmor scum! Skyrim is for the … for the rest of us!” Very good, I thought, and then had to remind myself not to stand and stare.

I drew the Staff of Magnus and aimed it at Rulindil, who was still fending off his comrade. I reckoned he was the strongest of the wizards; it wouldn’t hurt to take his magicka down a notch or two. By the time he had subdued his compatriot, the staff had drained most of his power. Drawing his only other weapon, a dagger, he skulked against the back wall.

The tide of battle had now turned in our favor, so I began casting calming spells on the few elves still fighting. Esbern was resting near the bar, having exhausted most of his own magicka. Another Stormcloak was down, and Jorgen was seeing to her. The remaining Stormcloaks were advancing on Rulindil before his magicka could return. Lydia was pulling her axe out of a justiciar’s chest with some difficulty.

Just then there came a shout from behind her. A justiciar who must have been hiding behind a crate after being wounded was charging at her, sword held high.

There was no time to think about mercy. “Fus-Ro-Dah!” I shouted, catching the elf well before he reached her. His body flew over a low railing and into the putrid water. Even in his light elven armor, he sank without a trace.

“Thank you, my thane,” Lydia said. “That’s the way to deal with Thalmor, if you ask me.” She took out a cloth and began wiping down her bloody axe.

While Jorgen and the bulk of the Stormcloaks chased the dismayed elves down the corridor through which they had entered, the rest of the soldiers saw to binding the Thalmor prisoners. I went over to Rulindil, now under guard with his hands tied behind his back.

“You! How did you escape the embassy?” he demanded.

“By burning it to the ground. But not to worry, the Stormcloaks will provide you with alternate accommodations in Mistveil Keep.”

“This isn’t the end of it. You’ve only just awakened the might of the Aldmeri Dominion.”

I was thinking of some suitably boastful reply when Jorgen and his soldiers returned, dragging a thief.

“The rest got away, with this one’s help,” he said.

The thief’s eyes went wide when he saw us. “I never expected to see you again!” he exclaimed. It was Etienne Rarnis.

“I’ll wager you didn’t, or you wouldn’t have dared leave us there to die in the snow,” I said, grabbing him by those crossed belts of leather that were part of the Thieves Guild uniform. He was no taller than I, and he was too frightened to resist in any case. I pushed him up against a wall, none too gently.

“I’m sorry! You know what the Thalmor would do if I didn’t cooperate!”

“Which way did they go?”

“We have a secret exit,” he said. “They’re fleeing through the city even now.”

“Your Thieves Guild will pay for this, Brynjolf,” Jorgen said.

“Oh, I doubt we will, laddie,” Brynjolf replied, leaning casually on the bar. “You Stormcloaks aren’t the only game in this town. There are other powers at work here in Riften, and we serve them all.”

Wondering what he meant, we gathered our wounded and our prisoners and made our way back out of the Ratway.

 

*~*~*

 

An hour later we stood at the crest of a high bluff north of Riften and west of the road. With only Jorgen and three Stormcloaks accompanying us north, we thought it best to get off the road and cover our tracks, in case the Thalmor who had eluded us were on our trail. Now we were waiting while one Stormcloak shinnied up into the branches of a tree to spy out followers on the slope we had just climbed.

“I suggest we wait here for a time,” Jorgen said, “to make sure no pursuers strike our trail. Also, a few of us have yet to break our fast.”

We readily agreed, and I went to pull an apple from my saddle bags. Then I brushed the snow from a flat boulder and sat next to Lydia, who was munching on a hard roll. I remarked on the weather, clear for the second day running.

“Sometimes we get these snaps of clear, cold days in the depths of winter,” she said. “It’s the only thing that makes the season bearable.”

This wasn’t such a high promontory as our viewpoint of the day before, yet it was still impressive. To the south rose the great Jerall Mountains, forming the natural boundary between Skyrim and Cyrodiil. To the northwest stood the Throat of the World, seemingly smaller, but only because it was farther away.

“Look, Lydia, there’s High Hrothgar. It seems but a short ride on a clear day like this.”

Esbern overheard me and now he glowered up at the mountain. “High Hrothgar. Bah! You’ll find nothing for you up there. The Greybeards would only teach you two shouts, I’ll hazard.”

“Actually, I was on my way there when I was waylaid by two dragons, then the Thalmor, and now this errand to find you. In fact, perhaps we should go there right now. They still have shouts to teach me. Look, it’s right there, not much out of the way.”

“I will not set foot within ten leagues of the place!” Esbern was almost shouting, and the Stormcloaks hushed him. “Too, they would not welcome a member of the Blades.” He stalked off and said no more.

I sat looking at the mountain, pondering the animosity between the Blades and the Greybeards. Why did they distrust each other so?

As close as the mountain looked, I knew that it was at least a day’s ride cross-country from the hill where we sat to Ivarstead. Then it would take another day to climb the Seven Thousand Steps, if they were passable at all at this time of year. I remembered our first journey up those steps, and how difficult it had been, even in Frostfall. Yet I had insisted on reading every plaque on the way up.

And then, like sunshine breaking out from behind a fast-moving cloud, a thought struck me. How could I have been so blind, so forgetful?

I went to Esbern, who was fiddling with the straps on his horse’s saddlebags. I had bought him the horse at the Riften stables out of Delphine’s gold. “Esbern, does your dragonlore say anything about the ancient Nords defeating Alduin with the Voice?”

He turned to look at me, still angry. “No, not that I can recall. But perhaps Alduin’s Wall will tell us. Why do you ask?”

I told him as much as I could remember of the inscriptions on those plaques describing the Dragon War. One said men rebelled against the dragons, only to be shouted down. Then something about Kyne taking pity on mankind, and someone named Paarthurnax teaching the Voice to the Nords, allowing them to shout Alduin out of the world. Esbern’s face grew darker as the tale went on.

“Paarthurnax taught the Voice to men? That cannot be. But if it’s true, then the Greybeards are not just foolish, they have allied themselves with a great evil.”

“Yet you cannot deny that the Tongues existed and the Voice is real. You heard me use it.”

“No, certainly not. But a shout that could defeat Alduin! Do you know of such a thing?”

I thought about the shouts I knew, and the ones I had read about. Only one, Marked for Death, seemed likely. Yet I had used it on dragons, and knew its effect. It didn’t seem likely to vanquish one with the power of Alduin.

“No, I know of no such shout, but the Greybeards might.”

“Ach, the Greybeards again! What makes you think they will help you prevent the end of the world? They’ve probably given you some claptrap about this world needing to make way for the next.”

I stared at Esbern coolly. I had placed such hope in him, and all he could offer was an ancient wall hidden many leagues away. “Yet if there is a shout that can defeat Alduin, it seems more likely that the Greybeards will know it. Their order descends directly from the Tongues who vanquished the World Eater in the first place. And your Akaviri warriors who became the Blades only arrived in Tamriel thousands of years later, or am I mistaken?”

“No, that is quite correct,” Esbern said, his voice equally cool.

“Then Lydia and I will part ways with you here. We will learn what the Greybeards have to teach, then catch up with you on your road to the Karthspire. In the meantime, you will find Delphine at the Blade and Dragon in Windhelm.”

He glowered at me, and I knew my decision did not sit well with him. For some reason I felt I should make amends for my behavior. “And if it should chance that I am delayed and you find yourself accosted by the Forsworn in the Reach, tell them that you are a friend of Deirdre Morningsong’s and you travel under my protection.” Esbern looked too stunned by this to say anything, so I turned to Jorgen. “Can you see Esbern safely to Windhelm without us?”

“You needn’t worry about us. I’m sure we’ve seen the last of those Thalmor. And Ulfric will be glad of the blow we’ve struck against them.”

Esbern had regained his power of speech. “I see your mind is made up in this. Do what you must at High Hrothgar, and I hope they do have the weapon you seek. But do not let them lead you into folly. The world needs you.” He looked up at the Throat of the World. “It’s a pity. My hopes rose higher than they have in many years … but for naught.”

He turned away, but the disappointment in his eyes stayed with me all the way to Ivarstead.

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