The Song of Deirdre – Chap. 41

 

Aetherius

 

The doors of High Hrothgar swung back, and Master Arngeir stood there, squinting into a swirl of snow that swept in behind us. He hardly recognized us, swathed as we were in bearskin cloaks and leggings made from snow-hare pelts. We had bought them in Ivarstead with the last of Delphine’s gold after hearing reports of raw weather on the Seven Thousand Steps. Yet he stood aside and allowed us entrance. “Come in, come in, you must be half frozen.”

The door closed behind us and I threw off the cloak.

“Dovahkiin! It is you! You have returned!” For Arngeir, this was an outpouring of emotion.

There were so many things I wanted to say then, I couldn’t think where to begin. I wanted to ask about the shout the Tongues had used against Alduin, but even more, I wanted to know why he hadn’t mentioned such a shout on my first visit. Why had he sent me hither and yon, retrieving items of little value and learning shouts I could never use against Alduin?

My anger and impatience had only grown as we climbed the Seven Thousand Steps and the day’s journey seemed to drag ever onward, especially as we passed the plaques with the inscriptions:

Kyne called on Paarthurnax, who pitied man.

Together they taught Men to use the Voice;

Then Dragon War raged, Dragon against Tongue.

Man prevailed, Shouting Alduin out of the world,

Proving for all that their Voice too was strong.

But perhaps I was most angry with myself. Why had I not thought to ask Arngeir which shout the Tongues had used?

With these conflicting thoughts swirling through my head, I simply said, “Master,” and bowed to him.

“No, no, it is I who must bow to you,” he said, and did so. “For your power has grown great and the Dragonblood burns bright within you.”

“Master, I must know…”

He held up a hand. “All in good time. But you and your companion are cold and weary. Come, warm yourselves by the fire, eat, and tell me of your travels. I’m sure the tales of your adventures will relieve the tedium of these dark days of winter.” I was too tired and cold to argue.

In the refectory, we found Masters Borri, Einarth and Wulfgar laying out what amounted to a feast for High Hrothgar: bread, good Eidur cheese, and a rabbit stew. With steaming mugs of hot cider before us, we began telling our tale, each taking a turn so the other could eat. We began with the earliest word walls, the ones where we had encountered dragons, and then our first combat with a dragon priest. Lydia was particularly detailed in her accounts of our dragon battles, especially those in which she dealt the killing blow. With each dragon, Arngeir grew more somber, and I remembered my own sadness at having to slay such beautiful, powerful creatures.

I told him of my second and third visions of Alduin, and of Alduin telling me that every dragon soul I absorbed would make my own dragon soul stronger. I had absorbed only one soul since then.

“And how many dragons have you slain?”

“Twelve, by my count, though I could not absorb the soul of the frost dragon at Solitude – it fell from the battlements before that could happen.”

“Twelve! I did not imagine such a thing was possible!” His face was pained, though he said no more.

Then we came to Labyrinthian and the battle to save the college. “So now you have first-hand experience with the hubris and folly of the Winterhold mages,” Arngeir said. “I hope it is a lesson to temper your thirst for knowledge. And they named you arch-mage! I can only hope that you, or those you left in your place, will use more wisdom in future. The mages meddle with forces they do not understand.”

His eyes grew wide when we came to the battle at Solitude, then alarmed as we described our capture and questioning by the Imperials and the Thalmor. “And how did you ever escape their clutches?” he asked.

“By using all that you taught me here and what I learned in my testing at Ustengrav. I tried to emulate Jurgen Windcaller. I used silence as my Voice.”

Arngeir’s eyes grew wider still. “Jurgen Windcaller used silence to withstand the Voices of the other Tongues. But you used silence to shout?”

I nodded, then explained as best I could the night of meditation and intense concentration followed by the silent wave of blistering force that had burst out of me. By the end of my tale, Masters Borri, Wulfgar and Einarth were muttering amongst themselves, causing the room to vibrate. “Has no one else done such a thing?” I asked. “Surely Talos…”

Arngeir shook his head. “No. No other Tongue before you, Dragonborn or no, has done such a thing. It is unheard of.” He looked at me for a long moment. “You truly are the One, fated to meet Alduin at the Battle at the End of Time. And, it seems, you are nearly ready.”

“Master, that is why I am here. I have several words of power whose deep meanings I hope to learn from Master Borri, rather than by slaying more dragons. And I have to ask you…”

“There will be time to finish your training in the morning. But first, rest is in order.”

As tired as I was, I could not argue. My anger and frustration over my slow progress had been spent on the Seven Thousand Steps. Now, with warmth around me and food in my belly, sleep was calling. Lydia was nearly asleep in her chair.

Arngeir led us to the converted storeroom we had slept in before. The place didn’t have a door, though the Greybeards had put up a curtain that could be drawn across the doorway. It didn’t matter. Lydia and I fell into our separate cots, fully clothed as we were, and were soon fast asleep.

 

*~*~*

 

In the morning, all the frustration over my slow progress had returned, and along with it, an eagerness to get on with my task. Arngeir didn’t even have a chance to sit down in the refectory before I accosted him with questions.

“Master, it is time. I must know if there is a special shout the ancient Tongues used against Alduin, and if there is, why have you kept it from me?”

The old master stopped so abruptly, tea sloshed from the mug he was carrying. “Where did you hear of that?” he snapped. “You’ve been in touch with the Blades again, haven’t you?”

“Yes, certainly, I thought they could help me. Two days ago, we located the Blades’ loremaster, Esbern. I thought he might hold the key to defeating Alduin, but he knew nothing. He and Delphine should be making ready to search for Alduin’s Wall even now. They say it contains all the ancient Blades’ knowledge of the World Eater.”

“So, the Blades have made you their tool. They were ancient butchers of dragons, bringing their genocidal hatred of the dov from Akavir to Tamriel.”

“Genocide! That is a term better applied to the extermination of peoples than of beasts, is it not?”

“Beasts! Have you learned nothing since you came here, Dovahkiin? The dragons are not dumb beasts, but have a language and a culture to match our own. And while it may seem they are mindless marauders, this is not always the case. Look at your history, for thousands of years after the Dragon War, the remaining dragons of Skyrim lived in seclusion, bothering the people not at all. Then other dragons joined them, fleeing slaughter on Akavir. Only to be pursued here by the Akaviri, whose savagery nearly wiped the dragons from the face of Nirn. And what an upset to the balance of Mundus it would have been, had they succeeded! And now you have joined the Blades in their butchery.” Arngeir dropped his mug, his hands were trembling with such anger. It broke with a clatter.

I ignored the sound, shaking with my own rage. I would not be called a butcher. “I only sought to prevent the savagery of the dragons! You know that.”

“That may be, but as you know, the dragons do as Alduin directs. And perhaps we would have dragon allies against Alduin if the Blades had not wiped them out. The key is stopping the World Eater, if he can be stopped at all. But have you considered that he was not meant to be stopped?”

“The Blades predicted you would say that. And Alduin told me the same thing.”

“He does not lack wisdom. Think! This shout you seek was used once before, was it not? And here we are, faced with Alduin yet again. Why should it be different this time?”

I wanted to tell him it would be different because I was here now, but I did not. “So you will not help me? You won’t teach me this shout, whatever it is?”

“No, not if the very fate of the world depended on it, which it does. Not until you forsake the Blades, and return to the path of wisdom.” He was shouting now, and the room was shaking. Lydia held on to the table to avoid toppling out of her chair.

“I’ve already told you. I have had little to do with the Blades, and they’ve been little help to me.”

“No, you have slain enough dragons already. It appalls me to think what you could do with Dr… with the shout I will not name.”

We stood there facing each other across the table as the last vibrations of Arngeir’s shouting subsided, both of us drawing breath to shout at the other.

Then Master Einarth stepped into the room. When he spoke, the room shook even more, and this time Lydia did fall from her seat, taking refuge beneath the table. I stood there, shaken by the master’s words. “Arngeir! Rek los Dovahkiin, Strundu’ul. Rek fen tinvaak Paarthurnax.”

There it was again. A Greybeard had named me Stormcrown. But how could that be? The very name “Talos” meant Stormcrown in old Atmoran. And the Stormcrown referred to the emperors of Tamriel. It was impossible.

But those weren’t the most surprising words Einarth had uttered. “I must speak with Paarthurnax? The one who taught the Voice to the ancient Nords?” I looked from Arngeir to Einarth and back again, dumbfounded.

Arngeir stood with head bowed before Einarth, like a repentant schoolboy. Then he nodded and turned to me. “Dovahkiin, forgive me. I have been … intemperate. I allowed my emotions to cloud my judgment. The decision whether or not to help you is not mine to make, but our master’s.”

“You mean Paarthurnax? Who is he? A god? How can this be?”

“He is the master of our order, surpassing us all in his mastery of the Way of the Voice. As to who he is, and what he is, you must find out for yourself. But not today.”

“Why not? If this Paarthurnax knows the shout that will defeat Alduin, I would speak with him now.”

“Dovahkiin, after my rash words, it must seem as if I have hidden this knowledge from you all along, that I am hindering you even now. But you must believe me, you weren’t ready to speak to our master until now, nor to journey to his dwelling place at the top of this mountain.”

“He lives at the top of the Throat of the World? Come Lydia, let us visit this Paarthurnax. I will be delayed no longer.” I turned to leave, and Lydia crawled out from under the table to follow me.

“Dovahkiin, niid!” Arngeir shouted, staggering me, and knocking Lydia to the floor once more.

Arngeir held his hands out to pacify me. “I am sorry for that. But you must not seek the summit, not yet. It would be your death, and that of your companion.”

“Then take me there yourself.”

“I cannot, for we speak to our master only rarely. No, you must make your own way to the summit, but not until we teach you a shout that will open the way. And to learn this shout, you must prepare yourself. In two days’ time, you will be ready, you have my word.”

“Two days?”

“It is now two months since you came to us. Surely two more days are not too much time for this final preparation. Then all will be revealed, and you will have learned all that we can teach here at High Hrothgar. It will be up to Paarthurnax whether to teach you further.”

I looked at Master Einarth, and he nodded.

“Very well, if there is no other choice. What must I do?”

Arngeir laid out my plan of study and preparation. First, I would spend most of this day with Master Borri, learning the deep meanings for those words of power I had retrieved from word walls but had yet to master. “You are right to fear absorbing more dragon souls,” Arngeir said, “for your own dragon soul has grown strong. It will be better all around if Master Borri shares his knowledge with you. Then we must work to balance the inner with the outer.”

The day went slowly. I had half a dozen words to learn, and we began right after breakfast. Borri would share the knowledge of a particular word, then I would practice with it in the courtyard, and finally I would rest and meditate. Then we would begin again with another word. I saw Lydia only at our break for the noonday meal, and she already seemed quite restless. I suggested several books I had seen on past visits, but nothing seemed to catch her attention.

By the end of the day I had acquired the full arsenal of shouts I had set out to learn at the beginning of Frostfall. The Greybeards gathered around me in High Hrothgar’s entrance chamber, where they had taught me my first Word of Power. Then I used each shout on them in turn, Frost Breath, Dismaying Shout, Marked for Death, Slow Time, Disarm, Become Ethereal, and even Fire Breath, though I knew only two of its three words. For some reason, Arngeir hadn’t shown me where the first word of this shout, Yol, could be found. We went out to the courtyard so I could demonstrate the full Whirlwind Sprint shout. Finally, the Greybeards used each shout on me, to test whether I could withstand their combined Voices. And I did – just as in Ustengrav, their shouts shook me but I did not fall.

At last Einarth spoke. “Rek kronaan mindoraan.”

Arngeir turned to me. “Master Einarth is right: you have won much knowledge and are ready for the final preparation. You must balance your inner and your outer souls in preparation for what is to come.”

“And how will I do that?” I asked, though I thought I knew the answer.

“With twenty-four hours of fasting and meditation.”

I stared at him. I had expected to meditate, for a night perhaps, as I had done in the Aldmeri Embassy. But twenty-four hours? It would be evening again by the time I was done, and then we could not go to the Throat of the World until the following day.

Lydia had been watching the demonstration from a distance, having grown bored with what few amusements the Greybeards’ home could offer. Now I thought I heard her exclaim to herself, “Talos save me!” I felt the same, though I said nothing to Arngeir.

After a silent meal shared with the Greybeards, my meditation and fasting began. High Hrothgar had four meditation alcoves the Greybeards used for their contemplations, each at a stained glass window facing the courtyard. Now I took my turn at each one, three hours of meditating, a break for water and a stretch of the limbs, then three more hours. Then I rotated to the next one, and repeated the routine.

By the middle of the second rotation, I thought I would lose my mind. My being was not only empty, but numb, my mind a thing of nothingness – no knowledge, no memory, no will, no desire, no shouts, no language. Only the masters tapping me on the shoulder, handing me a cup of water or ushering me to the next station, gave any hint of Time passing. Otherwise, Akatosh had stopped Time, for aught I knew.

But finally it was over. I don’t know if it is right to say that I persevered, or that I just outlasted Time’s inexorable crawling forward. I could barely walk as I rose to return to the refectory to break my fast. My head hurt, my neck and shoulders ached, my back was sore, and my legs were alternately numb and tingling. I sat down at the table and could hardly look at the food, my stomach was in such an empty knot.

Lydia came in to the refectory, and I could barely rise to greet her. She embraced me as if we had not seen each other in weeks, caring not at all what the Greybeards thought about this show of affection, then sat down next to me. She had spent a sleepless night on her lonely cot, then a restless day with the books scattered about the halls. She had even gone outside into the bitter Evening Star winds for relief from the boredom, running as far down the Seven Thousand Steps as the eighth plaque. I had seen her once or twice as I passed from one altar to the next, but of course we had been unable to speak.

Over dinner, Arngeir prepared me for what I should expect the next day. “Tomorrow, you will be ready to learn the shout that will open the path to Paarthurnax,” he said. While he spoke, Lydia caressed my leg with her foot. She had taken to going barefoot in High Hrothgar’s halls, wearing just the padded tunic that she wore beneath her armor. “Only those whose Thu’um is strong can find the way,” Arngeir went on. Lydia’s toes had wiggled their way beneath the hem of my breeches, rubbing up and down on the bare skin of my calf above the top of my leather boot. It was all I could do not to giggle and squirm, but to concentrate on Arngeir’s words. “The shout is called Clear Skies, and its need will become apparent within a few steps toward the summit.”

I knew I should have many questions for the master, but between having had nothing but two catnaps in the past thirty-six hours, the aches and pains from long sitting, and Lydia’s distracting caresses, I could think of nothing. Fortunately, Arngeir himself gave me the only excuse I needed.

“Ah, but you must be tired,” he said, looking from Lydia to me. “Go to your rest so that you will be ready for the morrow.”

We excused ourselves and made our way to our converted bedchamber. Lydia drew the curtains across the doorway as I flopped face-first onto my cot, too exhausted to move. Lydia came over and sat on the edge of the bed, rubbing my aching shoulders.

“That feels nice,” I said. “I ache all over.”

“I can imagine, my thane. But this would be easier without those robes.” She helped me undress, pulling off my boots first, then my breeches, then the robes from over my head. She gestured for me to lie face down once more. “Where does it hurt?”

“My neck and shoulders. My lower back.” I closed my eyes as she went to work. Her hands were strong, and I could feel the tension and aches fading as they worked their way down from my shoulders to my back. As the pain subsided, I began to feel more awake, despite my lack of sleep. Then she began kissing my neck and shoulders.

“Lydia, this is not the Nightgate Inn,” I said, as nice as it felt, “nor the Blade and Dragon.”

“So? Those old men have kept you apart from me for long enough.” Her hands were working their way farther down.

“But this is High Hrothgar!” I had to suppress a shudder of pleasure. If she went on, I knew I would not be able to contain myself. Her strong hands had lifted me to a place I didn’t know existed, shown me a pleasure I never knew I could feel. How could I avoid crying out in the throes of that sweet agony?

“Shhh,” she whispered, and now instead of kneading the aches out of my sore muscles, she ran her fingertips lightly up and down my back. “Is this all right, my thane?”

“Oh yes,” I said, for I could not help myself. I focused on my breathing – deeply in, then deeply out. I had spent a day meditating on silence, and now I would be as silent as the sky.

The waves of pleasure were like the breath of the wind, at first gentle puffs, then stronger breezes, and finally a full gale that threatened to carry me away. Where did my body end and Lydia’s begin? It seemed as if we were one body, one person. Then I was transported out of my body. I was in the sky. I was the sky. Then beyond that, to a place of nothing but glowing, swirling, ever-changing energy. I knew this could be only one place: Aetherius.

I saw or felt then, as I never had before, what every child was taught from the time they could understand words, what Dinya Balu had told me at the temple: that I was but a tiny speck of soul energy that would one day merge back into the All of Aetherius. And I felt it now: I was one with everything, and everything in Mundus – all of the different peoples, the animals, the plants, the trees, even the very rock of Nirn itself – was one, little sparks of Aetherius taken different forms. The energy swirled around me and I thought I saw shapes in it: Dibella, Mara, Kynareth, Akatosh himself. They were part of it, just as I was part of it, not separate, not different, just bits of the flowing All. I had never felt so accepted, so loved.

I opened my eyes to see Lydia smiling at me, her dark eyes all tenderness, her fingers stroking my hair. I looked at her for a long while, then down at our bodies twined together, the covers thrown back in our exertions. I still didn’t know where mine ended and hers began. It still felt as if we were one being. I had never felt so content.

“Where did you go, my thane?”

“Your Deirdre, I’m your Deirdre. And am I not your love, my love?” It was the first time I had called her that, at least when she could hear it.

“Of course you are, my … Deirdre.” She didn’t look away from me, but something changed in her eyes, as if a veil had come over them. I decided to let it go.

“I saw Aetherius. And it was you, you made me see it! Did I cry out?”

“No, but your face had a look of the greatest joy and bliss, and for the longest time! Your body shook with wave after wave of rapture. In fact, I’m a bit jealous. I know I’ve never felt anything like it.” She gave a little pout. I kissed it away.

“The things I felt and saw, Lydia! Everything is one. All of Mundus, everything in it, we are all part of the same great pool of spirit. And especially you and I. We are one. Oh, Lydia, dear heart, you are my one and all. Do you not feel it?”

She looked at me, trying to grasp what I was saying. “I know I feel wonderful when I hold you in my arms. I know I feel a thrill every time you touch me. I know that giving you pleasure makes me happy. Isn’t that enough?”

Too soon, Deirdre, I told myself. Remember what Dinya said. Though we had known each other for months now, we had only been lovers for a little over a week. I was glad I had not been foolish enough to wear the amulet of Mara for her right away. That might have scared her off. Yet to feel that she didn’t return the intensity of my passion – that hurt, but I tried not to let it show.

“Of course it is,” I said, adding coyly: “For now. And you can go on making yourself happy in that way whenever you want.”

“What? Whenever I want? Even during breakfast with the Greybeards?”

“Well, maybe not then. But now it’s time for me to feel happy in the same way you just did.” I kissed her throat, running my fingertips over her hip and down her thigh. It was a long reach, she was so tall.

“Mmmm,” she murmured. “You’ll have to teach me how not to cry out.”

“Just breathe,” I said. “And if that doesn’t work, I’ll tell the Greybeards I was teaching you to shout.”

We both laughed out loud, rolling in each other’s arms, the sound echoing off the walls and down High Hrothgar’s hallowed halls.

It was only later, as I was drifting off to sleep, that a stray thought drifted across my mind, and then it was gone, before I could quite make sense of it. I most often had seen pictures of Akatosh in his human-like form, an old man with a lush white beard. But in my vision, he had not taken that form. In my vision, he was a dragon.

 

*~*~*

 

In the morning, Arngeir greeted us at the breakfast table with a twinkle in his eye. “Ah! You both look so refreshed. A night of … sleep has done you good, I see.” The corners of his mouth just barely curled into a smile.

“It did wonders for me,” Lydia said, beaming at me. I could not help it, I felt myself blushing.

“I must say,” Arngeir went on, “it is quite pleasant having young people about. Your presence enlivens our otherwise tedious existence.” He tipped his head toward us.

I knew not what to say. Somehow, “Glad to be of service” didn’t seem quite right. Instead, I changed the subject. “Master, last night I had a vision of the heavens, of Aetherius.”

“I’m sure you did!” he said, still with the twinkle in his eye.

“Master Arngeir, I am being serious!”

“Oh, I did not mean to mock you. It’s just that you reminded me of a song from my youth. ‘When I Look Into Your Eyes (I See Aetherius).’ It was quite popular in the taverns. But go on.”

“Yes, well. I saw Aetherius, and I felt a great oneness with everything. Everyone, everything in Mundus is but a spark of Aetherius. And when we die our spark merges with that great pool of soul energy.”

Arngeir’s eyes still twinkled, though now more with gladness than with merriment. “My child, this is one of the greatest realizations one can have in this life. It is the ultimate teaching of love and spiritual practice.”

“Yet now I am confused. For how is my soul to merge with those who have done me wrong in this life? How can I be the same as them? And do not the Nords seek to keep their souls separate to live forever in Sovngarde? And when we trap an animal’s soul in a soul gem, do we not prevent it from merging with the All? Too, I have absorbed the souls of dragons. What of them?”

The old master looked at me for a long moment. “This is the deepest insight I can give you: All of Mundus, and all its many planes of existence, is but one great cycling of soul energy from one form to another. Sometimes it takes this form, sometimes another, sometimes staying in one form for many eons and sometimes for but a brief moment. It cannot be destroyed, nor can it be created, no matter how it seems to us mortals here on this plane.”

“And this is why you say it doesn’t matter whether Alduin destroys this world – because its energy will simply be reborn in the next?”

He frowned, seeking a way to explain it to me, looking around the room. He pointed to a pitcher of water on the table. “Take this ewer. The water within it is shapeless, formless, the same as water everywhere. The pitcher is what gives the water shape and form, but at the same time keeps it separate from all other water. The water is like the soul each of us contains, the pitcher is but our personality.”

“The soul and the personality are separate?”

“Yes, and therein lies the paradox. In this life, we become attached to the pitcher, our personality, forgetting that it is this pitcher that keeps us separate from all other souls. Break this ewer, and I will feel sadness at its loss, for it is beautiful, and special to me because of the memories it stirs in me. Yet I will know that the water within has not been wasted. Whether the water evaporates into the air, or runs out through a drain and onto the snows of this mountain, it will one day find its way back to the sea and merge with the great All.”

“So you’re saying that what happens in any individual life, all the love and joy, all the pain and suffering, doesn’t matter? That no one should strive to change the world, to make it better for those who suffer here now?”

“Well, yes and no. This is the greatest paradox, greater than any we have presented you so far. For, while we here at High Hrothgar focus most on the water, and the oneness and sameness of that water, we sometimes forget the importance of the pitcher, the personality, and the suffering all beings experience because of and through their personalities. This suffering takes as many forms as there are people, but at its root it is the suffering of souls finding themselves separate from other souls and from the great All. From this attachment and separateness comes most of the pain and anguish of life. We try to heal this separation through the love of a special person” – and here he could not help looking at Lydia – “or through family and friends, but in the end, we cannot merge with every soul, because our own separate personality, with all its selfish needs and desires, keeps us separate.”

“And so, what is the solution?”

“Why, the very thing you showed me the last time you were here, Deirdre.”

“And that was?”

“Compassion! If we recognize the root of our own suffering, and recognize that this is the same reason that every being suffers, how can we not feel compassion and seek to reduce that suffering? And in doing so, in recognizing our essential oneness, we lessen our separation. We create a little bit of Aetherius here on Nirn.”

I found that I had tears in my eyes, and also that I was holding Lydia’s hand. I didn’t know what to say.

“And this is why I have decided to help you,” Arngeir went on, “because you seek to reduce the suffering in this world, though some dragons may have to suffer for it. And I am sure Paarthurnax will help you, though I dare not speak for our master. Come, it is time to finish your training.”

The masters led us into the courtyard outside High Hrothgar’s main building, and across it to a great bonfire that burned next to a tall watchtower. The skies were clear once again, except for the top of the mountain, cloaked in cloud as usual. Stone steps led up into that swirling mist.

“Here is where the final ascent to the Throat of the World’s summit begins,” Arngeir said. “You will find Paarthurnax at the top. But these are no ordinary mists. You must remove them before proceeding, and to do that, you will need the Clear Skies shout. I will teach it to you myself.”

Arngeir waved his hand three times, and three sets of glowing runes appeared on the flagstones around the bonfire. I went to each and absorbed the three words: Lok, Vah, Koor, or Sky, Spring, Summer. Then Arngeir gave me the deep understanding of those words, glowing streamers of energy flowing from his mind into my own, and I was ready to use the shout.

The four masters bowed to me. “Your training with us is complete, Dovahkiin. We have taught you all that we can. Go now, and may Kynareth and Akatosh guide your steps.”

“Master, wait, may Lydia accompany me to the top?”

“Yes, for the mists are not the only danger on the path, and you may need her assistance.”

I had one more question. “And can you really tell me nothing of the shout I am about to learn? Not even its name?”

Arngeir looked off into the sky beyond the walls of High Hrothgar. “The shout you seek is called Dragonrend. And do not ask me again to teach it to you, because I do not know it. It has no place in the Way of the Voice.”

“Why, what is wrong with it?”

“It is not a shout of the dragons, but one created by mortals, by those who lived under the unimaginable cruelty of Alduin and the Dragon Cult. They poured all of their hatred and anger toward the dragons into this one shout. As you now know, when you learn a shout, you take it into your very being. In a sense, you become the shout. If you learn this shout, you will take this evil into yourself. After our discussion this morning, I am sure you can see why I did not want you to learn it – because of the damage it will do to your very soul.”

He actually reached out and touched me on the shoulder then, his eyes full of sadness.

“We have lost others to dreams of power and their own hatred. I would not see it happen to you, the greatest Dovahkiin we have ever known. I can only hope, should our master deem it necessary to reveal this shout to you, that you will use it with wisdom and compassion, that there is enough love within you to balance its hatred.”

“I will do my best, Master,” I said.

Then all the masters said at once, “Lok, Thu’um,” and Lydia and I turned to climb the steps.

“Lok-Vah-Koor!” I shouted just before we reached the mists, and they parted for a good way up the mountain. We climbed onward, rounding a bend of the mountain and losing sight of High Hrothgar. Then we came to a bank of cloud farther up, and I shouted again. In this way, we made our way upward. Once, I was too impatient and walked into the mist before my Thu’um had restored itself. The cloud stung me worse than the bite of an ice wraith, freezing down to my bones and forcing me a step back down the mountain. I wouldn’t make that mistake again.

And there were actual ice wraiths as well. I had just removed the mists from the stretch ahead of us when four of the creatures attacked us at once. It was well that Lydia was there, because I could not calm or frighten them away quickly enough, and my mage’s robes offered little protection against them. But we handled them together and continued on. Higher up, we encountered a frost troll and ice wolves, but they were little trouble.

We approached the summit, thousands of feet above High Hrothgar, and paused to take in the view. We could see across the Velothi Mountains to the Red Mountain in Morrowind, second in height only to the peak on which we stood.

“Would you look at that,” Lydia said with a satisfied sigh. “I never thought I’d see such a sight.”

I took her hand. “My Lydia, my love, I feel we are nearing the end of the quest. Do you not feel it? Alduin must be near. Whatever happens, I want you to know, I am glad you are by my side.”

“And I am glad to be by your side, my thane. But you sound as if you’re saying goodbye.”

“Oh, no, I wouldn’t say goodbye to you for a thousand years, if I had my choice. It’s just that, we are about to meet a god or a daedra, or I know not what, and who knows what could happen? Or perhaps once I learn the shout that can defeat Alduin, the World Eater may want to face me without further delay. Either way, I feel the end, whatever it is, approaching.

Lydia kissed my hand. “Not to worry, my thane, we will not meet our end today, I can feel it. Besides, I am sworn to protect you with my life, am I not? The World Eater cannot have you, not today or any day.”

“Oh, my Lydia.” I brushed back a strand of her hair that was poking out from beneath her helmet. I wanted to lose myself forever in those dark eyes that gazed calmly back at me.

Then we climbed the last few steps to the summit plateau. Across from us was a word wall. Before we could step toward it, a roar came from the sky, followed by the beat of great wings. I looked up to see the largest dragon we had yet to face swooping down.

I had just time to draw my breath before it landed in a cloud of wing-beaten snow.

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