The Song of Deirdre – Chap. 48

 

Peace Council

 

“Ha!” Jarl Balgruuf laughed. “You must be as mad as King Olaf!”

“You believe One-Eye was mad?” It was a strange statement for the jarl to make, considering his throne sat under the skull of Numinex, the dragon Olaf had defeated and imprisoned in Dragonsreach. The palace’s Great Porch had been built just to hold him.

“Trapping a dragon in a palace built of timber? What else could he be? He had the Great Porch built mostly of stone, but still. Too, there was that time he imprisoned a bard just for writing a verse critical of his reign.”

“Yet trapping a dragon here is the only hope I have of learning where Alduin has gone.”

He looked at my companion. “And what say you, Master Arngeir?” He tipped his head slightly as he said it.

Now I was glad that I had asked Arngeir to accompany me in order to help persuade Balgruuf, and gladder still that he had agreed to come. It was an extraordinary thing, a master of High Hrothgar leaving that ancient seat, and Balgruuf was honored by his presence. The jarl had already described his own journey up the Seven Thousand Steps with fond relish. Yet Arngeir and I had chosen the direct route, so loath was I to spend three days on the road to Whiterun. Lydia and I had parted, Lydia taking the longer way by road, while Arngeir and I used our Ethereal shouts to protect us as we plunged and glissaded straight down the mountain to Whiterun.

“I haven’t had this much fun in years!” the ancient master exulted after one particularly long drop down a sheer rock face. “The trick is, never fall longer than your shout can last.” We had arrived in Whiterun late in the afternoon after the battle with Alduin, and had gone straight to the palace.

“The Dragonborn is right,” Arngeir said now. “Trapping one of Alduin’s allies seems the only way to discover how the World Eater travels to Sovngarde. Our master has decreed that we assist the Dragonborn in any way we can, and so I have broken our long-standing habit of avoiding affairs of the world. It seems that in such times we must all bend our wishes in service to the greater cause.”

“And I would assist in that cause in any way I can,” Balgruuf said. “Yet I have my people to think of. I have risked much to keep my city out of this civil war thus far…”

“Indeed,” Arngeir said. “That you are a man of peace is the only reason I agreed to come here.”

Balgruuf nodded. “Thank you for that, master. Yet now I expect one side or the other to attack at any moment. I cannot afford to distract my forces from their defense of the city.”

“My jarl,” I said, “your concern for your people is admirable. But think of your people’s ancestors, of the honored dead who even now are suffering Alduin’s cruelty.”

“And you really think he has gone to Sovngarde? How can such a thing be?”

“I know not, my jarl,” I said, “just as I know not how he could still live after Lydia and I defeated him. Perhaps it is true the World Eater is like a god, or an avatar of Akatosh himself.”

“And you think you can follow him to the land of the dead?”

“Again, it is a mystery, much as my being the Dragonborn is a mystery. But the only way to find out is to speak with one of his allies.”

The jarl considered for a moment. “Defeating Alduin in this world was a great victory, one for which you will be remembered for all time. It won’t be long before the bards are singing of it across the land. And I would not have it said that Jarl Balgruuf did not aid the Dragonborn in her time of need. So, I will grant you the use of Dragonreach’s Great Porch, on one condition: that the Stormcloaks and the Imperials declare a truce while a dragon is caught here.”

“A truce! Why would either side submit to that?”

“It does seem unlikely, especially now that we have had no dragon attacks for a month. Alduin eating the souls of our dead – that will not concern Tullius at all, and if I know Ulfric, he would give his own mother’s soul to Alduin if it meant he could become high king.”

“Then how are we to convince them?”

Balgruuf turned to Arngeir. “If a master of the venerable Greybeards called a peace council, both sides would have to listen. High Hrothgar is respected, even by the Imperials.”

Arngeir’s eyes narrowed the tiniest bit. “This is why we stay out of worldly affairs – one entanglement leads to another. Yet I cannot deny an opportunity to promote peace, much as I fear these war-mongers will only use it to prepare for the next blood-letting.”

“It’s decided then,” said Balgruuf. “Your call to the peace council will be sent by our fastest couriers. The meeting will take place four days hence, allowing time for messages to pass back and forth and the participants to arrive.”

“Four days!” I said. “How many souls will Alduin devour in that time?”

“It cannot be helped, lass. It will take that long to ready the trap, which has seen no use in thousands of years. And you must wait two days at the least for your housecarl to arrive. Or would you confront a dragon without her?”

I had already considered this. I felt I could handle one dragon on my own, or with the help of the jarl’s hirthlings, but I didn’t know whether I could withstand Lydia’s anger once she learned I had been so rash. “No, my jarl, I will wait for Lydia, and then two days more for this council.”

“Good. Now, how do you propose to trap this dragon? Dragonsreach was built to hold a dragon captive, not to lure and subdue it.”

“Master Par… the grand master of the Greybeards, that is … taught me a shout to call a dragon. It happens that every dragon’s name is itself a shout. He suggested I call Odahviing, whose name means Winged Snow Hunter, a dragon he believes is most disposed to help us.”

“This master knows much of dragons then, and much of my own palace, if he suggested you trap one here.”

“It is as you said, my jarl, the Greybeards are incredibly old and incredibly wise, and none more so than their grand master. Few are granted an audience with him in his home at the very summit of the Throat of the World. It was a great honor to be admitted into his presence, and I would not violate his privacy by revealing his identity.”

“Well, if he is the one who commanded that the Greybeards help you, then we owe him a debt. Now, what will you do if and when this Odahviing answers your call?”

“I won’t know until I look on this trap of yours.”

The jarl rose from his throne and led us up the stairs to his war-chamber, then through the double doors onto the Great Porch of Dragonsreach. This was something like a barn, but much taller. The jarl was right: the place was built mostly of stone, except for the wood that made up the ceiling. It was easy to imagine that a fire could spread from there into the attached palace, made mostly of wood. The far end of this porch had no wall, but opened onto a balcony where the cliffs fell away to the plains north of Whiterun.

Halfway down the hall, a system of great wooden beams and stout chains stood on either side of the room. Suspended from the ceiling and spanning much of the room’s width was a stout yoke, like those used to harness oxen, only far larger. “This is the yoke with which Numinex was held captive,” Balgruuf said. “The chains need oiling and the wheels that raise and lower the yoke need repair, but I promise that all will be in order in four days’ time, in anticipation of a truce being settled.”

“Thank you, my jarl,” I said.

“Then it will be up to you. If you can get this dragon to enter here, my soldiers will be able to clamp the yoke on his neck. But how will you do it?”

We walked out onto the great balcony, which seemed to float in the sky above the Plains of Whiterun. “Once he lands here,” I said, “We can lure him into the trap as he pursues us.”

“The two of you defeated two dragons at once. I have no doubt that you can manage one. Just see that he doesn’t set fire to the palace. And you’re certain he will answer your call?”

Arngeir spoke up. “Dragons are prideful creatures and can seldom resist the challenge of hearing their names shouted. Too, Odahviing will be curious to set eyes on the one who defeated his master and maybe even to test his own mettle against her. I am confident he will come when the Dragonborn calls him.”

“Then let us hope this Odahviing has the knowledge you seek.”

From your mouth to Akatosh’s ears, I thought. Once more, my path to Alduin lay in the hands of others – Tullius and Ulfric and a dragon named Odahviing. But, as Balgruuf had said, it could not be helped. I settled myself in for a wait, busying myself with decorating my lonely house in anticipation of Lydia’s arrival.

 

*~*~*

 

A stiff breeze ruffled the tent where the peace council was to be held, the colors of Whiterun snapping straight out above it. Lydia, Arngeir, and Balgruuf stood with me outside the tent, ready to greet the meeting’s participants. Now we saw two figures approaching on foot from the west, still too far away to make out.

“Who would be traveling here afoot?” Balgruuf asked.

“I know not, my jarl,” I replied.

It was a mystery – both the Stormcloak and Imperial contingents would surely be mounted, wanting to waste as little time on this meeting as possible. Balgruuf had first suggested High Hrothgar as a neutral meeting ground, but all parties had objected to the delay of traveling there, and Arngeir had refused to sully those sacred halls with the presence of war-mongers. And so we had chosen this spot, a pine-covered knoll west of Whiterun. It was a central location, easily reached by all parties, with no need for long travel through enemy territory by either side.

Now the figures drew closer, and I was surprised to see Esbern and Delphine. No one had expected them.

Arngeir must have recognized Delphine’s Blades armor and curved sword, because his response was immediate. “What are you doing here? The Blades were not invited to this council. Nor are you welcome.” He looked at me sidelong, as if I had something to do with their presence.

“We have as much right to be here as you do, old man,” Delphine snapped as they came up to us. “We are the ones who set the Dragonborn on the path to discovering her true identity and her destiny to defeat the dragons.”

“The path of folly, don’t you mean?” Arngeir replied. I had never heard such venom in his voice. “It is only the path of wisdom that keeps me from shouting you out of this camp!”

“Peace, friends, peace!” I said, raising my hands for calm. “If we can’t maintain amity between ourselves, how can we expect the warring parties to reach an agreement?”

“You show more wisdom than I, Dragonborn,” Arngeir said. “Forgive me. Your friends are welcome here.”

“But what brings you here, my friends?” I asked. “I thought you were exploring the wonders of Sky Haven Temple. Did you find it?”

“We did, and we have much to tell you,” Esbern said. “In private. We had hoped to reach you before the council began.”

“If you’ve learned of this meeting, then you must know that the Greybeards helped me discover how the ancient Nords defeated Alduin. There is nothing I would keep hidden from Master Arngeir.”

Just then we heard the sound of hoofbeats coming up the slope from the south.

“But I’m afraid this will have to wait,” I said.

“Yes,” Esbern replied, regarding Arngeir coolly. “After the meeting then.” He and Delphine stepped into the tent.

Now Ulfric and Galmar Stonefist were climbing off their horses and handing the reins to Whiterun guards waiting nearby.

“Let’s get this nonsense over with,” Ulfric said, ignoring our greeting as he approached the four of us. “Where is Tullius?”

“Not here yet,” Balgruuf answered. “His road is both longer and more difficult.”

“Still impatient as always, I see,” Arngeir said to Ulfric, his tone hard. “It always was your great weakness as a student.”

Ulfric bowed his head to the Greybeard. “Master, I apologize. My respect for you is the only reason I am here.” It was almost shocking to see Ulfric showing deference to anyone.

“Then show these proceedings the respect they deserve,” Arngeir replied. “It is only the hope of peace that brings me here amongst war-mongers.”

“War-mongers, eh? We would make a quick end of this war if it weren’t for would-be peace-makers like Deirdre here.” He glared at me. “That was a foolish thing, lass, capturing those Thalmor instead of slaying them in battle. They escaped into Imperial territory before we could catch up to them.”

“Peace-makers and fence-sitters,” Galmar growled. He stepped up to Balgruuf now, so that their chests were nearly touching. “Fence-sitters are as good as traitors.”

Lydia could not help herself. She stepped between them, pushing Galmar back with one hand, while the other went to her axe. “That’s my jarl you’re addressing. You will show him respect while I have command of my axe.”

“Please, please,” said Arngeir, raising his hands for calm. “This is no way to begin a peace council.”

“Fie on your peace, old man,” Galmar said. “But I will let my jarl do the talking, for now.” He turned to Lydia. “You may be tall and strong, but you’re still just a lass.”

“Lydia,” I said, seeing the color rise in her face.

“Aye, my thane,” she said as she returned to my side. “Let’s leave the talking to the jarls.”

Arngeir opened the tent flap for Ulfric and Galmar. “Won’t you step inside and help yourself to some mulled wine?” Ulfric grumbled his assent, and the two went in.

Soon we saw four figures on horseback approaching from the north. As they came closer, we recognized General Tullius and Legate Rikke, as expected – and Ambassador Elenwen and her justiciar, Rulindil. I had last seen him in Riften, as the Stormcloaks led him away in chains.

Tullius barely had time to dismount before I was at his side. Rikke mistook my meaning, drawing her sword, and then Lydia was drawing her axe. I ignored them. “What are they doing here,” I hissed at Tullius.

“I might ask you the same question,” Elenwen said, strolling over to us. “It’s certainly none of my business how you police the province, general, but I’m surprised that you’re letting this criminal roam free. She nearly murdered your emperor after all.” She gave a little sniff.

“I think we all know who sent me to the Emperor’s Tower,” I said.

Elenwen’s eyes widened in mock surprise. “I assure you, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Then we heard the tent flap open behind us, and the Stormcloaks and the Blades stepped out. For a moment all was silent as everyone took stock of the situation: the elves glaring at the Blades, and both the Blades and the Stormcloaks glaring back. Beside me, Lydia was trembling, and I could tell she was struggling not to turn her axe on Elenwen.

Then everyone was shouting about double-dealing and false pretenses, Ulfric threatening to leave if the Thalmor remained, Delphine drawing her bow and aiming an arrow at Elenwen while Rulindil readied a spell, Elenwen demanding the arrest of both the Blades and me, Balgruuf and Arngeir pleading for calm.

“You won’t take my thane with less than an army!” Lydia shouted at the Thalmor.

“Oh, there is an army, you needn’t worry about that,” Rulindil said, still threatening Delphine with a spell. “Or maybe you should worry about it.” That got everyone’s attention.

Elenwen looked at him sharply. “He means the battalion Tullius brought for his – and our – protection, in case this is some sort of trap.”

Tullius nodded. “They’re up in the Labyrinthian Pass, with scouts well placed between here and there, so I suggest everyone put their weapons away.” He pointed up the slope from the edge of the plain where our camp was situated. The pass was not far off.

“You brought an army to a peace council?” I asked, incredulous.

“The general would be a fool not to,” Ulfric said. “As would I. I have my own war-band stationed at Fort Greymoor.” Looking to the south, we saw the Stormcloak banner flying over that fortress.

“You moved your soldiers into my hold without permission?” Balgruuf demanded.

“It’s better not to leave your forts to the bandits, Balgruuf. Now, what is this Thalmor bitch doing here? You’ve lost your minds if you think I’m going to negotiate with those who would enslave our people.”

“Ulfric, Ulfric, why the hostility?” Elenwen asked, her tone falsely sweet. “It is not the Aldmeri Dominion that has opposed your forces at every turn. And I am not here as a participant, merely as an observer, to ensure that nothing that is agreed to here violates the White-Gold Concordat.”

“Ach! The very sight of the damned elves sickens me!” Galmar shouted, his hand on his axe. “As it ought to the two of you,” he added, looking at Lydia and me. “You’ve been their prisoners.”

The sight of the Thalmor did sicken me, and I could hear Lydia breathing rapidly next to me. What must she feel, looking upon the elf who had caused her such pain? As Ulfric and Tullius fell to arguing once more, I thought how easy it would be to avenge all the wrongs they had done to her. I found myself gathering my breath and moving into a position where my Unrelenting Force shout would hit the elves but none of the others.

“Drem!” Arngeir’s exclamation of “Peace!” was not a shout, but his voice was strong, staggering me and knocking the others from their feet, while the horses picketed nearby bucked wildly.

“My apologies for losing my temper, friends,” he said as the others rose to their feet, brushing the snow from their cloaks. He regarded me sternly as he spoke, as if he knew what I had planned to do. “This is why we dislike entanglement in the ways of the world. But really, we cannot go on arguing like this, if we are to achieve this council’s true purpose. Let us put aside our differences and focus on the threat we all face.”

“For once, the Greybeards live up to their reputation for wisdom,” Esbern said. “Do none of you understand what is at stake here? While you stand here arguing, Alduin gains more and more power, feasting on the souls of our Nord ancestors.”

“Bah! Nord superstition!” Tullius exclaimed, but Rikke leaned over and said something to him, and he seemed to relent.

“Superstition or no,” Esbern said, “the dragons are still a threat, and none more so than Alduin. It is not just Nord superstition that says he will destroy the world. The Akaviri believed it as well, which is why they came to Tamriel and founded our order. They were not just hunting dragons, but seeking a Dragonborn.”

“If the dragons are such a threat, where are they?” Tullius demanded. “We haven’t had an attack all month.”

“The dragons are still more than a threat, Tullius,” Ulfric said. “They attacked Fort Kastav just before we left to come here.”

“Ha! A good choice of victims then,” Tullius said.

“Begging your pardon, general, but the news probably hasn’t reached you yet,” Lydia said, stepping forward. “The morning I was leaving Ivarstead, three days ago now, two of your soldiers came limping into town, Stormcloak stronghold though it is. They claimed to be the only survivors of a dragon attack on their camp south of the town.”

“You dare to place a camp in the Rift?” Ulfric demanded of Tullius, who was looking stunned.

“Of course I do,” the general said. “As do you in Imperial holds, no doubt. A whole scouting party, gone! That changes things.”

“Yes,” said Ulfric. “The question is, why have they returned? It’s very convenient for the Dragonborn’s plans for this peace council, it seems to me. And it seems we have taken the larger hit.”

“Larger than you know,” Esbern said. “A dragon attacked Fort Sungard yesterday, just before we passed by. Your forces still held it, but they had taken many casualties.”

Ulfric turned to me. “What do you have to say to that? Have you turned the dragons against us?”

I looked at Ulfric, and then at Tullius and Elenwen. How long I had been hearing this accusation! I took a deep breath. “You should all know by now that I have no control over the dragons. And you should know from the letters inviting you here that Alduin fled to Sovngarde after I defeated him in this world. He is feasting on the souls of the honored Nord dead even now. The more brave souls his dragon allies send to Sovngarde, the stronger he will become. And where better to find Nord heroes than in your armies?”

“So you see,” said Esbern, “the sooner we settle this truce, the sooner the Dragonborn can set about putting a permanent stop to Alduin. Either that, or there will be no more soldiers left to fight your war.”

From that moment, reaching a truce was a simple matter. The parties barely had time to finish their mulled wine before they were signing an agreement that the Imperial and Stormcloak forces would stay behind their present lines. There would be no hostilities, and any soldier violating the agreement would be punished by death.

Then the meeting was breaking up, the Stormcloaks and the Imperial-Aldmeri alliance eager to be shut of each other as quickly as possible.

“It is a long road back to High Hrothgar,” Arngeir said. “I must be on my way.”

I thanked him profusely for his help. “We couldn’t have done this without you, Master,” I said.

“I will accompany you as far as the White River, if you will allow me,” Balgruuf said, and the two left the tent.

That left Delphine and Esbern, who seemed in no hurry to leave.

“Come Lydia,” I said. “Now that the truce is in effect, I would not delay calling Odahviing from the Great Porch.”

“About that private word you promised?” Esbern said.

“I will see to the horses,” Lydia said, and left us to ourselves.

“Well, what is it?” I said. “I am impatient, as you must know.”

“Quite understandable,” Esbern said. “But I cannot let you go without this word of warning: you have allied yourself with a greater evil than you know. Trust no one, and watch your back at all times.”

“Who, Ulfric? I have not allied myself with him. Or have you been listening to those rumors that I forged a secret alliance with the Thalmor?” He shook his head both times. Then it struck me. “You mean the Greybeards! But this is just petty rivalry. If I cannot trust them, who can I trust?”

“I assure you, this goes much deeper than mere rivalry, but…”

“Come on, Esbern,” Delphine interrupted. “Let’s just tell her and get it over with. We’ve discovered that the leader of the Greybeards is a dragon named Paarthurnax.”

I laughed out loud. “Well, of course he is! And a wiser and a gentler sage you will not find. Of all who helped me defeat Alduin, he did the most. He even bears the scars and broken horns of ancient battles, which must have come from contending with his dov brethren.”

“You know nothing of the great evils he committed as Alduin’s chief lieutenant,” Esbern said, his voice rising. “He slew many of our ancestors and helped the dragon priests keep them in chains. Whatever he has done since, it cannot atone for those great wrongs.”

“Yet without Paarthurnax, the Tongues never would have learned to shout. They never would have won the Dragon War or gained their freedom from the Dragon Priests. Paarthurnax took pity on humankind. Surely such an act of compassion should redeem his past actions?”

“It only proves he is a traitor as well as a tyrant,” Delphine said. “Who knows how long it will be before he turns colors once again? As for redemption, let Akatosh and Stendarr worry about Paarthurnax’s soul. Justice demands his death, and as Blades we are sworn to hunt dragons wherever we find them.”

“Yes, I’ve been meaning to speak with you about that,” I said. “Why must we hunt the dragons so relentlessly? Wiping an entire race of creatures from the face of Nirn is an evil unto itself – and even more so, creatures as beautiful and awe-inspiring as the dov. There was a time, before the Akaviri invasion, when dragons lived in seclusion and left mortals in peace. What if we could persuade them to return to that way, to stay in the wilds and the high mountains, and to prey only on wild beasts?”

“They’ve gotten to you, haven’t they?” Delphine demanded, her nostrils flaring. “Or is it your  dragon soul that makes you sympathetic toward them? You’ve become a regular dragon-lover, at any rate. But I will have Paarthurnax’s head, if I have to climb the Throat of the World to get it!”

I tried to keep my voice low and my emotions in check, but I felt my face flushing and my heart beating rapidly. My palms were sweating as I clenched and unclenched my fists. “You could not get that far through the deadly mists. And if you did, you would find me there to protect him.” I took a step closer to her, glad for once to face an opponent I could meet eye-to-eye. I lowered my voice to a harsh whisper. “And don’t make the mistake of thinking you would win.” I remembered something Paarthurnax had said: my purpose in the world was to balance its opposing forces. I wasn’t doing a very good job of it at the moment.

“Come now, anger will do none of us any good,” Esbern said, placing a hand on my arm. I jerked away with more force than I intended, and he took a step back. “You see, Delphine, it was a mistake to tell her the truth so soon.” Then he turned to me. “We will continue to aid you in your quest for permanent victory over Alduin. But be on your guard – we fear this plan to catch a dragon may be a plot to capture you. And know that, once this is over, you must make a choice between the Greybeards and the Blades.”

“I need no more of your help, such as it’s been. “

Lydia stepped into the tent just then. “What’s the shouting about? Do you need me?”

“It’s fine, Lydia. Esbern and Delphine were just leaving. And we need to go capture a dragon.”

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