The Song of Deirdre – Chap. 49

 

The Great Porch

 

That same afternoon, Lydia and I stood on the Great Porch of Dragonsreach with Balgruuf and Irileth.

“Are you sure you know how to trap a dragon?” Balgruuf asked again.

I wanted to tell him that I hadn’t been sure of anything I had done since that day at Helgen, that instinct and blind luck had carried me through. But I didn’t think that would comfort a jarl who was about to give his palace over to dragon-trapping.

“Lydia and I will have no trouble managing one dragon. You and your soldiers should stay well back. We don’t need to send additional souls to Alduin.”

“Very well,” said the jarl. “And may Akatosh guide your steps.”

When everyone was in position, Lydia and I stepped to the edge of the balcony. “Lydia, why don’t you wait inside by the trap?” I said. It will only take one of us to lure the dragon into the porch.”

“My place is by your side, my thane.”

“Very well. But remember: we are luring this dragon, not slaying him. Are you ready?”

“Aye, my thane, let’s trap a dragon!” She banged her axe against her shield.

“Let us hope Paarthurnax was right about this dragon call.” Then I turned my face to the skies. “Od-Ah-Viing!” My shout rippled across the plains and returned as an echo from the mountains to the north.

For a moment all was quiet. “Well? Is it working?” the jarl called from his station on the gallery on one side of the Great Porch. Then a roar came from off in the distance to the east and soon a great pair of wings soared around the side of Dragonsreach making straight for us.

“Dovahkiin, het Zu’u los,” the dragon said as he swooped down.

“Joor-Zah-Frul!” I shouted back, jarring him so that his grasping jaws missed me.

He took a short turn out over the rocks below, making for us once again. We backed toward the opening of the Great Porch as Odahviing settled on the balcony’s parapet. He was red, with tall spikes down his back and eight horns sprouting from his head like a crown.

“You would teach me the meaning of death? Come near my jaws, and I will teach it to you!”

“I defeated your master,” I said as we kept backing away. “I will have no trouble defeating you.”

“Is this how you fought him, by running away?”

The dragon drew breath to blast us with fire. Lydia stepped in front of me, using her shield to protect us both. The flames flowed up and over it as I continued moving back.

But now Odahviing was upon her and she was standing her ground, warding thrusts of his jaws with her shield and striking him with her axe when she could.

“Lydia, no!” I called to her, but it did little good. The morning’s forbearance had tested her patience and now the battle-lust was upon her. She was just within the opening of the Great Porch and Odahviing still out on the balcony. At this rate, we would never get him into the trap. I thought for one mad moment of casting a fear spell on her, but then realized she would never forgive me the humiliation.

“Lydia, your place is by my side!” I called to her.

“Aye, my thane.” She was backing toward me at last.

“What kind of Nord retreats?” Odahviing taunted her. “I have had many worthier opponents in my time.”

The dragon drew another breath. I moved to my left to avoid hitting Lydia, then shouted “Fus-Ro-Dah!” The shout staggered him before he could blast us with his fire, giving Lydia time to draw even with me.

“Ah, your Thu’um is strong, Dovahkiin, stronger even than that of my master. But I have you cornered in this jul hofkiin. You will not escape my jaws, no matter how powerful your shouts.”

We were even with the yoke now. “Just a few more steps,” I whispered to Lydia.

“Come any closer and you’ll feel my axe once more!” Lydia shouted at him as we moved back.

That was too much for the arrogant dovah. He rushed at us and Balgruuf called for his men to release the chains. With perfect timing, the yoke plunged down, landing across Odahviing’s neck, a spring-loaded collar clamping around his throat. The whole contraption was so heavy that it forced his head down to the floor.

In rage and frustration, Odahviing blasted us with his fire breath. Lydia sheltered behind her shield, but I stood in the middle of that blast, hearing only “Yol-Toor-Shul” and feeling only a warm breeze. When it was done the dragon looked at me. Was that admiration I saw in his eyes?

“Use your fire breath again and I will be forced to slay you,” I said. “But speak with me and I may set you free.”

“You withstood my strongest shout. And here I am, caught like a bear in a trap. Why have you done this? Why not slay me as you have done to many of my brethren?”

“Because I believe Alduin has gone to Sovngarde, and I must know how to follow him there.”

Seeing that all seemed safe, Balgruuf and Irileth and several soldiers descended from the galleries on either side of the porch and stood behind us. Farengar emerged from the palace, along with Proventus Avenicci. “A dragon!” the mage exclaimed. “How I have waited for this day!” Odahviing regarded him dolefully.

“You are indeed relentless in your pursuit of my master,” Odahviing said to me. “Many of the dov have begun to question Alduin’s authority and the strength of his Thu’um, and all the more once you defeated him at the Throat of the World. If you set me free, I will tell them I have met one who is worthy of our respect. And you will free me if I tell you where Alduin has gone?”

“If your information proves correct.”

“Well then, I will tell you that his door to Sovngarde is in the ancient fane of Skuldafn.”

“I’ve never heard of it,” I said. I turned to the others, who all shrugged and shook their heads. “Where is this place, and how do I get there?”

“It is high in the Velothi Mountains. The ancient Nords chose the site for its remote location. Time and the elements rendered it inaccessible to all but us sky-wingers. For this reason Alduin chose it for his sanctuary. The portal to Sovngarde is on its highest balcony.”

“If it is inaccessible to land-striders, how can I get there?”

The dragon seemed to smile. “If you set me free, I will fly you to Skuldafn.”

“My thane,” Lydia whispered in my ear, “this could be the trap Esbern spoke of! I do not trust him.”

I knew she was right. Trapping Odahviing had seemed almost too easy. Yet how could I not trust Paarthurnax? He had helped me defeat Alduin. Why do that, and then set a trap for me?

“What choice do I have, Lydia?”

“We could find a way to this Skuldafn on our own. No mountains are that inaccessible.”

“No, I would not waste the time, even if it were possible.”

“Ah,” said Odahviing. “I see that you do not trust me. An interesting predicament, no?”

“I have no choice but to trust you, dragon. But my housecarl will come too, to make sure this is not a trick.”

“No,” he growled. “Only you, one of the dragonblood, may ride on my back.”

“I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” Lydia said.

“So do I, but it can’t be helped. When do we leave?”

“As soon as you remove this yoke from my neck.”

“No, my thane,” Lydia protested. “The hour grows late, and who knows how long it will take to fly to this place, or what you will find when you get there?”

“Your companion is wise,” Odahviing said. “Skuldafn is large, and many of the Nord dead roam it, ruled by the Dragon Priest Nahkriin. They have awakened since Alduin’s return, and they still serve him. They will not take kindly to any mortal seeking the portal. And you will find my dov brethren there as well.”

“Very well, we leave in the morning. But I promise you, if this is some sort of trick, I will hunt you until my dying breath.”

“As will I,” Lydia said.

The dragon smiled once more. “Until morning then. And tell your friends not to get too close,” he said, turning his head to look at Farengar. The mage had stepped up near his horns and was making notes in a leather-bound journal. “This one will not withstand my fire breath as well as you.”

 

*~*~*

 

That evening, I was upstairs in Breezehome going through my knapsack one last time. What did one pack for a journey to the land of the dead? I was tempted to leave it all behind and carry only what potions and bits of food I could stuff into the pockets of my robes. But Lydia pointed out that I might find myself trapped in Skuldafn, with no way out of the mountain cirque. A supply of a few days’ food would be prudent. And, in case I found myself in need of better protection than my arch-mage’s robes offered, a spare set of scaled hide armor would be useful. It was enchanted to increase my magical power, but not as much as my robes. “It’s a worthwhile tradeoff,” Lydia said. “You won’t have me to absorb the attacks of your opponents.”

I grudgingly agreed, seeing how worried she was for me, though I hated to slow myself with the added weight. I was not particularly worried for myself. I had survived Bleak Falls Barrow on my own, before I could even shout. How much worse could Skuldafn be? So it had a dragon priest – we had faced them before. Even Morokei would not have been able to stand against me with the power I had now. And once I got to Sovngarde – who knew what weapons and armor I would need to confront the World Eater in that place?

No, it was not fear for myself that I felt, but anticipation of loneliness. The thought of parting with Lydia filled me with a greater sense of dread than any dragon could cause. The recent separation of three days had been difficult enough, but going into danger without her seemed worse. I would miss her rallying cries and dry remarks as much as her aid in battle.

Now I turned to laying out my robes across a chair in the bedroom, checking their pockets one last time. Downstairs, Lydia was cooking a venison stew, my favorite dish. We could have gotten the same at the Bannered Mare, but we both wanted to spend this last night alone together. The town was already abuzz with the news that we had captured a dragon in Dragonsreach, and I knew we would have no peace in public. Too, Lydia had been somber all evening, fearing I would never return.

I took off the Saarthal Amulet, which I still wore for its properties of magical fortification, and set it on top of the robes. Then I took a deep breath and went to the chest where I stored my valuables. I took out the Amulet of Mara and put it around my neck. I wore a simple tunic, and I left the laces on the front untied, so that Lydia would not miss the gold emblem that said I was interested in marriage.

I took another deep breath and went downstairs. Lydia was scurrying about the kitchen. “It’s almost done, my love. Just a few more touches.”

At least she had taken to calling me “my love.” It was a start. I went up behind her and put my arms around her waist. She turned partway around and I kissed her deeply. Still she didn’t notice the amulet.

“Have a seat while I finish up. Would you like a cup of Alto wine?”

“That would be lovely,” I said, going around to the other side of the table so I was facing the cooking area. Lydia poured two cups from a bottle and then brought them to the table.

“Thank you,” I said, taking the cup with my right hand, my left going to my throat.

“An Amulet of Mara!” Lydia’s own cup was poised halfway to her mouth. She looked back and forth from the amulet to my face. “Are you wearing that for me?”

“Who else, my love?”

She sat down across from me, still staring at the amulet, saying nothing.

Finally, the silence was too much. “What do you say, my Lydia?” I asked, reaching across for her hand. “Say you will marry me before I go off to face Alduin alone. I do not know if I can best him, and even if I do, who can say if I will return from Sovngarde?”

“But my love, certainly we cannot marry before tomorrow.” She still kept her eyes on the amulet.

“No, you mistake me. But before I go to face my destiny, I would have the promise of your hand in marriage” – and here I pressed my lips to her fingers – “the hand I love the most in all the world, along with every other part of you, body and soul.”

Now she looked up at me, her eyes filled with the pain of indecision. She covered my hand with both of hers. “Oh, Deirdre, you know I love you. But you are so young. How can you know that I am the one you want to spend the rest of your days with? Perhaps you will find someone you like better as you travel and meet more people.”

I looked at her for a long moment. “You and I have traveled the length and breadth of Skyrim together. I have met many women in that time – from tavern wenches to Aela the Huntress in her scanty armor to Elisif the Fair, the fairest lass in all the land, many say. And none have I seen that could make me turn my head from you, none with whom I can laugh and jest and talk about nothing or share my deepest secrets, as I can with you. No, it is you I love and none other. Now stop being silly and give me your answer.”

She looked at the table and then around at the walls of our home, and finally back at me. “My love, how can you put me in such a position? You know I wouldn’t send you off to face Alduin with doubt in your heart. Yet how can I make such a choice so soon? We have only been together as lovers for a matter of weeks.”

“You know as well as I that long courtships are not the way of Skyrim. Life is often hard, and short, and couples grasp what happiness they may, while they may.”

“As we have, my love. But why do we have to marry so soon?”

“For me the choice is easy, why not for you?”

Now she would only look at the table. “It’s a more difficult choice for me, and I think you know why. You are not interested in men at all, nor in the … things a man can offer a woman. But you know that I have loved men in the past. Sometimes I just want to feel like a lass, as only a man can make me feel. Never having that feeling again, nor the possibility of children – it is a big decision, and I ask that you give me time to make it.”

I narrowed my eyes at her. “I can think of only one thing men have that I do not.”

She drew back at that, stung. “No, it’s not that, and how could you think it?” She looked away for a moment, shaking her head. Then she took up my hand once more and held my gaze. “Oh, my love, don’t you know that you make me feel better than any man ever has?”

“Then what in the name of Mara is it? Wait, does this have to do with those men in the market?” We had visited the market on our way home from Dragonsreach to buy some venison and other goods for dinner. We were holding hands, an unusual display of public affection for us, but we were both feeling the need for each other’s comfort in light of our pending separation. The people of Whiterun were used to seeing us together and no one paid us much mind, except for the occasional query of “Is it true, you captured a dragon in Dragonsreach?” Then two drunkards outside the Bannered Mare began making comments. They must have been new to Whiterun, because I had never seen them before.

“Hey, Kuvar, there goes an odd couple.”

“You’re right, Roggi. Which do you suppose is the lad and which is the lass?”

“Hic, tha’s plain to see – the big one! She’s more man than woman.”

The two were dressed in ragged tunics, with no armor. Kuvar had a dagger stuck in his belt, and Roggi wore a chipped sword on his hip. It was almost funny that these two would choose us to insult. The crowd went quiet as I stepped up to them. I tried to look down my nose at them, but it was difficult, given my height.

“Oh, you’d be surprised,” I said. “I’m sure I’m more of a man than either of you, were a man something I aspired to be.”

“The lass talks brave enough,” said Kuvar.

“Another word from you and you’ll be crying like wee girls,” Lydia said, walking up beside me.

“You’re only provin’ my point, lass … or lad, should I say?”

My fear spell sent them running away, howling pleas of “No more! I cannot best you!” They ran down the path between the Mare and Arcadia’s, then began scrabbling at the city walls, so desperate were they to escape.

The crowd in the market laughed. “Serves those louts right,” someone said.

We returned home and I had thought no more of it until now. Maybe Lydia wasn’t ready to put up with such bigotry. Even in Whiterun we heard whispers behind our backs, as much as the people seemed to tolerate us. And I wondered how it would be for another couple, one to whom the people did not owe their lives?

Yet now she denied it. “You don’t know me very well if you think I’d let louts like that change how I live my life.”

“Then it must be that you do not love me.”

“How can you say that, my love? I do love you. If you will only…”

“You either love me or you don’t. If you loved me as I love you, you wouldn’t hesitate to bind yourself to me forever. You wouldn’t cling to the hope that someone better might come along. Now what is your answer, yes or no?”

Lydia’s lower lip trembled, and she removed her hands from mine, placing them flat on the table, as if for support. “If you force me to answer now, then my answer must be no.”

A pain went through my chest as sharp as if she had stabbed me with her dagger. Now I knew how Onmund had felt, and Ralof. And I was just as unreasoning as they had been, yet more so. Mara forgive me, it was the foolish, wounded pride of my dragonsoul that sent a burst of rage through me, forcing me to my feet. My vision went dark, and I struggled to control myself, turning away from her before I did something I would regret forever.

“Go then,” I managed to say, my voice tight with the weight that crushed my heart.

“What? No, my love…”

“If you love me so little, you need not trouble yourself to share a roof with me … or a bed.”

“No, you do not mean it.”

“I assure you, I do. In fact, since I must face Alduin alone, I no longer require your services as housecarl. I release you from your duty.”

There was a long silence then, but still I would not turn and look at her.

“I’ll be up at my old quarters in Dragonsreach then.” Her voice quavered.

“Go where you will, I care not.”

“Very well.” She walked up behind me. “It has been an honor to serve you, my…”

“I am no longer your thane.”

Then I heard her sob, and a moment later the door opened and closed behind her. Lydia was gone, and with her, my reason for fighting Alduin, for living, for … everything.

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