The Song of Deirdre – Chap. 50

 

Skuldafn

 

Someone was pounding on my door. It seemed as if people had been pounding on it all night long. Arcadia had been the first. “Deirdre, are you all right?” she called through the door. “I saw Lydia, and she looked in an awful way. Come child, open the door and tell me what happened.”

At last she went away, and I returned to my crying and my drinking. I was already into my second bottle of Alto wine. I had never done such a thing before. Later, I awoke to find myself sprawled across the table, with Thorald Gray-Mane shouting at my door. “Lass, open up. It’s no good shutting yourself up like this. Come and have a drink with the lads and you’ll feel better. Hulda’s got a right sympathetic ear if you want to tell her what happened ‘tween you and Lydia.”

Why wouldn’t they leave me alone? Nothing they could say would make this pain go away. Two bottles of wine hadn’t made it go away. Only in sleep could I find respite. Finally Thorald went away too.

Now it was morning, with bright rays of sunshine slanting in the window and sparkling off the snow outside. The pounding kept on going, both in my head and at the door. “Deirdre, open up,” a voice called out. “We have come all the way from Winterhold to see you off to Sovngarde.” It was Brelyna, of course.

“Are you sure this is the right house?” a feline voice asked.

“The jarl’s steward said it was.”

“Go away,” I called back. “I would see no one, not even my friends.”

“Deirdre, it’s Onmund. If anyone knows what it is to have a broken heart, it’s me. But you have to buck yourself up. The world is depending on you.”

Yes, the world. The long-suffering, helpless world needed saving, and I was the one to do it. But what if I didn’t feel like saving it? Hadn’t I already defeated Alduin once? Let someone else travel to Sovngarde and face the World Eater. Or better yet, let Alduin return and bring the world to an end and with it, this unendurable pain.

I thought maybe they would go away like all the rest, but then I heard the sound of a lockpick at the door. A moment later my three friends were standing around me, J’zargo congratulating himself on his lockpicking skills. I couldn’t look at them, keeping my face buried in my arms on the table.

“Oh, dear,” Brelyna said.

J’zargo sniffed loudly. “Too much drink, this one can tell. In Elsweyr, we have an excellent remedy for skooma hangovers. I wonder if the butcher of Whiterun keeps pig intestines?” A moment later the door closed behind him, and Onmund and Brelyna pulled up chairs on either side of me.

“Now, tell us what happened,” Brelyna said. I sat upright and looked at her. “Oh, I see you’re wearing an Amulet of Mara.” I nodded, choking back a sob. “And she said no?” I nodded again, my tears flowing all the faster. “But why? You seemed like such a perfect couple.”

I threw my head back and looked to the ceiling, as if I would find an answer there. “Oh, I was a fool! It was too soon. She was not ready to give up men forever. But I was weak. I could not face Alduin without having her promise.” I broke down in sobs once more, my two friends patting me on the back. When I had recovered, I said, “If she loved me, she should have said yes, even if she wasn’t sure – shouldn’t she?”

“I cannot say,” Brelyna said. “Some might think it kind to humor one who is facing her doom. But Lydia could not lie to you, she has such an honest and a noble heart.”

“Yes, it’s too true!” I wailed and broke down in sobs once more.

J’zargo returned, carrying a sack filled with several foul-smelling ingredients. In moments a horrid odor filled the room as a pot bubbled thickly over the cookfire.

“Are you sure this is going to help her and not kill her, J’zargo?” Brelyna asked.

“With the pain in her head, most certainly. The pain in her heart? Probably not.”

While the concoction went on bubbling, I told of our encounter with Alduin at the Throat of the World, the ensuing peace council, and the trapping of Odahviing. News that the Dragonborn would travel to Sovngarde to face Alduin had spread across Skyrim, but it had taken three days to reach the college. My friends had ridden as fast as they could to reach Whiterun this morning, bringing Colette, Faralda, and Drevis with them.

“But why, my friends? You cannot go with me. I am the only one Odahviing will allow onto his back.” And if not for that restriction, I thought bitterly, I never would have made my foolish proposal.

“We brought the instructors, in case you need last-minute training,” Brelyna said. “I am only glad we got here in time.”

“Here, have your remedy,” J’zargo said. “They’re growing impatient outside, most especially Faralda.”

I took the cup he handed me. It contained a grayish, gelatinous liquid that smelled like a dead skeever decaying in a Hjaalmarch swamp. It stung my eyes and made my nose run. “What’s in it?”

“Sheep’s intestine, fiery hot peppers from the south, imp stool, and just a touch of moon sugar. It is not quite the dog that bit you, but this one thinks it is close enough.”

“And I have to drink all of it?”

“But of course!”

I took a deep breath and tried to pour it down my throat without letting it touch my tongue. I managed to do it without gagging. The room seemed to spin for a moment, and then the splitting headache and the nausea went away. I felt better. I even felt energized.

“That worked!” I said.

“Of course it did, or J’zargo would not have given it to you.”

As fast as my physical pain went away, that other pain returned with even greater ferocity. I turned to Onmund. “Can you tell me, what is the cure for a broken heart? How can I possibly bear this?”

Onmund could easily have taken this opportunity to gloat, but he did not. “I’m afraid there is none – none that I have found, at least. Certainly not wine – believe me, I tried it. And not time either. The pain doesn’t really go away, you just learn how better to bear it.”

I would never learn to bear this pain, I was sure. Life had torn everything I loved from me – my parents, my home, and now, Lydia. I set my jaw. “I know one way to make this pain end,” I said. I got up from the table and made for the door.

“Wait, where are you going?” Brelyna called after me.

“To Sovngarde, of course.” I opened the door and squinted into the sunlight glaring off the snow. The three college wizards stood on the threshold, growing wide-eyed as I pushed my way through them.

“You can’t go to Sovngarde like that,” Brelyna called after me. “You’ll catch your death of cold, in the first place.”

“I’ll be dead long before illness can take me,” I said. The cobbles of the street were icy on my bare feet.

“J’zargo, find her robes … and her boots!” Brelyna called into the house. “We’ll try to stop her.”

I walked with grim purpose up the street toward Dragonsreach, six college wizards in tow, Brelyna and Onmund walking beside me, pleading with me to at least prepare myself for the ordeal ahead. But to me their words were like the droning of insects. I could think only of losing myself in the fire of the World Eater’s breath.

Whiterun had never seen such a sight – seven mages walking through its streets, arguing and pleading. Some of the city folk shouted out words of encouragement, “Good luck, Dragonborn!” and “Send the World Eater to Oblivion!” but they grew quiet when they saw the fey mood I was in. “Her doom is upon her,” one crone said as I passed. “That is the face of one who goes to her death, I haven’t a doubt.”

Halfway up the steps to Dragonsreach, Onmund stepped in front of me, putting his hands on my shoulders to bar my way. “Deirdre, stop this madness!”

I glared up at him, a step above me. “Out of my way, Onmund. Don’t make me shout you off these stairs.”

“Listen to her, Onmund,” Brelyna said. “She knows we cannot stop her.”

“At least put on your arch-mage’s robes,” J’zargo said, holding them out to me. He was panting from running to catch up.

I brushed him aside and stepped around Onmund, continuing up the steps. Now the wizards chimed in as well, with more pleas to let them help me, and not to throw my life away.

We entered Dragonsreach and passed straight through the hall, then up the stairs and through the jarl’s war-chamber, and finally out onto the Great Porch. Balgruuf was there waiting for me, along with Irileth and Farengar.

“Ah, lass we’ve been expecting…” Balgruuf began, but then stopped, seeing the state I was in.

“Release the dragon!” I called up to the gallery, where a guard stood by the lever that would release Odahviing.

“What does this mean?” Balgruuf demanded, his eyes scanning the faces of the wizards who had poured onto the porch behind me, and then back to me.

“Jarl Balgruuf!” Brelyna said, stepping forward. “You can see the Dragonborn is in no state to travel to Sovngarde and face the World Eater. Please, keep Odahviing in chains until she comes to her senses.”

I looked around at Balgruuf and his guards, then up at the gallery, calculating whether I could get to that lever and release Odahviing before they stopped me. I had been friendly with many of those guards during my time in Whiterun. I would not harm them, even in my grim mood.

“If you’re looking for your lass,” Balgruuf said, “she’s shut herself up in her old quarters. She won’t come out for anyone. She came in last night, cursing the day she met you, and cursing me for granting her request to become your housecarl. You two must have had quite a row.”

“Let her curse Talos for aught I care. Now what do I have to do to leave here with Odahviing?”

The jarl looked at Brelyna.

“Array yourself as you would for any perilous journey,” she said. “And accept the training offered by our instructors.”

J’zargo had his hands full with my robes and bits of armor I had left lying next to them, and my pack and weapons were slung across his back. On top of the pile he held out to me, I saw the Saarthal Amulet. Then I remembered the Amulet of Mara I wore about my neck. I ripped it from its cord and threw it across the hall. “I won’t be needing that accursed necklace again.”

I let Brelyna dress me as if I were a queen and she a maid-servant. My robes went on first, then my breeches and boots and gloves and bracers, and a cloak over it all to keep out the chill of the winds over Skyrim. Finally she put the mage’s circlet on my brow and said, “Now, will you let our instructors train you?”

I would only take the time to receive one lesson. I chose Drevis to tutor me in Illusion, much to the consternation of the other instructors. It was a haphazard choice, to be sure. In truth, I was only humoring my friends so they would let me depart. Yet it worked for the best, as I found when I cast my rout spell on Drevis, after taking half an hour to read The Mystery of Talara, Part IV.

“Yes, that should turn the undead,” he said. “Your Illusion magic has grown powerful indeed. You are now a Master of the Mind, and I have no more to teach you.”

Brelyna took the knapsack from J’zargo’s shoulder and held it out to me. “Lydia must have felt these items were important, this pack is so heavy,” she said.

I groaned and took the pack from her and slung it across my back. Then I took up my weapons – my sword of frost, my bow and arrows, and the Staff of Jyrik Gauldurson.

“Now I am ready at last,” I said to Jarl Balgruuf when all was in place. “Will you give the order to release Odahviing?”

“Aye, lass, but I can only hope that this fey mood will bring you to victory and not to an untimely death.”

He gave the order and the guard threw the lever that released the collar about Odahviing’s neck, while two others turned the great wheels that pulled the yoke up to the ceiling far above. Now the dragon was free.

“I’m ready to shout Dragonrend at you if you try to escape,” I said to him.

“Ah, the dov are not trustworthy beings, but I will be true to my word and take you to Skuldafn.” Then the great dragon turned awkwardly in the hall and lumbered out onto the balcony, the rest of us following. Balgruuf, Irileth, Farengar, and the college mages arranged themselves at the balcony’s low parapet while I approached the dragon.

“Are you ready to see Keizaal as only a dovah can?” he asked.

“In just a moment,” I said. As eager as I was to be away, I could not leave without a last goodbye. “Well, my friends, I am off to meet my doom. Perhaps only Akatosh knows if I will return. I thank each of you, for you have all helped me in some way. If I do not return, you will find a good portion of treasure in my home. I ask that the majority go to the college, to further magical training for Skyrim’s people, in the hope that they will grow less superstitious and less afraid of magic users. And I ask that some portion go to L…” My voice caught in my throat. “To my … Oh, damn it to Oblivion!” I turned away from them, wiping at my tears with a sleeve.

“Yes,” Brelyna said coming up beside me and putting a hand on my shoulder. “We will make sure that Lydia gets a portion of your wealth, should you fail to return. But something tells me this is not the last we will see of you.”

“Thank you,” I said. “Goodbye then.” I stepped up onto Odahviing’s neck and grasped his horns for handholds. “Now take me away from this city I would never look on again.”

“Is this any way to see the Dragonborn off to her greatest battle?” Balgruuf demanded. “This isn’t a funeral!” He thrust his fist in the air. “For Skyrim! For the Dragonborn!” Soon everyone assembled on the balcony was chanting along with him, but their words meant nothing to me.

Then Odahviing spread his wings and launched us out over the parapet, the cliffs of Dragonsreach dropping away so that we were instantly hundreds of feet in the air. With a lurch that nearly threw me from my seat, the dragon turned to the right, eastward. I looked down at the courtyard on that side of the palace and saw a lone figure standing there. She was already growing tiny, but I could see her black hair blowing in the wind. She did not wave.

I had no time to think about this, because then something else caught my eye, farther out on the plains far west of Whiterun – a thousand points of glittering sunlight reflected as if from burnished metal. And then I could look no more because my eyes flooded with tears once again, this time from the icy wind of our great speed. I crouched low over the dragon’s back, seeing nothing of Skyrim as we raced toward my doom.

 

*~*~*

 

And so I came to Skuldafn, caring not whether I lived or I died. As Odahviing’s winged shape receded into the distance, I saw that this was the same fane where Alduin had brought me in my dream, a many-leveled temple with high walls and terraces scaling the cliffs, decorated here and there with those crude dragon-head carvings set on columns of stone, all of it set in a natural bowl within the mountains. I looked around at the steep cliffs and the corniced ridges and knew that Odahviing had been right: not even the most agile squirrel could find its way out of this cirque, let alone those who walked on two legs. If I was ever to leave this place, it would have to be through the portal to Sovngarde – wherever that was.

I was alone here, as alone as I had ever been, with only the draugr patrolling the temple walls to keep me company – and a dragon, which now launched itself toward me from one of the temple’s high balconies.

Odahviing had set me down some distance from the fane itself, across a wide frozen pool spanned by a bridge and fed by frozen waterfalls pouring down from the heights. The dragon closed that distance in a matter of seconds. I had just time to shout Dragonrend at it before it swooped past and settled on a rocky promontory beyond me. I threw my knapsack aside, not wanting it to slow me in battle. Then the dragon blasted me with a shout of Yol-Toor-Shul. I felt the heat, but it did not burn.

“Hin Thu’um los sahlo,” I taunted him.

Now my instinct for survival took hold, broken heart or no. I conjured my flame atronach to distract the dragon, then began launching whirlwind frost spells at it. When my Thu’um restored itself, I shouted Marked for Death, just as the fire demon exploded in a spray of flames. I could see that the dragon was already weak. I drew my sword and charged at him, dodging his snapping jaws and plunging the point of the sword down into his brain. I laughed as I felt the power of his soul enter my being, and felt my sorrow turning to anger and the reckless joy of battle.

An arrow landed next to me and I looked across the pool to see a draugr wight aiming another shot at me. The undead are usually oblivious to all but their most immediate surroundings, but this one couldn’t help but notice the swirls of flame and energy that had just enveloped me. I dodged to the side, avoiding the arrow easily.

Very well, I thought, let’s see if Drevis was right about these Illusion spells. I cast frenzy on the draugr and he turned his arrows on one of his fellows nearby. Then I heard a shout of “Ro-Dah!” to his right and knew that the frenzy spell was working. Soon three draugr – two wights and a death lord – were fighting each other. I crossed the bridge onto the platform where they battled, conjuring my atronach to join the fray. When only the death lord was left standing, I shouted Marked for Death at him, then rushed him. My sword skills were still weak, though Lydia had practiced with me often in camp. Yet I wanted to feel the joy of combat as I thrust and parried and felt my sword bury itself deep in the death lord’s chest. It was as if I had cast a frenzy spell on myself. My sorrow and my anger would carry me through this awful place, and I fought with a recklessness and an abandon I had rarely known. The death lord fell at my feet, and I felt only elation.

I moved along the wide promenade skirting the base of the temple walls, looking for an entrance to the fane itself. Another dragon flew at me, but I vanquished him as easily as the first, then reached the steps leading up into the temple. Now I noticed a column of golden light shooting into the sky from the temple’s highest level. It hadn’t been there before. That must be Alduin’s portal to Sovngarde, I thought. Why it had been activated now, I could only guess – perhaps as an alarm to the temple’s guardians that an intruder was present?

Above me, walkways and steps led to higher levels. The place was huge, easily as large as the Plains District of Whiterun, laid out in a rectangular shape. Most of it was open to the skies, with a large, square building at the end opposite me, and the portal at its top. No steps scaled the outside of that fortress – I would have to enter it and find my way up from inside. But before that, I would have to get past the many wights and scourges and death lords patrolling the terraces and walls in between.

The silence of this place was oppressive. Perhaps it was a madness that took me, or a death wish, or perhaps I just missed Lydia’s rallying shouts. I stood out in the middle of a wide plaza surrounded by the temple’s walls, abandoning all stealth, and called out, “Hear me, servants of Alduin! I am the Dovahkiin, and I am making for the portal to Sovngarde. Stand aside or I will destroy you!”

Suddenly the place filled with the sound of many shambling feet and a wight appeared on the causeway above me. He shouted Unrelenting Force at me, but I only laughed – it barely made me stagger and hurt me but a little.

“Ha! Your Thu’um is weak, dead one,” I shouted, then hit him with a frenzy spell.

Instantly he turned his attention to another draugr who was nearer to him. I moved farther up into the temple, passing beneath suspended walkways where I cast frenzy on any draugr I saw. One surprised me coming around a corner and I sent him scurrying away with a spell of rout. Soon the whole place was echoing with the harsh Ro-Dahs of the Nord dead.

And so I swept through Skuldafn like a fire through the dry grass of Cyrodiil. By the time I reached the great metal doors, a dozen draugr wights and death lords lay strewn about the temple’s terraces, and I had fought only one of them myself. Within the tower, it was the same. I crept through its passages and halls, setting the draugr on one another, and sometimes using my own flame atronach as a distraction. They were already dead, so I felt no guilt about dispatching them once more. Nor did I worry about them coming back to life if I didn’t sever their heads and burn their bodies to ash. If they proved so persistent, I would just set them to fighting each other once again, I felt such elation in their destruction. It had been long since I had let my anger come unleashed.

The tower had several door puzzles and hidden door levers, but I was used to the tricks of the ancient Nords by now. Skuldafn’s doors opened as easily as its inhabitants fell. I passed through a chamber with a word wall where I learned to use Strun as a shout – it would call down the power of Skyrim’s storms on my enemies. At last I came to a lone draugr guarding a door that required a dragon claw to unlock it. With no other draugr to set him after with a frenzy spell, I attacked him on my own, luring him into an oil trap which I then set alight. By the time my flame atronach and I were done with him, he was nothing but a pile of ash, with the dragon claw lying nearby. I quickly had the engravings on the door aligned in accordance with those on the dragon claw, and then the door opened.

I came back outdoors on the temple’s highest level save one. I entertained myself by sending two death lords over the edge of the balcony, watching their bodies hurtle end over end, smashing into the frozen pool far below. My frenzy spell took care of two more.

Now I had only to ascend the stairs to the portal. Odahviing had mentioned something about a dragon priest guarding it, so I crept silently up the stairs and peered over the top. The summit of the temple was a long terrace flanked by two walls. On the top of each wall sat a dragon, one of them gray, the other red. Luckily, they hadn’t noticed me yet. A tall dais stood in the center of the terrace, and just beyond it the column of light shot up into the sky.

I thought about making a dash for the portal, but the dragon priest Nahkriin must have expected me, I had created such a disturbance below. Now he floated up to the top of the dais and removed a staff from its center. Instantly the column of light disappeared. If I wanted to enter the portal, I would have to take the dragon priest’s staff from him.

He turned and began looking about for me, but I had made myself invisible once more. Illusion magic having served me well so far, I cast a frenzy spell on him, and he began blasting one of the dragons with a lightning bolt from his staff. I crept back down the stairway and watched as the two dragons launched themselves into the air, then landed on the terrace above me. I heard the roar of their fire and frost breaths as they blasted the dragon priest.

I crept back up the stairs and watched the battle unfold. Nahkriin was blasting one dragon then the other with his staff, to little effect. At the same time, he had backed himself into a corner and could not fly past the hulking dragons to escape the fury of their onslaught. In a few moments, he was reduced to a pile of ash, with the staff lying next to it.

If I thought I had remained hidden from the dragons, I was wrong. They both turned to me, and I drew breath for a shout.

Then one of them, the gray, spoke. “Hin Thu’um los mul, Dovahkiin” – your Thu’um is strong, Dragonborn.

“Alduin gevahzen rok los aan vobahlaan in,” said the red one – Alduin has proven himself an unworthy master.

“Then travel to Sovngarde and help me defeat him.”

“No, we will not follow you there, for we would only devour the souls of the mortal dead, as Alduin does.”

I was surprised at their forbearance, but then I had a thought: how would I close the portal behind me? That seemed to be the function Nahkriin had served for Alduin.

As the two dragons resumed their stations atop the walls on either side, I went to the spot where the dragon priest had met his end. Within the pile of ash was one of those metal armatures that give the ghostly priests form, and next to it a grim-faced mask of metal, with down-turned mouth and eyes narrowed to baleful slits. I picked it up and felt the magical power emanating from it. It was certainly more powerful than my mage’s circlet, and its grim features matched my mood. Yet it was heavy, and there was something else about it – a darkness, as if evil magics had been used to enchant it. I tossed it aside and took up the dragon priest’s staff.

Ascending the dais, I saw that the tip of the staff would fit into a hole in its center. Beyond the dais was a circular patch of stonework decorated with engravings of two stylized dragons, nose to tail. There was no sign of anything that would emit a column of light. But once I placed the staff in its receptacle, the stonework swelled upward, then broke apart and began whirling around in a glowing maelstrom. The golden column shone upwards into the blue sky once more.

What would happen when I stepped into that portal? Would I become a spirit like the inhabitants of Sovngarde? Or would it transport me bodily to the land of the dead? How could that be? And how could I travel back to Nirn once I passed this way? But maybe it didn’t matter. Perhaps in Sovngarde my suffering would end and I would choose never to leave. Or Alduin would win, and then nothing would matter. Come what may, I had to step into that column of light.

I turned to the dragons. “Will you destroy this portal after I enter it? No one will be left to guard it, and I doubt the rest of the dov will refrain from using it.”

“We will do your bidding in this, Dovahkiin,” said the gray dragon.

I turned back to the portal. If I didn’t step into it now, I never would. I gave a little laugh. It is said that mortals have only one death to give, and so they should make it a good one. If to travel to Sovngarde was to die, then I would die well.

“To Sovngarde!” I shouted, then jumped down into the column of light.

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