The Song of Deirdre – Chap. 52

 

Fort Amol

 

A blizzard raged as I stepped out onto High Hrothgar’s front porch. It had been snowing since my return from Sovngarde the day before. It promised to be a rough trip down to Ivarstead, but this didn’t much concern me. I was on my way to Lydia, and that’s all that mattered. The storm made it impossible to glissade down the mountain’s west face – even my strongest Become Ethereal shout couldn’t save me from plunging to my death down those rime-iced cliffs hidden in the whiteout. Yet not even the addition of two days to my journey could dampen my spirits. I didn’t care how long my road was, as long as Lydia was at the end of it.

A short distance down the path, I smelled smoke. That was strange, I thought. I looked around for its source, but could see nothing in the whiteout. Even nearby crags were lost in the swirl of snow. Still the smell of smoke persisted, borne on the wind from the west. Probably just pilgrims caught out by the storm, I told myself, though where they had found wood this far above tree line, I couldn’t explain. Nor could I explain why they were so far off the path to the west, where there was nothing but couloirs and cliffs. I resolved to keep my eye out for travelers in need of help, then thought no more of it. Instead, I pondered Paarthurnax’s words to me on my return to the Throat of the World.

I had not tarried long in Sovngarde after defeating Alduin, I was so eager to get back to Nirn and Whiterun and Lydia. When Tsun offered to shout me back to Nirn, I accepted it without hesitation. Yet before I could depart, he shared another shout with me, Hun-Kal-Zoor, the Call of Valor, which would bring a hero from Sovngarde to fight for me. Then Gormlaith and Felldir made their farewells, and Tsun shouted “Nahl-Daal-Vus!” I felt the same feeling of flying up into the swirling Aetherial light, then sometime later felt my feet land on the solid ice plateau at the Throat of the World.

I could just barely make out Paarthurnax through the swirling snow, sitting atop the word wall. Dark shapes, dragons, circled about in the whiteout, exulting over Alduin’s death.

“Mu los vomir!” one said. “We are free!”

“Alduin has fallen! Our mighty overlord is vanquished!” cried others.

Then finally, “Dovahkiin los ok dovahkriid!” “The Dragonborn is his dragonslayer.”

I still could not quite believe it was true. My task was over. Yet all I could think of was finding Lydia and pleading for her forgiveness. Still, I couldn’t leave the Throat of the World without having a word with Paarthurnax. I had yet to tell him of the Blades’ plans to kill him.

“Hail, Dovahkiin,” he said as I approached. “So, it is done. Alduin is vanquished, he who came before all others, and who has always been.”

“That may be so,” I said. “Yet I cannot be sure.” I told him of the swirling energy that had left Alduin’s body and risen to Aetherius.

“Hmmm,” Paarthurnax pondered. “It may be that Alduin will return to fulfill his role at the end of days. But you have postponed that day – for how long, I cannot tell, but no doubt for many ages of man.”

“Yet there is something more. In his last moments, he said he could not truly be defeated, that he is the universal principle of annihilation that lives within us all.”

“This is no more than you already know. You have contended with your dragon soul since first you came to High Hrothgar, and even before that.”

I wondered how he could know that. Had he and Arngeir been discussing me? I looked down at the packed snow on which I stood, not daring to look at the old dragon as I spoke. “I had hoped that slaying Alduin would also put an end to my own dragon soul.”

“Have you learned nothing of what the Greybeards taught you? You cannot defeat your inner self. You can only balance the inner with the outer, the dark with the light. You can never drive out the dark entirely, for even the brightest light casts a shadow. Even the sun blinds those who look on it too long. No, it is only by balancing the two, by looking neither too much into the light nor too long into the shadows, that one can see truly.”

My head remained bowed. This was hardly comforting. “I thought my struggles would be at an end once I vanquished Alduin, that now I could live a life of contentment and peace. But you describe a life of constant discipline and effort. Must I always feel divided against myself?”

“You will struggle for all of your days, Dovahkiin, as have I. I strive daily to balance the forces within me. We of the dovah sos were made to dominate, you see. The will to power is in our blood. You feel it within yourself, do you not?”

I nodded. I had to admit that I did, though I kept it well hidden, even from myself.

“I have overcome my nature only through meditation and long study of the Way of the Voice. No day goes by when I am not tempted to return to my inborn nature. Zin krif horvut se suleyk – there is honor in fighting the lure of power.”

I looked him in the eye then. “The Blades say you deserve to die.”

He regarded me for a long moment. “And what do you say, Dovahkiin?

“I do not know,” I said.

“Hmm. They are wise not to trust me, as I do not trust my dov brethren. Only the Greybeards, and now perhaps you, know that I can be trusted.”

“Yet it’s more than that. They say you can never be forgiven for your deeds from before the Dragon War.”

If a dragon’s eyes could show sadness, he showed it then. “Krosis. It is true, I was a loyal follower of Alduin, and humans suffered greatly under our rule. I knew no other way. And I did not fully understand the suffering we caused. But I turned aside from that path, as you know, and have sought to redeem the great evil I did. Which is more worthy, to be born good, or to overcome your evil nature through great effort?”

“I do not know, yet I believe you have redeemed yourself. I will not be your judge. I will leave that to Akatosh and Stendarr.”

“There is one thing I can yet do to redeem myself,” Paarthurnax said. He stretched his wings. With one great beat of them he was airborne, circling above me in the swirling snow. “The dov rejoice in the vanquishing of their overlord. Yet who knows what mayhem they will wreak without guidance? With Alduin gone, they may bow to the rightness of my Thu’um. I may yet make them followers of the Way.”

“I wish you success,” I said. “I would be glad never to slay another dragon as long as I live. I am looking forward to a quiet life.”

“You have won a mighty victory, Dovahkiin, and gained great power. Rest and a quiet life are not for those who have been granted such gifts. Savor your triumph, but this is not the last of what you will write on the currents of time.”

With that, he was gone, and one by one the rest of the dragons followed him. All save one, a red dragon with horns radiating in a circular pattern from his head. He descended and landed before me in a swirl of snow. It was Odahviing.

“Ah, so the old one goes to teach his Way of the Voice to the dov. I wish him luck, but I doubt they will listen.”

“And what of you?”

“I have come to pay homage to your Thu’um, Dovahkiin. You have gained a mighty victory. I now name you Thuri, Overlord. Call me, and I will come when I can and when I may. But do not call too often, or expect me to stay too long. I am still a dovah, after all.” And with that, he flew off after the rest of his kind.

Now, descending the Seven Thousand Steps, the thought of Alduin’s soul energy remaining at large in Mundus troubled me. Had I only put off the day of destruction once more? And worse was the thought that he might yet live within me. Would I never be free of him? These were mysteries I couldn’t solve.

Instead I tried to divert my thoughts by wondering what Lydia was doing. Going about her renewed duties with Balgruuf’s hirth? Or pining away for me in the barracks? I preferred to think it was the latter, entertaining myself with visions of Lydia running into my arms the moment she saw me. I knew it was just a fantasy, but it was better than contemplating the rest of my life without her. If that was to be my fate – well, there were many convenient cliffs nearby.

Contemplating the more pleasant possibilities made the time go quickly. It was late afternoon before I realized it, and Ivarstead was just below me.

 

*~*~*

 

I had hoped for a quiet evening in the Vilemyr Inn and an early start in the morning, but it was not to be. It was the Festival of Old Life, celebrated on the last day of the year. The inn was filled with revelers already deep in their cups. Lars was seated near the door with a group of his friends, and they grew quiet as I entered. We exchanged a terse greeting, but not even the sight of him could disturb the calm happiness I felt, so sure was I that Lydia would have me back.

“Where’s Lydia, then?” Lars asked.

“In Whiterun, since she could not follow me to Sovngarde.” I don’t know why I said it. It was the simple truth, yet it could not help sounding like a boast.

“Sovngarde! You don’t look like one of the dead – or a hero. Besides, Sovngarde is for the Nords.” The inn grew quiet as he raised his voice.

“I was there to confront Alduin,” I said evenly. “He fled there after I defeated him on this plane of existence.”

“Ya, everyone knows that the Dragonborn was supposed to travel to Sovngarde to confront Alduin. But you want me to believe you’re her? No, it’s not true – a little scrap of a thing like you.”

“It’s true, Lars,” said a Stormcloak soldier seated a table away. “She’s the Dragonborn, I saw her when I was in Windhelm.” He turned to me. “Is it true? Is Alduin really dead?”

“As dead as I can make him,” I said, still thinking about his final moments.

“You’ve saved us all!” the Stormcloak exclaimed. He raised his mug for a toast, yet only a few of his comrades joined in. Lars and the other men at his table remained stubbornly silent, while the rest of the inn’s regulars seemed hesitant to take sides.

“Bah! I still don’t believe it,” Lars said. “If you’re the Dragonborn, how come we’ve never heard you shout?”

“As I told you before, Lars, followers of the Way of the Voice shout only for true needs.”

“I’ll give you a true need then. How ’bout I challenge you to a fight?”

“Are you that desperate to feel my Thu’um?”

“Heh, heh. You hear that, lads, she wants me to feel her thoom.” He tipped his chair back and looked me up and down. “There’re many parts o’ you I’d like to feel, lass, though you keep them well hidden under those robes. But what’s this thoom?”

“It is merely the dragon word for Voice,” I said.

“Well aren’t we fancy, speakin’ in other languages?” He mimicked my words back to me. “No. I’ve got a score to settle with you. Me and Lydia were gettin’ along just fine that time, until you showed up. Now I’m going to make you pay.” He got up from his chair and took a step toward me.

I held my hands out to him, pleading for calm. “Look, I had to battle Tsun, Shor’s shield-thane, to gain entrance to the Hall of Valor. He’s eight feet tall, and a god, so I fear you but little. Yet neither do I want to hurt you. So please, sit back down and enjoy your revelry.”

This speech elicited chuckles from half the room. “Ya, Lars, you’d better watch out for her!” someone chided him. His face grew red.

He took the remaining two steps that separated us. “Look at you – you’re just a child. I should turn you over my knee and give you a spanking.” He reached to grab for my arm.

I could have used magic on him, a calming spell or a fear spell. But Nords are afraid of magic, as none knows better than I. But the Voice – they respected its power, especially those living here at the foot of the Seven Thousand Steps. And so I used it, though I couldn’t say I had true need of it. I didn’t even raise my voice. I just spoke the word “Faas” at him, yet instantly he cringed and covered his head with his hands.

“No, no more, I cannot best you!” he yelped, and ran through the crowded inn to find a corner where he crouched, trembling. The crowd burst into laughter.

I went over to him. I had caused his humiliation once before. It would not do to drive this second humiliation any deeper. His trembling did not last long, as I had used only one word of the shout. When it was through, I held my hand out to him. “Come, let us be friends.”

He looked at my outstretched hand then jumped to his feet, looming over me once more. The inn went silent. He looked around at his neighbors and his friends, who were all still looking at him to see what would happen next, then back at me, with my hand still outstretched to him. Then he laughed and took my hand.

“That was amazing! You can really shout! I’ve never felt anything like it! Made me shiver down in my bones!” He turned to the crowd. “And it would do the same to the rest o’ you, and here’s my fist for anyone who says different.” Then he clapped me on the back so hard I was glad our altercation hadn’t come to blows. “Come on, Wilhelm, bring the lass a drink, on me! Come, sit at our table and tell us how you defeated Alduin.”

And with that ended any thought I had of an early start on the morrow, with everyone in the village having to shake my hand and offer me a drink. It was late before they would let me depart the mead hall and go to my room.

 

*~*~*

 

As late as it was when I went to my rest, it was later by the time I dragged myself out of the Vilemyr Inn’s hard bed, my head pounding from drink. I wished for a dose of J’zargo’s hangover cure, as foul as the stuff was, and vowed to swear off strong drink in future. From now on, only mugwort tea or maybe a cup of watered mead.

Any hopes I had of reaching Whiterun that day were now dashed. By the time I had bought a horse from a local farmer – Ivarstead not having a formal stable – and purchased a few supplies for the road, it was already late morning. I hoped the Stormcloaks would take me in at Valtheim Towers, if I could reach that fortress by nightfall. If not, it promised to be a rough night out, with the temperature falling and I with only my cloak to keep me warm. Ah well, what was one more day, really, and a rough night out, when Lydia and I had the rest of our lives together? It was the first day of the new year, and I promised myself it would be the first day of a new life for both of us.

I smiled at this consoling thought despite my headache. I pointed my horse north out of Ivarstead, aiming for the winding trail that would strike the main road near Fort Amol. It was a steep descent, but the trail was in good condition. The snow hadn’t begun falling at this elevation yet, and the hard-packed old snow made for good riding. My new mount, a dappled gray, was sure-footed, cantering with ease on the level stretches.

The leaves were off the trees, even here in the land of eternal autumn. It gave the landscape a somber aspect, yet the sun shone bright and glistened off the snow. And as lifeless as the trees looked, life still dwelt deep within them. In just two months, each branch would sport countless swelling buds, and a month or two after that, those buds would burst forth in resplendent green.

Lydia and I were like that, I thought. Our affair had begun in autumn, and now it was dormant. But come spring, it would grow again – or sooner, if I had my way. Once more I entertained myself with pleasant imaginings of my future with my true love. On this cold day, the warmer climes of Cyrodiil seemed particularly enticing. I knew several secluded pools where two maidens could swim together undisturbed by friend or foe, where we could splash in roaring waterfalls and sun ourselves on water-polished bedrock – and find other ways to entertain ourselves. At that thought, a flush of warmth spread from the base of my spine down into my thighs. I found myself urging my horse onward more quickly.

But then I thought, this war might prevent us from traveling freely. We were both marked women wherever the Thalmor had free rein to enforce the White-Gold Concordat. Very well, Hammerfell then. It was free of both the Empire and the Thalmor. I had always wanted to see its deserts and had heard there was more to the country than those arid lands. Perhaps we could find Kematu and he would show us around his homeland. Then when this war was finally settled – assuming we were still welcome in Skyrim – we would return to our home in Whiterun. I envisioned quiet nights by the fire while the snow fell softly outside, or merry evenings at the Bannered Mare with Arcadia, Aela and Vilkas, even Thorald and Avulstein. Maybe I would open a second mage’s college in the city, and teach the Nords that magic could be used for good, that they need not fear it.

Whatever the future held for us, I would put aside my wish for marriage. I would be content with our life together as it was, for however long that lasted. Then if Lydia decided she was ready to make our relationship permanent, she knew I was ready as well. Suddenly it all seemed so simple. Why hadn’t I seen it before? I laughed out loud at the greed of my own heart, startling a flock of finches in a bush as I passed it. I had been like a person who would not eat a sweetroll today, for fear that she wouldn’t have sweetrolls every day for the rest of her life. It seemed absurd now.

And so the miles went by quickly once again, and before I knew it, it was the middle of the afternoon and I was nearing the junction with the main road southeast of Fort Amol. I was still so lost in my daydream of a happy future that even the sight of a Stormcloak soldier riding Oblivion-bent toward me could barely perturb my thoughts.

“What’s the rush, friend?” I called out brightly as he approached.

“I am on my way to summon reinforcements to Valtheim Towers. Whiterun has been attacked!”

And with those words, my world tilted. Gone was any thought of a happy future, replaced now by fear for my friends – those from Whiterun, my friends from the college, and most especially for Lydia. For not only was she dearest to me, I knew she would be in the vanguard of Whiterun’s defense. My heart was beating so fast now, and it was so hard to breathe, that I could barely get out the questions I had to ask.

“Who attacked it? And does it still stand?”

“I know little. I had just returned from patrolling the road north of Fort Amol to find the fort filling with refugees. The next moment, the commander sent me out with only the information I just gave you. Now I must away!” With that, he pushed his horse on up the path.

Refugees! Then the city had surely fallen. But if any had made it to Fort Amol, then there was still hope! But only a little hope. It was not in Lydia’s nature to retreat, as well I knew, not when there was fighting still to be done, and not if she was in the same fey mood that I had taken with me to Skuldafn. Now, instead of envisioning our future together, I could only see her lying dead on a field of battle.

I struggled to push those thoughts out of my head as I urged my horse on to Fort Amol, where I found a scene unlike any I had ever witnessed. The fortress was not built to house a city, yet an entire city’s populace had descended upon it, and more of the cityfolk were yet arriving. Wagons had been left helter skelter across the space outside the fort’s walls, the exhausted horses still standing in their traces, shivering. More wagons were coming down the road, bearing wounded soldiers, children, the elderly and the infirm. People stood about in the trampled snow, waiting, hopefully or hopelessly, to see if their loved ones would yet arrive.

I dismounted and walked up to a Stormcloak who guarded the road east of the fort. “Can you tell me what happened?” I asked, trying to sound calm.

He looked at me suspiciously, no doubt because I was approaching from the wrong direction, or maybe it was my mage’s robes. “And who might you be?”

“Deirdre Morningsong, thane to Jarl Balgruuf and Whiterun.”

“Then you’re thane to no one and nothing. Whiterun is overrun and Balgruuf dead, by all accounts. Serves the fence-sitter right.”

“What? Do you mean Ulfric … you Stormcloaks …” I could not finish the thought.

“What? No, of course not. Ulfric wouldn’t leave this many refugees, as his enemies well know. No, it was the damned Thalmor! If Balgruuf had come over to our side, this never would have happened.”

The Thalmor! But how could that be? They only had a few units of justiciars here in Skyrim. And why would they do it? But such questions would have to wait.

“Tell me, do you know Lydia Ravenwood? Have you seen her? Or a group of mages from Winterhold?”

“Never heard of her. Never heard of any o’ these folks, but there sure are a lot of ’em.”

It was even more chaotic inside the fort. The people of Whiterun, mostly women and children and the elderly, were huddled in groups about the bailey, frightened, some sitting, some standing, some lying directly in the snow. The refugees were mostly Nords, yet they looked frozen despite their cold hardiness. The few Dunmer – the innkeeper from the Drunken Huntsman was one of these – and a Redguard here and there fared worse. There were few soldiers, and of these, only those in the uniform of the Whiterun guards. I saw none from the jarl’s hirth, and an icy feeling began to grow in my heart, as cold as the snow on the ground.

A great bonfire burned in the center of the bailey, a mass of people crowding around it, yet it seemed to offer little comfort. A great moaning came from every quarter, and children crying, some wailing for parents who would never come again. Others were going through the crowd, calling out the names of loved ones, hoping their separation was only temporary.

 The Stormcloaks were moving among the people, handing out blankets to those most in need, ladling out hot drinks to any with containers to hold them, setting up temporary shelters. They were doing their best, but they were overwhelmed. Soldiers guarded every door into the fort, arguing with those pleading to enter. “We’re full, I tell you!” I heard one say. “There’s not an inch to spare inside!”

I began moving among the people, looking for Lydia or anyone I knew. I saw a few familiar faces, but none I knew by name. They couldn’t help but recognize me. “The Dragonborn!” one said. Then another repeated it, louder, and soon a murmur rippled through the bailey, everyone turning and pointing. The place grew quiet as all eyes turned to me.

“Well?” one man said finally. He was old, too old to lift a sword. “Did you slay Alduin?” There was no hope or enthusiasm in his voice. He could have been asking about the weather.

I nodded. I did not know what to say. I had no comfort for them. The people turned back to their little groups without comment, and the wailing and the moaning and the calling out of names resumed. I wondered how many of them wished now that I had failed in my quest, that the world had ended, and their suffering with it. I almost wished it too.

But no, I still had hope, I told myself. I kept moving through the crowd, looking for any familiar face, for my friends from the college, or one who might know Lydia and what had happened to her. Yet as eager as I was to find her, I could not overlook the suffering before me. When I came across any who had been wounded, soldier or citizen, I would stop to administer a healing spell. Then I would ask, “Have you seen my Lydia? Lydia Ravenwood, of the jarl’s hirth?” To a man and a woman, they shook their heads and looked away from me. Yet some looked as if they knew more than they would say, and the icy fingers grew tighter around my heart. “The mages from the college?” Again they shook their heads.

Finally I found Arcadia. She had set up a makeshift alchemist’s table inside the blacksmith’s shed and had just emerged from the fort with an armful of ingredients. “Deirdre!” she exclaimed, dropping her supplies on a table, then wrapping me in a tight hug. “At least there is some good news on this terrible day!” It was long before she relaxed her hold on me, though I didn’t object – I needed the comfort as much as she.

She released her grip, but then held me by the arms. “Oh, Deirdre.” She didn’t have to ask for whom I was searching. “She was in command of the shield-wall protecting our retreat.”

“And? Do you know what happened to her?”

She shook her head. “The last I saw, there was a battle at the bridge over the White River. It was too far away for me to tell what was happening. Then we had to keep moving, and I could see no more. We’ve had no news of her since, nor any news of your friends from the college. But take heart. Wagons are still arriving, and stragglers on foot. Look to the road west, toward Valtheim Towers.”

I thanked her, though now it felt as if my heart could barely beat, the icy fist held it so tightly in its grip. I did as she said, leaving the fort and retrieving my horse. Then I continued west, crossing the bridge over a tributary of the White River, then starting onto the road that would take me up by long switchbacks to the Valtheim Towers. I passed no wagons, and only a few stragglers on foot. None knew Lydia’s fate. Then I saw two soldiers in guard’s uniforms limping toward me. I recognized Badnir, who often guarded the door to Dragonsreach.

“Deirdre!” he called out when he saw me, and I dismounted. His head was bandaged with a strip torn from his Whiterun surcoat.

“Have you…” I began.

“Tell me you have some good news for us on this dark day,” he said. “Did you do it? Did you slay Alduin for good and all?”

“I did, but…”

“Thank Talos! Then our fallen heroes will have a chance to enter Sovngarde!” He looked as if he would hug me.

“There’s no time for this! Can you tell me where I’ll find Lydia?”

His face fell, and now he couldn’t even look at me. “Behind…” was all he could say, his voice choking. “If only I had been as brave as her – and the mage!”

“The mage? What mage?”

He shook his head and would say no more, but gestured up the road toward the towers, then continued hobbling along with his comrade.

And with that, my heart seemed to cease beating entirely. My limbs went numb and I moved as if within a dream. I even forgot about my horse, leaving it there in the road, while I stumbled blindly up toward the towers. Amidst all this tragedy, even as I fought to quell my growing sense of dread, I had somehow clung to the hope that none of it would affect me. I had just slain Alduin, had I not? I had saved the world. I had returned to Nirn with renewed hope in my heart. And now … this was not how it was supposed to be.

I continued upward, and now a light snow began to fall, growing heavier as I climbed. But I barely noticed. I knew only that I had to get to Valtheim Towers, or beyond. I would go all the way to Whiterun and pick over the field of battle, if that’s what it took to find Lydia, alive or dead.

Then I heard voices from the slope above me, just around a switchback. And not just voices, but a great grieving and wailing, a feline hiss, and even something like a howl.

Then a gruff Nord voice cried out, “No, it cannot be!”

“By Azura, I did everything I could!” That had to be Brelyna.

I stepped around the corner and saw a group gathered around a crude sled pulled by a single horse. I could not see what was on the sled. Neither did the people see me, with their backs to me and their heads bowed in grief. I made myself walk toward them, though I didn’t want to see for whom they cried their tears. I recognized J’zargo, Avulstein Gray-Mane, Aela, and Vilkas. Avulstein was blubbering like a baby. I remained silent as I approached within a pace or two of the sled, too terrified to speak.

Then Aela shifted to one side, and through the gap I saw Lydia. She lay inert on the make-shift sled, her body covered in thick furs. Brelyna was kneeling on the other side of the sled, her tear-streaked face turned to the heavens. “The gods cannot be this cruel!” she cried out.

Lydia was not breathing. She was still as death, her face a ghastly white, tinged with green. A white foam covered her lips, flecked with red. The falling snow was collecting on her hair and in her eyelashes, and even on her face, she was that cold.

I was too late. My love had passed from this world, and now the only thing left was for me to follow.

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