The Song of Deirdre – Chap. 53

 

The White River Bridge

 

I turned away from my friends without a word. What was there to say? They would only stop me from carrying out the plan that was already forming in my mind. I would call Odahviing, and the red dragon would take me to Whiterun. Together we would rain down such catastrophe as the elves had never imagined. When Odahviing grew tired of carrying me, I would have him set me down in the middle of the ruined city, where I would finish any Altmer that yet survived, or they would finish me, I cared not. Surely Lydia had died a good death – we would be together forever in the afterlife.

I laughed then, a mad, hysterical laugh. If only I had remained in the land of the dead for another day, Lydia and I would be together even now!

A voice called after me. “Deirdre! Thank the gods you’re alive! But where are you going? Lydia needs you!”

Choking back a sob, I turned to see Brelyna staring after me. “She still lives?”

“Just barely. It’s poison. I’ve tried everything, but the only cure I had was too weak, and now her breath grows more faint. Hurry, you must do something!”

Avulstein made way for me, and I knelt beside my love, removing a glove and feeling her cheek. It was deathly cold. I could not believe she still lived, and struggled to hold back my tears. I put my fingers to her neck – someone had removed her armor and she wore only her padded tunic beneath the furs. I had to convince myself I felt something there. I bent my cheek to her lips and felt just the faintest warmth issuing from them. I waited, for far too long it seemed, and it came again.

“She fought bravely,” Avulstein said, his voice choking. “None more so. Her name will be remembered forever in song as the Hero of Whiterun.”

“Damn your songs, and damn your honor and your glory! It means nothing if she doesn’t live!” I pulled a poison cure from within my robes and tried to get a few drops of it between her lips. She did not stir, or choke the potion back up. She was as insensate as a rag doll. The few bubbles forming in the film of potion at her lips gave the only hint that she still lived.

“How was she poisoned?” I asked.

Brelyna drew back the blankets from Lydia’s right side, and there was the stump of an arrow protruding from just below her shoulder. Her armor had been well fitted – it was a lucky or cursed arrow that had found the narrow gap between cuirass and arm piece.

“Some damned elven witchcraft,” Aela said.

“I dared not remove the arrowhead,” Brelyna said, “not in the crude facilities of Valtheim Towers. We hoped to find better at Fort Amol.”

“A wise choice,” I said. “Yet that arrowhead could still be poisoning her.” I considered for a moment. “I will try a healing spell, then we will make haste to the fort.”

Brelyna put a hand on my arm. “You are a powerful healer, but you will be yet more powerful with this.” She held out the Amulet of Mara. “I retrieved it from the Great Porch, in hopes that you might want it again, but I had no idea it would be for such a purpose.”

I sobbed then, and couldn’t keep the sobs from coming for a few moments. Avulstein bent down and patted me on the back. “There, there, lass.”

With an effort I choked back my tears and dried my eyes. Crying wasn’t doing Lydia any good. I removed the Saarthal Amulet and tossed it aside, taking the Amulet of Mara from Brelyna and fixing it around my neck. Then I cast the strongest Restoration spell I knew, the spell of grand healing. Lydia’s breathing became the tiniest bit stronger, and a bit of color returned to her cheeks. I tried putting a few more drops of potion between her lips.

I bent over and kissed her, then whispered in her ear, “Don’t die, my love. I’ve come back only for you. You cannot die!” I had done all I could and I gave myself over to tears for a time.

Only when they subsided did another dread begin to grow in my mind, as I realized who was missing from this group. “What of our friends from the college? What of Onmund?” I could only stare down at Lydia – I could not bear to look up at my friends for the answer.

“Our instructors returned to the college immediately after you left,” Brelyna said, her voice trembling. “The three of us stayed to await your return.”

“And Onmund?”

There was silence, and finally I had to look over at Brelyna. She shook her head. “No,” was all she could get out before tears took her once more.

J’zargo spoke up for the first time. “Never did J’zargo think to see the Nord do such a brave and noble thing.”

“Yet none of us here is without loss,” Aela said. “Farkas was a sword-brother to me, and Vilkas’ twin, yet he fell.” I looked up into Vilkas’ dark-circled eyes and saw it was true. “And neither did Thorald walk away from that bloody field.” I looked to Avulstein, and knew this too was true.

Suddenly I felt how selfish I had been. Everyone here had lost someone, while my love still clung to life. I got up and hugged each of my friends in turn. But we could not give ourselves over to our grief, though we all had tears in our eyes as we got the crude sled moving once again, each of us weeping for our lost friends and loved ones, and praying to our own gods that Lydia might survive.

Finally we had cried all the tears we had in us. We walked beside the sled – really just a frame of fresh cut poles with hides stretched over it for Lydia to rest on, the ends of the two longest poles dragging through the hard-trodden snow –  and were silent for a time.

“What of Whiterun itself?” I asked finally. “Our homes? The Bannered Mare? Jorrvaskr?”

They all shook their heads. “Everything was ablaze when the evacuation began,” Aela said.

Then I remembered my duty as Thane of Whiterun. “And Jarl Balgruuf?”

“Gone, as far as we know,” said Aela. “Along with his closest retainers who stayed behind – his brother, Irileth, Farengar.”

“Gods! Then I have failed in my duty as Thane of Whiterun.”

“How can you say that?” Brelyna demanded. “Balgruuf wanted you to protect the city from the dragons, did he not?”

I nodded.

“Then you did not fail. Even the Dragonborn could not be in two places at once.”

I had to agree, yet it was a bitter thought. But for the blizzard atop the Throat of the World, I would have returned to Whiterun before the elves attacked.

“Tell me the story from the beginning,” I said. “I would know everything.”

 

*~*~*

 

The siege had begun two days before, just after my return from Sovngarde, the elves attacking out of the westering sun, the glints and flashes off their gilded armor blinding the defenders on the city walls.

“So that explains the flashes of light I saw as we flew out of Dragonsreach,” I said. “They must have been massing on the plains west of the city.”

“Yes,” Aela said. “The elves brought a force that could have numbered with Ysgramor’s Five Hundred, maybe more. They put their force before the city’s western walls, then sent out war-bands in the wee hours of the next morning to burn the farms around the city. All of the farm families had fled within the city walls by then.”

“I smelled the smoke from those fires when I left High Hrothgar yesterday morning,” I said.

“Yet the walls held through all that day and into the night,” said Avulstein. “The elves began throwing themselves at the western walls. We were dumping boiling tar down on them, fending off their ladders and their grappling hooks. Even where the walls are low, on the west side, we were holding ’em back, though they were many. Irileth had us concentrate on defending the gate, keeping the elves well away from it in case the jarl called for an evacuation. Yet, looking back, it was almost too easy to keep them from that gate. It was like they wanted us to retreat that way.”

“But why did they attack at all?” I asked. “I thought they wanted to prolong the chaos of Skyrim’s rebellion.” I held Lydia’s hand as we walked beside the sled. It was still icy cold.

“Yes,” said Brelyna, “that’s just the debate your steward was having with the housecarl, Irileth. Balgruuf had summoned us, so we heard the whole thing. Irileth believed as you do, Deirdre. The only explanation she had was that the scales had tipped too much in the Stormcloaks’ favor, and the Thalmor sought to tip them back.”

“And Proventus?”

“He blamed you for the attack.”

“Me?”

“Yes. He told the jarl that the Altmer had certainly attacked Whiterun for harboring one of their enemies, one who had foiled their plans not only in Skyrim but in Hammerfell, and who had burned down their embassy, killing many.”

“But that makes no sense! They wouldn’t attack an entire city over the actions of one person.”

“Deirdre, I’m afraid it does, though it pains me to say it. This was an act of retribution. The Thalmor meant to inflict the maximum possible suffering on Jarl Balgruuf and his people, as you’ll soon see. And a Whiterun in rubble will weaken whichever side wins the Civil War.”

“But how did they get so many soldiers into Skyrim? We saw no sign of them in Solitude or at the embassy.”

“Irileth guessed that they landed them at Northwatch Keep, on the coast northwest of Solitude. It’s a secluded spot, and they could have done it without even the Empire’s knowledge.”

Avulstein continued the tale. “After dark of the second day, yesterday that is, they brought up catapults. Flame pots filled with pitch and pine shavings began landing in the city. It’s been so long since a dragon attack, all the buckets meant for puttin’ out fires had frozen over. We couldn’t get water out o’ the well fast enough. Fires were blazing everywhere in no time.”

“With so many fighters called off to douse the fires,” Aela went on, “we couldn’t hold the elves back so easily. They began making it over the walls and we had to fight them in the streets. We slew them all, but we knew it was just a matter of time.”

“Then Jarl Balgruuf came out to survey the battle,” Brelyna said. “The three of us from the college were with Lydia, shooting down lightning and fire as she rained arrows. Balgruuf and Irileth told Lydia it was time to evacuate the city. They would divide the jarl’s hirthlings, Lydia leading half of them, along with all of the city guard and any able fighters, to protect the citizens as they retreated. The jarl and Irileth would stay with the rest of the hirth, just enough to keep the gate clear and keep the elves engaged.”

“But Lydia hated the plan,” said Aela.

“This one has never heard such pleas to stay in harm’s way,” J’zargo said over his shoulder as he led the horse. “She wanted only to die beside her jarl.”

“Yet her pleas fell on deaf ears,” Brelyna went on. “Irileth said that Lydia was the best fighter to lead the forces protecting the retreat, the captain of the guard having already fallen. But still she was not convinced. Then Balgruuf asked her to think of the old women, the children, the sick and the wounded, and the orphans. I think that last was what convinced her. She knew how much Harry and Huldi meant to you.”

I stopped in the middle of the road. “Tell me they survived. If they didn’t, I’ll…” I looked down at Lydia. “I’ll…” I didn’t know what I would do, my heart was so heavy from so much tragedy.

“Deirdre, they’re fine,” Brelyna said, and I felt myself begin to breathe once more. “They remain at Valtheim Towers, where Proventus is looking after all those who could go no farther today.”

“We left the city before dawn,” Avulstein said. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do – running. Proventus had ordered that every wagon and every horse be used to move the injured and the infirm, but still the progress out of the city was slow, with so many elderly and wee bairns having to walk, and women carrying their babes. The day was dawning by the time we got them all past Pelagia Farm. We could see the Aldmeri army to the west. They were just watchin’ us, like wolves tracking their prey.”

“Then we saw the great fault in Balgruuf’s plan!” Brelyna said. “It depended on the Thalmor aiming to take the city for its strategic value in the war. But their goal was far different. They divided their force, more than half of it following us, while the other portion attacked the gates.”

“Lydia was a wonder, Deirdre!” Avulstein said. “Soon as she saw what was happening, she formed us into shield walls of twenty fighters each, then she ranged us across the space between the stream that flows out of Whiterun and the farms on the other side of the road. We began moving backward, keeping the retreating people on the road behind us. She was on horseback, the better to keep an eye on everything and move about giving orders. But at the last, just before the elves were upon us, she got down and stood with us. The first of the cityfolk had reached the bridge, but it was a bottleneck. We knew we had to hold the elves off until everyone was across. She joined the central shield wall, where the onslaught fell the hardest.”

“That battle was the most terrible thing I have ever seen,” Brelyna said. “Men and women screaming, blood streaking the snow, death everywhere. And the smell! None of us mages had ever been to war, of course. The three of us positioned ourselves in the gaps between the shield walls, trading spells with the Thalmor mages. It was a wonder none of us took an arrow.”

“Lydia held us all together,” Aela said. “She shouted rallying cry after rallying cry. A rank of Altmer would crash against her shield wall, yet it always held, and one or two elves would fall every time. Yet it didn’t go so well for the shield walls on either side – they began to give way, and our warriors began falling as well.”

“That’s when we lost Thorald,” said Avulstein. “A giant of an elf charged us, and his axe clove Thorald’s shield in two, and went right on into his skull. I was too shocked to even think. I just lashed out with my sword and paid the elf in kind. He fell across my brother, and we had to leave him there as we were forced backwards.”

“Then Lydia was like a woman possessed,” Aela said. “She would dart out from the shield wall as a wave of elves fell back from the attack. She hacked and spun and bashed with her shield, strewing the field with gilded bodies lashed with bright stripes of red. Then she would retreat and join a different shield wall to shore up its remaining fighters. Everywhere she went the warriors took heart and stood with renewed strength.”

“And so we fell back toward the bridge,” said Avulstein, “standing firm with each onslaught, then retreating again. But each time, we retreated with fewer fighters, and the dwindling shield-walls had to merge together. By the time we reached the bridge, we were but one band of twenty, plus the mages, facing a hundred elves or more. And still not all our people were across.”

“And now comes the worst part,” said Aela, her voice grim. “The road runs along the White River for some way beyond the bridge, hard up against the mountains. The river there is not wide. The elven mages stood on the bank downstream from the bridge and began launching spells at the retreating refugees on the other side. These were the slowest of the city’s people, the elderly and the infirm and the smallest of the orphans. Most of the adults and the able-bodied had crowded past them in their panic to get to the bridge, leaving them to come last. We fighters could do nothing, we had to hold the shield wall.”

“It was awful,” Brelyna said. “We saw the priestess from the Temple of Kynareth trying to crowd them all behind her, trying to protect them with a ward spell as they moved slowly along the road. Yet she couldn’t shield them all. So J’zargo and I left Onmund to shoot spells at the mages, while we made our way over the bridge to help shield the defenseless ones. Together we created a ward large enough that all the children and elderly could fit behind it. But some had already fallen to the Thalmor attack, and their moans and cries were pitiful. Azura save me, we could do nothing to help them, we had to keep casting our wards.” She broke down in tears and could say no more.

“Now Lydia was more than possessed,” Aela said. “She became like one of those berserkers of legend. The battle frenzy was upon her. She broke out of the shield wall and rushed at twenty oncoming Thalmor fighters. She was screaming at them, ‘They’re children, damn you! They’re only little children!'”

I looked down at Lydia. She looked almost serene, yet I could easily imagine her uttering those cries. I could almost hear them even now.

“As Ysmir is my witness,” said Aela, “the elves stopped their charge and then gave way before her, all save one. He must already have seen many of his comrades fall to Lydia’s axe, yet he chided her for being a mere woman. That was the last chiding he ever did. Lydia had just pulled her axe from deep within his chest when that lucky or accursed arrow caught her beneath the shoulder. Her armor had already turned countless darts, but that one found a gap.”

“We thought she’d make it back to us,” Avulstein said. “We could see the arrow hadn’t gone deep, and it wasn’t in a vital spot. Yet after just a few steps, she faltered and soon went to one knee. The poison must have been takin’ effect. But she kept on crawling toward us. Then Aela and Vilkas went out to get her, even as the elves were advancing again.”

“We couldn’t leave Lydia out there,” Vilkas said, “not while she still had breath in her. She was… is… like a sister to us all. We’d o’ gladly had her in the Companions if she hadn’t already been part of Balgruuf’s hirth. But by the time we got to her, she couldn’t walk at all. We had to drag her, and the elves were almost upon us. We were just about to drop her and stand and fight when your friend, Onmund, dashed past us. He had a big heart, little fellow though he was.”

“He planted himself just beyond us,” Aela went on. “He shouted, ‘For Lydia!’ Then he began firing spell after spell, fireballs and ice storms and chain lightning, shouting ‘For Skyrim!’ All the while we were dragging Lydia backward. Then his magicka ran out just as an arrow pierced his side. Still he would not relent. He drew his sword and charged straight at the elves.” She put her hand on my shoulder. “Deirdre, he shouted your name at the end.”

“It’s true,” Brelyna said. “He knew it would destroy you to return from Sovngarde and find Lydia dead.”

I thought I had no more tears left in me, but now I was sobbing again as I thought of what my friend had done.

“Onmund gained us the time to get Lydia back behind the shield wall,” Aela said. “We had to leave her there at the far end of the bridge and return to our positions. We twenty fighters were all that stood in the way of certain death for Lydia and countless innocents streaming along the road farther ahead.”

“We took our stand in the middle of the bridge,” said Avulstein, “and we stood long. We made a goodly pile of elves before us, so that the ones who came after had to clamber over the bodies of their fallen comrades to get at us. But one by one our shield-band began to falter, while we could still count a hundred elves waiting to renew the attack. Finally, we were down to ten, exhausted, and we knew we couldn’t stand much longer.”

“We were just looking at each other,” Aela said, “trying to decide whether to fall on that bridge one by one, or go out with a last glorious charge, when we heard Balgruuf’s warhorn. Then we saw his banner, moving against the elves from the north.”

“I still don’t understand how they got out of the city, with the elves at the gate,” Avulstein said.

Aela and Vilkas looked at each other. “They must have used the Companions’ secret exit from the city,” Aela said. “Kodlak must have led them through it. We heard his and Farkas’s … battle cries along with the jarl’s horn.”

“From where we stood,” Brelyna said, “it looked like a gale going through a field of corn, or a pack of wolves going through a flock of sheep, as Balgruuf’s force met the Altmer.” Aela and Vilkas exchanged another glance. “The elven force at the bridge had to turn and face them.”

“None of Balgruuf’s fighters could have survived,” Vilkas said. “Valiant though they were, they were caught between two armies. I was ready to fight my way to them, but Aela convinced me to take their gift, in case we were still needed to shield the refugees.”

“And a noble gift it was,” said Avulstein. “Our jarl might have seemed fearful to join the war, yet he always had his people in mind, as he proved in the end. All that was left was for us to retreat across the bridge and get the elderly and the injured and the children away from there as quick as we could.”

Vilkas clapped Avulstein on the shoulder. “This one picked Lydia up, steel armor and all, and carried her half way to Valtheim Towers.”

“It was the least I could do,” Avulstein said. “She was the reason any of us lived to tell the tale.”

With that thought we grew silent, and continued our slow progress down the switchbacking road, the poles of the sled skittering along in the frozen snow. All our tears were gone, leaving only a bitter emptiness for our missing friends and dread for the one still clinging to life.

 

*~*~*

 

The arrowhead was stuck. I didn’t dare pull harder, for fear of doing Lydia an irreparable hurt. Already a fresh flow of blood was streaming from the wound and onto the stone floor.

“You’ll have to turn the shaft,” Arcadia said. “The arrowhead must be caught underneath her collarbone.”

We were in the commander’s chamber in Fort Amol, Lydia sprawled across his double bed, and Arcadia and I sitting on either side of her. Our friends had crowded themselves into the small room as best they could. Still, it was the largest and cleanest space within the fort, and the commander had gladly given it over to the Hero of Whiterun.

I gripped the shaft firmly with my right hand and held Lydia’s shoulder with my left. We had cut away the top of her tunic to better view the wound. The skin around it was the color of a bruise, but shriveled rather than swollen. I turned the shaft one way and it barely moved. I tried the other direction, with better success.

“Oww!” It was the first sound Lydia had made since losing consciousness on the bridge. She said it in that mock-plaintive way she would when jesting with me. Yet her eyes remained closed, and there was nothing humorous about her pallid green face.

“Try it now,” Arcadia said.

I pulled, a bit harder this time, and the arrow started to come free.

Lydia’s eyes popped open, her face a grimace of pain. “Deirdre?” she said when she saw me. Her eyes were wide for a moment, then she squeezed them shut to push the pain away. “Gods!”

“Quick, Brelyna, bring that bottle of poison cure,” Arcadia said. “Here, love,” she said to Lydia, “I know it hurts, but you’ll have to drink as much of this as you can. That elvish poison is a tricky one.”

Lydia drank as much as she could in her prone position.

“Now, a sleeping draught. Just a few swallows. You won’t feel the pain when Deirdre pulls the arrow out.”

Lydia did as she was told, then lay her head back, her eyes still closed. “I thought you had come back to torture me. No more…” Then she was asleep once more.

“Do it now,” Arcadia said. “We have to get that arrow out of her and stop the spread of the poison.”

I pulled on the shaft again, firmly but slowly, and finally the arrowhead came free, followed by a gush not only of blood but of a greenish-black fluid. I made to cast a close wounds spell on it, but Arcadia stopped me.

“Wait, we have to clean out the wound before you close it, or we’ll never get the poison out.” Brelyna brought her a damp cloth and she began cleaning away the blood and that other fluid. “Now, the basin.” Brelyna brought her a bowl filled with warm, fragrant water. “This bathing water has been steeped with beehive husks and thistle branch. It’s the best thing I have to help her resist the poison. If only we had some dried Falmer ear!” She began bathing the wound, making sure the infusion got deep down inside. Lydia grew restless, her shoulder shrinking from the cleaning cloth, but she remained asleep.

“That is all I can do,” Arcadia said, and I cast the healing spell on Lydia’s shoulder, watching the wound knit itself shut. Yet the flesh around it remained that greenish-black color. Her face had slightly more color than before, but her breathing was still weak and irregular, her pulse barely there, and her skin icy cold.

“We’ll leave you now,” Arcadia said. “The best thing for her is rest. Keep her warm, and if she wakes, give her more of the poison cure.”

I thanked her and my friends. “She’ll be better in the morning, I know it,” Avulstein said. “She’s a strong lass.”

My friends had just left when Lydia’s mother, Silda, appeared at the door with Lisbet behind her.

“She’s gone and done it then,” said Silda, entering the room. “I knew that soldiering would kill her one day.”

“She isn’t on the death road yet,” I said. “I hope to save her.”

“And where were you? Whiterun could have used the Dragonborn.”

“I was away. I had just returned from slaying Alduin. You must believe I would have been there if I could.”

She looked at me doubtfully. “And why couldn’t she go with you?”

“Odahviing … it’s complicated, but she could not make the journey. And if she hadn’t been in Whiterun, no one might have survived, everyone says so.”

“Lot of good it did her, or my Grimvar. To lose them both in one day!” She broke down in sobs.

“Oh,” I said. “I’m sorry for your loss, and Lydia’s.”

“We lost Lydia long ago, mother,” said Lisbet, her eyes flashing, reminding me of her sister. “I told you it would do no good to come here!” Then she led her mother away.

When they were gone, I stoked the fire, then removed my boots and robes and got into bed beside my love. I hesitated for a moment, wondering if it was really proper, considering that we were no longer a couple. But no, this was certainly the best way to warm a chilled body, as every child in Skyrim knew.

It was hard to believe how cold she was. Her body, which had warmed me on so many cold nights, was like a block of ice. I slipped my hand beneath her tunic and tried to feel her heartbeat. I couldn’t help remembering our first night together, when she had put my hand on her chest. Then, her heart beat fast and strong; now, I could hardly feel a thing, just a faint, irregular skittering. How could it possibly keep her alive?

I wrapped myself around her, trying to warm as much of her body as I could with my own, and pulled the fur cover tighter around us. Then I began speaking into her ear, choosing to believe she could hear me even in her sleep. I spoke the apology I had been planning since returning from Sovngarde, telling her I was hers as long as she would have me, with no bonds of matrimony attached. Then I began describing the life I envisioned for us, traveling together, having adventures only when we wanted them, and then returning to our quiet home, where we could spend the long winter nights.

And then I remembered, our home was no more. Should Lydia survive this poison, and should she take me back, our future would include dealing with the Thalmor. It was long before I fell asleep.

 

*~*~*

 

Lydia was no better in the morning. “You’ll have to take her to Riften,” Arcadia said when she saw her. “There’s an alchemist there who knows every poison cure known to man or mer. Even the Argonians have been known to consult with him.”

“Yet Windhelm is closer,” I said. “And Nurelion is a capable alchemist. Too, Brelyna and J’zargo will be traveling that way, and companionship may soothe our grief.”

“Windhelm is the more dangerous choice,” Aela put in. “The Stormcloaks fear the elves will attack there next, they have such a large force. The north road from Whiterun into Eastmarch is poorly defended. Reinforcements are being sent west to Valtheim Towers and north to Windhelm even now.”

“It’s decided then,” said Arcadia. “You must take Lydia to Riften.” She used that tone she took with her more recalcitrant assistants, and since I had only recently been one of those assistants, I did not argue.

“We’ll go with you,” Brelyna said. “I dread returning to the college with news of Onmund. And I would stay with you to see how Lydia fares.”

I could not argue with that either, though I was tempted to send them to prepare the college for war. I couldn’t see how it could stay out of the conflict now. But I could surely use the company of my friends, especially if Lydia … but no, I couldn’t let myself contemplate that possibility.

We soon had Lydia laid out on a cot in the back of a wagon, well wrapped in furs. “Give her a healing spell every hour, and whatever poison cure you can get past her lips,” Arcadia said. She seemed alarmed that Lydia still hadn’t awakened.

Avulstein, Vilkas, and Aela were also there to see us off. “With everything that’s happened,” Avulstein said, “I never got to thank you. You saved the world, and cleared the road to Sovngarde for Thorald. I’m forever in your debt, lass.”

I just nodded and accepted his bear hug.

“And you have our thanks as well,” Vilkas said, “though I know Farkas isn’t traveling the road to Sovngarde.” He and Aela exchanged a glance. I was about to ask why, but the Stormcloak driver was impatient.

“Beggin’ your pardon, Dragonborn, but I’ve got to get this wagon down to Riften and then get back with reinforcements as quick as I can.”

We exchanged hugs, then Brelyna, J’zargo, and I got in back, seated on benches on either side of Lydia and the wagon moved off.

Yet there was still one more unlooked-for farewell to be given. The wide area outside the fort was a confusion of wagons filled with refugees going this way and that, some off north to Windhelm, others like ours headed south, and still others returning with the last stragglers from Valtheim Towers. From one of these last, I heard a child’s shout: “DeeDee!”

I turned to see Harry and Huldi in the back of a wagon approaching us. I called for our driver to halt and jumped out, running over to the other wagon as it pulled alongside. I climbed in back and knelt before the children, scooping them both up into a hug. “Oh, little ones, it is so good to see you!”

“I’m glad you’re back, DeeDee,” Harry said. “I thought we’d never see you after you flew off on the dragon’s back.”

“Is that Liddie,” Huldi asked, looking over into our wagon. “She doesn’t look very good.”

“She’s hurt,” I said, and found my voice catching in my throat.

“She saved us,” Harry said. “Her and the mages.” He nodded at my friends, and they both waved back. “I saw her. She’s a good fighter.”

“I know it,” I said, tears rolling down my cheeks now.

“Is she going to get better?” Huldi asked, her eyes wide as she looked at Lydia’s deathly pale face.

“I … I hope so …” I broke down in tears and hid my face. Now they were hugging me and patting my back. Why was it that these children were always the ones consoling me?

“Don’t worry, DeeDee,” Harry said. “She’ll be all right. She’s a strong lass, everyone says so.” He kept patting me on the back, and I could only wish I had his optimism.

Then I dried my eyes and took each by the hand.

“Listen, I have news for you.” I tried to sound happier, even if I didn’t feel it.

“What?” they both asked, eager for any bit of good news.

“You know I went to Sovngarde. Well, I saw your father there.”

“Papa? He was there?” Harry asked.

I nodded. “On the path to the Hall of Valor. He sends you both his love.”

Harry gave a shout of joy. “I’m going to be a hero when I grow up, and then I’ll go to Sovngarde and be with papa!”

“Me too, me too!” Huldi exclaimed.

“Silly,” said Harry, swatting her knee. “Girls can’t grow up to be heroes!”

“But Liddie’s a hero,” Huldi protested. I had to smile at her then.

“Your sister is right, Harry. The Hall of Valor is filled with the souls of many brave sword-sisters. Except, your mother wasn’t among them.”

“Why not?” Huldi demanded. “She was brave, too.”

“I know, but it is difficult to explain. And then your father made a big decision. He chose to go to Aetherius to be with your mother.”

“Aetherius?” Harry said, his face falling. “Where everyone goes?”

I nodded.

“Aetherius! Aetherius!” Huldi shouted. “I want to go there when I grow up!”

“Stupid girl,” Harry said, “you go there when you die, not when you grow up.”

“Now, now, be kind to your sister, she’s only young,” I said. “But listen, I have other news. I have slain Alduin, your parents’ murderer. They have been avenged, and the World Eater will never hurt anyone ever again.”

Harry just looked at me, unmoved. But a light of hope shone in Huldi’s eyes. “Will mama and papa come back from Aetherius now?” she asked.

I looked at her, wondering what answer I could possibly give.

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