The Song of Deirdre – Chap. 54

 

The Temple of Mara

 

“Falmer Ear!” exclaimed Elgrim, the old alchemist.

“Falmer Ear?”

“Yes, you heard me right, if only I had it in my shop. I don’t suppose you’d like to go exploring into any Dwemer ruins, would you?”

“I’ve quite had my fill of the Dwarven constructs, thank you,” I said, thinking of all the dead Falmer I had left with ears intact, “but I’ll do whatever it takes to cure Lydia of this poison.” I stroked her hand, which was still icy cold. I had been sitting with her all night, ever since we arrived at Riften’s Temple of Mara. The main hall had been turned into a makeshift hospital, with pews that folded ingeniously to become cots.

Elgrim twirled one end of his mustache, which hung down below his jaw. “Hmm, we probably don’t have the time. Charred skeever hide will do nearly as well. Plenty of those in the Ratway. I’ve always said they should rename it the Skeeverway. Hah! Now, where is that Ingun?”

He went off to find his apprentice, who was administering a potion to a Whiterun guard not far away. She was a dark-haired lass not much older than I. “What?” she exclaimed. “You want me to harvest skeever hides for you? Let me remind you that I am a Black-Briar. We don’t go into the Ratway, the Ratway comes to us.”

Just then, Brelyna and J’zargo entered the temple, followed by the priestess, Dinya Balu. “What’s the trouble?” the priestess asked. “Shouting will do no good for our patients.”

“Apologies, Priestess Dinya,” Elgrim said. “My apprentice and I were just discussing how to get skeever hides from the Ratway.”

“I’ll get them,” I said, going over to my friends. “It should be little trouble.”

“Don’t be silly,” Brelyna said. “Have you had any sleep at all?” She and J’zargo had spent the night in the Bee and Barb.

I shook my head. “I might have dozed off on the floor for a moment or two.”

“Then we’ll get the hides Elgrim needs,” Brelyna said. “How difficult could it be?”

J’zargo wrinkled his nose. “Hunting skeevers – it is beneath this one’s dignity.”

“Maybe you’ve finally found your calling, silly Khajiit.” I thought she was going to give him a swat as she usually did, but then she simply laid a hand on his shoulder. “Come, Lydia needs that potion as quick as we can get it.”

“Watch out for the Thieves Guild,” I warned them as they left. “They’ll have your purses without you even knowing it.”

“Aye,” said Elgrim. “And keep an eye out for the Dark Brotherhood as well. Rumor is they’ve been seen in town lately.”

The Dark Brotherhood! They were a league of assassins notorious across Tamriel. I had infiltrated their sanctuary near Falkreath to get at a word wall it contained, and had barely escaped with my life. Why would they be here in numbers, and letting themselves be seen as well? They usually operated singly, and in the shadows.

But I was too tired to ponder such mysteries. Brelyna and J’zargo left for the Ratway and I returned to my vigil with Lydia, who seemed neither better nor worse since we had put her in the wagon the morning of the day before. I had cast a healing spell on her every hour as Arcadia had suggested, and once or twice awakened her long enough to take a mouthful of the poison cure. But the cure didn’t seem to match the elvish poison, and Elgrim had spent all night analyzing the sample Arcadia had taken from Lydia’s shoulder. I hoped it wouldn’t take him too long to concoct the potion once he had the ingredients.

“I see you still wear the Amulet of Mara.” Dinya Balu had followed me over to Lydia’s cot. “And this must be your loved one. Did she accept your proposal?”

I shook my head.

“It’s obvious that you love her dearly. Does she not return your love in equal measure?”

I looked at Lydia. She seemed thinner already after two days in this insensate state. Yet as pale and thin as she was, she was still beautiful. “I think she does,” I said. “But she wasn’t sure she was ready to give up men forever.”

“Ah, a common problem among those whose attractions run in both directions. And so what happened?”

“I became angry and sent her away. Mara save me, it’s my fault she was injured at all!” I buried my face in my hands.

“Why? How can you say that? It was an elvish arrow that struck her down, by all accounts.”

“Then you have not heard how she fought like a madwoman. I’m sure she sought to throw her life away in some last heroic act, just as I did when I followed Alduin to Sovngarde.”

“Then you do love each other greatly! And to think – such heartache, over an amulet and a ceremony.”

I looked up at her. “What? Are you saying we should have stayed together without getting married?”

“As I told you before, we leave the judgment to the Vigilants of Stendarr. We promote love wherever it grows, whether it has official sanction or not. What is in your heart is more important than any piece of metal or any ritual, no matter how sanctified. The question is whether your heart is big enough to accept your loved one without the security, or bonds if you will, of matrimony. Where love is great, love will find a way.”

“Yes, that’s just what I decided when I was in Sovngarde, or I never would have returned to Nirn at all. But now…”

“Stay with her. Your love is keeping her alive as surely as the healing spells and the poison cures. When she recovers, you can begin your love anew.” With that she left me to my solitary vigil.

Sometime later I found myself coming awake, slumped over on the cot, my head resting across Lydia’s chest, which barely moved with her breathing. J’zargo and Brelyna had returned from the Ratway.

“We delivered the skeevers to Elgrim at his shop,” Brelyna said. “He went to work on them straightaway, but it will take him some time to get the hides prepared and infused into the potion. That was several hours ago. We had to repair to the Bee and Barb to clean off the filth of the Ratway.” She gave J’zargo a look I couldn’t interpret.

“Disgusting place,” J’zargo sniffed. “Although, the skooma trade is thriving here in Riften. J’zargo begins to see … possibilities.” Brelyna gave him a look but said nothing.

I sat up and stretched. My neck was stiff.

“You should get outside and get some fresh air,” Brelyna said. “We can sit here with Lydia while you’re gone.”

I could not argue. I had to keep my strength until Lydia was better. I needed to stretch my legs, and get something in my stomach, though I could hardly think of food at the moment. I cast one more healing spell on her, then went outside.

 

*~*~*

 

Riften in the daytime was only slightly less sinister than at night. Thieves Guild cut-purses still loitered about as if they owned the place, but those other shadowy figures looming in the doorways had retreated to darker haunts out of sight of the city-folk. Perhaps the bands of Stormcloaks marching through the streets had scared them off. The soldiers were on their way to Fort Amol and beyond to shore up the western defenses against the new elven threat.

I wandered aimlessly at first, passing through the market plaza where vendors of several races sold armor and weapons, jewelry, and a variety of other goods. I was surprised to see Brynjolf of the Thieves Guild among these, hawking a troll-fat salve. “Try Brynjolf’s miracle cure to ease what ails you – aches, pains, nausea, gout, vapors, warrior’s foot.” I doubted his claims, having never heard that troll fat had any such properties, but he had attracted a small crowd.

I was about to move on when he waylaid me, stepping away from his stall and the people gathered there. “Ah, you’re back in town, lass. I can see that your step is light, and I’m guessing your fingers are lighter. I’ve got some work for you, if you’re interested.” Was my thieving past so obvious? “Don’t look so surprised that I spotted you,” he went on. “I’ve been in this business long enough to recognize a fellow thief when I see one.”

I adopted my most haughty expression, though it was difficult with the Nord towering over me. “I only stole out of hunger and necessity, but my days of consorting with thieves are over.”

“Well haven’t you grown high and mighty. But I hope you won’t forget where you came from.”

I moved on, stopping to admire the work of Balimund, Riften’s blacksmith. Lydia would need new armor when she recovered – but that seemed a long way off, so I put it from my mind. Then I visited Honorhall Orphanage to check on Harry and Huldi, who had arrived just that morning. They looked bewildered to be around so many children like themselves. The other children had a docile look, and responded meekly to Grelod the Kind, the orphanage’s headmistress. She seemed pleasant enough, but I wondered how she managed to keep such a collection of children of all ages so quiet. I got an inkling just before the door closed behind me – I heard her reprimanding a child in tones that were not kind at all. I would have to keep an eye on that, I told myself.

Having walked enough to raise something of an appetite, I made my way to the Bee and Barb for a quick bite, then went to check on Elgrim’s progress. His shop was somewhere in the city’s lower level, next to the half-circular canal that cut through the middle of the town. I made my way down to the wooden causeway that ran next to the canal and began looking for the shop. I had just decided that I had gone too far toward the Ratway entrance when I heard hushed voices from around a corner up ahead. I had been moving quietly, as was my habit even when not sneaking, and they continued their conversation, unaware of my presence.

“I’m telling you, Maven, we’re the Thieves Guild. We don’t do muscle jobs.” It sounded like Brynjolf, though his voice was barely above a whisper. And I had only heard Maven Black-Briar speak once before, but I guessed the woman’s voice that responded must have been hers. She certainly sounded like one used to wielding authority. The Black-Briars were the most powerful family in town, and Maven was its matriarch.

“The Dark Brotherhood is here to do the knife-work. They’ll play their role, you’ll play yours, and the whole thing will come off with little bloodshed. Your lofty Thieves Guild principles will remain intact. And just think – the theft of an entire town! When will you get another such opportunity?”

“Very well, but if things get messy, I’m pulling our people out. Now we’d better go our separate ways, before someone sees us.”

“Relax, Brynjolf. Who would dare object to Maven Black-Briar associating with anyone she pleases?” Then I heard footsteps coming my way and in another moment, Maven Black-Briar was passing me. But the Dark Brotherhood were not the only ones skilled at blending into the shadows. I watched her as she walked past, a middle-aged woman in a richly detailed tunic, her dark hair swept back from her forehead with no adornment. At her hip, she bore a small sword.

When she was gone, I tried to decide what to do. I should really go to Mistveil Keep and report what I’d heard to the jarl’s steward, or at the very least the captain of the guard. But such things take time, and I wanted to get back to Lydia. That, and my fatigued state may have affected my judgment. I found the nearest guard and told him what I’d heard, omitting that I recognized the speakers. “We’ll look into it, lass,” he said. “Don’t worry about it a moment longer.”

Very well, I thought, I’ve done my duty. I continued to Elgrim’s Elixirs, where I found that the potion wouldn’t be ready until at least the morning. In the temple, I found Lydia just the same, with Brelyna and J’zargo seated on a now-empty cot next to her, whispering together quietly.

“What happened to the Whiterun guard who had this spot?” I asked.

“He took a turn for the worse while you were gone,” Brelyna said. “We thought he’d just gone to sleep, but then Dinya noticed he wasn’t breathing.”

“Oh,” was all I could say. It was very odd. He had seemed to be improving over the course of the night and early morning. I had even cast a few healing spells on him myself. I had only known the fellow by sight, but he had known Lydia well and kept asking about her when he was awake. “What did Dinya say?”

“She was beside herself. She couldn’t understand how a patient under her care had deteriorated so quickly. Maramal, the head priest, tried to comfort her, saying that no one can predict the course of a wound taken in battle.”

I was shocked as well. I had learned of the deaths of many of my friends in the siege and retreat from Whiterun, but none of it seemed quite real. But I had been talking with this man only this morning, and somehow that made the news worse. It defied belief. I took a seat next to my friends. We sat there looking at Lydia for a time, and I thanked Aetherius that she yet lived when those all around her had died, and were still dying.

Brelyna and J’zargo sat with me for an hour or two, then made their excuses to leave. But at the door of the temple, Brelyna turned back, telling J’zargo she would follow soon.

“To tell the truth,” she said to me, “I may return here to spend the night, even if there’s just a pile of rushes on the floor.”

“Why?”

“J’zargo snores loud enough to wake the draugr. I hardly slept last night.”

“Wait. You’re sharing a room with J’zargo?” I had difficulty picturing it, the two bickered so constantly.

“Yes, a room with a double bed was all Keerava had left when we arrived. It was either that or sharing with strangers.” She looked away from me. “I won’t say it wasn’t nice. J’zargo makes an excellent bed warmer, with all that fur. And I needed the comfort after the horror of the siege and the retreat, and Onmund…” Then tears were welling in her eyes and she threw herself into my arms, crying uncontrollably. “I’m sorry,” she said when she had recovered somewhat. “It’s just that J’zargo won’t hear of grieving, he’s so cock-sure of himself. He insists that Onmund died a good Nord death. So I had no one else to go to with my grief. Now it seems that you and J’zargo are the only friends I have left in the world.”

“There’s Lydia. She’s your friend.”

She looked at Lydia for a moment. “Oh, look at me, burdening you with my grief, thinking nothing of how worried you are for your Lydia. No, I really should stay at the inn with J’zargo. I think he needs me more than he lets on. If it wasn’t for the snoring…”

Was she telling me what I thought she was telling me? It didn’t seem possible. They had done nothing but argue since I had known them. And a Dunmer and a Khajiit, together, as a couple? I had never heard of such a thing. I seemed to remember reading in the book Racial Phylogeny that it was unlikely that the two races could produce fertile offspring. But did that matter? Lydia and I could produce no offspring, fertile or otherwise.

“Lydia has me give her a solid push to wake her up,” I said, trying not to show my surprise at this apparent change in my friends’ relationship.

“Lydia snores?” Brelyna said, drying her eyes.

“Yes, but I still wouldn’t throw her out of my bed for it.” I looked back over at Lydia. “Nor would I throw her out of bed for any other reason, now that … now that it’s too late!”

“Oh, don’t say that, Deirdre. She will recover once she gets Elgrim’s poison cure. And when she does, she’ll have you back. I saw how devastated you both were, each to be apart from the other. No, you were meant to be together, anyone can see it, if not the two of you.”

I nodded, hoping she was right.

 

*~*~*

 

By the next morning I was beside myself with worry. It was a good thing I was not the patient, because I had none. This sitting around and waiting for a cure would drive me to distraction. And if it kept up much longer, Lydia would waste away to nothing, if the poison didn’t kill her first. As soon as Brelyna and J’zargo arrived from the Bee and Barb – looking quite happy and content, I couldn’t help noticing – I made for Elgrim’s potion shop.

I found him bent over his alchemy table, cursing under his breath. He looked as if he had been at work all night, with deep bags under his eyes as he looked up at me.

“Is there a problem with the poison cure?”

“Of course there is, or would I have been up all night? It’s lacking in the sulfurous principle. It’s too mercurial to fight the elvish poison.”

“So what can be done?”

“Troll fat would fix it, but I have none. It’s all mysteriously disappeared.”

“Brynjolf,” I said.

“Yes, but none dares challenge the Thieves Guild in this town.”

“But I thought that troll fat salve was a fraud.”

“Oh, it is, for the purposes Brynjolf claims for it. But troll fat is excellent both as a poison preventative and remedy.”

“You probably can’t stomach buying back your own supplies. I’ll buy as many bottles of his salve as you need.” Or steal them back, I thought.

“No, he’s undoubtedly bollixed it up with a lot of other cheap ingredients. I need the pure stuff.” He took me by the arm. “Look, you’re someone who can get things done. There’s a troll east of town, he’s been making trouble for travelers headed for the Black-Briar Lodge, but not even Maven’s best could best him.”

“It sounds easy enough,” I said. “I’ll have no trouble slaying the troll, but how do I extract the fat?”

“Just bring me a piece of him – a leg should do.”

My stomach, already in knots from worry over Lydia, gave a lurch. I had butchered game with little trouble when living on my own, but had little occasion to do it since returning to Skyrim. And a troll was a different thing entirely. They were so human-like in form, like large, long-armed men covered in dark fur. Of course, they behaved like beasts and worse, so people treated them as such, but still. The thought of cutting the leg off one of the man-like beasts repulsed me.

And so it was that I readily accepted Brelyna and J’zargo’s offer of assistance when I returned to the temple to get my bow and arrows. We set out from the city’s south gate, asking the guards if there had been any troll sightings lately. They informed us that a troll had been lurking about on the road less than a mile east of the gate.

It was another bitterly cold but clear day as we followed the road through the hardwood forest east of town. The trees were mostly leafless, giving the wood a somber aspect, yet buds at the tip of each branch and twig were already beginning to show. The sun shone brightly, sparkling off the thin layer of snow on the ground and illuminating a still-yellow leaf here and there. I tried not to feel guilty over how good it felt to be out in the woods while Lydia remained in the temple, dead to the world. Brelyna and J’zargo were enjoying the day, too. J’zargo was pleased to have an adventure, while Brelyna, not much of a huntress, seemed to enjoy being out with J’zargo. It was odd to see how their relationship had changed. She didn’t even reprimand him when he boasted, “J’zargo will track this troll down and have his leg in a bag in no time!”

And J’zargo’s prediction was not far off. We had gone but a short distance down the road when we came to the remains of a cart that had been demolished by something with incredible strength, its boards shredded like so much paper. There were blood stains on the snow covering the cobble road, and I wondered what unfortunate traveler had met his end here. But there wasn’t time for wondering because we now heard the distinctive grunting of a troll coming from a spot off to the right of the road, shielded by a stand of snow-berry and hawthorn.

I motioned for J’zargo and Brelyna to remain where they were while I snuck up on the beast, but J’zargo insisted on following me. I could not take the time, or risk the noise, of arguing with him over who was the stealthiest. We crept toward the copse together, then edged our way around it until we had a view into a small clearing at the base of steep cliffs. The troll had taken shelter beneath an overhang of that cliff, and was worrying at a bone even now, occasionally bashing it against the rock wall to get at the marrow. I didn’t need to ask what type of bone it was. I had seen too many troll caves not to know that they preferred human flesh.

I drank off a potion of true shot, then looked at J’zargo to make sure he was ready. Then I took careful aim, lodging the arrow deep beneath the troll’s left shoulder blade. The troll roared and turned to charge at us, but J’zargo hit it with a double firebolt while I readied another arrow. The beast was only halfway across the clearing when it fell. I was glad it made it that far – I truly did not want to enter the shelter and see the remnants of the troll’s grisly meal. My stomach was already churning at the thought of the task ahead.

“We’d best get to it,” I said after Brelyna joined us in the clearing. I drew my dagger from my belt.

“You look far from thrilled at the prospect,” Brelyna said. Judging by the way she looked down at the troll’s body, neither was she.

“This one will be glad to take care of the butchery,” J’zargo said, extending the claws of his right paw for both of us to see.

“That’s very kind of you, J’zargo, but really it’s not necessary.” I don’t know why I still felt the need to prove my survival skills.

Still, I was glad when Brelyna put a hand on my arm and began moving me away from the clearing. “I’d rather not witness it, myself. Come, keep me company while we let J’zargo get to his work.”

I relented and we began strolling slowly through the woods east of the clearing. The land fell away steeply here. It was odd to contemplate. The city sat on the banks of Lake Honrich, and even partly over the lake itself, of which the city’s canals were but an extension. The lake stretched west from the city, then its waters flowed gently down to Lake Geir near Ivarstead, before turning north to plunge steeply down to the White River. Yet east of the lake, the land rose only slightly before it started sloping steeply east and north. Really, it would seem more natural for the waters of the lake to flow eastward where it could run downhill most freely. But the gods have ordained the shape of the land, and who are we to question them?

As we made our way slowly eastward, the trees opened up, revealing a gap in the mountains even farther east. Brelyna eyed the gap wistfully. “That is the Rift Pass. Through it lies my people’s homeland.”

“Do any of your relatives yet live there?”

“None so far as I know. Maybe a few daring souls have braved that blasted landscape to see if it might be reinhabited, yet none have returned. No, my family comes from Solstheim, the island far to the north, given to the Dunmer by the Nords after the eruption of the Red Mountain. It is the only home I’ve ever known, yet I’ve always wondered about our original homeland, Vvardenfell, in Morrowind.”

We walked in silence for a moment, Brelyna peering ahead to get a better glimpse of the pass into Morrowind. Then we heard a noise and stopped to listen. We were on a gentle slope but just ahead was a rock outcrop, beyond which the land fell away more steeply.

“That was a clank of metal, perhaps armor,” Brelyna said.

I nodded, and then the sound came again. A moment later, we heard what sounded like many tramping feet, and the creak of a wagon. I motioned for Brelyna to follow me quietly, and we made our way over to the tor, the sounds growing louder as we went.

Peering over the top of the rocks, we saw the last thing I had expected – Imperials, lots of them, coming up the steep slope toward us. In the instant I had to take in the scene before ducking back down out of sight, I realized this was not just a war-band, but a full-fledged army. There were soldiers on foot, far too many to count, and oxen were laboring to pull their loads up the steep slope – not wagons, but wheeled catapults. Riften was about to be put under siege, and the soldiers who could have defended it had just been sent north and west. The Imperials would take the city, and my love with it.

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