The Song of Deirdre – Chap. 55

 

The Rift Pass

 

“We’ve had no word of Imperials approaching,” growled Unmid Snow-Shod, housecarl to Jarl Laila Law-Giver. “Why are you running through the streets and raising the alarm?” He was a fierce-looking Nord with a tall sheaf of red hair running over the top of his skull and a spiral tattoo on the right side of his face. His menacing aspect was undercut somewhat by his elven armor, with its sinuous lines and bright gold color. Next to him, Jarl Laila sat on her throne, her eyes wide and her hand to her mouth.

“Because your city is blind to the east, and the Imperial army is approaching that way,” I replied. I was desperate to get him to raise the city’s defenses. Evacuating Lydia from the city would do her little good, since the potion still wasn’t ready. I had sent J’zargo and Brelyna straight to Elgrim with the troll’s leg, while I raised the alarm.

Unmid looked distractedly up at one of the many banners decorating the great hall of Mistveil Keep. The banners bore the sigil of Riften: crossed swords on a purple and gold background. “I always knew this city’s hasty rebuilding would be its end,” he said. “It was never made to withstand a siege.” He spoke true. The city was protected on the west by Lake Honrich and on the south by the precipitous Jerall Mountains. A trio of towers known as the Three Sentinels guarded the northern approach to the city, but none of them had a view of the steep slopes to the east. Nor did the city itself have towers or lookouts facing that way. Only Mistveil Keep itself was built to withstand an attack, but it couldn’t do that if the city fell.

Unmid was still lost in thought when a Riften guard ran into the throne room. “The Dragonborn speaks true! We sent a scout up to the peaks southeast of the city and he saw the Imperial army moving up the slopes from the east. They were having difficulty traveling off of the road in such steep country. He reckoned two hours until they arrive in force before our walls.”

“But how could they have come from the east?” the jarl asked. Laila Law-Giver was a petite woman, clad in a fine dress embroidered in gold, with a silver and sapphire circlet on her brow. She wore a sword at her hip, yet she seemed far from ready to command her troops in the city’s defense. Even Elisif the Fair, whom many mocked as little more than a pretty face, seemed made of sterner stuff.

“Begging your pardon, Jarl Laila,” said her housecarl, “but there is a pass south into Cyrodiil near Stendarr’s Beacon. Still, it’s a difficult route and I never knew the Imperials to be mountaineers.”

“There are many Nords in the Imperial Legion,” I reminded him.

“True,” he admitted. “Stieg, how many Imperials, would you say?”

“The scout counted hundreds, and still they kept coming.”

“Hundreds! And our barracks depleted. There is just a single war-band of Stormcloaks left, and the city guard.”

“Whatever the numbers, you need to make ready the city’s defenses,” I said. Did I have to tell these people their duties? “I will assist in any way I can.”

“Praise Ysmir, the Dragonborn will save us!” I heard one of the servants say.

The jarl’s steward, a Wood Elf named Anuriel, spoke up for the first time. “Jarl Laila’s safety should be our first priority. My jarl, the escape plan we laid out in case of dragon attack is ready to put into action.”

“If only Maven were here to offer her advice!” the jarl said. “But I haven’t seen her since last night’s banquet.” She looked back and forth between Unmid and Anuriel. “Well, it is only right that the jarl be saved. I will make ready for the boats.” She rose and headed toward her chambers.

I could not believe what I was seeing. These were the rulers and protectors of the Rift?

“Our thoughts go with you, Jarl Laila,” Unmid said, turning toward the barracks.

“My dear,” said Anuriel, “you can’t send the jarl into the wilderness without an escort.”

The housecarl, at first so fierce, turned meekly to the steward. “Yes, of course, Anuriel, I will send half a dozen guards, though I hate to lose them. Now I must see about the defenses on the walls.” Again he turned to leave.

“My dear,” said the Bosmer, her tones all honey and seduction. “Don’t you feel it would be better to meet the enemy in the open, and keep those horrible catapults away from the city? Isn’t that what you always said during our … combat training sessions? That a stout thrust of the sword is always better than a limp defense? A leader who led his troops to victory in such a bold stroke would be well rewarded at home.” She batted her eyes suggestively.

“Yes, but…” Unmid looked sheepish now. “A siege is different … and the numbers. … Still, I will take your words into account.” Then he came to some resolution. “If I should not return, I hope you will always remember our … training sessions.”

“Oh, I will never forget them, I assure you.” She seemed quite happy to send her lover off to a battle with such poor odds.

Unmid did leave this time, and I turned toward the keep’s front door. Only then did I remember the strange conversation I had overheard the day before. I turned back to the steward and told her everything I had heard, including the names of the speakers.

“Yes,” she said, “your report was most appreciated, and we are investigating it thoroughly. I have long known of the Black-Briar family’s growing power, and this time we may actually do something about it. Now, I am sure Unmid could use you on the front lines.”

I made my way quickly back to the Temple of Mara and found it in a state of uproar. Lydia was fine – or as fine as one who remained near death could be – and Brelyna and J’zargo were sitting with her. But two more Whiterun refugees, a guard and a member of Balgruuf’s hirth,  had passed away. Maramal and Dinya Balu were distraught, arguing about what could have happened.

“I couldn’t be with them every moment of both night and day,” the priestess protested.

“No one expected it of you, but who else has administered their care?”

“Elgrim, at first,” she said, “then young Deirdre here, and Elgrim’s apprentice, Ingun.”

“I wish Elgrim had been here the whole time, but he’s been so busy with that poison cure. Could Ingun have made some sort of mistake? Where is she now?”

“I haven’t seen her since morning.”

Maramal looked to me. “She was administering cures in the wee hours last night,” I said.

The priest turned to Dinya. “See what Elgrim has to say. I want to get to the bottom of this.”

More distractions for the old apothecary – that was the last thing Lydia needed. Then I remembered that Ingun was part of the Black-Briar family, and a dark thought crossed my mind.

I turned to Brelyna and J’zargo. “Friends, I must go and aid in the battle that is to come.”

“We’ll come with you,” J’zargo said without hesitation. Brelyna, seated next to him, nodded.

“No, something strange is afoot in this city. The threats within are as great as those without. I would have you stay here and guard Lydia, and do not let Ingun Black-Briar, or any other Black-Briar, come near her. And if things go ill, as I fear they might, get Lydia out of the city, and take Elgrim and his entire alchemy shop if you have to. She needs that cure.”

“This one will see about a boat before they’re all taken,” J’zargo said, heading for the door.

I knelt by Lydia and took her hand. Brelyna discreetly withdrew to investigate the altar at the head of the temple. “I’m off to battle, my love,” I said, stroking her ice-cold forehead. “I know not whether I’ll return. Brelyna and J’zargo will take good care of you.”

I was shocked when she opened her eyes. “No, my thane,” she whispered, the words barely audible. “I should … protect you … with my life…” She reached up and ran her fingers over the Amulet of Mara. I insisted on wearing it, despite the many propositions from the worst sort as I walked about the town. Then her hand fell back, hanging limply off the edge of the cot, and her eyes closed once more.

I choked back a sob and put my cheek close to her lips to make sure she was still breathing. “No, my love, you protected an entire city. Now it is my turn to protect you.” I kissed her on the forehead.

I had returned to Nirn with hope in my heart, only to see it smashed, first by elvish poison and now by the Imperial Legion. I knew only two things: I could not let Lydia die, nor could I let her fall back into the hands of the Imperials, who would surely turn her over to the Thalmor. I felt the fires of my anger kindling within me. There would be no meditating for balance this time. I would unleash the full force of my dragon soul’s fury on any who opposed me. No army would come between the Dragonborn and her love.

 

*~*~*

 

The defenders of Riften were a proud group of warriors, but too few. They were but one war-band of Stormcloak soldiers, and fifty or so city guards. The Stormcloaks stood proudly in their ranks, their captain standing in front of them, conferring with Unmid over battle tactics. “Today is a day to die a good death!” one sword-sister called out heartily. The city guards were a different story, glancing often to the east, where they expected the first Imperials to appear. We were ranged across the slopes east of the city walls, at a low crest where the land steepened. We would have the benefit of charging downhill at the laboring Imperial forces. Still, the strategy seemed unlikely to succeed.

“Housecarl Unmid, this is madness,” I interrupted as I came up to the two leaders. “You should defend the city from within its walls. You will not stop such a large force out in the open.”

The Stormcloak captain, Torvar, looked at me. “What do you know of warcraft, lass? Riften was once a proud city, with mighty walls, but then it was destroyed in the uprising against Jarl Hosgunn Crossed-Daggers. It was rebuilt hastily, and poorly, with little thought to its defenses. There are no murder holes, no crenels, no catapults, and no pots of boiling oil, nor even battlements, save above the gates and in Mistveil Keep. No, our only hope, albeit a slim one, is to strike a solid blow at the heart of their force, making the city appear well defended.”

“Besides,” said Unmid, “we have the Dragonborn on our side!”

“I don’t know how many soldiers you think I am worth, but it is as your comrade just said – I know nothing of the ways of warcraft. I have never fought in a battle of this type.”

“Just hit them with whatever you have as we charge, magics or shouts or what-have-you, and then pick off any mages or archers you see. And here,” he said, going over to a wagon loaded with a weapon-hoard. “Take this shield. Those robes will do you little good against a volley of arrows.”

I took the shield and fit my left arm through its straps. It was heavy, and I thought it might hinder as much as protect me.

Then the first Imperials appeared at the bottom of the steep slope. They were marching in ranks as best they could through the irregularly-spaced trees. Their leader, an officer in ornate Imperial armor, rode a jet-black charger. It was unlike the horses of Skyrim, tall and lean but well muscled, with a prancing gait, pulling at its halter, eager to run free. But the officer reined his mount to a stop, then put his fist in the air to call for a halt. No doubt he was surprised to see us out here in the open and hadn’t counted on a fight in the wood.

Unmid was still looking with awe at the officer’s mount. “How did they get a horse, and such a horse as that, over that pass?”

“Aye, and catapults as well,” said Torvar. “They’ve had help from within Skyrim, there’s no doubt. But never mind that. We need to form up our ranks for a charge. Are you going to lead it or shall I?”

Unmid seemed to recover himself. “As housecarl to Jarl Laila Law-Giver, it is my duty to lead the defense of the city.” He began moving up and down the ranks, making an impassioned speech meant to rally the troops, while the Stormcloak captain formed them into three shield walls, mixing Stormcloaks with guards.

“We may go to our deaths today, brothers and sisters,” shouted Unmid, but they will be good deaths, ones that will make our fathers in Sovngarde proud. If it is our fate to join them, let us do it with a song in our hearts! A song of freedom for Riften! For Skyrim!” It was thin gruel, but the soldiers shouted lustily in response.

I stepped away from the city’s defenders, taking several paces out into the space between the two forces. Little more than a hundred yards separated them now. The Imperials had ranged their ranks out across the slope below us. I counted two hundred easily, and more kept coming. Their leader sat his charger, quietly eyeing the proceedings. His troops ranked behind him were as silent as death. Even from this distance, I thought I saw a mocking smile on the commander’s lips.

Then I knew how it would go. There was no hope for the city’s defenders. Unmid’s rallying speech droned on, little more than the chattering of a squirrel to my ears.

And with that, my anger was unleashed. “Od-Ah-Viing!” I shouted in the Imperials’ direction. The shock of it rippled across the space between us, the commander’s mount whinnying and rearing, the first ranks of soldiers taking a step backward. For one dreadful moment, all was quiet once more.

Then the Imperial commander spoke a single word. “Volley!” he called. Bows pointed skyward in the second ranks of the Imperials, and the twang of their strings was loud, even from this distance. Then a whistling and a skittering of arrows through trees swept toward us, and we were all ducking beneath our shields. Some of the arrows found their marks, despite the trees and the shields, and several of our soldiers fell.

“Let’s pay them in kind,” shouted Unmid. Our archers let fly, and in a moment we saw soldiers falling on the other side, but fewer than on ours.

A minute had passed since my call to Odahviing, and now both sides paused at the unmistakable roaring of a dragon. “By Ysmir, what now?” I heard one of the Stormcloaks say.

“Be easy, my friends, and hold your onslaught,” I said, looking to the skies. Then I saw him, his vast wings skimming over the treetops toward us. Soldiers on both sides gasped.

Odahviing found a small clearing in which to land not far from me. “Thuri, Dovahkiin,” he said, as the flurry of snow and dead leaves settled around him, his head bowed slightly. “What do you require?”

“To the skies, my friend,” I said, leaping onto his back. “I will teach these Imperials not to trespass in Skyrim.”

“Dinok wah joorre!” he shouted as we shot upwards.

 

*~*~*

 

For a long moment, there was nothing but silence and the wind in my hair as we circled above the field of battle. This time I had a chance to glory in the feeling of flying and the power it gave me. This is how it must feel to be a dragon, I thought.

Then a battle cry went up from below, and I looked down to see Unmid leading his force in a charge down the slope, dodging this way and that amongst the trees.

“Now, Odahviing, let’s give the Imperials a taste of our Thu’um!”

We plunged down from above, skimming the treetops along the Imperial front lines, both of us shouting “Yol-Toor-Shul!” Odahviing’s shout lasted longer than mine, spraying fire across the breadth of the Imperial ranks. The screams of the falling soldiers were glorious to hear, and mixed in with them was the louder shriek of the commander’s horse. I imagined the officer wasn’t smiling now.

“Again!” I called, and Odahviing wheeled dizzily in the sky, returning for a second pass. His Thu’um was ready, while mine was not, so I cast a fireball spell, using my shield to protect me from the archers that had now regained enough wits to retaliate against their airborne attackers. Again the screams of the dying Imperials were sweet to my ears.

Now Unmid’s force crashed into the broken lines, cutting a swath deep into the Imperial force before meeting resistance.

“Strike farther down the slope, Odahviing,” I called. “We must avoid the city’s defenders.” The dragon flew farther downhill, where the troops were still marching upwards. They tried to scatter as we descended upon them, but not quickly enough. Dozens died screaming under our combined shouts.

We circled in the sky once more, and I looked back to survey the action. We had divided the Imperial force, the smaller part remaining at the fore, though the survivors were now retreating from the defenders’ swords and axes. The two sides seemed to have even numbers here, but the Imperials were routed while the Nords fought with the glee of victory close at hand. Down the hill, the scene was confused, with many Imperials running downhill, and others coming up behind, unaware of the destruction ahead. Farther along where the slope flattened into a valley, a narrow bridge over a river had become a bottleneck of retreating and advancing troops.

“Ah, Dovahkiin,” said Odahviing, “I will gladly serve you if it provides me with such sport. It has been too long since I unleashed my Thu’um on the joorre.”

Looking down on the destruction we had wrought, I had to agree – it was sweet to be one of the dov.

 

*~*~*

 

The voice, when it came, was soft, little more than a whispering in my mind. A woman’s voice, speaking quietly to me. Then it grew in strength, and I recognized it. No, it could not be! I did not want to hear her, not now.

“Deirdre,” my mother’s voice said. “Deirdre, this is not you. Where have you gone?”

Mother, I am right here, I thought. And look how great I have become.

“No, this is not you, Deirdre. You are not this cruel. Come back to us, Deirdre. Come back to yourself.”

I looked down on the battle, at the burnt corpses and the wailing and moaning wounded. They had brought this on themselves, hadn’t they? They would have slain us just as gladly.

“It is an awful way to die, Deirdre. Those are our screams you are hearing, as you have heard them in your thoughts since the day we died.”

Now it was as if I heard the soldiers’ screaming anew. Now they filled me only with horror.

“Come back to us, Deirdre,” she said again. “Come back to yourself.”

I sobbed. “What have I done?” I cried aloud. “I wanted only to protect my love!”

Now I heard my father’s voice. “Then protect her, my daughter, but do not destroy yourself to do it.” Then they were quiet, and somehow I knew they would speak no more.

“What’s this?” Odahviing asked. “Is this grieving I hear? Why do you not revel in our power?”

“Because I am no dragon,” I said, hoping it was true. But maybe Alduin had been right, maybe he did live on within me.

“Look,” Odahviing said. “While you debate with yourself, the army regroups.”

He was right. The Imperial captains had restored order to a portion of their troops and were marching them uphill once more. Meanwhile, the city’s defenders still contended with the remnants of the front lines. It seemed from above that they had the upper hand, but they couldn’t match the larger force advancing on them. Riften, and Lydia, still needed my aid.

Very well, I thought, we can rout the Imperials without slaying them. I had done it before, on a smaller scale. Now I would learn if I could do it from the back of a dragon.

“Sweep down on them once more, Odahviing,” I said. “But stay your Thu’um. Use neither talon nor fang.”

“Where is the sport in this?” he demanded.

“You will see,” I said as we dove toward the advancing force. “Faas-Ru-Maar!” I shouted as we came near them, and the force of the Dismaying shout knocked twenty soldiers to their knees, sending countless others running back downhill. For the rest, just the sight of the swooping dragon made them turn and flee. I cast a spell of rout for good measure.

Again and again, we dove on the Imperials, driving them back toward the bridge. We circled over it for a time, ensuring that they would all cross it and not return to the attack. Then the city’s defenders were harrying them from behind, and we flew farther down the valley toward the Rift Pass, chasing the bulk of the Imperial force before us.

“Look, armies flee in our wake!” Odahviing exulted. “Is it not glorious?”

“It is … useful, I cannot deny it,” I said. “But I will not glory in such dreadful power.” I trembled to think of it, for I had just proven it was a power I could not control.

Near Stendarr’s Beacon, a tower high up on the steep slopes south of the valley, the force divided, some continuing down the valley toward the pair of towers at the Rift Pass. Another portion made for the high pass near the beacon, but they found it more difficult going up than it had been coming down. They had fixed ropes at the steepest point of the passage, and the going was slow. A hundred or so fighters had gathered at the bottom of the pitch, all clamoring to be next on the ropes. Others were scrambling up unaided, then falling back down.

I bade Odahviing to land on a rocky promontory nearby, and the scramble at the base of the climb became all the more intense.

“Imperials!” I called to them. “Drop your weapons, and we will harm you no more!” To a man and a woman, they dropped sword, axe, and bow, then stood trembling before me. “I have been merciful to you this day … all things considered. Between his Thu’um and my magic, Odahviing and I could easily have sent all of you to Oblivion. Yet we did not. You are free to go, to Morrowind or Cyrodiil, as you choose. Tell me what other commander on a field of battle would let such a hostile force escape unharmed?”

Even to my ears it sounded like a justification, but a murmuring went through the crowd. “Your freedom comes on one condition: that the Cyrodiilians, Redguards, Orsimer, and other races among you never again set hostile foot in Skyrim. And to you Nords, I say this: Your homeland is under attack by the Thalmor, though you may not know it. The city of Whiterun, of which I was once proud to be called thane, lies in ruin. Countless of your kin lie dead within its broken walls and on the plains without. And so I say, join us in driving out the Aldmeri invaders, and any Imperial forces that stand in our way. Return unarmed to your homeland, and you will be welcomed by the Stormcloaks.”

With that, there was a greater murmuring, the Nords and the other soldiers looking at each other with growing suspicion.

And then we launched into the air, Odahviing soaring to a great height just for the pleasure of it. “Ah, it is wonderful to soar the skies of Keizaal after a great victory, is it not?” I gave him his head, for the moment not caring where we went.

The day remained clear and we could see much of Tamriel. To the east, a broken, jagged peak rose from Vvardenfell, in Morrowind – the Red Mountain, Dagoth-Ur. To the north, the jagged peaks of Skyrim gave way to the icy waters of the Sea of Ghosts. West, beyond the mountains, a golden glow lit the haze above the burning Alik’r Desert. And to the south, in Cyrodiil, set within a series of lakes connected by vast rivers flowing even farther south to the sea, there rose a single spire, impossibly tall – the White-Gold Tower in the Imperial City. And closer at hand, looming over Skyrim, the place where I could not look: the Throat of the World.

From this height Tamriel seemed but a small place. Too small, certainly, to contain the tides of grief and remorse now washing over me.

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Comments

  1. larryhogue says:

    Hello, Song of Deirdre readers,
    I’m also posting the story over on fanfiction.net, where I’ve gotten quite a few comments, such as “Insane and awesome!” “Love, love, love! You’ve added a lot of depth to Arngeir’s character.” “So intense I nearly had to stop reading!” and “The story is a blast.” But no comments here. Maybe only bots are visiting each chapter? But that hardly seems possible.
    I’m not looking for praise or in-depth critiques, necessarily, but just some indication that humans are actually reading the story. So please say hello in the comments below, and maybe let me know whether you’re a Skyrim player or not. Thanks!
    –Larry Hogue

  2. (I’m not a native speaker, so I beg your pardon for any mistakes you may stumple upon while reading this)

    Hi,
    I believe it just comes down to the fact that the folks on fanfiction are much more accustomed to reviewing and commenting the works they read (feedback is probably more important for their site in general since there are so many stories to choose from).

    I started reading the parts on fanfiction, but since the chapters are published here first, I eventually switched over when I caught up with your updates on fanfiction.
    So rest assured, there are humans following the plot on this site. It is possible that we prefer lurking to commenting though.
    Speaking for myself, I am a Skyrim player and as such it irks me that Deirdre supports the Stormcloaks instead of the Imperials (who have way better chances of defeating the dominion). But since that’s just my opinion I’ll still follow the story to its end.
    Other than that I have to say that I really enjoyed reading through all of your creation thus far because you mange to deepen the characters in an interesting way while keeping the suspense up for most of the time.
    Great read so far, it is us who have to thank you for writing this piece of art!
    -Able

  3. TheRealG says:

    Hmm, an amazing chapter, as always, but I can’t help but somehow feel a little jarred by Deirdre’s victory speech. It felt like she was giving the other races aside from the Imperials such a short shaft. You’d think she’d be willing to urge them to at least help, especially the Orsimer; what’s stopping the Dominion from going after them next for worshipping a Daedra?

  4. larryhogue says:

    Thanks for the comment, Able. I’m glad you’re enjoying it (and that you consider it a piece of art!). I have a long-range plan for dealing with the Empire and the Dominion, but that will have to wait until Book Two (assuming there is a Book Two!).

  5. larryhogue says:

    Thanks for the comment, RealG, and you make an excellent point. I remember that Galmar says the Stormcloaks will take help from any race. I think Deirdre would certainly welcome their help, but she assumed they might not be willing. I’ll make some adjustments in a future update.

Your thoughts?

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