The Song of Deirdre – Chap. 56

 

The Gates of Riften

 

Moaning. Screaming. Whimpering. Appeals to Kynareth and Mara, Ruptga and Malacath. Smoldering trees and singed leather and bodies burned beyond recognition. The foul stench of voided bowels and warm blood and spilled entrails, mixed with the sweet aroma of cooking meat. For the awful truth is that the smell of burned human flesh is like that of any other roasting game. The very fact that I could find it appealing turned my stomach.

I watched as Odahviing soared away from the battlefield, wishing he could take me anywhere other than here. But no, I was the author of this atrocity and I must look on it. I had commanded that he set me down here, and then sent him on his way.

“Help me,” a nearby soldier croaked. “For the love of Morwha, help me.” Morwha is the name used in Hammerfell for Mara. The fellow was a Redguard from the Imperial side. He had escaped the onslaught of fire, but had a great rent across his leather cuirass. The snow nearby was stained bright red.

I cast the close wounds spell on him, then gave him a healing potion. The grimace of pain on his face eased somewhat and he seemed to breathe more easily. “Water,” he croaked, and I gave him a sip from my flask.

“That will have to do,” I said, and went to another soldier nearby. In this way I moved among the wounded, healing all those I could, Imperials and Stormcloaks, Nords, Redguards, Cyrodiilians, and Orsimer alike. Some were burned over most of their bodies, little more than living corpses, beyond the aid of any healing potion or restoration spell. Others had gaping wounds from which their lives slowly ebbed. Some recognized me from the dragon’s back, at first recoiling in fear, then looking at me in confusion as my healing spell washed over them. Others pled with me to give them quick deaths. I could not deny them, once I determined they were beyond my healing powers. It was grim work, yet how could I turn away from them?

And so the returning city defenders found me: healing friend and foe alike and giving quick deaths to those beyond my aid, with tears running down my cheeks and freezing to the front of my robes. I was so intent on my task, I hardly noticed their approach. Then they were lifting me up to their shoulders, shouting, “Hail, Dragonborn! Hail, Savior of Riften!”

“No, put me down,” I demanded. “I am no hero. I cannot celebrate this atrocity!” Looking around at them, I saw that less than two score had returned from battle.

Unmid looked up at me. He had rents in his elven armor and a gash across his clean-shaven scalp. “An atrocity? This is a great victory, and you have won it for us, you and your dragon.”

“But there was no need for this butchery! Between us, Odahviing and I had the power to rout their army while harming none – had I but known it! No, I underestimated my power, and let my anger get the better of me.”

Unmid laughed. “You can’t fight a battle without anger. And our anger was righteous! Enough of this nonsense. It’s time to celebrate!” Around him the soldiers and guards shouted in agreement.

“Wait! There are wounded here who still need our help.”

Torvar surveyed the field, where the soldiers from both sides were looking around, wondering what to do. Some of the Stormcloaks and city guards came over to join us, while the Imperials eyed us warily. “Aye,” the Stormcloak captain said, “you’ve healed our wounded, and for that I thank you. As for the rest, I see naught but Imperial scum. We will give them quick deaths.”

This remark roused the Imperials, many of them reaching for their scattered weapons.

“No!” I shouted. “I healed them, and their lives are now in my keeping. You will take them prisoner and treat them according to the warrior’s code. Many are Nords and may join your cause when they learn of the attack on Whiterun.”

“Whiterun?” said one of the Imperials from Skyrim. “That’s my home!”

“Was your home, traitor!” shouted one of the Stormcloaks. “You should have been there to defend it when the elves attacked!”

“Enough!” Unmid ordered. Then he looked up at me. “Very well, it’s your victory. The Imperial survivors will be well treated, and their wounds seen to.”

Then we were moving back uphill toward Riften, the victorious soldiers chanting my name as they carried me away from that bloody field, where I still had much to do to repair the harm I had done. But that egg was already broken, and there was no getting the yolk back into the shell. How had I let it happen? The battle seemed like a dream now. I remembered my anger at the threatening army, and before that, fear for Lydia, fear for the loss of my true love. And there it was. This tragedy had grown out of my love for Lydia, and my fear of losing her. I was no better than my parents’ killers.

I was in the midst of these thoughts as we approached the city gate, still borne along by the soldiers, paying attention only to the ground in front of me.

“Where’s the guard?” a soldier asked. Those who carried me began lowering me to the ground, and then I heard an arrow whistle past my head, followed by a cry from behind me.

“What the…?” Unmid, who had been walking beside us in the fore of the group looked up at the battlements above the gate. The second arrow caught him between the eyes.

For a moment there was nothing but running boots going in every direction as the soldiers scattered or flattened themselves against the locked gate. I tumbled to one side in case the archers above us still had their arrows trained on me. Coming up into a crouch, I spotted two archers atop the battlements above the gate. I couldn’t bring myself to kill them, given the mayhem I had already caused that day. I cast a calming spell on them.

Yet my mercy was wasted as archers on our side took advantage of their attackers’ defenselessness, sinking arrows deep into their chests. One slumped backwards, while the other toppled from the battlement, landing on his back on the cobbled roadway in front of us. Only then did I notice that he wore the uniform of a city guard, but with a different surcoat, one that bore an emblem of a black shrub on a red background.

“What in Oblivion is happening?” Torvar shouted as he tried to open the gates, without success.

“By Talos!” exclaimed one of the guards looking down at the fallen archer. “That’s Stieg! I was having a mug of ale with him just a few nights ago. And what’s he wearing?”

“It looks to be a poor depiction of a briar bush,” I said. “My guess is that Maven has taken the city in your absence, no doubt planning to hand it over to the victorious Imperial army, who would install her as jarl.” I told them of the plot I had overheard.

“That would explain why some of the retreating Imperials made for the Black-Briar Lodge. They must have used it as a staging area.” He looked up at the city walls and the locked gate for a long moment. “Gods!” he exclaimed, smashing his axe against his shield. “Do we have to lay siege to our own city?”

Just then we heard the sound of spells of lightning and fire being cast on the other side of the gate, a brief clash of steel, and a feline hiss. Then the gates themselves shuddered as something heavy hit them from the other side.

A moment later I heard a familiar female voice. “By Azura, these oafs are heavy. Come on, you lazy Khajiit, help me with them! And you two loitering about there, get over here and lend a hand.”

Then the gates opened and there stood Brelyna and J’zargo, with two members of the Thieves Guild standing behind them, looking contrite. Beyond, the bodies of two guards wearing the Black-Briar colors lay in the gutter.

I ran up to my friends. “Tell me Lydia is all right!”

“She’s fine,” said Brelyna, “or still the same, I should say. But it was well that you had us watch over her. A Dark Brotherhood assassin and two Black-Briar guards came to the temple to finish off any survivors from Whiterun, the ones Ingun hadn’t managed to poison.”

“And?”

“All three dead,” said J’zargo, polishing his claws on the cloth of his mage robes.

“What’s happening in the city now?” Torvar demanded.

“The townsfolk remain indoors. There are few guards about. Some were slain by the Dark Brotherhood or by their colleagues who had been turned by the Black-Briars. The Thieves Guild has been lurking about as usual, like these two, serving as lookouts for the insurrection. Maven is in Mistveil Keep, no doubt preparing to welcome a victorious Imperial Army. She will be surprised to see you – as were we!” she exclaimed, turning to me. “You’ll have to tell us how you managed it.”

“There’s no time for that,” said the captain. “We’re going to take back this city. Let’s go!”

“Brelyna,” I said. “I’ll be forever in your debt if you watch over Lydia for me one more time. As J’zargo is the better fighter at close quarters, he should come with us.” She agreed, though she looked after J’zargo with concern as she accompanied us as far as the temple.

We had but twenty fighters as we made our way through the streets of Riften, the rest having stayed behind at the field of battle to see to the wounded and the prisoners. Yet our ranks swelled as we went. Doors and windows opened a crack as we passed the city’s houses and inns, then we heard shouts of “They’ve returned!” and “We’re saved!” The people poured out onto the streets behind us, some armed with whatever they could find, cleavers, hatchets, even frying pans.

As we proceeded, another figure in Thieves Guild attire broke out of the shadows of a doorway to join us at the head of the procession. It was Brynjolf. “I want you to know, the Thieves Guild had no part of this, or only a little part,” he said, addressing first the captain and then me. “We’ve just been watching … mostly. You have to understand, we can’t operate without the protection of the powers that be, and we support those powers – whoever they might be.”

“Tell us what we’ll find inside the keep, sneak thief,” said the captain. “Your fate depends on the accuracy of your report.”

“Maven is inside the keep, along with her daughter and Anuriel. She has her mercenaries with her, about half a dozen, plus another half dozen of her converted guards. Our people are there too, but they’ll give you no trouble.”

“And the Dark Brotherhood?”

“They’ve melded back into the shadows. They want no part of open combat. Maven was paying for their services when I last saw them.”

“Very well. But if even one of your thugs lifts a weapon against us, I’ll make sure Skyrim is wiped clean of your little guild. Now lend us a hand.”

We continued toward the steps leading up to Mistveil Keep. Two guards stood before the doors, also wearing the new Black-Briar sigils. They made to flee as soon as they saw us, but my calming spell halted them. They looked on passively as the Stormcloaks bound their hands behind their backs.

The doors to the keep weren’t even barred. Maven must have been making ready to welcome the Imperials to the keep, because she was raising a goblet in a toast, her daughter Ingun on one side and the turncoat Anuriel on the other. Servants were filling cups on the long table that ran down the length of the throne room. It was a large chamber, and the throne on which Maven Black-Briar now sat was quite far away, yet I could see the smile freeze on her face as we burst through the doors. In the next instant, she leapt from the throne, her goblet clattering to the floor. She dashed for a doorway behind the throne, Anuriel and Ingun close behind.

J’zargo and one of the Stormcloaks took out the two inner door guards while I cast a pacifying spell on a cluster of mercenaries and Black-Briar guards standing about near the table. A few of them escaped its effects, but they had little enthusiasm for a fight with their comrades calmed and their employer fled. Neither did a group of thieves gathered about in the middle of the room, once they saw Brynjolf come through the door, shaking his head at them.

“Quickly! After Maven!” he shouted at them.

“Follow those thieves and make sure there’s no treachery,” the captain said, and several Stormcloaks followed Brynjolf and the other thieves after the jarl.

The soldiers were just dragging away the last of the mercenaries when the thieves returned, leading Maven and her two accomplices at sword-point. I don’t know whether Maven was more angry or confused. “How is it possible?” she demanded, looking straight at me. “That was an entire army. No ragged band of Stormcloaks and city guards could have stood against it, even with the aid of the Dragonborn, or so I thought. I did not know your power.”

“Nor did I,” I said. “But it is indeed awesome, what one can do from the back of a dragon.”

“I should have had Ingun poison you when I had the chance.”

“You won’t get the chance to make that mistake again, Maven,” Torvar said. “It’s the executioner’s block for you at dawn. Your daughter and the elf will spend the rest of their lives rotting in a cell.”

A great cheer rose up from the crowd of townsfolk who had poured into the keep behind us. “Serves her right,” one said. “Selling that damned over-priced mead. Always tasted like honey laced with lye to me.”

“And what of Unmid?” Anuriel had the gall to ask.

“He survived the suicidal tactic you goaded him into,” I said, “but not the treachery of his own guardsmen.” She actually looked sad at the news.

 

*~*~*

 

J’zargo and I entered the Temple of Mara to find Elgrim administering Lydia’s poison cure.

“I’ve only been able to get a few drops past her lips, but already she seems better,” he said.

I looked at her and saw more color in her cheeks than I had in days.

“I must get back to my shop,” Elgrim went on. “To think! My apprentice, a poisoner! It could be the end of my trade. Just give Lydia as much of the potion as she will take until the bottle is empty. If my potion can cure the Hero of Whiterun, I may be able to save my reputation!”

Elgrim left, and I sat on the edge of Lydia’s cot, taking her by the hand. J’zargo and Brelyna sat on the cot next to hers, and Sister Dinya was nearby. I put the potion bottle to her lips, but she spluttered when I tipped it too far. I corked the bottle and sat chafing her wrists, willing her to get better. It seemed that only Lydia opening her eyes and smiling at me could wash away the bitter remorse I still felt.

“I have to say,” said Brelyna, “I was never more surprised and pleased than when I saw you and the soldiers returning through the woods from the temple’s bell tower.” It was the only structure overlooking the city’s eastern wall, but somehow, no one had thought to make it a lookout. “I truly thought we’d seen the last of you when you left here, the odds seemed so against you. Yet you don’t seem happy with your victory.”

I kept looking at Lydia as I told them what had happened – what I had done. I could not look at my friends, and certainly not at Dinya, who had tried to teach me about love and compassion – for naught, as it turned out.

“Pfft,” J’zargo hissed. “Those Imperials would have done the same to you, without even a first thought. It is the way of war.”

“For once, the Khajiit speaks true,” said Brelyna. “You cannot blame yourself. You did not set these events in motion.”

“But you don’t understand! You can’t imagine the hatred I had in my heart. I felt only joy at those soldiers’ deaths. And I felt only glory in the greatness of my power.”

“Oh dear,” was all Brelyna could say.

“I still can’t understand how my love for Lydia led to such rage, and such horror.”

“It is as I told you when last you were here,” said Sister Dinya. “Love for those closest to us – our lovers, our spouses, our families – it is only a start. We must expand that love to include our neighbors, our fellow townsfolk, our countrymen, all beings. For all beings feel this same love, and suffer at its loss. I know you already have this compassion within you, you just forgot it for a moment.”

I looked up at her. “Do you really think so?”

“You may think it was your parents who spoke to you, but I say it was your own heart. You turned aside from the evil you had caused, from the evil voice inside you, and found your compassion. You should not be so hard on yourself. Most would have done worse, given the same power.”

That seemed small consolation. I did not know what to say, and kept looking at Lydia.

“Come,” said the priestess. “Receive Mara’s blessing. I will not say it will wash away the evil you think you have caused, but it will help restore your compassion. And it will strengthen your healing efforts.”

I let her lead me to the temple’s altar, where she had me kneel. I looked up at Mara’s statue, with its tear-stained face looking to the heavens. I couldn’t help wondering how much more suffering I had added to her burden of woe on this day. Yet I felt the blessing wash over me just the same, and I felt some of the guilt and remorse ease.

Then I returned to Lydia and tried putting a few more drops of the potion between her lips. Her color was improving and her breathing was stronger. I put my ear to her chest and felt her heartbeat, now strong and regular. Then we sat with her, awaiting further improvement.

In another hour, she opened her eyes and looked at me. I thought I had never seen such a glad sight as the smile that crossed her face when she saw me. Then I was able to get her to swallow a whole mouthful of the cure.

“My thane,” she said. “You returned.”

“And so did you, my love,” I said, stroking her hair.

By evening she was able to sit up and drink the rest of the potion, then begin taking sips of broth sent over from the Bee and Barb.

“Where am I?” she asked, becoming more alert.

“You’re in Riften, in the Temple of Mara.”

“And the battle you spoke of?”

“The Imperial Legion tried to take the city.”

“And you held them off?”

I nodded.

“That’s my thane,” she said, smiling. Then the smile was replaced with sorrow. “The elves, they attacked Whiterun!”

“I know.”

“We lost so many! We couldn’t hold them off, more just kept coming. My comrades and friends kept falling all around me and the shield walls could not hold.”

“Yet you saved the people of Whiterun, my love. Nearly all of them got to safety.”

“Really?”

“Yes, thanks to you. Everyone says that without you, the elves would have had a slaughter not seen since the Night of Tears. And also thanks to Aela and Vilkas and Avulstein. And J’zargo and Brelyna here, they helped to protect the children.”

“And the children? They survived?”

“Most, not all.”

“Harry and Huldi?”

“They’re fine.”

She looked around at the wounded on the cots surrounding us. “And Onmund?”

I shook my head. “He gave his life so yours could be saved, Mara bless him.”

She looked away from me, crying bitter tears. “I should have fallen there with my brothers and sisters, so many of them fell around me, and I was their captain!”

Brelyna came over and sat beside us, taking Lydia’s hand. “Do not say that. It was Onmund’s gift, and a noble one, to you and to Deirdre. You cannot reject it.”

Lydia closed her eyes and her tears gradually waned. Then she looked at me. “You pursued Alduin to Sovngarde. I thought never to see you again, whether you returned or no.”

“But I did return, and only for you, my love.” Then I knew it was time to make my apology. I reached behind my neck and undid the clasp on the Amulet of Mara.

“What? You no longer want to marry me?”

“I am giving the amulet to you, my love.” I put the necklace into her hands. “For my part, I will love you for as long as you will have me, whether it is for an hour, or a day, or a year. I would not force you into the bonds of matrimony, and I am forever sorry I tried to do so. Perhaps one day, if you decide the time is right, you will wear the amulet for me.”

Lydia held the amulet before her and gazed long at it. Then she spoke. “It seemed an eternity that I walked the death-road. I thought I saw a light up ahead. Whether it was Aetherius or Sovngarde, I knew not.”

“Sovngarde, surely!” Brelyna and J’zargo exclaimed at once.

“Yet always I heard a voice, your voice, calling me back. And I would come back, but I could not. I turned my back on the light and tried to follow your voice, and for a long time it seemed it got no closer. Sometimes it faded to nothing at all. But then it did grow nearer, and now here I am, with you.” She looked for a long moment at the amulet. Then she put it around her own neck and looked at me and waited.

“Is that … is that an Amulet of Mara?” I asked, following the ancient forms, though I was barely able to speak.

“Fancy me, do you?” she replied, also following the custom, a mischievous glint in her eye. “Let’s not waste any time. Let’s get married right away!”

“Oh, my Lydia!” I fell into her arms, burying my face in her breast. I cried and cried, all of the anger and worry and sadness of the last days flowing out of me, and more, the strain I had felt since the Greybeards had first called me Dovahkiin and laid that heavy burden upon me, and even more, the grief and rage I had borne within me since losing my parents and my home – all of it washed away in my tears. By the time I was done, the front of Lydia’s tunic was soaked.

“Oh, my love, I was a fool!” I exclaimed. “I never should have pushed you into marriage so soon.”

“No, I was the fool,” she said. “I should have accepted you right away, as my heart bade me. And now I would never be parted with you ever again.”

We kissed then, a long, deep kiss that made the temple seem to spin.

“Ah,” said J’zargo. “Two fools in love. This one thinks you should get a room at the Bee and Barb.”

“They are hardly the biggest fools in this room,” Brelyna said acidly. Lydia and I laughed as she cuffed J’zargo’s ear, but more playfully than usual. Then they were kissing as well, Brelyna wrinkling her nose at J’zargo’s whiskers.

“Ah, love!” Dinya Balu observed happily. “It always finds a way.”

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