The Song of Deirdre – Chap. 57

 

Mistveil Keep

 

“You!” came a harsh voice from behind me. I felt a hand on my shoulder, spinning me around. I turned to see Proventus Avenicci, a knapsack slung over his back and an expression of rage on his face.

Lydia and I had been walking through Riften’s market plaza, crowded this morning with cityfolk returning from Maven’s execution at Mistveil Keep. I had wanted no part of it, choosing this moment instead to walk Lydia from the temple to the Bee and Barb, where I had found us a room. She was still weak, and had to lean on my shoulder.

Proventus seemed to have aged a score of years since last I had seen him, with new lines of grief and worry marking his brow and his hair several shades more gray. “You!” he said again. “It’s your fault! And now my daughter … she was all I cared about in the world!”

Lydia gasped. “Not Adrianne! She was a hale fighter! She was in my shield wall, and Ulfberth.” Adrianne and Lydia had been close, Lydia often going to her for armor or weapon repairs, and learning much smithing from her.

“Yet, she fell, and Ulfberth too, along with many that day. Oh, no one is blaming you, Lydia Ravenwood. Without your leadership none of us would be here, we all saw that. But this one … None of it would have happened without her.” He turned to me. “I knew you were trouble the day you walked into Dragonsreach. But Balgruuf paid me no heed, to his ruin, and our city’s.”

“Balgruuf’s decisions were his own,” I said, “and none of them justified the atrocities committed by the Thalmor. Nor did any action of mine. Or would you have Lydia and me languishing under the torment of the Aldmeri torturers? Should I have delivered my head to the Imperials after my interrupted execution? No, I will apologize for none of my actions, though I am deeply saddened by your loss, and everyone’s losses. Direct your anger instead at the Thalmor, the perpetrators of that slaughter.”

He looked back and forth from Lydia to me, finding nothing to say to my speech. Then he turned away.

“Wait!” Lydia said. “What will you do now?”

“My time in Skyrim is done. I have discharged my duties to the people of Whiterun, seeing that they are cared for in Windhelm and here in Riften.”

“But Whiterun will need rebuilding once we take it back from the elves,” Lydia said. “We could use your help.”

“That’s as may be, but either way, it will happen without me. I want nothing more of politics or war. I have property outside Bruma. I will return there and lead a quiet life and try to forget.” With that, he turned and walked toward the city gate.

“Adrianne too!” Lydia cried, looking after him. “And her husband! Why didn’t I think to ask after them sooner? But there are so many! So many lost and scattered!”

She looked to the skies then, and her eyes had something of that lost look they had worn during her torture. I wondered how she could bear this new grief. Telling her of her father’s death had been one of the hardest things I’d ever done, yet she had already known of it, having seen him fall in the first defense of the city. And when she learned the news of Balgruuf, I thought she would never rise from her bed in the temple. The jarl had been like a second father to her.

I reached up and stroked her hair and turned her face to look at me, to let her know that I at least was still with her. Then she leaned on my shoulder and wept, the only cure for her grief. The people in the plaza, both friends from Whiterun and strangers from Riften, came up to offer their condolences. And all the time I could only think how many other families in Cyrodiil, Hammerfell, and Orsinium would be crying similar tears once they had news of the Battle of the Rift Pass.

Finally Lydia dried her eyes. “Look at me, eating my words,” she said. “Do you remember I told you that we soldiers learned to accept death? Yet I never thought to see so much of it, to see so many of my family and friends and comrades fall all around me. May they be received with honor in Sovngarde! And, thank Akatosh, you made it safe for them to travel there, my love.” With that thought she tried to smile, yet it seemed a small comfort.

And that was the way of it, during the fortnight we spent in Riften waiting for Lydia to recover from her poisoning. There was much to mourn, but also much to celebrate, not least our impending wedding.

Now, you might think we would be eager to set out for Whiterun and drive the elves from our home, and we were. Yet two considerations counseled patience: Lydia’s weakened state, and the deep snows that had closed the passes leading into Whiterun Hold. Too, I did not trust myself to go near Whiterun – not until I felt a greater measure of control over my dragon soul. To gain that, I would have to travel once again to High Hrothgar. There too the snows were deep, and I would not leave Lydia behind so soon after our reunion.

And so we settled in to plan for the wedding, which grew from an intimate occasion into a grand affair seemingly overnight. “Let’s get married right away!” Lydia had said, but this would take time. Still, nothing could have been more joyous than spending time together in the planning of it, going over our vows with Sister Dinya, deciding what we each would wear, whom to invite, and what to feed the guests at the wedding feast. The truth was, we would have been happy stringing hagraven claws into necklaces, as long as we could do it together.

Yet it was a somber time as well, as we remembered all the friends who would be absent from our celebration – Onmund chief among these for me, as well as Mirabelle Ervine, who had been like a mother to me, and Thorald, who had stood up for me when few others would. And of course I could not think of those missing from my life without thinking of my parents. It was worse for Lydia, having lost both her father and her liege lord, and so many of her hirth-fellows and friends from the Whiterun guard. Often I would look up from making out an invitation to see her staring into space, a tear running down her cheek.

And so we made out our guest list that first day after her recovery, unable to forget those we could no longer invite, but trying to be glad for all those we could. We fell into bed, exhausted, still unaware of what such an extensive guest list would entail. It was still quite early. Lydia remained weak, despite eating three gargantuan meals in the inn’s mead-hall. For my part, it seemed I had not had a proper night’s sleep since returning from Sovngarde. We could do no more than lay in each other’s arms, yet it was the sweetest feeling I had ever had – to know that these were the arms that would hold me for the rest of my life.

 

*~*~*

 

As the guest list grew, we soon realized that the wedding could not be held until the following Loredas, allowing everyone time to receive their invitations and travel to Riften. And as the time until the wedding lengthened and word of it spread, so did its complexity. We received offers of assistance from all quarters – from bakers and butchers and fishmongers; from chefs and winemakers, from musicians and mummers and jugglers, from dress-makers and flower-arrangers. Everyone wanted to be part of the wedding of the Dragonborn and the Hero of Whiterun. This would not be just our wedding, but a celebration of the salvation of Riften.

As  the list of details involved with the wedding grew, we began to feel overwhelmed. I had no experience with such an undertaking. Lydia had an excellent head for the logistics of expeditions and battle tactics, but not for the finer points of seating arrangements and the proper order of courses in a banquet. “I’d almost rather fight a dragon priest,” Lydia said. Our heads were spinning by the time J’zargo and Brelyna found us late one day, still going over lists at our table in the inn.

“You two look like you’ve been herding dogs,” J’zargo said.

“I never knew a wedding could be so complicated,” I moaned.

Brelyna sat down next to me. “Look, I often helped my family’s steward plan lavish events for the rest of House Telvanni. Why don’t you let me organize the wedding for you?”

“Really?” I asked.

“Of course! It’s your day. The two of you should enjoy it, and you won’t be able to if you’ve worked yourselves half to death arranging the event. And Lydia, you still need to regain your strength after your ordeal. Fresh air and exercise would be better for you than spending your days cooped up in the inn, going over lists.”

It was true, Lydia’s strength had returned but slowly over the few days since her recovery, and she still seemed alarmingly thin. Her cheeks remained hollow, which accentuated her cheekbones all the more, yet it was not an effect I appreciated. Worse, she had thoughtlessly given the Riften tailor her old measurements, and now was in danger of having her wedding dress hang off her like a sack. It would take some serious work at table to allow her to fill it out properly.

Now Lydia smiled at Brelyna. “Your college friends are growing on me all the time, my love,” she said. “Shall we retire upstairs for some … rest?”

I couldn’t help smiling. “Gladly, my love,” I said. Then I turned to Brelyna and J’zargo. “And what about the two of you? Shall we have a double wedding? They’re very popular in stories.”

My friends choked on their mead. “Err, no,” said Brelyna when she could speak again. “I could not marry without my parents’ blessing. They would send me to the Sisters of the Tribunal if I dared even to bring home a Dunmer from House Redoran. And a Khajiit? They would disown me, and send my brothers after J’zargo.”

“Besides,” he said, “many are the females across Tamriel who have yet to experience the greatness of J’zargo. This one would not deny them.”

The thwack of Brelyna boxing J’zargo’s ears brought conversation to a halt at the tables nearest us. “Arrogant cat,” she said. “No, as you can see, things must remain as they are until fate – or this one’s lascivious nature – parts us.”

With Brelyna’s kind offer, we took advantage of our free time, going for long walks in the winter woods or riding along the shores of Lake Honrich. Winter in the Rift was mild, and we would pack food for a noonday meal on a tor overlooking the lake. Returning to the city, Lydia would spend several hours practicing with the guard at Mistveil Keep, working on archery and blade skills. At first, she could barely draw back the string on her stout bow, but over the days her strength returned. She sometimes enlisted me as a sparring partner, always insisting that I work on my own poor sword skills.

As the days went on, Lydia seemed to forget her grief. She was voracious at table, even more so in our bed-chamber, and she fought in the yard as if her life depended on it. She laughed out loud at every joke and jested with equal gusto, her eyes bright. But I didn’t trust it. She seemed too determined to be happy, and her laughter had a hollow ring to it. She was living every day as if it were her last, and I could only guess why. Yet I shouldn’t have wondered, for I felt much the same. I seized these moments of happiness, hoping they would allow me to forget my dark deeds at the Rift Pass.

One afternoon, as we were returning from the keep, I heard Grelka the arms seller say, “That’s the Dragonborn right there.” I turned to see a young Nord making for us. He wore a simple tunic and no arms or armor, only a dagger at his belt. But his boots were of the type worn by Imperial soldiers – I had seen enough of those on the battlefield.

He looked at me cautiously as he approached. “Are … are you … the Dragonborn?”

“Please, call me Deirdre.”

“You … you seem smaller than you did on the back of that dragon.”

“You were at the Rift Pass?”

“I was. And I owe you my life.” He went to one knee before me. “Many of my comrades died brave deaths that day, but I was not given that opportunity. Now I must offer you my life in your service.”

These Nords and their morbid hunger for death! I wanted to tell him there was nothing particularly heroic about dying in a dragon’s fire. Cowards could do it as easily as the brave. But I refrained, saying only, “I accept your gratitude, but I command no followers. If you would do my bidding, then join the Stormcloaks and help them push the Aldmeri Dominion from Skyrim.”

“Aye,” he said. “I heard of the butchery at Whiterun. I see now that I have been on the wrong side. I will gladly serve with the Stormcloaks, but still I will owe my allegiance to you.” With that, he turned and headed toward Mistveil Keep.

When he was gone, I noticed Lydia looking somberly after him. “What’s wrong, my love?” I asked.

“It is always sad to see a soldier so humiliated.”

“Humiliated? I thought he was grateful for the mercy I gave his army.”

“No, it was his duty to pledge his service to the one who spared his life. Yet he will always resent you in some measure for robbing him of the chance to die a good death.”

“I will never agree with that part of your warrior’s code.”

“But my love, you told him something else that is not quite true. You do command one follower. I am still your housecarl.”

I turned to her and took her by the arms. “Then I release you from my service.”

“What?” she exclaimed.

“We are companions, partners, and soon to be woman and wife, wife and woman. I will not have you serve me, but share in all things equally, as we may.”

She looked at me with confusion for a moment. “May I still protect you with my life?”

“As I will protect you,” I said.

“And may I continue setting and striking camp on our journeys in the wilderness?”

“If you insist. But you must allow me to help with the washing up.”

“Very well,” she said, smiling, then we walked arm in arm back to the Bee and Barb, where she finished a roast leg of goat on her own, washing it down with several mugs of ale. She was making excellent progress regaining her lost weight. As she became more jovial, talking with the inn’s regulars, they asked her once again to tell the story of the Retreat from Whiterun.

She cast her eyes down at the table. “No. Ask me instead to tell of battles with dragons and draugr, but I will never speak of the day when duty bound me to die with my jarl and my hirth-fellows, yet I did not.”

 

*~*~*

 

Fredas arrived, the day before the wedding. I had lost count of the Nord soldiers who had returned from Cyrodiil offering me their service, and now the guests began to arrive for the wedding as well. This brought many happy meetings. Tolfdir came from the college, along with Colette, Nirya, and Drevis. I was surprised that so many of them cared to make the journey. I had told them the news about Onmund in my invitation, and I was glad not to have to repeat the tale now.

Our friends from the Whiterun guard who had gone to Windhelm also began to arrive. Among these was Badnir, who clasped Lydia in a bear hug when he saw her. “I thought we’d lost you, lass. I gave this one quite a fright, I’m sure, when she came looking for you. I thought you’d already begun walking the death road. But you look right as rain now, if a little thin.”

To my surprise, Esbern and Delphine did accept my invitation. With the Blades came the other guests from the Reach: Enmon, Mena, and Fjotra, accompanied by Sister Senna. Meeting them at the city gate, I knelt before the child. “I am honored that the Sybil of Dibella would make time for our wedding.”

“But you saved me,” she said, “you, and Lydia too. I couldn’t miss it!”

I turned to Sister Senna and smiled, though I could feel the color rising in my cheeks. “And you are most welcome as well.”

She gave me a knowing look. “I am so glad to be part of this happy occasion,” she said, “since I feel I had some small part in bringing it about. When you dashed out of our temple, I knew it could not be long before you realized your true nature.”

“It is amazing how much I didn’t know about myself,” I said, wondering how much I still didn’t know.

“My only regret is that I could not give you instruction before your wedding day. Perhaps you would like a group lesson before the ceremony?” She looked back and forth between Lydia and me.

Lydia took my arm. “We’re fine without any lessons, aren’t we my love?”

“Well, as you wish,” Senna said, looking at me regretfully.

Fjotra interrupted just then, wanting Lydia to tell her parents about her bravery and skill with ropes on the day of her rescue. I took the opportunity to greet Esbern and Delphine. “Thank you for coming, and for protecting these friends on their road. I know we have had our difficulties.”

“We felt it our duty,” said Delphine. “And we wanted to congratulate you on your victory over Alduin. The entire world is in your debt.”

It was strange, with everything that had happened since my return from Sovngarde, the fulfillment of my destiny and the saving of the world seemed but small things, already part of the distant past. “Surely now we can put aside our differences and forget about punishing Paarthurnax,” I said.

“Certainly not!” said Esbern. “Your victory over the World Eater is but the beginning. Without their leader, the dragons are vulnerable, and we can finally wipe them from the face of Nirn. We hoped you’d have a change of heart with Alduin out of the way.”

“We must continue to disagree,” I said. “I spoke with Paarthurnax on my return from Sovngarde. He went off to coax the dov into more peaceful ways. And this city owes its freedom to another dragon, Odahviing.”

“Ah, so your alliance with the dragons is deeper than I suspected! Know then that we will continue our hunt for the dragons wherever they may be. We are amassing a force of dragon hunters at the Karthspire.”

“Then you will undo the peace Paarthurnax is trying to forge between the dov and the joorre.

“There can be no such peace! Not when the dragons still have blood on their talons! Now we must bid you good day before we both say something we cannot take back. We will attend your wedding out of respect for your status as the Dragonborn and for your victory, then we will take our leave.”

“That was not such a happy meeting,” Lydia said when they were gone.

Another less than happy meeting took place later that day when we met Silda and Lisbet in Haelga’s Bunkhouse, where many of Whiterun’s less fortunate refugees were staying. It was the first they had seen of Lydia since Fort Amol, yet there were no hugs or kisses or exclamations of joy at her recovery. She greeted them stiffly as I stood off to one side.

“I thought we’d seen the last of you when they put you in that wagon,” Silda said. “But I’m glad you made it through.”

“Thank you for that, mother,” Lydia said.

“I wish I could say the same for your father. You couldn’t have saved him while you were saving the rest?”

Lydia seemed to crumple then. “There were many I couldn’t save that day…”

It took everything I had not to come to my love’s defense, but I knew it would do no good.

After a stiff silence, Silda went on. “And now you intend to marry this one.” She didn’t quite sneer as she said it.

That roused Lydia from pondering the loss of her father. “Deirdre saved this city, not to mention all Mundus! How could you have anything against her?”

“She’s a great hero, no doubt. Oh, Lydia, why couldn’t you have stayed with us and married some nice farm lad?”

“We’ve been over that before. Deirdre and I hoped we would have your blessing, mother, since father cannot give it.”

Her mother was silent, but Lisbet spoke up. “At least we’ll get a nice meal out of it, better than the gruel they serve here. Come, mother.” The two turned their backs on us and returned to the bunkhouse’s dormitory.

“Would it help if I paid them your bride price?” I asked as we left the building. Lydia gave me a look that told me never to mention such an idea again.

Evening came, and guests were still arriving. Gerdur and Hod stepped into the Bee and Barb, looking careworn and footsore. “Gerdur!” I exclaimed, jumping up to hug her. “I’m so glad you received our invitation! I wasn’t sure if the courier would get through.”

Yet Gerdur looked surprised to see me. “Invitation? No, we left Riverwood right after news reached us of the Thalmor attacking Whiterun. We knew we couldn’t stay there, and Riften seemed the only safe place where we could seek shelter. But we were waylaid by bandits in the ruins of Helgen. Once we escaped them, we got caught in the winter snows on the pass into the Rift. But what are you doing here? The last news that reached us was that you had trapped a dragon in Dragonsreach and meant to fly off on it.”

When all was explained, Gerdur looked at Lydia appraisingly for a moment, then clasped me in a hug. “I am so happy for you.” Then she looked at me more seriously. “I still remember that morning you left for Bleak Falls Barrow,” she said. “And to think how scared I was for you! But now look how mighty you have grown.”

“Oh, Gerdur,” I said. “Many times I have wished I could have stayed there with you in Riverwood, maybe helping with the mill, or with Arcadia in Whiterun, helping her with her potions. How often have I wished that I could lead a simple life, that none of this had happened! Save only for meeting my Lydia, of course.”

She looked at me with those same gentle eyes that had turned me aside from my plans for revenge, so long ago. “No, lass, you were meant for great things. I could see it the first day you came into Riverwood, you had such a fire in your belly. I only hoped … you and Ralof …”

“I know. Ralof is like a brother to me, and I hope you will still consider me part of the family.”

“Of course I do. And, have you seen him?”

“We sent an invitation to Windhelm. Whether he can get away from the war…”

And just then the door to the inn burst open and Ralof walked in, a group of soldiers behind him. He didn’t know who to hug first, but chose Gerdur, it had been so long since they had seen each other. Then I saw who followed him: Ulfric Stormcloak. Ralof picked me up in his usual bear hug and I tried to smile happily as Ulfric watched us with an expression I couldn’t read.

Ralof put me back down and looked at me, holding me by the shoulders. “Ah, lass, it looks like saving the world hasn’t changed you a bit,” he said, though there was something doubtful in his eyes that showed he saw some change in me.

“I am glad to see you, my friend. And I am glad you were able to take time out from the war.”

“Not even the Thalmor could keep me away from your wedding!” He turned to Lydia. “And such a bride! We have all heard what you did at Whiterun! It is an honor to be in your presence, Captain Ravenwood.”

I had forgotten – Lydia had earned the rank of captain when Balgruuf put her in charge of the retreat.

“Please, Ralof, I hope we’re friends. You can call me Lydia.”

I put my hand on Ralof’s arm. “Will you stand with me at my wedding, my brother?”

“I will, gladly.”

“And I will stand with Lydia if there’s no one else,” said Gerdur. I thought my heart would burst then.

Finally I turned to Ulfric, who stood there glowering at me. “Welcome to our wedding, Jarl Ulfric,” was all I could think of to say.

“I don’t know whether to reward you for the victory you won for us here, or to clap you in irons for letting a battalion of Imperials escape unharmed. I don’t know what to make of you, lass.”

“No one does, it seems. I hardly know what to make of myself.”

“Still, it’s a great power you wield now, with that dragon at your call. We could use your help.”

“And I will help, if the goal is to drive the Thalmor from our shores.”

“Aye, and the Imperial dogs and every damned milk-drinker as well.”

“Enough of this talk of war on Deirdre’s wedding eve,” said Brelyna. “Surely there is time for that when the celebrating is over.”

“Very well,” Ulfric said. “But then we must make plans.”

 

*~*~*

 

The wedding was like a dream, but someone else’s dream, not my own. Unlike the other girls in our village, I had never spent much time imagining this happy day, and I certainly never could have imagined it like this. The event had come to serve as a celebration of the salvation of Riften, and the entire town had turned out, along with much of the surrounding hold, thronging the streets. Lydia and I rode to the temple in separate wagons decorated with rich fabrics, the crowd calling out our names as we passed.

I arrived at the temple first, the crowd clapping and cheering and calling out, “The Savior of Riften!” I wore a richly decorated tunic for the occasion. It had been so long since I had worn a dress, I couldn’t imagine donning one now. I considered my suit quite fancy, with gold threading down the legs of the breeches, boots of the softest leather with gold buckles, calf-skin gloves, and a hat with a single feather that the tailor insisted went perfectly with the ensemble. It was a fine set of clothes, but nothing to draw particular attention, and I liked it that way. I waved to the people gathered on the left and right of the stairs as I made my way up to the temple, shaking the hands of those I knew. Then I turned at the landing to await my love, Ralof standing beside me.

A gasp went through the crowd when Lydia’s wagon came into view and the crowd finally got a glimpse of her. She wore a stunning gown, unwilling as she was to pass up this opportunity to be a lass for a change. The dress was of white silk – certainly not for purity, she said, but to set off her jet black hair. The skirt was wide and flowing, nearly touching the ground, but the bodice was laced tight, with long sleeves and a plunging neckline. She had once said she would leave the cleavage to the tavern wenches, but now the most well endowed mead-hall lass might be envious. She had done well at table to fill out the gown to such advantage. On her brow she wore a silver and sapphire circlet, and she carried a bouquet of flowers in purples and golds, dried, of course, at this time of year. The overall effect was stunning.

But there was something more than the dress. One might expect a woman of such size and strength to have some coarseness to her movements. But as she took the drayman’s hand to step down from the wagon, she showed that dancer’s grace that, when brought to battle made her a formidable opponent, but now in this setting made her seem elegant.

The crowd was silent for a moment, then erupted in applause as Lydia began walking slowly toward me, smiling at the crowd all around. I spotted little girls at the edge of the steps, looking up at her in awe, and I wondered what they dreamed of as they saw her – the glowing bride, or the mighty Hero of Whiterun? Some of our friends from the guard were gathered on the steps as well, the men looking as if they had been struck between the eyes with the haft of an axe, their jaws slack. They knew all about their sword-sister’s battle prowess, but this was a Lydia Ravenwood they had never seen.

For my part, I glowed with pride for my soon to be warrior-wife, loving her equally in all her parts. I could not have been more happy as I watched her climb the steps, her eyes beaming up at me.

And then came the one moment that marred the day. The fellow who spoke must have thought I couldn’t hear him over the applause of the crowd. “Well, knock me over with a feather! Look which one’s wearing the dress.”

“Told you, Haming,” came a woman’s voice. “It was easy to see which of them wears the breeches. Now hand over that gold.”

I couldn’t imagine what they were saying, but I knew I was blushing. Was there some rule that we had to play roles of male and female at our wedding? Or in our lives together? I had never heard of such a thing. We had chosen to wear what made us comfortable. Although, looking at the tight lacing on Lydia’s bodice, it didn’t seem likely to be comfortable at all. But she was enjoying the attention it brought her, and why shouldn’t she? I knew those charms were all for me. But did that make me a man? No, I was a woman, though I had never cared for girlish things, and a woman who happened to love Lydia Ravenwood. Looking at her coming up the steps toward me, I couldn’t imagine anyone, man or woman, not loving her as I did.

She arrived at the landing and I put the rude words from my mind. I took her hand and we went inside for the ceremony.

 

*~*~*

 

I thought I was done with surprises, but the day held one more. We had gathered in the throne room of Mistveil Keep for the wedding banquet, this being the only space large enough to hold such a throng of guests. Even then, the courtyard of the keep and the city’s market plaza had been given over to the celebration for all those who could not fit inside. Food and drink stalls had been set up and there were musicians and jugglers and dancers and a great bonfire.

Inside the keep, Lydia and I sat at the center of the high table that had taken the place of the jarl’s throne, with Ralof and Gerdur on either side of us. Sister Dinya, who had married us, was there, and Fjotra out of respect for her sacred status, and Silda and Lisbet, who for the first time in my experience didn’t wear sour expressions. Harry and Huldi sat next to Fjotra, since they were of an age with her. Brelyna and J’zargo were a little further down, and Arcadia, and some of Lydia’s closest hirth-fellows. Jarl Laila Law-Giver occupied a high seat at one end of the table and Ulfric Stormcloak the other, carrying on a desultory conversation with one of Lydia’s soldier friends.

Our other guests and friends perforce had to sit at the lower tables – our friends from the guard, Avulstein, Vilkas and Aela, my other colleagues from the college. Then there were the Stormcloaks and Riften guards with whom I had defended the city and an array of the most prominent townspeople. Even Brynjolf was there, at the lowest end of the lowest table, having earned his and the Thieves Guild’s way back into the jarl’s good graces. Delphine and Esbern were there too, looking grim and speaking only to each other.

Before the feast began, we paused to pay homage to those lost in the defense of Riften and the retreat from Whiterun. The hall grew silent as we pondered our losses and said our own private prayers for the dead. Then we turned to feasting, making as merry as we could.

Course after course came out of the keep’s kitchen, as well as from the Bee and Barb. Brelyna and the jarl’s cook must have worked closely to plan such a feast. First there was a slaughterfish pie, then roasted squash stuffed with nuts, raisins, and the last of the year’s dried apples, followed by squabs baked in individual clay pots, filled with onions, herbs, and the wild grain that grew around the edges of Lake Honrich. There were two soups, a broth of leeks, sausage, fennel, and preserved tomatoes, and a chowder of shellfish brought over from the shore near Windhelm, made rich with cream and sweet butter. The height of the feast was roast pig drowning in a reduction of tart berries and Black-Briar Mead – the Black-Briars might be traitors, but their brew was the best to be had – served with roasted potatoes.

Lydia and I alternated between talking with those friends closest to us and waving down to our friends and acquaintances at the low tables, but mostly we took turns feeding each other bites of food, wiping smears of sauce from each other’s faces, and smiling happily into each other’s eyes. Midway through the feast, she asked me to loosen the laces on her bodice, she was getting so full, prompting a cry of “Now, now, save that for later!” and uproarious laughter from the low tables. Even those closest to us smiled, and Ralof blushed deeply.

The servants were clearing away the last trenchers of roast pig and preparing to bring out the cake when Jarl Laila rose from her seat and called for silence. “Honored guests, as we are gathered here today not just to honor the marriage of Deirdre and Lydia, but to celebrate the preservation of our city, I have arranged for a special entertainment.” She gestured toward the doorway at the back of the throne room and out came Malukah, the bard. Judging by the applause she received upon her introduction, she was well known in Riften, yet this was the first I had seen of her.

She approached the jarl, lute in hand, and asked if she could have a word with me before beginning. Jarl Laila nodded and Malukah came over to me. I rose to greet her, a bit unsteady on my feet from the many goblets of wine. She tipped her head slightly when we were face to face.

“You are well on your way to fulfilling your destiny, Dragonborn,” she said.

I had to laugh. “I thought I had already fulfilled it, surely!”

She smiled too. “You have made an excellent start, but I still say you are only halfway to all you will achieve.”

“But why are you still in Skyrim? I thought you’d be home in Bravil by now.”

She rolled her eyes. “So did I. But before I could earn my passage, the ice made travel by sea too dangerous for my liking. And so I came south by land, but here in Riften I was robbed by one of those Thieves Guild cut-purses. Since then I’ve been playing all over the Rift and even as far as Falkreath. I will go home when the high passes open in the spring, and tonight’s engagement should help pay my way.”

“Excuse me one moment,” I said to her, then turned to look down at the far end of the low table where Brynjolf was sitting. “Oi, sneak thief!” I called, harking back to my days of bandying about with thieves. When I had his attention I nodded at Malukah and gave him my sternest look of disgust. He hung his head, then rose and left the keep. “I believe you will receive full reparation,” I said to her.

“Thank you. Now, I hope you can keep your eyes from your lovely bride long enough to pay close heed to my song. It’s especially for you. And remember, bards don’t just sing about history, sometimes we make it.”

She returned to her spot near Jarl Laila’s end of the table, where everyone could see her. The jarl called for silence by rapping a spoon against a goblet.

“I would like to dedicate this song to the Dragonborn, and to her bride, who is both valorous and lovely. It is a song of many parts, old and new, Common Tongue and Dovah Zul, some of it well known, some recently discovered, and some of my own composition.”

Then she began. It was “The Tale of the Tongues,” at least at first. This was a lay of the Dragon Wars, telling of Alduin’s rule over the Nords, followed by their rebellion using the Voice. It ended with Alduin vanquished from the world and the dragons wiped out. In hindsight, it seemed historically inaccurate, or at the least premature, yet the bards of Skyrim had taken to dedicating it to me since I had defeated Alduin. I had even heard it sung badly in the Bee and Barb.

But Malukah’s version was far different. There was her voice, of course, unmatched in all of Skyrim, accompanied by her resonant lute and the magical effect that made it sound as if an Aetherial choir sang behind her. Then there were her additions to the song. After the first verse, all about Alduin’s terrible reign, she added a chorus in Dovah from “The Song of the Dragonborn,” the part that said I was bound to keep evil forever at bay. Then she moved to the song’s last verse, changing it to tell of my victory over the World Eater.

A savior has freed us from Alduin’s rage,
A hero on the field of this new war she waged.
And now that Alduin’s gone, we are safe in this world,

Freed from the shadow of black wings unfurled.

Then she added two verses of her own, the Aetherial choir growing louder, the strumming of the lute more insistent, the register a step higher.

But now comes a new threat to Tamriel’s shore,
The Aldmeri Dominion would rule men once more.
Fair Whiterun they pillaged, and its walls could not hold,
Now the people owe their lives to brave Lydia the Bold.

 

So Tamriel must rise up and fight as if one,
From Skyrim to Blackmarsh, until the battle is won.
The Dragonborn will unite us, bring the freedom that we crave,
For the elves will not rest ’til we’re all in our graves.

 

The last notes of the lute faded from the hall. There was no applause, no cheering – only deathly silence, and Ulfric glaring at me from the end of the table. A moment later, the great doors of the keep clanged shut behind him.

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Comments

  1. Well someone’s certainly jealous. Much as I support Deirdre’s wish to drive the Thalmor away from Skyrim, I certainly hope that she learns soon about the Stormcloaks’ – or at least Ulfric’s – rather unfair bias against the Argonians and Dunmer. I’d always felt divided whenever I play through the civil war. On one hand, I appreciate Ulfric’s desire for Skyrim’s independence, but his methods – like killing Torryg, who was a Stormcloak sympathizer, and then there’s his racism against non-Nords – leave something to be desired.

    On the other hand, I understand the Legion’s desire to keep Skyrim within the Empire, since I still think the adage “United we stand, divided we fall” applies itself greatly here, especially against a force like the Dominion.

    The good thing about the story you are writing is that you’ll be able to find some middle ground that we players couldn’t in the game, as well as definite closure against the Thalmor, which will hopefully happen in your next books (which you must definitely write, or someone here is going to end up invoking the Black Sacrament).

    Speaking of which, I do hope you end up giving Deirdre some closure as well when it comes to Dragon Bridge, which is something I’m certainly looking forward to.

  2. Yeah, Deidre certainly played her way fully committing to neither side, although she did end up as a Stormcloak ally, albeit a limited and an independent one. No wonder she did so, the Imperials really overplayed their “temporal submission to the Thalmor” thing in this fic to the breaking point. I like how this fic does realistically show not only the positive, but also the negative consequences of Deidre’s pacifism..

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