The Song of Deirdre – Chap. 58

 

The Stormcloak Camp

 

“Need I remind you that this is no game?” Arngeir demanded, his eyes narrow slits boring into my own. I had just told him of the events at the Rift Pass, his expression growing more alarmed with each turn of the tale. Now I could only look away under his stern gaze, I was so ashamed.

“No, master, of course not,” I stammered.

“You are no schoolgirl whose teacher has given her mere busywork.”

“No, I realize that, but…”

“Have you been meditating daily? Contemplating the sky? Doing your breathing exercises?”

I could only shake my head. There had been those moments of extreme need, as in the Aldmeri Embassy, when I had drawn on the contemplations I had been taught at High Hrothgar. But I had let my regular practice lapse. Somehow, there had never been enough time.

“Look at me, young lady.” Slowly I raised my head to look at him. He regarded me for what seemed hours as I struggled to hold his gaze.

Lydia, seated nearby, couldn’t help clearing her throat. I could only imagine what she thought of all this, as she had never wanted to return here.

“High Hrothgar is no lover’s retreat, my love,” she had said as we lay in each other’s arms in the Bee and Barb the day after our wedding. “I had hoped for more than one day of honeymoon.”

“But an excellent day it’s been,” I said, and she had to agree. We had barely left our bridal chambers, emerging only long enough to wave farewell to departing friends from the balcony outside our room.

“It has been the happiest day of my life, my love,” she said. “But how many more days do we have before…” She paused and would not look at me.

“Before what? Before we retake Whiterun and begin rebuilding our home?”

She could only shake her head and wouldn’t answer.

Lydia was not the only one who doubted my decision – none of our friends could understand my insistence on returning to High Hrothgar. Only I knew the bloodlust I had in my heart, the glory I felt in my ever-increasing power. The more power I gained, it seemed, the fewer qualms I had about using it. If I lost myself to it, I would become worse than the Thalmor. My dragon soul would swallow me, and then swallow the world. Alduin would win.

Yet now, with Arngeir glaring at me, I was beginning to doubt the wisdom of my choice.

“Well,” the old master said at last, “the best that can be said is that you turned aside from that butchery and spared a portion of your would-be victims. But it was a grievous wrong, a violation of every tenet of the Way of the Voice.”

“I know it, Master.”

“When last I saw you, you still struggled with your anger, yet you kept it in check. What happened in the meantime?”

I thought back. “It was when I went to Skuldafn. I unleashed my anger on the Nord dead, believing that it mattered little, since they already walked the death-road.”

“No, what matters is what is in your heart. You gave free exercise to your dragon soul, and then it overwhelmed you at the Rift Pass.”

I could say nothing, for I knew that Arngeir spoke true. Twice I had fallen from the Way, and both times out of love for Lydia: first when my broken heart made me reckless, and then when fear of losing her fueled my rage.

Arngeir went on. “You have been given a great power, and a fearsome weapon. It is up to you to decide how you will use them. Will you turn to evil, seeking to amass power only for your own glory? Or will you use your power for the benefit of Tamriel’s people? The choice is in your hands, but if you do not follow the Way, you will become no better than the many tyrants this land has seen.”

“No, I do not want that,” I said. “What must I do?”

“You must renew your meditation practice today, and continue it daily for the rest of your life.”

I swallowed. “I will, Master, if that is what it takes.”

“Myself, I would counsel you to remain in seclusion with us here at High Hrothgar. The world is filled with too many temptations to use your power unwisely.”

“But Master Arngeir, I cannot. Paarthurnax said I was sent into this world to balance the forces contending over it. If ever there was an opportunity to fulfill that purpose, it is now. You must know, I aim to help the Stormcloaks in driving the Thalmor from Skyrim.”

“So you will join your power to that war-monger’s? Then I see little hope for you.”

“I hope to quell Ulfric’s ferocity and take Whiterun with little bloodshed.”

“But these are armies, little better than bloodthirsty savages. I don’t see how such a thing is possible.”

“I hoped you would be able to aid me in my purpose. There can be no peace while the Thalmor occupy the Nords’ homeland. Neither can there be peace if Ulfric slaughters them. Is there nothing else you can offer me?”

“Only the meditations we have already mentioned.”

We could only gaze doubtfully at each other, and then I went to my evening meditation.

 

*~*~*

 

Once more I was flying astride a great sky-courser, racing over Skyrim at a prodigious speed. But this could not be, I told myself, I had not called Odahviing. And then I saw it was not Odahviing on whose back I rode. Yet below us the wooded slopes descended toward the Rift Pass, and there marched the Imperial Legion. The dragon dove toward them and I knew what would come next.

“No,” I shouted, beating at the beast’s great neck with my puny hands, but it did no good. The dragon’s fire breath caught the Imperials just as it had in my waking life, sending them scattering, men and women and horses screaming as they died. Then we soared upwards and wheeled about for another pass.

“Dovahkiin, I told you I would live on within you,” Alduin said. “See how they run and die! Is it not glorious? Why do you resist your dragon nature?”

“Because I am sick of death. I would cause no more suffering if I can help it.”

“Your compassion is misplaced. You were made to rule these puny joorre. They are not worthy to sweep the ground on which you walk.” He dove again and again the Imperials scattered as fire engulfed them.

“No, I vanquished you. You cannot make me watch this again.”

“You will be watching this in your dreams for the rest of your life, I made sure of it.”

I had to put a stop to this somehow. “Joor-Zah-Frul!” I shouted. We plummeted toward the trees, Alduin somehow finding a clearing in which to come to a skidding halt, throwing me over his great horned head.

I got up and turned to face him.

“Yes, keep using Dragonrend on me and you will take death deeper into your own being. I will only grow stronger.”

“Faas-Ru-Maar!”

Alduin didn’t so much as blink. “No, Dovahkiin, there is no shout that can drive me away without also letting me gain power over you.”

Then I knew what I must do.

I turned and walked away from him, toward Riften.

“No, you cannot turn your back on me! Stand and face the World Eater!”

“I defeated you twice already,” I said over my shoulder. “I do not need to face you again.” I entered the forest where the trees grew too thick for him to follow. With a howl of rage, Alduin released his fire breath on me. The trees all around exploded in flame, but I felt nothing. I walked on, out of the fire.

Still the World Eater would not relent. Now he circled above the treetops, taunting me. “You cannot run from me. I am within you. I will always be with you.”

“Yes, I know that now. And I am glad.”

That brought him up short. He hovered in front of me, peering down through gaps in the trees. “You are glad?”

“Yes. Without the will to annihilation within me, what I called my anger, I never could have survived this far. But the time for destruction is past. There is something greater than hatred and ruin.”

“And what could that be?”

“Love.”

The World Eater chuckled. “Yes, I have heard of it. It is an emotion highly prized by the foolish joorre. But we dov have no need of it.”

“Yet it will be your end. Now be gone. You are nothing but a midge buzzing in my ear. When I have need of you, I will call on you.”

 

*~*~*

 

I awoke before dawn and returned to my meditations without stopping to break my fast. Only now I contemplated something far different than the emptiness of the sky. What good was it to attain equanimity if I could not use it in the world?

Instead I meditated on those whom I most hated – on Elenwen and her torturers, on Tullius and his bending the knee to the Thalmor, on Ulfric and his treatment of anyone who was not a Nord. Most of all, on my parents’ killers. For Mara called on us to have compassion even toward our enemies. As I contemplated each one, my heart began to race and my breath came faster. Only then did I turn my thoughts to the eternal, indifferent sky, striving to feel some of that indifference toward those who had wronged me. By the end of the day I could contemplate each of them without the rush of anger I so often felt. Not quite love and compassion, but it was a start.

“Ah, Dovahkiin,” Arngeir said when we met in the refectory that evening, “was today’s meditation productive?”

“Yes, Master, but I have a question.”

He raised an eyebrow at me.

“Little though you respect the art of mages, we do have spells that promote peace and harmony. Why is there no similar shout among all the words of power?”

“That is easily answered. The words of power come from the dragons and from the first Tongues. Neither side pursued peace.”

“Very well then, how can I create a new shout?”

“A new shout? That is a mystery locked in the depths of time. We know the Tongues created some of the shouts that have come down to us, because they could be of no use to a dragon – Kyne’s Peace, for instance, or Aura Whisper. And of course we know of Dragonrend, which the so-called heroes of the Dragon War created. But how it is done – that is an art that is lost to us.”

“Then what must I do?”

“I can suggest only that you meditate deeply on the words in the dragon language you would use in this shout. Concentrate on them as you have never done before.”

I went to my rest that night pondering what words I could use. The dragon language was filled with words to boast of one’s greatness and to taunt one’s enemies; few were the words embodying compassion. But at last I had selected three and went to sleep dreaming of how they might be used in a shout.

In the morning I returned to my meditations, bringing quill, ink, and parchment with me. I inscribed the runes for those words on separate scrolls of paper. Then I stared at each set of runes until they were burned into my mind. Could this be much different than looking at runes on a word wall? Was it the wall that imbued the words with their power, or was it something within me? I was the Dragonborn, able to absorb these words with more facility than any other mortal. If any could create a new word of power, it was I.

All day and all night I sat meditating on those words until I felt I had absorbed their deepest meanings. To learn a shout is to take its words into the very depths of one’s being, or so Arngeir had said. Now I would let the compassion of these words fill my heart and mind. But I wouldn’t know if the words had truly become a shout until I could use them on my enemies. Nor would I know if I had truly gained balance with my dragon soul until I could confront my enemies without anger.

The first light of dawn was peeking through the stained glass windows as Lydia and I prepared to take our leave.

“My heart misgives me,” Arngeir said at the door. “I mistrust this plan of yours. Yet the Dragonborn is not bound by our rules, and perhaps you must follow a different path. May Mara guide your steps. Sky Above, Voice Within.”

“Thank you, Master. I promise you won’t regret the help you’ve given me.”

Lydia and I stepped through the doors into the east courtyard.

“Wait, my love, this is not the way down,” she said.

“It is if you know a shortcut,” I said, stepping up onto the parapet and looking down at the snowfield below. “You brought your rope, didn’t you?” I said, and dropped off the edge, shouting Become Ethereal as I fell.

 

*~*~*

 

Two hours later we spotted the Stormcloak camp in a hanging valley not far below us.

“You see, Lydia, we cut two days off our journey once again.”

“You mean two years off my life, don’t you, my love?”

“I thought the descent went quite well. You only tumbled into a snowbank once.”

“It was the thousand-foot drop on the other side of that snow bank that worried me. I may be fated to die, but not by falling off a cliff.”

I let the comment pass. Lydia’s mood had only grown darker during the days at High Hrothgar.

“Well, we’re here safely now. I wonder if Ulfric will give me a warmer greeting than did the Greybeards?”

But that proved a foolish thought.

“Ach! You’re finally here,” Ulfric growled at me as we entered the command tent in the Stormcloak camp. “But you’ll get no hero’s welcome from me, whatever my troops think of you.”

The shouts of “Hail to the Dragonborn” and “The Hero of Whiterun!” as we walked through the camp certainly hadn’t helped Ulfric’s mood. And he was certainly remembering the thunderous chants of “Dovahkiin! Dovahkiin!” that had broken out in Mistveil Keep the moment the door had shut behind him. Now he looked as if the sound of that chanting had followed him all the way here. I was only glad that he hadn’t seen the salutes I had received from two or three recent recruits from the Imperial side. It seemed I would need every ounce of the equanimity I had gained at High Hrothgar to deal with his anger.

I was glad to receive a warmer greeting from Ralof, and from Brelyna and J’zargo, who had traveled with him from Riften to meet us here at the camp. Even Galmar tipped his head to me.

“So,” Ulfric said when we were all sat around a central fire with mugs of warm mulled mead, “the people love you for vanquishing Alduin, and for saving Riften. But now that’s done, and I expect your loyalty. This is my war and we will fight it the way I see fit.”

“Which is?” I tried to keep any hint of a challenge out of my voice, but Ulfric sat forward and looked at me even more fiercely.

“I shouldn’t even have to explain myself to you, a mere lass. Help us if you want, but one way or the other I will have such a victory that no Nord can question my right to rule, and no Thalmor or Imperial dog will dare set foot in Skyrim again.”

“And how will you achieve this?”

“We will put all of the bastards to the sword. I heard what you did at the Rift Pass. You will sweep over the city with your dragon, burning or calming the elves as you see fit, then we will take care of the rest.”

“Better to leave the city to the Thalmor than commit such an atrocity,” I said.

“Very well, we will do it without you.” He held my gaze, trying to convince me that he and his army were capable of such a thing. I looked at Galmar, who was equally impassive.

“I see two hundred fighters here,” I said. “The Thalmor have four hundred, if reports are true. No doubt they will have spent this time rebuilding the fortifications they destroyed. You cannot hope to take the city quickly, not without grievous losses to the bulk of your army. And even if you were capable of mounting a long siege, you would be vulnerable to attack by Imperial reinforcements.”

“We have another hundred fighters coming from Windhelm.”

“I know, I asked our college mages to join them. But still, you do not have the forces to take the city.”

Ulfric and Galmar exchanged a glance. Then Ulfric turned back to me. “How can you care so much for the damned Thalmor, after everything they’ve done to you and your city and your … wife?”

I tried explaining the compassion that Mara demanded from her followers, for one’s enemies as well as for one’s loved ones and friends. He might as well have been born without ears. Then I pled my desire for peace, to live a quiet life free of war and strife and tyranny, be it by Thalmor or Nord. But Ulfric thrived on war, and peace meant little to him. Finally I offered him something he could understand: a tactical advantage.

“And what would you know of tactics?” he demanded.

“Only this: the four hundred elves in the city must be a significant portion of all the Aldmeri forces. Think what a bargaining chip that army would be, if you could capture it!”

I saw a spark in Ulfric’s eyes then. He looked at Galmar, who considered for a moment. “We could ransom them in exchange for Imperial retreat from Skyrim,” he said. “But how could we hold an entire army hostage? No prison in Skyrim is large enough. And we haven’t the soldiers to guard a Thalmor refugee camp and fight the Imperials at the same time.”

“I believe I know a place they can be safely housed, though they will not like it,” I said. When I revealed my idea, even Ulfric had to smile at the wickedness of it. The Thalmor would not go unpunished. “So, do I have your word that those opponents who do not resist will go unharmed?” I asked.

“Aye, lass,” Ulfric said, his eyes boring into mine. “We’ll do it your way. But only if you can get them to flee or stand down. Any damned elf who raises his sword to us will lose his head.”

I thought we were done and raised my cup of mead, but Ulfric held up his hand. “There’s one more thing. If you will not swear fealty to me, then swear that you have no desire for the kind of power that bard in Riften would give you.”

I smiled calmly at him. “You can be assured, now that Alduin’s vanquished and I am happily married, my fondest wish is to live a quiet life in Skyrim.” It was the truth, if not the whole truth, for I didn’t tell him what my second and third wishes were. And I knew it was a rare lass who saw all of her dearest hopes come true.

“We’re in agreement then.” He raised his cup. “To a short and mutually beneficial alliance, followed by many happy and quiet years for Deirdre and Lydia in a free and peaceful Skyrim.” We drank off our cups of mead. “Now, tell me, how can you and your dragon work with our army?” The battle planning went on late into the night.

 

*~*~*

 

The army set out the next morning, Lydia leading her own force of Whiterun soldiers, with Galmar and Ralof leading their war-bands on either side of her. Even this had been a point of contention with Ulfric, who wanted only his own people at the fore. But Ralof had finally convinced him it was proper that the Hero of Whiterun take a leading role in recapturing the city. J’zargo, Brelyna, and I rode alongside the leaders. We descended from the camp in its hanging valley to the road along the White River. Soon we neared the summit that would put us in view of Whiterun. It was time for me to call on Odahviing.

“So, you will make me watch you fly off on a dragon’s back once again,” Lydia said, stepping off to the side of the road with me. Below us, the usually roaring White River cascades were a picture of frozen white and silver.

She seemed even more somber than she had at High Hrothgar. I had been foolish enough to think that our wedding could make us happy forever. Yet this wasn’t one of those cheap romances Lydia enjoyed so much, and there would be no riding off into the sunset for us. Not even our marriage could soothe all of Lydia’s grief.

“What is it, my love?” I asked, stroking her cheek, hoping to bring back the smile that had been there on our wedding day.

She looked at me with an expression that made me catch my breath – not quite sadness or grief, but something deeper, the loss of all hope. Gone was the boisterous shield-maiden I had met in Dragonsreach, boasting of feats in battle or in the practice yard. Gone too, was that too-bright happiness she had put on like a cloak to mask her pain. Now she was grim, doom-driven, as I had been when I set off for Sovngarde. “I do not believe I will survive the coming battle, my love. I owe Balgruuf a death, and I mean to give it to him.”

“I thought we were done with this! You did as our jarl ordered. Without you, his people would never have escaped slaughter. You owe him nothing more than to retake the city for his people.”

“So many of my comrades fell on that field, and my jarl as well. My place is with them. I owe them that, or many Thalmor lives in repayment for theirs.”

I looked down at the White River. “Lydia, do you remember that first day when we rode out of Whiterun?”

“I remember it well, my love.” Yet not even the memory of those happier times could bring a smile to her face.

“I never told you the dark thoughts I carried with me that day. I didn’t know what this dark thing was inside me. I thought I would throw myself into the White River if I couldn’t learn how to rid myself of it.”

“We made a better use of the White River, as I remember.” She looked down at the river now, though the pool where we had our swim was hidden from view.

“Yes, it was you who drew me out of that dark mood, not just with our frolicking, but with your companionship as we rode together, and in camp. But I still haven’t rid myself of my dragon soul. It is a bit of Alduin within me. The last week has helped me gain better control over it, yet I remain untested. So tell me, why shouldn’t I throw myself down these cliffs, or throw my life away in the battle to free Whiterun?”

“No, my love, you mustn’t! You’re the Dragonborn! The world needs you! Skyrim needs you! … I need you!”

“Yet you will be dead if you get your wish, and then what do I have to live for?”

She could say nothing, her face fraught with confusion.

“Come, let us make a pact. We will vow to come through this battle for each other, if not for ourselves. Will you do that for me, my love?”

She looked at me for a long time, then nodded.

“I will hold you to that promise,” I told her, “if I have to follow you to Sovngarde to do it.” Finally she gave a wan smile, her eyes still haunted by doubt and fear.

I called Odahviing, vowing that together we would quell Whiterun’s defenses so that Lydia would come to no harm.

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