The Song of Deirdre – Chap. 59

 

Beneath Whiterun’s Walls

 

No description could have prepared me for the devastation I saw in Whiterun as Odahviing and I rose above the White River, approaching the city from the east. The farms outside the city were blackened splotches on the snowy landscape, the farmhouses and barns and windmills having been burned to the ground. But the most dramatic change was within the city itself. The lofty, gabled roofs of Dragonsreach, once the dominant landmark for miles around – gone. Jorrvaskr, the Companions’ mead-hall, built from the great upturned hull of the vessel that had carried them from Atmora – gone. As we came nearer I looked for the Bannered Mare, Arcadia’s Cauldron, the Temple of Kynareth – all gone. And of Breezehome, my home, our home – nothing remained but one stone wall.

I struggled to maintain my new-found equanimity as I viewed the scene. And what must Lydia be feeling as she marched with the Stormcloaks, just now coming within view of the city? Worse, what of Ulfric? Would he use the sight as an excuse to go back on the promises he had made me?

The Aldmeri tactics made little sense. They had certainly meant to level the place when they attacked the city with their flaming arrows and fire pots hurled from catapults. But if so, why had they stayed? Armies engaged in a campaign of retribution usually wreaked their havoc, then moved on.

Galmar believed that our victory at the Rift Pass had changed the Thalmor calculations. With the Imperial Legion decimated and driven back, and with few reinforcements arriving in Solitude over the ice-choked seas, the Aldmeri Dominion had little choice but to dig in and aid the Empire at this strategic stronghold. They may have been content for the Civil War to drag on, but not for the Stormcloaks to gain a free and independent Skyrim.

Yet I was not convinced. As I passed high over the city, I could see that the elven occupation had not been easy. Even with what was left of Dragonsreach –  the blocky stone structure of the Great Porch and the prison beneath it – there wasn’t room for hundreds of soldiers. They had resorted to tents pitched here and there amidst the devastation, sometimes within the very foundations of the houses the elves had burned to the ground. It had to be a miserable existence for ones not inured to Skyrim’s winters. The heavy snows that had fallen immediately after the attack surely hadn’t helped.

Good, I thought. Maybe they were ready to go home. And we were ready to send them there, one way or the other.

I had Odahviing circle back to the east, toward the White River Bridge. The Stormcloak forces were nearly in place. Facing them from across the bridge was an Imperial war-band, a meager few dozen fighters facing two hundred. The elves had thought it proper to make Imperial forces the first line of defense, and the Imperial commander could hardly argue. I almost felt sorry for him, whoever he was. Yet if all went according to plan – and if Ulfric kept his word – they would come to no harm.

The Stormcloaks halted fifty paces from the bridge, forming a half-circle between the river on one side and the mountain slopes on the other. The trap was set.

“Now, Odahviing, as we agreed – swoop down on the Imperial war-band, but do not harm them. Drive them toward the bridge.”

“This is a trying service, Dovahkiin,” Odahviing grumbled. “I would rather take them in my talons and hear their screams as I teach them how it feels to fly through the air.”

Despite his grumbling, the dragon did as I said. We made short work of the Imperials, driving them before us as we had done at the Rift Pass. The Stormcloaks waited across the river to bind the hands of the cowering soldiers as they spilled across the bridge. It was child’s play. There was a moment when it looked as if the fear-filled soldiers would trample each other in their haste to flee, but I cast pacifying spells to calm them. In half an hour, the Imperials were bound and set under guard.

Now the Stormcloaks began their march along the main road toward Whiterun, while I headed north to pacify the defenses at Whitewatch Tower. This effort went as easily as the first, opening the road for the northern contingent of Stormcloaks to descend on the city. I could see the army below me. Avulstein, Aela, and Vilkas were down there somewhere, along with mages from Winterhold, Drevis with his powerful Illusion spells and Colette, who could heal the wounded and use her wards to shield against spells from the elven battle-mages.

By the time I returned to the main road, the Stormcloaks had set up their forward position near what had been Pelagius Farm. Draymen were hauling catapults and a huge battering ram closer to the city walls. I had Odahviing land some distance away, then walked over to where Ulfric and Galmar were marshaling their forces.

Lydia, Brelyna, and J’zargo stood nearby, their faces grim, as they surveyed the scene of the Retreat from Whiterun. Mercifully, the snows had covered the battlefield in the days after the siege, but here and there were lumps that had to be fallen soldiers.

“You did all you could,” I heard Brelyna say as I approached.

“Yet it wasn’t enough,” Lydia said, still staring out at those mounds in the snow.

Before I could say anything, Ulfric came over. “And you’re sure you still feel compassion for these vermin, Dragonborn?” he demanded.

Lydia was gripping the haft of her axe in its sheath, her jaw set, as she looked from Ulfric to me. “I must ask the same thing, my love. If I cannot give my own life, I must repay my debt to Balgruuf with the lives of many elves.”

“At least one of you’s talking sense,” Galmar put in.

I sighed. “We will never have peace if we keep dealing death for death. Yet peace must begin somewhere. As the Altmer are not likely to show mercy to those they consider beneath them, it must begin with us.”

Yet Lydia did not seem convinced, still gazing at the inert mounds in the snow. I looked out at that silent battlefield, wondering how I could convince her. I thought of all the unending sufferings of war over the thousands of years since humans first arrived in Tamriel from Atmora. How many countless mourners, both man and mer, had stood on just such a battlefield, feeling what we felt now? Would it never end?

I took her hand from her axe and made her look at me. “I know this is a trial for you, my love,” I said. “I remember you once mentioned the possibility of children. We may not be able to have any of our own, but we could adopt, maybe even Harry and Huldi. And if we did, what would you want for them? Would you want them to face perpetual war with the Altmer? And what of their children? How long must this go on?”

She shook her head, but said nothing.

“Freedom for Skyrim is a worthy goal, but how much worthier is freedom with lasting peace? Skyrim’s children will never know the pain we’re feeling at this moment.”

Still she could not speak, but this time she nodded.

Ralof approached our group then. “All is in readiness, my jarl,” he said.

“Ach, very well,” said Ulfric. “It’s time to get started, even if the Dragonborn insists on being a damned peace-maker. The northern force should be nearly in position.”

Still Lydia looked haunted by doubt. “Be careful of wayward arrows, my love,” she said, looking over at Odahviing.

“And you as well. Remember, I will hold you to your promise.”

“Come, you two,” said Ralof. “Everything’s going to be fine. Look how easily we captured the Imperials! By this afternoon we’ll have the city, and four hundred Thalmor hostages to boot.”

“This one thinks one should not count the Altmer before they are in binds,” J’zargo said.

“Well I am impressed,” said Brelyna. “J’zargo the Cocky Khajiit really has learned caution.”

“You two just keep those Thalmor battle-mages off our backs,” Ralof said.

I wanted to promise to keep them all safe, but I had learned by now that promises were often empty, and only actions counted for anything. I returned to Odahviing and the assault on Whiterun commenced.

Both Stormcloak forces were to attack the weak defenses outside the city’s western wall. From the south, Ulfric’s force would face a stout barred gate. But from the north it was a mere rock scramble to penetrate the outer defenses. There was a drawbridge over a rushing stream, but this could be circumvented by a narrow walkway to one side. Then the two forces would meet in the bailey beyond and go to work on the massive main gate in the city’s western wall. With the defenders on those walls routed or pacified, it should be an easy task.

That was the plan, at least, and at first it seemed to work.

In a matter of moments, Odahviing and I were soaring over the city walls, arrows flying harmlessly up at us. “There, to the catapults,” I called, and the dragon swooped down on one of the defensive emplacements along the city’s walls. I used the Dismaying shout and the four or five soldiers manning the catapult scattered. Again and again, Odahviing dove on the walls and lookouts of the outer defenses, and each time I used a combination of spells and shouts to scatter and pacify the defenders. Soon I had calmed or routed every Thalmor fighter and wizard lining the road as it wound up the hill toward the main gate, as well as many on the main western wall.

Meanwhile, the Stormcloaks had arrived at the south gate, but there was still no sign of those approaching from the north. The gate was barred, of course, and now the Stormcloaks went at it with their axes. Galmar shouted for the battering ram to be brought up. Casting one last pacifying spell on the defenders above them, I called for Odahviing to fly across the city and look for the northern force approaching from that direction.

Too late I realized my mistake. I heard the creaking release of a catapult and looked down into the circular courtyard between Jorrvaskr and the Temple of Kynareth, or what was left of them. I saw something dark launching up to meet us, then it bloomed outward – a net! Odahviing shrieked and turned to the left, but not in time. The net, with large rocks attached to its edges, caught the dragon in his legs and wrapped partway around his tail. With another beat of his wings, the claws of his right wing were entangled in it, and then we were falling.

The dragon’s momentum carried us some way over the city. For an instant it looked as if we would hit a guard tower set on the wall, but with one last beat of his left wing the dragon lifted us over it. Then we were spinning down toward the rocks below, Odahviing hitting the top of the cliff jutting out from the city’s foundations. I just had time to shout “Feim!” as I was thrown from his back. I felt myself falling, the sky and the ground changing places, and then I was tumbling through the bunch grass and heather of the tundra.

I was dizzy but unhurt by the time I came to a stop. I got to my feet, clinging to a boulder for balance, and looked around. Odahviing was not far away. He had come to rest a distance from the base of the cliff and was now thrashing about, trying to release himself from the netting. I made my way over to him, regaining my sense of balance as I could.

“Odahviing, hold still, and I will cut the net from you.”

He quieted then and turned to look at me. His eyes, once baleful, now saw only their own end. “It will do little good,” he said. “My wing…”

“First things first,” I said, going to work on the netting with my dagger and a flame spell or two. Finally he was free.

Then he tried to spread his wings, rising on his hind legs. Only his right wing beat at the air while his left lay crumpled. He fell back to the ground, listing to the left where his wing and claws could not support him.

“It is no use,” he said. “Now I truly know the meaning of death, as mine soon approaches.”

“Maybe I can heal you, though I’ve never healed a dovah before.”

Before he could respond, we both heard the sound of marching feet, and an arrow buried itself in the scales of Odahviing’s neck, releasing a gush of fiery blood. The dragon roared in outrage as I turned to see an elven war-band approaching from the city. They had come around the cliffs and were advancing from the south.

Odahviing blasted them with his fire breath, pushing them back, several at the fore falling to the ground in shrieks of agony. I cast a spell of rout into their midst, then shouted Dismay at them to drive them away and give me time to think. This made no sense. Why would the elves leave the well-fortified city, placing themselves between two advancing forces? I had to know what else was happening.

I moved farther out away from the cliff, climbing a small tor from which I could view the city. We had fallen below the main western wall, just north of the outer defenses. This was where I had hoped to find the Stormcloaks’ northern contingent, but there was no sign of them. Instead, rank after rank of Thalmor warriors and battle-mages were pouring from the city. There had to be hundreds of them, all headed in our direction. At this rate, the city would soon be undefended. The elves were risking the city, and their very lives.

Then it dawned on me. The Thalmor hadn’t remained in the city because the Empire was at risk of losing Skyrim. No, all of it was meant for me. With Odahviing at my command, I had become too great a power, a greater threat even than the Stormcloaks. They had hoped to lure me back to Whiterun to get my revenge. Their plan had nearly worked, though they must have preferred that we fall within the city’s walls. Now they were risking an entire army to finish me off.

Still the elves kept pouring out of the city, those in front moving around to my right to descend the rocks, others moving left across the top of the cliffs where they could fire down on Odahviing.

Well, Deirdre, I thought, now we will see whether compassion is possible in the face of certain death.

I took a deep breath, concentrating on the words as hard as I could. “Drem-Aaz-Fahdon!” I shouted, aiming it at the heart of the elven forces. Peace-Mercy-Friend were the words I had used. It was a bit of a cheat, of course. Drem was already a Word of Power, used in the Kyne’s Peace shout. That worked only on animals, but now I would learn whether it, combined with the two new words, would work on people.

I was glad to see the force of the shout rippling toward the army. It seemed to be working so far. Those in front only staggered under its force, too far away to be knocked over by it. But their forward advance was halted, and they began milling about, uncertain of what they were doing. Those who had just climbed up over the rocks to leave the city were caught in the shout as well, blocking those coming behind, who were still eager for battle. The shout had missed those to right and left, and I cast pacifying spells into their midst, subduing most of them.

Then I heard a battle cry off to the right, from beyond the elves. It was Lydia. “Lay down your weapons and you won’t be harmed!” came another voice – Ralof’s. From our left, belatedly, I heard a warhorn. The northern force of Stormcloaks had finally arrived, moving along the base of the cliffs where they were shielded from the city’s walls. Others were moving toward the elves on top of the cliffs.

From that moment, it was just a matter of keeping the Thalmor pacified while the smaller Stormcloak force bound them in long lines for the march ahead. I worked my way over to where Lydia and Ralof were overseeing the capture of the bulk of the elven force, casting spells and repeating my new shout, which I now resolved to name Mara’s Peace.

Lydia couldn’t have looked more relieved to see me, but I only had time for a brief greeting. Already the first lines of captured Thalmor were being led away toward the northwest.

“Ralof, can you manage the prisoners for now?” I asked.

“Certainly, Deirdre.”

“And Lydia, you must go into the city and see what Ulfric is up to. Take the Whiterun guard with you, and see that he commits no atrocities.”

“Why, where are you going, my love?”

“I must see to Odahviing!” I called over my shoulder as I dashed toward the cliffs.

The dragon remained where he had fallen, the Stormcloaks keeping their distance from him. He eyed me woefully as I approached.

“Let me try that healing spell,” I said. I used grand healing, the strongest Restoration spell I knew, yet he seemed no better. “Again!” I said, and cast the spell once more.

“It is no use, Dovahkiin, your spells have no effect.”

“Then what can I do?”

“You once tried to teach me the meaning of death with your Dragonrend shout, but now I understand it as well as any mortal. You must put an end to me.”

“No, I cannot!”

He nodded his great head. “My name means Winged Snow Hunter in your language. How can I go on if I can no longer hunt the skies? A dovah who cannot fly is no dovah at all. You shouted mercy at your foes, now I ask that you show me the mercy of a quick death. And I will be glad to accept it at the hands of the Dovahkiin.

I looked at the great dragon and knew that he was right. “You have served me well,” I said, drawing my sword of frost. “You will live on within me, my friend.”

“It is my fondest wish,” the dragon said, and I could not tell if he meant it, or if this was one last bit of dov-ish sarcasm. Yet he lowered his head so I could strike the blow.

 

*~*~*

 

Lydia found me there sometime later. I looked up at her through tear-blurred eyes as she came and sat beside me, next to Odahviing’s bleached skeleton.

“I am sorry, my love,” she said. “I … I never thought to see you so saddened by the death of a dragon.”

“Neither did I,” I said, drying my eyes on the sleeve of my robes. “Yet he served me well, and I almost thought of him as my friend.”

“It is a great loss, but you did well. The city is ours. Ulfric has sent the remaining Thalmor soldiers and justiciars out to join the others while he scours Dragonsreach for the leaders. I left my guardsmen to watch over the search. Few other lives were lost. The northern force was delayed by an ambush north of the city. A score of elves were hidden in a cave, and fought to the death in an effort to delay our comrades’ march. Yet we lost only three or four soldiers.”

“I suppose I should be happy, then,” I said, and I tried to be.

We returned to the city, leaving Ralof to finish overseeing the roundup of the prisoners. By now those left free were too few to think of resisting their captors. We found the main gate in the western wall standing open. Inside, the devastation appeared even worse than it had from above. Lydia gave a groan, seeing it now for the first time. “There’s nothing left of our city!” she said.

We saw no one, neither Stormcloak nor Thalmor, until we arrived on the steps of Dragonsreach. The graceful archway resembling a dragon’s spine was no longer there to greet us, just the blank stone battlements of the Great Porch, which had once been the back wall of Jarl Balgruuf’s throne room. The throne was burned away, but in the ashes there remained a skull – the ancient skull of Numinex, the dragon captured here by Olaf One-Eye.

Seeing no one there, we made our way around to the side of the rubble, finding Ulfric and Galmar’s war-band in the space in front of the prison. They had gathered the last of the Thalmor justiciars and wizards, the leaders of the siege on Whiterun. I recognized Rulindil standing among them, looking out at his captors defiantly. The Stormcloaks had their weapons drawn. Lydia’s guards stood nearby, along with Brelyna and J’zargo, all looking uncertain what to do.

“What is happening?” I demanded.

“Ah, lass, you’re just in time,” Ulfric growled. “You may show mercy on the common soldiers, but surely not on these who gave the orders for the slaughter.”

Would this argument never end? I looked to the skies to gather my calm. “And there are those above them, Ulfric, the ones who gave them the orders, all the way up to the rulers on Summerset Isle. We had an agreement that all would be spared, and I will hold you to it. Or do I have to pacify you and your soldiers as well?”

“What agreement?” a voice croaked. I looked beyond Ulfric to see Jarl Balgruuf, supported by Stormcloaks on either side. He was horribly transfigured, so emaciated that his skin hung from his bones like an empty sack. The Thalmor had blinded him in one eye, leaving the gaping hole to fester.

“My jarl!” Lydia and I both shouted, rushing forward and kneeling before him.

“That’s right,” Ulfric said. “These beasts captured your jarl and threw him in his own prison. I’m tempted to say he deserved it for all his fence-sitting, yet none deserves the kind of torment they put him through.”

Then Lydia spoke. “My jarl, I have failed you. Many under my command fell in the retreat. I should have fought beside you, to the death if need be. Now my life is in your hands.” She held her axe out to him, though he was far too weak to wield it.

Balgruuf looked down at her from his one good eye. “Ulfric told me what you did. My people are safe, are they not?”

“They are, my jarl – most of them.”

“Then you did not fail. You did as I bade you, and you succeeded, though at a great price. So do not talk of failure. Rise now, and I hope you will continue serving me for many years.”

She did as he asked, tears streaming down her cheeks. I hoped that Balgruuf’s forgiveness would finally convince her that she deserved to live.

“Now what’s this agreement you mentioned?” Balgruuf asked.

“That we would take the city with the least bloodshed, my jarl,” I said. “I am sick of death and want no more of it, whether it’s of my enemies or my friends. And we have taken the city with few losses on either side, save for Odahviing, my faithful companion.”

“Why don’t we let the jarl decide what to do with these prisoners?” Ulfric said. “It’s his city, after all.”

“Please, Jarl Balgruuf, I beg you to show mercy. If we hope to avoid such slaughter in the future, we must set the example. And remember, Lydia and I have been tortured by these same elves. Yet we showed them mercy, and I beg you to do the same.”

“Please listen to her, my jarl,” Lydia said. “We never would have taken the city without Deirdre leading the way with Odahviing.” Ulfric stifled an exclamation at this remark.

Balgruuf looked back and forth between Lydia and me. “Very well, since you’re the ones who saved me and freed the city, you’ll have it your way. And I won’t have the Stormcloaks committing atrocities in my city. The Thalmor are bad enough.”

“If you insist, Balgruuf,” Ulfric said. “Take the prisoners away.”

“Ah, it’s the Dragonborn,” Rulindil said as he passed me. “You had reason to regret showing us mercy once before, and I’ll make sure you regret it once again.”

“You won’t have Maven Black-Briar to aid you this time, Rulindil,” I said. “And I think you’ll find it quite difficult to break out of the prison we have in mind for you.”

“What’s wrong with the prison here?” he demanded. “It seems perfectly suitable. And where are they taking us?”

“To Labyrinthian,” I said, and his face fell. The place had an evil reputation even in Summerset, it seemed. “But not to worry, we’ve cleared out most of the draugr, though you may yet encounter a few ghosts.”

Brelyna and J’zargo laughed at that, and soon we were all laughing as we watched the last of the Altmer being led away in chains.

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Comments

  1. Rhaegar says:

    I am not reading anymore how could you kill odahviing?

  2. larryhogue says:

    A Game of Thrones fan objecting to the death of a relatively minor character? Seems a bit funny. But it was a hard decision. To answer your question, Deirdre is just too OP if she can always, or even just sometimes, fly on the back of a dragon.

  3. Rhaegar says:

    that is probably true but he was soo awesome, he just gave so much perspective of how everything is seen by a Dovah point of view.

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