The Song of Deirdre – Chap. 60

Castle Dour

Four hundred elves in Labyrinthian, and no one wanted them. Two weeks had passed since the liberation of Whiterun. Messages had gone back and forth between Ulfric, Elenwen, and Tullius, with nothing but threats on either side. Meanwhile, the captured Altmer subsisted on short rations. Even then, the Stormcloaks couldn’t keep feeding them forever. Winter was always a lean time in Skyrim, and trade with the south had been disrupted by the war.

I kept well out of the negotiations. Lydia and I busied ourselves around Whiterun, helping where we could with its restoration. Balgruuf was installed once more in what was left of Dragonsreach, sharing the war room and remaining living quarters uneasily with Ulfric. Yet for the first week Balgruuf was too weak to do more than rest. He named Lydia his new housecarl, Irileth having fallen defending him. I became an informal steward.

The first of our tasks was a grim one. The bodies of the fallen, both within the city and without, had to be collected and given proper funeral rites. Lydia’s mood grew darker as more of her friends were uncovered. Fortunately, the deep snows had kept most of the scavengers at bay, though it made finding all the bodies difficult. Lydia had many friends among the fallen, as did I – Farengar, Thorald, Vilkas’ brother Farkas, Adrianne. And then there was Onmund. We found him, along with the rest of the Nords who had fallen on the bridge, tossed onto the iced-over river like so much refuse. It took me a long moment after we found him to remember why we had spared the lives of the elves.

After the great funeral pyre for the fallen Nord heroes, we turned our attention to happier tasks, rebuilding and finding shelter for the returning refugees. Many were the long faces and cries of dismay as Whiterun’s citizens saw their destroyed homes for the first time. Yet this was always followed by a determination to rebuild, and this time from stone rather than timber. Stone cutters and quarrymen fanned out across the western face of the Throat of the World, where the granite was particularly well exposed. The road between the White River and the city became a bustle of ox-drawn wagons going to and fro. Masons from Windhelm and even Markarth, hearing of the demand for their skills, began arriving to help the effort. Meanwhile, Gerdur and Hod had returned to Riverwood and were busy hauling loads of sawn and cured timber for what woodwork was still needed, and felling fresh trees to meet the future demand.

While their homes were being rebuilt, Whiterun’s citizens made do with the military tents left by the elves or took shelter in the prison, the covered portion of the Great Porch, and even the Hall of the Dead. Food was a different matter. Some stores still remained in the cellars of the destroyed houses, what little was left after two weeks of occupation. But of the large granaries on which the city subsisted throughout the winter, nothing remained. The Thalmor had destroyed them in the initial assault, not planning on a long residence. The other holds, those controlled by the Stormcloaks, sent what supplies they could, yet it was not enough. And the shipments from Cyrodiil and High Rock on which Skyrim also depended had been cut off for months. It promised to be a lean spring in the province.

As well as helping with the rebuilding, Lydia began organizing her guard into hunting parties. I was eager to join them, glad to get out of the city and return to the simpler life of living on my wits in the woods. I would even separate myself from Lydia and the other soldiers – too much Nord clumsiness there – and relish the solitude as I stalked game on my own. We fished as well, finding the salmon thick in the few open pools downstream from Whiterun.

When not out looking for food, we each had our own tasks in the city. Lydia spent her time training up the new recruits to the Whiterun guard. These were many, fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds mainly, both lads and lasses. To Ulfric’s chagrin, the guard was getting more newcomers than the Stormcloaks. Lydia put it down to hometown loyalty, but everyone knew it was because the recruits were eager to serve under the Hero of Whiterun. Already bards were singing of Lydia’s exploits during the retreat. The young recruits just hoped some of that notoriety would rub off on them.

I spent my time walking the streets, listening to the needs and complaints of the citizens, sorting out conflicts among the builders, and reassuring them that they would get paid – eventually. Balgruuf’s coffers were quite meager. The elves had pocketed much of Whiterun’s treasure, then the Stormcloaks had reclaimed it, taking a portion as a finder’s fee. Even then, Balgruuf suspected he was being robbed. The arguments went late into the night, Balgruuf and I pointing out that Ulfric’s war had led to Whiterun’s destruction, so Windhelm and the other Stormcloak holds should contribute to the city’s rebuilding. Ulfric countered that if Balgruuf hadn’t sat so long on the fence, his city would still stand.

“Ach,” he said, “when we take Solitude, there will be gold aplenty for the rebuilding of Skyrim.”

Balgruuf was right to be wary of Ulfric. One day, I overheard the Stormcloak leader talking about installing someone more to his liking as jarl, but when I stepped forward and made it plain that I had heard him, he dropped that talk. When Balgruuf was strong enough to climb up and down the steps of Dragonsreach – he refused to be carried – he began making daily tours of the city and the guards’ garrison, announcing that he was pleased with our efforts. And seeing their jarl gave the citizens hope. As he grew stronger, so the city was gradually restored.

Ulfric couldn’t be bothered with these mundane tasks of looking after the people’s needs. He stayed cloistered in Dragonsreach, hearing reports from scouts, plotting troop movements, and negotiating by courier with Solitude. He could have done much to win the support of the people then, but he chose to ignore it. The Battle-Borns and other Empire loyalists blamed him outright, while the Stormcloak sympathizers like Avulstein still supported the cause, though their praise of their leader grew more muted.

As for me, I still didn’t trust Ulfric. Neither did he trust me. The tension between us had only grown worse since the day he marched into Whiterun unopposed. He knew he owed that bloodless victory to me. Had he only wanted to push the Imperials out of Skyrim and restore Talos worship, he should have been happy with this outcome. But he could not mask his deeper ambition to become high king. He was jealous of my power, and could accept my aid only grudgingly. For, as much as the Nords celebrated their jarlmoot, in truth they revered only power and those who wielded it. The most fearsome warrior, the most able leader of armies, was always the one chosen as high king. It had been so since the days of Ysgramor. And if there was one more powerful in the realm, one to whom Ulfric owed his greatest victory, how could he claim a right to the throne?

It didn’t help that the bards who entertained those gathered around the nightly bonfires kept singing that accursed tune, “The Dragonborn Comes.” Our hero, our hero claims a warrior’s heart. Wasn’t Ulfric supposed to be the people’s hero? He was the one setting them free from Imperial oppression. In our daily meetings he would stare at me with a sour look, his eyes drilling into mine as if searching my deepest soul for hidden ambition. He knew that if the common people could choose, they would make me their queen. The knowledge ate at him.

And did I have such an ambition? I had wrestled with this question on many a sleepless night. I had honed my powers only to defeat Alduin. It seemed I had little choice in the matter. The dragon would have destroyed our world, and who else but the Dragonborn could have stopped him? Then I had put my power in Ulfric’s service, but only to drive out the evil of the Thalmor, and the Imperial pawns through whom they controlled Skyrim. But did that mean I wanted to be high queen?

I couldn’t deny the thrill of a crowd chanting my name or singing songs in my honor. Part of me, the dragon part, found it intoxicating. I could only imagine how it would feel to be queen and to receive the people’s love daily. Yet I also knew how fickle the people could be. Only four years before, the same people sought to burn me for a witch. Now they loved me because I had used those same powers to save their hides. Who knew how they would feel a few years from now if there was a bad harvest, perhaps, or if the Thalmor attacked? No, only one person’s love mattered to me.

What I really wanted, or so I told myself in more sober moments, was for Ulfric to learn compassion, to be the kind of king Ralof believed he could become. But every day as the negotiations continued, I could see that he had not changed. He demanded absolute loyalty, and the alternative was death. He could not keep from talking about teaching the people of Solitude a lesson for housing the Imperial Legion and the Thalmor. He was still the Bear of Markarth. He would never become the king Ralof hoped for.

After two weeks of negotiating, Ulfric and Galmar had had enough. “Let’s just kill the damned elves and take Solitude by force, as we always planned,” Galmar said.

“Aye, my friend,” said Ulfric. “I’m nearly read to do that myself, but for Deirdre here. Elenwen needs an ultimatum, not empty threats. We’ll give her until next week, then we’ll begin cleansing our country of the Thalmor, one way or another. You can’t argue with that, can you lass?”

I had to admit, I never expected Elenwen to force Ulfric to make good on his threats against the captives. Surely they couldn’t afford to lose hundreds of fighters and mages? Maybe they were just bluffing, and Ulfric’s deadline would force them to capitulate. But what if they refused? I had no doubt that Ulfric would go through with the slaughter of four hundred defenseless Altmer. The question was, could I stop him?

As it turned out, I didn’t have to face that test. On the day before the deadline, a letter arrived, not from Solitude, but from the Imperial City. It was from the emperor himself. He had agreed to cede all Imperial claims to Skyrim. He asked only that the Imperial Legion be allowed free passage out of Skyrim by the shortest route, either to High Rock or Cyrodiil. Any Imperial soldiers who still resisted Stormcloak rule could be put to the sword, with no retaliation by the Empire.

“You’ve got what you wanted,” I said, handing the letter back to Ulfric. “Yet you don’t seem pleased.”

Ulfric and Galmar exchanged a grim look. “Use your head, lass,” Galmar said. “What’s this bit about soldiers still resisting? Why wouldn’t every Imperial follow the emperor’s orders? And he didn’t mention Tullius, or Solitude. No, there’s some treachery afoot.”

“Galmar is right,” Ulfric said. “This is no time to celebrate. We march on Solitude as soon as can be. Then we will learn the meaning of Titus Mede’s strange words.”

Just then a courier entered the war chamber. “Jarl Ulfric, here, I have something for you,” he said, fumbling in his shoulder bag. “Let’s see, ah, yes, a letter from the Aldmeri Embassy.” He pulled the letter from the pouch and handing it to Ulfric. “That’s it, got to go.” The courier turned and left the room.

Ulfric ripped the letter open, his face growing darker as he read. Galmar, reading over his shoulder, exclaimed, “The fool! Has he gone mad?”

“What’s happened?” I asked.

Ulfric handed me the letter. It read:

Ulfric,

We have met your every demand. It took negotiations at the highest levels between Summerset and the Empire, but we have arranged for your little provincial backwater to gain its independence. You can ask no more. I demand that you begin the release of our prisoners at once. Failure to do so will be considered an act of war on Summerset. Rest assured, we have merely amused ourselves thus far with this petty squabble. If you test our patience further, you will learn what it means to feel the full wrath of the Aldmeri Dominion.

As for Tullius, he now operates on his own. He has declared martial law in Solitude, claiming that the city is the last stand for the Empire in Skyrim. No one is allowed in or out of the city, lest his soldiers and the people learn the truth of the Empire’s capitulation. He has them convinced that the Bear of Markarth will arrive any day and put every man, woman, and child to the sword. The citizens are arming themselves accordingly, seeing no other option but to fight for their lives. Much as I enjoy seeing Nords slaughtering one another, it is really quite appalling. I wish you luck cracking that particular nut.

Our ships will be waiting off Dawnstar to receive the first of our prisoners three days hence. Ignore that meeting at your peril.

With all the cordiality and respect due to you,

Elenwen

I handed the letter back to Ulfric. Could the ambassador’s words be true? Tullius had always appeared nothing but a loyal servant of the Empire. Why would he ignore a direct order from his emperor? Yet there had always been something else beneath that soldier’s mien. I remembered that day long ago in Helgen, and the lecture he gave Ulfric before the execution. There was venom in his voice, a suppressed rage, and utter contempt for the rebel leader. “We will put you down like a dog,” he had said.

Now, the prospect of defeat at the hands of that same dog had driven Tullius mad. There was no other explanation.

“What will you do?” I asked.

“This changes nothing. We will march on Solitude as planned. This will be the battle that puts the stamp of righteous might on our victory.”

“And what of Solitude’s people?”

Galmar pounded his fist on the table. “They’re either with us or they’re against us. We will teach all Skyrim what it means to defy Ulfric Stormcloak.”

“Aye, my friend,” said Ulfric, an eager light in his eyes. “That we will. And send a letter to Elenwen telling her that no Thalmor will go free while any Imperial still resists us.” Then he turned to me. “Well, Dragonborn, we have got this far with your help, and for that I must thank you. But this will be a battle for armies. We can take care of Tullius and his legion ourselves.”

I tried to smile coolly at him, but I’m not sure I succeeded entirely. “Ulfric, you underestimate me. I will assist with the liberation of Solitude in any way I can. Wild bears couldn’t keep me from marching at your side.” I kept my voice level, but Ulfric couldn’t overlook the threat beneath my words. We eyed each other for a long moment before I turned and left the room.

*~*~*

We were a thousand strong as we marched on Solitude. Ulfric rode in the lead, with Galmar and the captains of his war-bands riding behind him. Lydia was there too, leading a contingent of her city guards. I rode along with them, sometimes by Lydia, sometimes by Ralof, but mostly on my own off to the side. Behind us marched the hundreds of foot soldiers, some of them battle-hardened from the years of war, others green recruits who had just joined the cause. Successive victories had been good for Stormcloak recruiting, with many Nords breaking from the Imperial ranks as the bulk of the Legion returned to Cyrodiil. In the rear came great wagons filled with supplies, as well as the catapults and a great battering ram with which we would break into the city.

In Whiterun, I had reluctantly said goodbye to Brelyna and J’zargo and the rest of the college mages who had helped with the liberation of Whiterun. The college needed them, but even more, Ulfric would not have those he regarded as my allies marching with us. Even Lydia’s presence had been contentious, yet Balgruuf had insisted on Whiterun playing its role. I knew he did it as much for my sake as for his own pride.

Our slow progress across Skyrim had been uneasy. Sometimes we would meet retreating Imperial war-bands, and the two forces would eye each other tensely as the Imperials marched south or west, their swords and axes in their scabbards. But worse was the tension between Ulfric and me. In every village we passed, crowds of Stormcloak supporters would turn out to greet the advancing army, yet always the loudest cheers were for me. Sometimes a bard would even break into Malukah’s new version of “The Dragonborn Comes.” Ulfric would look over at me then, a dark scowl on his face and a warning in his eyes. In camp, Lydia rolled her bedroll out beside mine, her axe at the ready, though her place was with her own war-band.

Even my friendship with Ralof grew strained. He would often make light of the crowds’ regard for me. One day, he rode his horse over near mine, a wide grin on his face. “The people around here seem to like you, lass.”

“Try slaying a couple of dragons, my brother, then the people will shout your name as well.”

“Now, now. Don’t let it go to your head,” he replied, still grinning. “I still remember the scared girl I saved back at Helgen.”

“Girl you saved! I’ll show you who needed saving.” I tried to punch him in the arm, but he shied his horse out of the way. I nearly lost my seat.

“Watch it. You don’t want to let the people see you biting the dust before the battle even begins.”

He laughed, and Lydia laughed with him, and soon the others around us had joined in. I joined in too – if I could no longer laugh at myself, I would know all of this adulation truly had turned my head. If only the morning could go on like this, friends riding along on a crisp winter’s day, joking together. I wanted the merriment to go on and on, and to forget about war.

I drew Ralof aside, looking at him more seriously. He straightened his expression like an obedient school boy. “There may not need to be a battle, my friend.” I looked over at Ulfric. “How goes it with your leader? He looks to be in a foul mood.”

He looked at Ulfric too, and I could see the concern written on his face. “Our leader you mean, lass. I admit, these chants for you put him in a black mood. He’s beginning to question who’s really leading this rebellion, and maybe the people are too.”

“You know he means to regain his reputation as the Bear of Markarth,” I said. “He fears that he appears weak after the mercy he showed in Whiterun.”

“No, I will never believe those stories from the Reach, they are all Imperial lies. Ulfric may show little mercy for his enemies, but he would never slaughter innocent women and children.”

“But what if Tullius has convinced the people they must take up arms? Will he send his soldiers against shop-keepers and old men and young children, if they dare to raise swords against him?”

“They would be foolish not to surrender.”

“Even if they are convinced Ulfric will slaughter them anyway? You know he has sworn to kill any holding a sword, man, woman, or child.”

“No, he would never do it,” Ralof said, but there was doubt in his eyes.

“The day is coming when you must make a choice, my friend.”

He frowned at me. “You mean between my loyalty to Ulfric and my loyalty to the Dragonborn?”

“No, I would say your loyalty to me as a friend, but I would never ask you to betray your oath of service for that. I meant between Ulfric and doing what you know is right.” He shook his head at me, and then rode away. We kept apart after that.

Finally, the battlements of Solitude appeared through the trees ahead. Much had been done to repair the towers that the dragons had destroyed. The gates in the main wall had been rebuilt, and they were shut against us. At last, the day of reckoning was at hand. Ulfric would either prove himself worthy of the lordship of all Skyrim, or … I didn’t want to think about the alternative.

That glimpse of the city also brought back grim memories. I couldn’t help looking over at Lydia, who was also lost in thought. She had not set foot in the city since the battle with the dragons and our capture by the Thalmor. I wondered if the same dark reflections were going through her mind. Yet there were sweet memories in Solitude – the flush of our victory over the dragons, the roar of the crowd, our first kiss … And now we were returning, at the head of a conquering army.

Lydia must have read my thoughts, because she rode her horse close to mine and took my hand. “Have no fear, my love,” she said. “The people of Solitude love you. They will open their gates for us. We will take the city without a fight.”

“Maybe they will … to me, but to Ulfric? And what of the remnants of the Imperial Army? Lydia, no matter what happens, we cannot let Ulfric go through with his plans for slaughter.”

“No, we cannot. And at least half the soldiers will not follow him in it – they would follow you.” I looked at her doubtfully, wondering whether she judged true – and whether I would lead an army, against Ulfric or any other foe.

No one guarded the lower watch tower near Katla’s farm. Ulfric sent scouts up it, and they could see no sentries patrolling the city’s walls a quarter mile ahead. Solitude appeared deserted.

Ulfric brought his troops to a halt just beyond the tower, out of bow shot of the narrow slits for archers in the city walls. “Does Elisif think she can hide from us?” he demanded.

“We’ll give a knock at her gate she can’t ignore,” Galmar said. “Bring up the battering ram!”

The ranks of soldiers began shuffling to the side so the heavy ram could be brought up from the rear. It was an elaborate affair, like a shed on wheels, with a great tree trunk suspended on chains from the shed’s rafters, its end sharpened, fire-hardened, and capped with steel. Horses pulled the contraption now, but they would be unharnessed once it came within bow-shot. Then soldiers would stand beneath the shed’s roof and push the great ram forward. It would take some time to get the thing in place and braced for the attack.

I reined my horse over to Ulfric and his officers. Ralof shook his head at me as I approached, but I ignored him. “Ulfric, the city appears undefended,” I said. “Why not send a negotiator to learn what the city intends and persuade them to open the gates?”

The Stormcloak leader scowled at me. “If they meant to admit us to the city, the gates would be open. Those murder holes are likely filled with archers. I will not risk my troops approaching the gate to negotiate.”

“Then let me go and I will persuade them to open it for you.”

He said nothing for a moment, but rode over so that we were nearly face to face. “No, Dragonborn,” he said, his voice quiet but dripping with menace. “You have gained enough glory. I will not have you taking this victory from me. When the fighting begins, you can help where you can – heal the wounded, or pacify those citizens who are foolish enough to take up arms against us. But the Imperials are mine, do you hear? None of those dogs deserves mercy. Go against me and you will get an arrow in the back. Now, are we agreed?” Lydia was too far away to hear his words, or fighting might have broken out then and there.

I looked at him. Could I trust him to spare any citizens I calmed? Or would he make me an unwilling participant in his slaughter? “I want no part of a needless battle,” I said. I looked over at Lydia. Once again we would be separated, and there had been no time for a goodbye. I gave her a nod, then rode my horse to the side and dismounted, as if removing myself from the coming battle.

“Good,” said Ulfric, “it’s best you stay out of this, Dragonborn, as I’ve said…” Then he stared as I cast an invisibility spell on myself and disappeared. “What is this treachery? Find her!”

The nearest troops came running over to my horse, but I was no longer there. I had padded silently in the direction they least expected – right up to Ulfric where he sat on his horse. He was intent on his soldiers searching for me, as were all those around him. Now all my years of thieving came back to aid me as I slipped my hand into a leather pouch Ulfric kept behind his saddle. I thanked Nocturnal, the thieves’ goddess of luck, as I found the thing I was after on the first try – a tightly wound scroll bearing the emperor’s seal. I had seen Ulfric take it out and replace it several times on the road here. I pocketed it and slipped quietly away.

“To the gate!” Ulfric shouted, seeing that the searchers were having no luck. “She means to go over to their side!”

They found no sign of me there, of course. While they searched about the gate and the walls nearby, fumbling for my invisible form like blindfolded children in a game of hide-and-seek, I made my way past them to the watchtower that stood out from the corner of the city wall. With a bit of rock scrambling I made my way around the corner, following a narrow path atop the cliffs that fell precipitously to the Bay of Solitude far below.

Soon I found what I was looking for – a postern door cunningly fashioned to blend into the wall around it, hidden from view of the road leading up to the gate. I only knew of it from my preparations to assassinate the emperor. The city’s defenders could use this sally port to take a siege force by surprise, and Elenwen had intended that I use it to make my escape from the city if I could. Now I hoped to gain entrance by it.

I gave a rap on the door, hoping the soldiers around the corner wouldn’t hear it over the clanking of their mail. Then I stepped back as my invisibility spell wore off, lowering my hood so the guards peering out of the peep-holes above would recognize me. After a long moment a cover was drawn back from a peep-hole in the door.

“Dragonborn!” the guard within exclaimed. I could see only a pair of eyes peering through the hole. “What do you want?”

“To avoid a needless battle and senseless death. What is happening in the city? Does Tullius mean to defend it or not?”

“Elisif is in command of the city. Tullius has withdrawn with the last of his troops to Castle Dour.”

So there was still hope! “Then I must speak with Elisif.”

“You must wait there. Elisif would have my head if I let the Dragonborn into the city. Everyone was shocked by your plot on the emperor’s life, after you saved our city from the dragons. And now here you are, marching with Ulfric.”

“Very well, but hurry! You must have seen the battering ram approaching your gates.”

“Aye, that we did,” and then he was gone.

After what seemed a long time, the door opened just enough to allow me entrance to the tower. I found myself surrounded by soldiers with drawn swords and axes and archers stationed on the stair leading up into the tower, their arrows pointed at my heart. Across from me stood Elisif herself, flanked by a red-bearded man in a fine tunic.

“Elisif…” I began.

“I told her it was madness to let you into the city,” said the red-beard. “One wrong move, even a deep breath, and you’re dead, Dragonborn or no.”

“Let’s hear what she has to say, Falk,” Elisif said. “Why have you come, Dragonborn, and in the company of that rebel scum? I thought better of you.”

“I am here only to prevent a massacre. Between the two of them, Ulfric and Tullius will have the great Karth River flowing red.”

“I will never open my gates to the Bear of Markarth, not while he threatens any of my people.”

“Yet if you do not open your gates, he will slaughter all that he finds within.”

“So that’s why you have come, to threaten me until I surrender to the dog who murdered my husband?”

“Let’s take her hostage,” said the man named Falk. “Perhaps she is worth something to the Stormcloaks.”

“Elisif,” I said, “the war is lost, though Tullius doesn’t want you to know it. The emperor has granted Skyrim its independence.”

“What?” Elisif demanded. “But why?”

I showed her the scroll I had lifted from Ulfric – it was the emperor’s decree releasing Imperial claims on Skyrim. Then I gave her a brief account of the capture of the Aldmeri army and the negotiations with Elenwen.

“So Titus Mede sold us out to appease the Thalmor?” Falk asked.

“And not for the first time,” I reminded him. “That’s what this war is about, you will recall.”

Elisif gazed at me, her eyes wide. “You … you have the power to quell armies!”

“I promise you, if you open your gates, no harm will come to your people.”

“No, Elisif!” Falk said. “Why should we trust her?”

“You forget, Falk, Deirdre spared my life and the emperor’s, at great cost to herself.”  Then she turned to me, her face grim. “Yet at that time you told us you were not allied with the Stormcloaks. And here you are, marching in Ulfric’s van.”

I felt the color rising to my cheeks. “I spoke true, at the time. It was only after narrowly escaping the Thalmor dungeon with our lives that I resolved to do everything in my power to push the Aldmeri forces from Skyrim. And not just because of their treatment of Lydia and me, but because they mean to wipe all humans from the face of Nirn. If I have allied myself with the Stormcloaks, it is only because I saw that no help would come from the Imperials in that effort.”

“And now you’ve won your victory over the Thalmor, yet here you are.”

“Only to prevent Ulfric from doing what we all fear he might. You must believe me.”

“And if we open our gates, you’re sure he won’t take his revenge on my people?”

“I have seen him let Imperial war-bands march back to their homes as we made our way here. I trust that he will spare your people, as long as they don’t take up arms against him.”

She gazed long at me, weighing all that I had said. “We will open the gates,” she said finally.

“But not yet,” I said. “I must speak with Tullius. Tell me, why has he removed to Castle Dour?”

Then I learned what a skillful leader Elisif had become. Seeing the madness of Tullius’ plan to arm the people against the Stormcloaks, she had persuaded him to take his stand in Castle Dour, which was more easily defended in any case. He agreed to leave the defense of the city to Elisif’s city guard. He had little choice – already he had suffered a large number of desertions. Only in Castle Dour could he keep up the pretense that these were the last of the Empire’s defenders in Skyrim, and that they had only to hold out a bit longer to receive reinforcements from High Rock.

With Tullius out of the way in the castle, Elisif had spoken directly to her people from a balcony of the Blue Palace, calming the fear that the general had instilled in them and explaining her plan for their deliverance. As soon as Ulfric’s force had appeared on the road approaching the city, the evacuation had begun. A circular stairway descended from the center of the city through the cliffs on which Solitude was built. It came out at an unremarkable gate that opened onto the beach north of Solitude Harbor. Even now the evacuation was proceeding, yet slowly, for the stairway was narrow, and it was a thousand steps down to the exit. Those too aged or infirm to make the journey were sheltered in the Blue Palace.

“So you can see why I am reluctant to open my gates, while my people are massed around the stair’s entrance, loaded down with as much of their worldly goods as they can carry. I will never trust Ulfric Stormcloak.”

“You have served your people well, Jarl Elisif,” I said. “Now I must ask you to take me to Tullius. He will never open Castle Dour to me without you there.”

“And what of Ulfric and his battering ram?” Already we could hear the grunts and groans of the Stormcloaks outside the walls, pushing the heavy contraption up the slope to the city gate.

“Your steward can debate with Ulfric from the walls. The truth should suffice to slake Ulfric’s impatience – you are evacuating the city to give him a clear route to Tullius. That should gain us the time we need.”

Elisif and I left the tower and walked through Solitude’s deserted streets, accompanied by two guards. As we ascended the ramp leading to Castle Dour, I saw the crowd around the entrance to the stairwell. They were laden with bags and packs, jostling one another for entrance, while the city guards struggled to maintain order.

One of the townspeople caught sight of us and called out, “Look, it’s the Dragonborn!” There were several screams then, and the crowd jostled in an even greater panic to reach the exit.

Elisif went over to the wall overlooking the street where the crowd was gathered. “It’s all right,” she called. “Have no fear! The Dragonborn is here to help us, not to slay us.”

Several in the crowd looked up at us with confused expressions, then went back to the business of fleeing the city, though with less urgency.

“Tullius spread the story that you have been flying around Skyrim on your dragon’s back, burning to death any Imperial holdouts. I knew it wasn’t true.”

I didn’t want to tell her there was a kernel of truth behind that rumor. “I’m still surprised you trust me after such stories.”

She put her hand on my arm. “Anyone could see what a difficult position you were in when you came before us in the Emperor’s Tower. Yet you acted honorably, and I owe you my life twice over. I only wish I could have done more to help you, rather than letting the emperor treat you the way he did.”

“You were in a difficult position as well. No one wants to cross the Thalmor, it seems.”

We had now arrived at the long passageway beneath the walls of Castle Dour, the same where Lydia and I had entered to fight the dragons. A portcullis barred the way halfway along it, and an Imperial soldier stood on the other side.

“We need to see Tullius,” Elisif said. “The Dragonborn is here.”

In a moment the general appeared at the end of the tunnel, signaling to the guard to wait there, out of earshot, before approaching us.

“So you still mean to keep the truth from your troops?” Elisif asked.

“I mean to shield them from Stormcloak lies, especially those spread by this one,” Tullius said, a wild light in his eyes. He was greatly changed since last I had seen him, his hair grown longer and unkempt, his jaw unshaven, the straps of his ornate armor haphazardly fastened. “Why have you let her into the city? Do you forget her attempt on the emperor’s life?”

“And do you forget I was there as well?” Elisif replied. “I have already told you the truth of what happened that day.”

He looked down at her patronizingly through the bars of the portcullis. “Elisif, you are young and unused to the wiles of deceivers, spies, and assassins. She has been working for the Stormcloaks all along, since the day I first saw her in Helgen.” He turned to me. “Do you deny it?”

“If I have worked with the Stormcloaks it is only because you and your emperor pushed me to it, sending me twice into the Thalmor torture chambers. But that is history. Your game is over, Tullius. The Empire has capitulated, and you can no longer pretend that reinforcements are just around the corner. Surely you’ve had couriers from the Imperial City?”

“Impostors bearing forgeries! I had them all beheaded!”

I looked over at Elisif, shocked, but it was clear that even she hadn’t been aware of the depths of Tullius’ madness.

“Do you deny that this is the emperor’s seal?” I demanded, showing him the scroll, but keeping it out of reach.

“Another forgery, no doubt,” he said, his eyes darting back and forth between Elisif and me.

“Tullius,” said the jarl, “that is the emperor’s seal, and the letter within bears his hand. I know them both well. You know the truth of it as well as I.”

He could only shake his head, looking down at the cobbled passageway.

“You were our sworn protector,” Elisif went on. “I trusted you. Now tell us, why have you kept up this charade, risking the lives of my people?”

He finally looked up at her. When he spoke, there was defiance and anger in his voice, and a sense of relief at finally admitting the truth. “It was that appeaser, Titus Mede,” he said, his voice quiet. “I was a young captain in the Great War. I was there at the retaking of the Imperial City. Mede led us valiantly, devising one of the greatest victories this world has ever seen. And we bought it with many lives. I watched over half my battalion fall that day, brave men and women all.”

He began pacing back and forth before the portcullis, his voice rising higher.

“And then what happened? Mede as good as spit on my fallen comrades’ graves with his peace treaty, acceding to the very Thalmor demands over which we had fought the war. Oh, I didn’t care a whit about Nord superstitions, but Talos was the founder of our empire. Watching the damned elves drag his name through the muck – it was too much to bear. And the destruction of the Blades, ceding half of Hammerfell, watching the Redguards stand strong against the Dominion where we could not…”

He paused, looking around at the brick of the tunnel, trying to master his own anger. Then he straightened his shoulders. “I was nothing if not a good soldier. I remained loyal to the Empire and our emperor, appeaser though he was. But I swore then that never again would I be part of such a surrender. And now Mede has done it again, selling off Skyrim to keep the damned elves happy. If only he had sent me the reinforcements I needed! Oh, he sent a war-band or two from High Rock, but they were slaughtered by Madanach’s Forsworn, thanks to this one.” He glared at me.

“General,” said Elisif, “if you care nothing for your own life, don’t throw away the lives of your soldiers. Surrender, and Deirdre will see that Ulfric spares them.” She looked over at me and I nodded.

 Tullius didn’t pause to consider Elisif’s advice. “No. I will die rather than watch that dog, Ulfric Stormcloak, take this city unopposed.”

He turned and marched back up the passageway.

“Tullius, wait!” I called after him. “You cannot do this!” But it was too late. He disappeared into the bailey. We heard him giving orders to his troops, and then he seemed to be giving them a rallying speech for the hopeless battle ahead. We couldn’t make out his words, but could hear his voice rising and falling in the time-honored cadences of a battle-leader spurring his followers to give their lives to a noble cause.

“No, do not believe him!” Elisif tried calling through the gate, but her words could not reach the Imperial troops. Then we heard the sound of marching feet coming up the ramp below the castle wall.

“What now?” she asked glumly. “It seems we have no way to stop this slaughter. And perhaps Tullius deserves it.”

“He may, but not the troops he has duped with his lies. No, I will stand here between the two armies if that’s what it takes.”

Elisif looked at me. “But why? You have gotten everything you wanted. You defeated Alduin, earning the everlasting love of the people. You have driven the Thalmor from Skyrim, paying them for their treatment of you. Why not let the soldiers have their battle, as lop-sided as it is?”

“Because I know that Ulfric never would have gotten as far as he has without my help. The blood of any he slaughters today will be on my hands. Believe me, there is enough blood on them already. Perhaps by preventing a slaughter today, I can wash them clean. But you should go, before the Stormcloaks arrive. Your people need you, and you need not risk your life.”

The sound of marching feet was growing louder. She looked to the end of the passage, where her husband’s murderer would soon appear. There was fear in her eyes, and her voice trembled as she spoke, yet she remained where she was. “No, I will gladly stand here with you. I should have stood up to Tullius sooner, questioned him in front of his troops. Legate Rikke would have listened. Perhaps she would listen to me now if I could only speak to her.”

Now the Stormcloaks did appear around the corner, Ulfric and Galmar in the lead. There was no sign of Lydia or Ralof, but Falk was trailing along next to them. They stopped short when they saw us standing within the passage, the troops filling in behind them.

“My jarl,” said Falk, “I am sorry, I could keep them out no longer. It was either that or they would slaughter all they found within.”

“It’s all right, Falk, you may go.”

“But Jarl Elisif…”

“See to the needs of our people. There is little shelter on the beach below the city.”

He still stood there. “Do as your jarl says, Falk,” I said. “She is perfectly safe.” Finally, he turned and left, shaking his head in dismay.

“Ach, milk-drinkers!” exclaimed Ulfric. “What kind of people quail at the approach of the army that will liberate them? This city life must have made them soft.”

“Your reputation precedes you, Ulfric Stormcloak,” Elisif said. “And you are neither liberator nor hero, but a vile usurper.”

“Stand aside, Elisif, before I cut you down, as I did your husband. Skyrim has had enough of false jarls.”

“Yet she has remained true to her people, where some jarls have not,” I said.

“You … I don’t know what meddling you’ve been up to here, but you’d best step aside. You’ve stood in my way long enough.”

“And where are Lydia and Ralof?”

Galmar grinned. “We sent them around to the other entrance to the castle. Your wife won’t be here to protect you, and neither will the pup. Anyone could see which side he’s on.”

I raised an eyebrow at him. “You think I need protecting?” Calm down, Deirdre, I told myself, this is no time for idle boasting.

Just then I heard the portcullis grating upwards behind us and Tullius’ voice. “Now for it, Legionnaires!” I turned to see him standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Legate Rikke, while dozens of soldiers crowded in behind them. Tullius brandished his sword. “We’ll make them pay ten-fold for our every one. The mead-halls will ring with lays of our deeds this day. And Ulfric is mine!”

“Tullius!” Ulfric countered. “You’ll pay for our treatment at Helgen, and for every Nord kidnapped under your watch. Now, Dragonborn, stand aside. I won’t warn you again.”

“Stand aside, Elisif,” Tullius said. “What can you hope to accomplish with the Bear of Markarth at your gate?”

“I hope to avoid a senseless massacre. Rikke, I beg you, stand down. The war is lost, the emperor has given our homeland over to the Stormcloaks.”

Rikke lowered her sword, a look of disbelief on her face as she glanced back and forth between Ulfric and Tullius.

“No!” screamed the general. “The Dragonborn has turned her with her Stormcloak lies. Loyal Legionnaires, to me!” He charged at us, and Rikke had no choice but to follow. Ulfric and Galmar charged from the other end of the passage, their soldiers rushing in behind.

Elisif cowered beside me. The passage was narrow and there was nowhere to run. We were caught between two charging war-bands.

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