The Song of Deirdre – Chap. 61

The Temple of the Gods

It was madness – two armies clashing in a narrow passage. Tullius could have held out long against the Stormcloaks behind the castle’s stout defenses. But he had driven his remaining soldiers into a frenzy of fear, convincing them it was better to go out in a final, futile assault than to cower behind the castle’s gates. And Ulfric’s soldiers were eager for a fight, having been deprived of one for so long. There would be many losses on both sides – Elisif and I the first, if I didn’t do something to stop it.

A spell of harmony was what I needed, but I hadn’t the time to cast it. Unless … “Tiid-Klo-Ul!” I shouted, and suddenly the soldiers were running at us as if through water. Then I cast the harmony spell, the most advanced of all Illusion spells, calming everyone within the tunnel and many beyond. When time returned to its usual pace, Tullius and Ulfric came to a halt just inches from us, lowering their weapons and looking around with dazed expressions.

Then Ulfric realized what had happened. “What is this witchcraft?” he demanded.

“The same magic that worked on the Thalmor can work on you as well, Ulfric Stormcloak.”

Beside him, Galmar stamped his feet, his face red with rage, but he could do nothing with his axe. “This is treachery!” he shouted.

I turned to Elisif and handed her the letter from the emperor. “Show this to Tullius’ soldiers. They will trust you more readily than me. But hurry, we only have moments to convince them to stand down.”

She did as I said, Tullius looking on in growing despair, unable to do anything to stop the truth from spreading.

“How did you get that letter?” Ulfric demanded.

I turned back to him. “My years as a thief in Cyrodiil served me well. If only I had known magic back then, I might not have gone hungry so often.”

“You will pay for this, Dragonborn, when this spell wears off. You can’t keep us magicked forever.”

“Ulfric, you have everything you wanted. Skyrim is yours, Solitude is yours, the castle will soon be yours. These Imperials will flee Skyrim, thankful for their lives. What more could you want?”

“A victory! One that my followers will not question! But instead you have sought your own glory at every turn.”

We were interrupted by Legate Rikke stepping up to Tullius, her sword drawn. The spell had worn off, and her soldiers had their swords pointed at Tullius as well. “General Tullius,” Rikke said, “in the name of Emperor Titus Mede the Second, I relieve you of your duties and place you under arrest. Tomorrow you will face the headsman for disobeying a direct order from our ruler and needlessly endangering the lives of your troops and the citizens you were sworn to protect.”

Tullius brandished his sword at her. “No, I … I … All I wanted was a glorious death.”

“And death you will have, though not an honorable one. Now put down your sword.”

“Here, let me help you,” I said, casting a calming spell on Tullius.

Rikke took his sword, then turned to Ulfric. “Jarl Ulfric, the castle is yours, greatly though it pains me to say it.”

“Then stand aside and let us enter,” Galmar growled.

Rikke turned to her troops. “Into the bailey!” They began filing out of the passage, the legate marching Tullius ahead of her at sword-point. Elisif and I followed, stepping to one side to give the Stormcloaks free entrance to the keep. Soon Galmar was grouping his war-bands in ranks in front of the Emperor’s Tower and along the circular curtain wall of the castle. Rank after rank, they filed in until several hundred Stormcloaks stood ranged around the Imperials. Tullius’ troops numbered but three score. They stood in the middle of the bailey, eyeing the Stormcloaks uncertainly.

“Rikke,” Tullius said, loud enough for all in the bailey to hear, “you’re a fool if you think Ulfric will honor a piece of paper.”

“Quiet, Tullius,” said Ulfric. “You are the first who will receive justice this day.”

“What do you mean, the first?” Rikke demanded, facing Ulfric, her sword still drawn.

“I mean that you and your soldiers were loyal to Tullius to the end, and now you will die with him.”

“But free passage out of Skyrim was part of the agreement! Why else would we stand down?”

“And we have given free passage to any who didn’t resist us. Yet there you stand with your sword drawn.” It was a mean trick, beneath even Ulfric.

Elisif took a step forward. “Legate Rikke, have your soldiers drop their weapons, I beg you. It is your only hope.”

Ulfric gestured at the jarl of Solitude with his own sword. “And you, Elisif, you can stand with the Imperials you love so much.”

“No!” I called out, stepping in front of Elisif. “Stay where you are, Jarl Elisif. Ulfric, you will not do this.”

“And what will you do to stop me, Dragonborn? You cannot stand against my entire army.”

“You think not?”

Now there was grumbling among the troops, and soon it grew to shouting and scuffling. I heard calls of “Save the Hero of Riften” and “No one touches the Dragonborn!” The commotion was greatest near us, for the war-bands Ulfric and Galmar led into the castle were their most loyal soldiers, while those who had come after were more mixed, with many new recruits and even some of those whom I had spared at the Rift Pass. Now many of these broke ranks and moved to stand with Elisif and me.

Into this commotion came Lydia and Ralof, each leading their own war-band, through the same passage by which we had entered. Ralof stopped his troops at the mouth of the passageway, but Lydia marched hers over to stand near me.

“I ordered you to enter by the other gate!” Galmar screamed.

“We found it locked, my captain, so we rushed back here,” Ralof said. “What is happening?”

Ulfric eyed Ralof warily. “Your Breton lass seeks to thwart me once more.”

“And your jarl seeks the slaughter he has wanted all along,” I countered. Ralof looked back and forth between us, wracked with pain and confusion.

“Careful how you go, young pup,” Galmar said. “None who are disloyal will survive this day.”

The three forces stood eyeing one another, unsure what would happen next. Between Lydia’s band of Whiterun guards and the soldiers who had broken ranks, half a hundred fighters stood with me. I truly did not know which way Ralof’s band would go. But whatever happened, it looked to be a bloodier mess than even Ulfric could have imagined.

I took a step toward Ulfric. “Perhaps you are right that I cannot stand against your entire army. Instead, Ulfric Stormcloak, I challenge you to single combat in the ancient Nord tradition.”

A murmur went through the bailey. Lydia stepped up beside me and put a hand on my arm. “No, my love, let me stand for you.”

I took her hand. “I must do this. Do not worry. All will be fine.” Then I turned back to the Stormcloaks. “Ulfric, you lack both honor and virtue. You are responsible for untold evils in the ghettos of Windhelm. And now you have wasted your last chance to become the noble king Ralof and your followers hoped for. I wish now that I had played no part in your rise to power. You will not rule Skyrim as long as I live. What say you to my challenge?”

“Why should I submit to such a trial? Without your dragon, you cannot hope to defeat my army, even with all your power. Why shouldn’t I have my soldiers wash these flagstones with your treacherous blood?”

“Where’s your thirst for glory now, Ulfric?” I demanded. “Would you hide behind your army? You bragged of your victory over Torygg using the Voice. Now try your Voice on me!” I knew his pride would yet be his downfall.

“Jarl Ulfric,” Ralof put in, “my leader, you will dishonor yourself and our cause if you refuse this challenge.”

“The pup is right, Ulfric,” said Galmar. “You will lose the trust of your soldiers if you refuse to meet the lass in single combat.”

Ulfric saw that he was trapped by his own pursuit of glory. “All right, we will duel. But no magic.”

“As you will,” I told him, “but I will not refrain from using my Thu’um. You have this power as well.”

“So be it. Stormcloaks, stand back. My Thu’um is strong, and I would not injure you.”

Lydia remained next to me, loath to see me stand alone. “Stand aside, my love,” I said. “Ulfric’s Voice is strong as well.” She did as I bade her, though her lower lip trembled. She took a place next to Ralof, who put a brotherly arm across her shoulders. His face could not have shown more pain. I do not think he knew which of us he would rather see emerge from the duel.

And so Ulfric and I faced each other at last, across a gap of twenty paces. I bowed to my foe, but Ulfric did not keep to the ancient courtesies. He stood his ground, blustering and brandishing his sword. “Torygg insisted on these courtly customs as well,” he called across the gap that separated us. “They did not avail him, and neither will they avail you. He was at least a man, a proud Nord, and you are but a girl, and half-Breton at that.”

Ulfric was indeed wise in the ways of the Thu’um. He thought to provoke me to anger, knowing that the strongest shout could only be called out of a calm center. But taunts could not anger me.

I just smiled at him. “No? Perhaps he was not polite enough. I will extend you the courtesy of the first shout.” The gathered soldiers from both camps gasped at this. I heard a sob from Lydia, but I kept my eyes on Ulfric. Even he looked taken aback by my offer. The power of his Thu’um was legendary. I bowed once more, then planted both feet squarely on the flagstones, hoping to anchor myself to the strength of Nirn for the blow I knew was coming.

“Very well,” he said. “It is your choice.” He gathered his breath. “Fus-Ro-Dah!” he shouted.

Time seemed to slow once more, though I had not used the Slow Time shout. I watched the wave of Ulfric’s shout rippling toward me, then I began gathering my own breath. When the shout reached me I took it in through my breath and through my feet. The force rippled from the flagstones up through my body. I took it in and added it to my own power, and I did not stagger. I stood before Ulfric, and he knew I was stronger than before.

The castle yard was deadly quiet – until Ulfric screamed in shock and disbelief. Then he charged, sword drawn.

He did not make it halfway.

I released my Thu’um upon him and sent him flying, smiting him against the castle wall fifty feet away. He crumpled in a heap at its base, then lay still.

I looked around at the rest of the bailey. All the soldiers, Imperial and Stormcloak alike, had been knocked to the ground. Only Lydia remained upright, braced on one knee. She was the first to her feet. She jabbed the air with her axe and shouted. “Deirdre is victorious! Long live the Dragonborn!”

Ralof looked at his fallen master then at me. “Dovahkiin!” he shouted finally. “Long live Dovahkiin!”

The Imperials took up a different cry. “Finish him!” they called.

I looked back at Ulfric; he was stirring now. I walked toward him, drawing my sword as I went. By the time I reached him he had gotten to all fours. He had a bloody gash on his forehead and one arm appeared broken. He gasped for breath as I placed the point of my sword beneath his chin and made him look at me.

“You heard them,” he said. “Finish me. Give me an honorable death.”

“There is no honor in death, Ulfric, only death.”

“But it will make a better story.”

“You Nords and your thirst for glory! Haven’t you learned this is not that kind of tale?” I sheathed my sword. “I know I promised not to use magic, but I hope you will not think me deceitful.” I put my hands together to dual cast, and he actually cowered.

When the healing spell hit him, he gasped in disbelief. “You are truly wicked,” he whispered. “First you robbed me of victory, and now you’ve robbed me of all honor.” He reached to his belt with his good arm and drew his dagger, lunging upwards at me.

But I was too quick for him, leaping backward out of harm’s way. He tried to follow, but he was still weak, and I easily eluded him. Then I heard the sound of boots running up behind me, and I turned to see Lydia charging at Ulfric with her axe ready to strike.

I caught her by the arm before she got past me, and she came to a halt, staring at me in disbelief.

“Still you would spare him? The villain is beneath mercy.”

“We have had no bloodshed so far this day,” I said, “and I would like to end it that way.”

I turned back to Ulfric. He was breathing hard, and had crumpled to one knee from his effort. I approached him, one hand held out. Still he scowled at me in defiance. I wanted to use the Voice on him, but I doubted he would survive the impact. Instead I concentrated on my shout, repeating “Drem-Aaz-Fahdon” over and over in my mind until their meaning, Peace-Mercy-Friend, filled my being. I had come right up to Ulfric now, and I placed my hand on his brow, letting the meaning of the words flow from me into him. It was something like those times at High Hrothgar when the Greybeards had shared their knowledge with me. I hoped it would have the same effect on him.

I was not disappointed. Ulfric began to tremble and his scowl crumbled into a look of awe and confusion, tears coming to his eyes. “No, what is this? Your wickedness knows no depths!” Yet still he trembled and sobbed and finally bowed his head.

“What kind of world is it in which mercy is considered wicked?” I asked him, and held my hand down to him. “Rise, Ulfric Stormcloak. I declare your leadership of the Stormcloak rebellion at an end, but I spare your life. You may remain free as long as you renounce your ambition to be high king and pledge your loyalty…”

His submission was so quick that he cut me off. He didn’t even rise, but took my hand and kissed it. “I swear by Ysmir that I will be your loyal and true servant as long as I live. For indeed you are Ysmir, returned in woman’s form.”

“No, Ulfric,” I told him, “I do not ask for your loyalty to me. I was going to ask for your loyalty to Skyrim and its next chosen ruler, whoever he or she may be. More than that, I ask for your loyalty and service to Skyrim’s people – all of its people, whether Dunmer, Bosmer, or Orsimer; Khajiit, Breton, Redguard, or Nord, and yes, even Argonian. I would have you pledge to protect them from whatever assaults Skyrim yet faces. And finally I would have you put your city and your hold to rights. Free the Dunmer and the Argonians to live and work where they choose, side by side with their Nord neighbors. Make the roads of Eastmarch safe for all travelers, of whatever race. Teach your people that Skyrim belongs not just to the Nords but to all people who cherish the freedom to live, worship, and love as they please while allowing those same freedoms to their neighbors. Pledge thus, and you may return to Eastmarch as jarl, with any who will still follow you.”

He looked up at me, and I saw no treachery in his eye, only wonder. “I do swear it, and I will try to accomplish all you command, my … my queen. As much as you deny it, you will make a far more merciful and just ruler than I. The people will love you forever.”

A great cheer rose up from the gathered soldiers, taken up first by Lydia and the Whiterun guards, then spreading to Ralof’s war-band and the Stormcloaks who had come to stand by me, then among Ulfric’s loyal followers and even the Imperials, who were glad for their freedom. “Queen Deirdre!” they shouted. “Long live Queen Deirdre!” Even Elisif was clapping and cheering. Only Galmar Stone-Fist refused to join in, still staring in disbelief at his defeated leader.

Lydia led the chanting, her axe thrust to the skies, while she walked over to me. Then she embraced me, lifting me off my feet. “You did it, my love,” she said. “You’ve won.” She set me down and lifted my hand in the air.

It took me a moment to extricate my hand from her grasp, then I raised both hands for quiet. When they were finally still, I said, “Armies do not appoint rulers. That is not the way of Skyrim. The jarls will meet and choose the next ruler, and I urge that it happen in all haste. Much needs doing to restore our land and prepare for whatever the Thalmor have planned for us. For my part, I would not put my name forward as queen. What do I know of ruling a realm? Yet I can think of one who is both fairer and wiser than I.” I looked over at Elisif.

“As you will,” many of them said, but they couldn’t help adding, “your Grace.”

“While Skyrim does not yet have a ruler, it must look to its defenses. And there remains the matter of four hundred elves held prisoner in Labyrinthian. Someone will need to lead Skyrim’s army and look to these concerns.”

The crowd interrupted with shouts of “Deirdre! Deirdre!”

“No, no, I am even less fit to be a commander of armies than I am to become a ruler.” I looked over at Galmar. “Galmar Stone-Fist, you led Ulfric’s forces with skill and courage. The men and women know you well. Will you serve as Skyrim’s first general?”

He kept staring sadly down at Ulfric, then shook his head. “Ach, no. I followed my jarl into this rebellion, I will follow him in defeat.”

“Then I propose that Ralof of Riverwood lead Skyrim’s new army, to be built from whatever Stormcloaks wish to continue their service and all those Nords in the Imperial Legion who wish to return to their homeland.”

Another cheer rose up from the soldiers, with cries of “Ralof!”

Ralof stepped forward. “What of the rest of these Imperials, my que… Deirdre?” He gave me a wink as he said it.

I looked at Rikke, still holding Tullius under guard, and the soldiers behind her. Many of them were Nords, many more Cyrodiilians, with several Redguards, Bretons, Dunmer, and Orsimer thrown in. “I would welcome all of you into the new Skyrim Army, if you will pledge your loyalty to our land. To the Nords, I say that Skyrim needs you as never before. The rest of you, if you choose not to join us, I would have you return to your own lands. Tell all who will listen that the Thalmor seek domination over all of Tamriel. The Altmer view themselves as superior to all other races and will enslave us or wipe us out. Skyrim stands ready to fight them and seeks allies.”

I turned to Rikke. “Legate, I leave Tullius to your justice. I say the same to you as to the rest of your soldiers. Return to your emperor and the Elder Council. Tell them that Skyrim has declared itself free of Imperial rule, yet we will work with the Empire against the Thalmor. Every day the White-Gold Concordat remains in effect is another day in which the Thalmor strengthen their hold over the Empire, threatening all of Tamriel. I’m sure Titus Mede would not see his people enslaved. And when you have made your report to the emperor, I hope you will return and join us.”

“I will, Dragonborn. You have proven true to your word, at the risk of your own life. While I mistrust this wish you have for Skyrim self-rule, I am glad that Ulfric the Usurper will not become high king. There are many fine jarls within Skyrim who will make decent rulers. I give you the honor of hoping that we may meet again one day in battle, and on the same side.” She went off to organize her remaining troops.

I turned to Ralof. “I hope I didn’t overstep my authority there, my friend. Did I do well?”

“All was wise and just, lass. Keep it up and you might make something of yourself one day.” He winked at me, then he turned to the Imperials. “Who is with us?”

All the Nords, to the man and the woman, came over, and several of the Redguards as well. There was much back slapping, and even greetings among old friends divided by their loyalties. The others who chose not to join our cause began stripping off their Imperial armor. “Could use a pint after that, I could,” I heard one say. “Let’s go down to the Winking Skeever.”

I left Galmar and Ralof in charge of the disposition of the armies. “Come Lydia, there is one thing left to do.” We walked over to where Elisif stood near the passage, beaming at us.

“You have delivered my city and the Imperial soldiers from Ulfric’s threat,” she said. “You are indeed the victor this day.”

“It is time to have your people return to the city, Jarl Elisif. Have them gather in the Temple of the Gods. Something is about to happen there that has not happened in a generation.”

“Aye, Dragonborn,” she said, bowing to me before she left.

Lydia and I walked hand in hand through the temple garden, then into the great cathedral. Its vaulted ceiling soared far overhead, marred only by the spots where the holes left by the frost dragon had been hastily patched with planking. The winter sunlight shone through the stained windows creating beautiful shafts and beams of light. We approached the sanctuary, where eight shrines stood in separate altars arranged in a half-circle. One more altar stood empty. We knelt before the shrine of Dibella and asked her blessing, then lingered at the shrine of Mara.

The priest found us there. I rose to greet him. “It is a pleasure to see you again, Deirdre Morningsong, and under much less threatening circumstances.”

“I will not forget your aid on that dark night, father. Now, tell me you haven’t destroyed your shrine of Talos?”

“I think I might remember where I stowed it in the basement,” he said with a mischievous look. “But…”

“Go and return it to its rightful place. Imperial rule is at an end, and we are now free to worship Talos.” He still looked uncertain.

“Do as she says, Rorlund.” Jarl Elisif had come up behind us. “The Thalmor are gone, and Tullius will be soon. For too long has that ninth altar stood empty.”

When the priest had gone, she came over and hugged me. Her steward, Falk Firebeard, stood beside her, beaming. “Deirdre,” Elisif said. “We are thrice indebted to you. Bowing to Ulfric would have been the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I would much rather bow to you.”

“No, do not kneel, my lady,” I told her. “You are still jarl of Haafingar Hold, and may yet one day be queen.”

“We will see about that,” she said, smiling.

The people had begun filing into the cathedral. “Now, your people are here. Will you address them first, or shall I?”

“No, you do the honors, Deirdre. Today, the victory is yours.”

The people had packed the pews by now. The news of my duel with Ulfric must have spread among them, because no longer did they turn sullen glances upon me. Instead, they beamed and shouted my name. “Deirdre! Deirdre!”

When I had quieted them, I spoke. “People of Solitude, I give you Elisif!” I gestured to Elisif, who stood off to the side, waving her hand demurely. “She protected your lives with wisdom and courage. She is still your jarl, and may one day be your queen!”

A great roar rose up from the crowd and they chanted, “Elisif! Elisif!”

When they were quiet again, I continued. “The Thalmor flee our shores and the Imperial army is vanquished. The war is over and Skyrim is free!” The cheering was somewhat more subdued now. Most of the people here had been quite comfortable under Imperial rule. “Many of the Imperial Army’s brave soldiers have joined our cause. The Thalmor will no longer kidnap you off the street or steal you from your beds. No more need you speak with guarded tongues for fear of Thalmor spies.” The cheers were heartier this time. “Most important, you are free to worship as you please.”

With impeccable timing, the priest returned with the shrine of Talos. He was pretending to dust it, but it looked to have been well polished over the years. He displayed it to the onlookers, to thunderous applause.

“Father Rorlund, please put the shrine in its rightful place.” As he carried the shrine over to the ninth altar, I faced the audience again. “It may be that I have received the blessing of Talos more recently than many of you. No doubt the younger among you have never received his blessing in the twenty-five years of the ban. My last blessing was only four years ago, yet its memory is most grievous. It took place in the secret shrine my father kept for Talos in our cellar. That shrine was lost the next night in a blazing inferno that also took my home, my childhood, and my parents from me. So I would ask that I receive the first blessing from this restored altar in honor of my father.” They shouted their approval.

Through my tears I saw that many of them were crying as well. Then I saw Ulfric, standing over to the side, tears streaming down his face. I thought then that perhaps I had underestimated him – perhaps his devotion to Talos was more than just a cover for his ambition.

I approached the altar and knelt before it. The priest placed his hand on my brow and said the prayer to Talos. I looked up at the shrine and remembered those countless nights kneeling before our basement altar, with my father beside me saying the same prayer. I missed him then as I had not in the last three years. “Father, in Sovngarde or wherever you be,” I asked him, “did I do well? Did I serve Talos and the rest of the Nine in your name?”

The priest bade me rise then, and Lydia came and took me in her arms. I sobbed as I hadn’t since I was a child. Not even my tears of joy at Lydia’s recovery could equal it.

Elisif rose and spoke to the crowd. “My people, I would speak a word for Deirdre, thrice hero of Solitude. By ancient Nord custom she has proven herself the most powerful in single combat, and by rights should claim the throne of Skyrim. I for one am ready to swear my fealty to her. Tamriel has not seen her like since Tiber Septim, our lord Talos.”

If the cathedral could have risen into the air, it would have then, so thunderous was the noise of the crowd. But I once again raised my arms and asked for silence. “People of Solitude, if I achieved any victory, it was not over a single man. Neither was it a victory for myself, but a victory of love over hatred. I did not vanquish Ulfric. He stands there among you and I aver he is a changed man. As for Elisif’s kind words, it is too soon to decide on a new ruler. That day is not far off, but for now let us celebrate and receive the blessing of Talos, may he guide us all.”

Many in the crowd came forward then for their blessings. Elisif went first, and Lydia was next. When she was through she came over and we stood arm in arm watching the congregants file past. When it was Ulfric’s turn he did indeed seem a changed man. He looked genuinely moved to receive Talos’ blessing, but then he asked the priest to also give him the blessing of Mara. His shoulders shook and we could hear his sobs as the priest said the prayer.

The sun was slanting at a low angle through the windows by the time the last of the worshippers approached the altar. I smiled at Lydia. The war was won, we would have peace for a time, and I had the arms of the woman I loved around me. I was happy, and my tasks all fulfilled.

I wanted to stop Time, and never lose the feeling I had then. I even said a little prayer to Akatosh, the Dragon God of Time, that he might make it so. But I was just a foolish girl, and it was a foolish dream. Time flowed onward and carried me with it.

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Comments

  1. larryhogue says:

    That may seem like the end, but there’s an epilogue. I’ll post that tomorrow.

  2. TheRealG says:

    You’re freaking me out here. I recall an earlier chapter where Deirdre would recall reaching out for Lydia when she wakes, only to remember that she has… “Well, I get ahead of myself” or something to that tone. Please tell me that nothing bad happens to Lydia. My favorite housecarl has had enough suffering. T_T

  3. I like how both the Imperial and the Stormcloak leadership come off quite bad here.The Empire perhaps comes off as being slightly worse, since the consequences of its submission to the Thalmor are described in detail, whereas many negatives of Stormcloaks are only alluded to (admittedly, the game itself makes a lot of bad things about them to be all-tell-no-show). Still, the fanfic does in the end reconstruct Deidre’s pacifism and her commitment to non-violence, proving that the Greybeards are not completely wrong in everything they do.

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