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Song of Deirdre

The Song of Deirdre – Chapter 3

 

Riverwood

 

Pic of Gerdur welcoming Deirdre and Ralof
Gerdur welcomed me as if I were her own family.

“Deirdre, what are you doing out here?” It was Ralof’s sister, Gerdur, and she was shaking my shoulder.

Once again I awoke in an unfamiliar place. That was nothing new. This time I knew where I was and how I got here, and that was something. After years of sleeping on the ground or sneaking into stables, the bed in Gerdur’s house had proved too soft, the indoor air too stifling. I stumbled out of the house in the small hours and burrowed myself into the straw in the stable where Gerdur kept a cow and two draft horses. The livestock didn’t seem to mind my company. I slept like a stone.

Ralof and I had arrived in Riverwood in the early evening, both of us reeling with fatigue. “Did you see the dragon?” a crone asked us as we shambled past her porch. The laughter nearly had us both on the ground. “She wants to know if we’ve seen the dragon,” Ralof gasped, tears running down his cheeks.

When we had recovered, I turned to the woman. “Yes, I believe we did see a dragon, ma’am. Why, did you see one here too?”

“Flew right over this afternoon, high up in the sky. I’m sure it was a dragon. Everyone tells me it was just a big vulture and my vision is going.”

“Your eyes are fine, Hilde,” Ralof told her and we continued on.

We found Gerdur at the sawmill she ran with her husband Hod. Stacks of milled planks filled the yard, and the scent of sweet pine resin was thick in the air. She ran to Ralof when she caught sight of us, wrapping him in her arms. “Ralof, I was so worried about you. We heard you’d been captured.”

“It’s all right, Gerdur,” he told her, stroking her hair. It was golden, where his was red, and done in a single braid down the back. “I’m fine. It’s more than I can say for a lot of those Imperials back in Helgen.”

“But you’re hurt,” she said, looking him over. A particularly deep gash on his upper arm caught her eye. “We have to take care of that.”

“A scratch, it can wait. Have you seen any other Stormcloaks pass through, or Imperials either? Ulfric – have you seen Ulfric Stormcloak?”

Gerdur shook her head. “No, but you won’t believe what we did see. A great beast flew overhead. I think … it must have been a dragon.” Her eyes grew wider at the memory.

“I do believe it. That dragon attacked Helgen. Many people died, but if it hadn’t been for the dragon, we … Well, we wouldn’t be here talking to you now. My friend and I barely escaped, but I thought some of my comrades would come this way too. They know the Imperials aren’t so strong in Whiterun Hold.” He looked troubled as he thought of the companions he had left behind in Helgen.

“If you have Imperials on your trail, we’d better get you inside. I’ll have Hod keep a look out on the road for friend or foe.” Only then did she look at me.

Ralof made a belated introduction. “This is Deirdre. She helped us escape the keep. Pretty good in a tight spot, and sharp with a bow, too. I told her you’d feed her and give her a place to sleep, if it’s no trouble.”

“No trouble at all. Anyone who helps save my brother is part of the family.” Then she gave me a warm welcoming hug. “You look done in, girl. Let’s get you some dinner and a warm bed.”

Now the sun was high and Gerdur was here to milk the cow. I lay for a while listening to the noises from outside the stable, chickens clucking as they pecked about the yard, birds singing, the whine of the sawmill off in the distance. Hod must already be hard at work, I thought. But I just wanted to lie there as long as I could. It was strange, I thought I would never forget the events of the day before, but already a night’s sleep had covered over those terrible memories like gauze on a wound. Now I was simply glad to be alive. My senses seemed sharper and I looked forward to the new day more eagerly than I could remember. Given all of the innocent people I had seen killed yesterday, and all the killing I had done, it seemed a bit obscene.

“There’s breakfast for you inside,” Gerdur said. That sounded good. I had been too tired to eat much last night, but now I was ravenous. “Go on in whenever you’re ready. Ralof is still dead to the world.”

I winced at her turn of phrase. Then I winced again as I tried to sit up. Every muscle and joint ached, and my arms and legs were a welter of bruises. The cut on my temple stung under the bandage Gerdur had applied last night.

“I have something for your aches when you’re ready,” she said as the milk splashed into the bucket. “A local woman makes it from willow bark. It does wonders when you rub it on sore muscles. Maybe after you’ve had a bath?”

A bath? I hoped she meant a hot one. I missed hot baths more than hot food and soft beds. We had stopped at a quiet spot along the river to rinse off the sweat, blood and spider spit, but it would take more than cold stream water to wash away the filth of Helgen Keep. I doubted I’d ever rid myself of that stench completely.

It was too bright a morning to dwell on these dark memories, so I pushed myself up from the straw, aches or no.

Hod and Gerdur’s house was built of stone and timber, unlike my home in Dragon Bridge, where the buildings were mainly of wood. But like my childhood home, it had a thatched roof. I couldn’t help thinking how little protection it would provide if the dragon chose to attack here. Still, the thick stone walls gave me some sense of security, false though I knew it to be.

Inside, Ralof was up, moving as stiffly as I was. “You look like you were trampled by an ox,” I told him.

“Eh, you’re looking like death warmed over as well, lass.” I winced once more. Why did these Nords keep bringing up a subject I would rather forget? “Didn’t sleep too well in here, did you?”

“I’ve grown too used to barns and cold ground,” I said.

We broke our fast on dense black bread slathered in butter and honey and a big rasher of bacon Gerdur had toasted over the morning fire. After that, Ralof raided the cellar for planks of smoked salmon. We finished with the first of the year’s apple crop. The fruit was small but juicy and tart. Ralof helped himself to a bottle of mead, but I was content with cold spring water. After yesterday, I couldn’t get enough of it.

pic of Ralof cooking while Deirdre sits at table in Riverwood
I always did appreciate a man who can cook.

As we ate, we talked about whether the day would stay warm, how long we could expect good weather here in the mountains, then about life in Riverwood and some of the people Ralof knew. Anything to avoid the events of the previous day. Ralof seemed as if he would ask about my past, but I steered away from that too. So he told me about growing up here, dreaming of far places and heroic deeds as he spent his days in the family sawmill. When he was seventeen, he had gone off to Whiterun to join the city guard. After five years he grew bored with that city and moved on to Windhelm. Joining the guard there was as good as joining the Stormcloaks, and he’d been with Ulfric for the last two years.

“You should think about going to Windhelm and joining our cause,” Ralof said. “You’ve seen the Imperial brand of justice in Helgen. By Ysmir, it’s time we threw them out. We could use your help.”

“But why are Nords rising up now?” I asked. “It’s been a quarter century since Talos worship was banned.”

“You mean you never heard of our rebellion when you were in Cyrodiil?” I shook my head. Then he told me about Ulfric Stormcloak challenging High King Torygg in single combat, an old tradition in Skyrim. That was back in the spring, and Ulfric’s victory had rallied thousands of Skyrim’s people to the Stormcloak banner. Nords loved anyone with power and prowess. Many of them viewed Torygg as a weak puppet of the Empire, and the Empire as puppets of the Aldmeri Dominion. The way Ralof told it, Ulfric’s action had sparked a new fervor for independence in Skyrim’s people, and for the god they named Ysmir, known as Talos in the rest of Tamriel.

Yet I had my doubts. Other than my father, I’d never met another Nord who would even mention Talos by his Nordic name. Thanks to the Thalmor, a whole generation of Nord children had grown up learning only that Talos was a great man who had united all of Tamriel, but not that he had gone on to achieve the status of a god. To the High Elves, or Altmer, the idea of Talos’ godhood was heresy. In their view, humans were far beneath the mer – how could a mere man surpass the elves by becoming one of the Divines? The Great War began when the Aldmeri Dominion demanded that the Empire ban Talos worship and cede certain lands. It ended two years later when the exhausted Empire agreed to those very demands, despite having won a great battle to liberate the Imperial City from the occupying Altmer. The Empire survived, but at a price the Stormcloaks deemed too high.

The Emperor even gave the Thalmor, the ruling faction of the Aldmeri Dominion, free reign to enforce the ban across Skyrim. Thalmor justiciars had criss-crossed the land, rooting out Talos worship wherever they found it. Even uttering “by the Nine” rather than “by the Eight” when swearing an oath could draw suspicion. Suspects were snatched from their homes, never to be seen again. Soon, Nords were divided against Nords, afraid even to mention the name of Ysmir outside their homes, never knowing who might turn them over to the Thalmor. There were stories of whole families taken when a son or daughter let slip that they believed in Talos’ godhood. After twenty-five years of suppression, it was hard to find a family in Skyrim that would admit to worshipping Talos, even to their closest friends. I had grown up thinking my father was the only Talos worshipper in all of Dragon Bridge.

“I’m surprised Ulfric found any followers of Ysmir to rise to his call,” I said.

“But Deirdre, don’t you see?” said Ralof. “There were many families like yours, keeping the love of Ysmir alive in secret, just waiting for the right moment to rise up. Ulfric provided the spark that ignited their fervor. When he shouted down Torygg, it was as if Ysmir had come again.” Of course! Talos was said to have an innate ability with the Voice, the power he had used to conquer and unite Tamriel.

Yet, as Ralof went on about which of the nine holds supported which side and my head began to swim with the details, one thing became clear: many Nords still sided with the Empire. They had grown up not knowing about Ysmir the god, or had chosen to forget. They were far from ready to take up arms in Talos’ defense. These milk-drinkers, as Ralof called them, believed Skyrim couldn’t stand on its own without Imperial protection. Better a few Thalmor patrolling Skyrim, this faction believed, than a full-scale Aldmeri invasion. Many had joined the Imperial army to help quell the rebellion. It seemed Ralof was right about one thing – it would be long before Skyrim had peace.

Ulfric had not declared himself high king, but Ralof thought the jarls would crown him as soon as the war turned in the Stormcloaks’ favor. I had to wonder where the other races that inhabited Skyrim fit in to the Nord plans for self-rule: the Dark Elves and the Wood Elves, the Argonians, the Khajiits, and the Bretons. And what about mixed-bloods like me? I couldn’t remember how many times I had heard the shout “Skyrim is for the Nords!” I’d heard it too many times on the night my parents died. Too, Ysmir had been my father’s god. My mother had followed Y’ffre, the elven god of the forest, and they had never forced me to choose between the two. My father had never responded to Ulfric’s speeches, and I was even less inclined to follow him now. But I kept these doubts to myself, giving Ralof a different excuse for my hesitation.

“What could the Stormcloak army do with a girl like me?” I asked. I had some woodcraft, true, but I was no soldier. I had proven my ineptitude with a sword in Helgen Keep.

He looked at me as if I couldn’t be more stupid. “Well, let’s see, you’re a dead-eye shot with a bow. Not sure what your range is but you’d be a natural in a line of archers. You’re small but you have heart, and that’s more than a lot of soldiers can say. And the Stormcloaks don’t just need soldiers for open battle. There’s sneaking into camps and Imperial forts, ambushing supply caravans, spy work, maybe even some jobs for an assassin.”

“I told you. I think I did enough killing yesterday to last the rest of my life.”

“Well, but there’s your magic,” he said. “That could be useful.”

“Great. I can roast people alive. Very nice. That is, when it works.”

“There are other branches of magic aren’t there? I’ve heard of mages using healing spells. You could be a healer. Then you could help the Stormcloaks without hurting anyone.”

“Well, maybe so,” I said, pondering Ralof’s idea. Though I still doubted the Stormcloak cause, the offer was tempting. No one had needed me for anything in a long time. And Ralof had appealed to my sense of pride. I had kept myself going by thinking of myself as the girl the Nord bastards couldn’t kill, then the girl who survived three years on her own. Now I was the girl who escaped Helgen Keep. I was proud of my skills, and Ralof thought I could be useful in the Stormcloaks’ great cause. I was nearly halfway to signing up, despite my reservations about Ulfric. But I didn’t want Ralof to know that. “I need to learn more magic before I can do anything useful,” I told him. “I wonder where mages learn their art?”

“I bet the mage in Dragonsreach – that’s the jarl’s hall in Whiterun – would be able to tell you. There’s some sort of college in Winterhold, but I’ve never heard anything good about it. Some say that a college experiment pushed half of Winterhold into the sea. Others say it’s filled with High Elves and Dunmer and Khajiits and B … um, all sorts –”

I punched him well and hard in the arm. His muscles were hard as rocks, but he pretended to wince in pain anyway. “And Bretons, you were about to say? It seems I’ll fit right in.”

“I’m sorry, Deirdre,” he said, giving me that sheepish grin again. “You know I didn’t mean anything. It’s just hard to know if they’re working for the good of Skyrim, or someone else.”

“The good of Skyrim,” I said. “What is the good of Skyrim? That’s the question.”

“If dragons really are coming back, that’s not going to be good for Skyrim.”

I had almost forgotten that part of yesterday’s horrors. The fighting with the Imperials and what I’d witnessed in that torture chamber had eclipsed the earlier carnage. That, and I still had trouble believing what I had seen and felt. I said as much to Ralof.

“I can hardly believe it either,” he said. “I thought dragons were just a legend. But I saw too many of the dragon’s victims to think it was just a dream or a vision. Have you ever seen anything so powerful? Now I think the stories about the Ancient Nords’ worshipping them must be true. How did they ever defeat the monsters?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “But maybe the dragon won’t have anything more to do with us.” I knew it was a vain hope even as I spoke. “Maybe it was just passing through and it’s moved off to distant lands.”

“From your mouth to Akatosh’s ears,” Ralof said.

I spent the rest of the morning bathing, spending an hour luxuriating in the hot water, then tending to my wounds and sorting my gear. I planned to sell the Stormcloak armor, because itt wouldn’t do to be caught traveling around Skyrim while proclaiming my allegiance to the rebels. I visited Alvor, the village blacksmith, who took my measurements to fit a plain set of hide armor to my size — as primitive as it was, it would still be the best I’d ever worn. I promised to return with coin by the time he was done, then went to Riverwood Traders to sell the extra gear and weapons I had looted the day before. Ralof had assured me that Lucan would take Imperial armor, no questions asked.

Deirdre in Riverwood Traders with Camilla and her brother
A tale of theft in Riverwood Traders

When I arrived, he and his sister Camilla were discussing a robbery that had happened the day before. They couldn’t understand why a thief would break into their store only to steal one thing: a golden claw.

I was more interested in lightening my load and fattening my purse, so I turned his attention to business as soon as I could. I sold what gear I didn’t need, then showed him the book I had found in Helgen. Its cover bore a symbol that looked like a hand with fingers of fire. On the inside were more runes I didn’t understand. “Have you ever seen one of these?” I asked.

“That’s a spell tome,” he told me. “It will teach you a spell, if you know how to read it. I’ll buy it off you, or I have others I could sell you.”

“Can you teach me how to read it?”

“No, lass,” Lucan said. “I’m no mage, I only sell the things. Not much call for them ’round here, truth be told. If you want to learn magic, try the court mage in Whiterun. Farengar, I think his name is.”

I decided to keep the book. Maybe it was a healing spell. I left the store richer than I’d been in my young life, though that wasn’t very rich at all.

When I returned, Gerdur had just prepared the mid-day meal. “This is what I miss about working the mill,” Ralof said. “Gerdur knows we get hungry from all that hard labor…”

“I know it because I do the same work, brother,” Gerdur interrupted. “I work as hard as either of you, and I cook the meals.” Then she turned to me. “My brother is a big lunk, but he’s got a good heart.”

“Well, whatever the reason,” Ralof said, “Gerdur keeps us well fed.”

Ralof was not wrong about his sister’s cooking. The meal was served cold, yet it was delicious. There were boiled eggs, a spread made from smoked trout, a wheel of good Eidur cheese, pickles, black bread, ears of corn that had been left roasting on the coals of the morning fire, and fresh peaches at the height of their summer sweetness. As much as I had eaten for breakfast, I ate more now. We washed everything down with mead, the first I’d ever had. It was sweet and tasted like summer and it made me a bit light-headed.

“Girl has a healthy appetite,” said Hod. He was a taciturn fellow.

“What was the news at the store?” Gerdur asked.

“Lucan says they were robbed. But the thief took just one thing, a golden claw.”

“First a dragon flies overhead,” said Gerdur, disbelief in her voice, “and then the store is robbed, both on the same day. What is Riverwood coming to? We need to tell Jarl Balgruuf to send us more hold guards. What if the dragon comes back?”

Ralof and I looked at each other. We both knew how little good a few guards would do against the dragon. “They could keep you safe from thieves, at least,” Ralof told her.

There was a pause then, as each of us pondered the risk of the dragon returning to Riverwood. “Ralof says I should join the Stormcloaks,” I said as a way to break the silence.

Gerdur seemed glad of the distraction. “He does, does he?” she said, grinning at him. “Wants you to go with him to Windhelm, eh? I’m not surprised, a bonnie lass such as yourself.”

We both reddened. “No, really, Gerdur,” Ralof stammered. “You should have seen her. The lass is like a wildcat in a fight. Not too skilled with a sword, maybe, but I wouldn’t be here without her. She saved my life many times.”

“As did you for me,” I replied. “I owe you my life.” I didn’t know where to look, so I looked at the ground.

“And what about you, lass? Do you want to join the Stormcloaks?”

“I’m not sure,” I said. “Do you think I should?”

Gerdur looked at me thoughtfully. “Well, no one would be happier than me if the Stormcloaks win and we are able to worship Talos without these elves snatching us from our homes. But it’s a hard road. Many Nords side with the Imperials, even many here in Riverwood. It’s going to be a long war. Still, the more help the Stormcloaks have, the sooner it will be over and I’ll have my brother back safe and sound.”

Ralof would have none of her caution. “Gerdur, it’s only a matter of time before Nords wake up and recognize that Ulfric is their true high king. Especially when they learn of the villainy we witnessed in Helgen.”

“Ralof,” his sister replied, “I know Ulfric is your lord and your hero, but he is not high king yet. That will have to wait until the jarlmoot names a new ruler.” She turned to me. “It may be we haven’t answered your question very well. But tell me, do you want to join the Stormcloaks?”

I looked from one to the other. They had both been so welcoming, and I owed Ralof my life. I didn’t want to offend them. But I was troubled. “It’s just that … there’s something about Ulfric. Something from the past, when I was a small girl.” Then I told them of the fear the name Ulfric stirred in my parents, how my father would go silent, Talos worshipper though he was, whenever people praised Ulfric as a hero of Skyrim. “I don’t know what any of it was about, but I know my parents feared him for some reason.”

If I had expected them to react with anger to this criticism, I was wrong. Gerdur was more interested in my parents. “You poor child,” she said. “Ralof told me you lost your parents – at such a young age, too. And you’ve been on your own ever since?” She reached across the table and squeezed my hand. “Do you want to tell us what happened?”

Her eyes were so kind, how could I not give in? I realized I had never told anyone the details, keeping my past a secret from the few people I had fallen in with during my travels.

Ralof seemed concerned too. “Go ahead, lass. If Nords are part of this villainy, I’d like to know.”

After keeping it pent up for so long, my story burst forth in a torrent of speech, more words than I had spoken in all of three years.

 

*~*~*

 

“It all begins with my father,” I began. My father was a Nord, born in Whiterun. Unlike most Nords, he was fascinated with all the different peoples of Tamriel, and he always dreamed of traveling to far places. So he became an itinerant trader of goods between the continent’s provinces. He traveled from Skyrim to High Rock and Hammerfell, down to the Imperial City in Cyrodiil, even as far as Elsweyr, the land of the Khajiits far to the south. He thought he was promoting understanding between the different peoples of Tamriel by letting them share bits of each others’ cultures. He believed his own people would benefit the most from that exchange. That was before the Great War.

Once the war broke out, he traveled mainly between Skyrim and High Rock. “He met my mother there, in Jehanna,” I said. “She was a dress-maker’s daughter. He had delivered a wagon load of Cyrodiilian silk when she was tending the store alone. To hear them tell it, it was love at first sight, as if someone had slipped them both a potion.”

But my mother’s parents were displeased at their daughter falling in love with a big, gregarious Nord and threatened to disown her. So my parents eloped and then tried to continue my father’s trading business for a time. But my mother didn’t take to the traveling life, and my father knew he needed a place to settle down. They chose Dragon Bridge because of its mixed Nord and Breton population.

“They thought the Bretons would appreciate a shop with goods that reminded them of home,” I said. “Too, Father thought Mother would be happier among her own people. So they set up a shop, Specialties of High Rock, and lived above it. A few years later I came along. I’m sure they hoped that as I got older, I could help around the store. They couldn’t have been more wrong.”

For I was willful, a wild child. Never was a daughter more poorly matched with her parents. While their work kept them in the shop much of the time, I only wanted to be out of doors. “From the time I could walk,” I said, “I was always toddling outside to see the horses in the stable, or watch butterflies in the fields.” As I grew older, instead of sweeping the store or helping sort the merchandise, I was roaming farther into the forest and mountains. I loved the trees and the flowers and every wild thing. The forest was as much my home as Dragon Bridge, or so it felt to me.

“But Deirdre,” Gerdur put in, “weren’t you afraid a wild animal would attack you? There must be bears and wolves around Dragon Bridge. We have plenty of them here, the Nine know.”

I almost cried then, Gerdur reminded me so much of my mother. “Mother thought the same,” I said. “‘Don’t go out there, Deirdre, a wolf will eat you,’ she would say. But as strange as it sounds, no wild animal ever bothered me. It was as if I were one of them. When I was with my playmates, we were too boisterous a bunch and wild animals avoided us. But when I was alone, I could sense when the wolves and bears were near. I learned to steal silently through the forest so they didn’t notice me.

“Only once was I ever surprised by a predator. I came around a corner in the trail and found myself facing a bear. I must have been only nine or ten, but I wasn’t afraid. The bear looked at me, and for some reason I thought to shush it, as you would a baby. ‘Sshhh,’ I said, with my finger to my lips. The bear turned and ambled off. I never feared bears after that.” As it turned out, the wolves and the bears were not the most dangerous things in the forest.

The years went by. As I grew older my parents became more impatient with my poor work ethic. The worst was when my father was off on one of his purchasing trips. Then my mother truly needed my help, but the most I could manage was an hour or two waiting on customers or dusting shelves before I was out the door again. If only I had been a woodcutter’s son, I told myself, or an alchemist’s daughter, then I could help my parents and still be in the forests and fields.

The best times were when my father would take me on his trips, though that was rare enough. It was good to be out of the store, riding along beside him in our wagon, traveling through open country. I loved seeing the new places. I remembered the salt marshes of Morthal with all their strange water plants, the seashore near Dawnstar, the open tundra of Whiterun, the mountains of High Rock, the warm uplands of northern Cyrodiil. Though we never had time to get off the road and explore those places, it was far better than being cooped up.

Once, I begged my father to take me to the Imperial City, I had heard so much about it. I imagined it filled with life, with shops and palaces and bold fighters and great bards. But he just laughed, and explained it was far easier to order goods from Tamriel’s capital by boat. The Solitude docks were only a half-day’s ride from our home.

There was one thing that could keep me inside when I was young: a good story. Father would tell me tales when I was very small, or read to me from our library. He was always bringing new books home from his travels. Then I learned to read for myself and found it just as easy to read outside on a sunny day as it was indoors. I liked nothing better than to go down by the Karth River with a book and lie in the sun reading, listening to the water splashing over rocks. I would collect flowers and press them between the pages. And not all of the books told tales of adventure and romance. From some, I learned the names of the flowers I admired, lupine and heliotrope and bitterroot. From others, I learned of the history of the Nord and Breton peoples, and of the elves and of life in Elsweyr and Black Marsh, of the great catastrophe that had sundered Morrowind. “It’s strange now that I think of it,” I said to Gerdur and Ralof. “There were no histories of the Great War. I wonder why.”

Being mostly out of doors, most of my playmates were boys. The girls in our town were nice enough, but they didn’t like being outside. They wanted to play dolls, or later learn handicrafts, sewing and baking and such. None of that was for me. But neither were the boys an exact fit as playmates. They were never content to just explore the forests and fields, looking at the birds and collecting flowers, or sitting quietly reading books. There always had to be a game, a goal, a purpose. They always wanted to climb a peak, build a fort, or most often play at being soldiers. Boys and their swords! I would play along for a while. I became good at climbing and wrestling and fighting with sticks. I was agile and quick, though the boys soon grew to outmatch me in height and weight. When I grew tired of these games, I would go off on my own again.

As we grew older, the boys had to join their parents in the family trade. Osmer the woodcutter’s son was off in the forest with his father, cutting and hauling trees. The same with the miller’s son and the brewer’s son and the farmers’ sons. All my former playmates were busy with their family work, or apprenticed off to other families, and I was more and more alone. Everyone wondered why I wasn’t doing the same for my family. We were all in our teens now, almost grown, and we had to learn to accept our responsibilities. “But the truth was, I was a negligent, willful daughter,” I said. “I’ll regret those hours I missed sharing with my parents until the day I die. For I did love them, little as I obeyed them.”

Everything changed one beautiful summer’s day, shortly after I turned fourteen. I was out rambling through the forest as usual, enjoying the warm sun, the cool shade and the bright blue sky, when I came across my old friend Osmer. He was by himself, marking likely trees for his father’s woodcutters, who were not far away. I could hear the sound of their saws through the woods. Osmer had been one of my best friends, and I was glad to see him. Also, a little confused. He had grown into a strapping youth – he was a year older than me – with long red hair and the beginnings of a beard. He had a quick smile and a handsome face and a body grown strong from all the wood cutting.

“I’m sure all the girls in the village found him quite fetching,” I said to Gerdur. I couldn’t look at Ralof during this part. “But I didn’t know what I felt.” All I could think of was my former playmate, a little boy my own size. I used to tussle with him as if he were my brother. Now he stood more than a head taller than I.

We fell into talk about old times, but it was not easy. I kept looking bashfully at the ground, and he was uneasy too. Finally, more to break the awkwardness than anything, I suggested a race to the nearest tree. We were off in an instant, running hard. His strides were longer, but he wore big lumberman’s boots that slowed him. We reached the tree at the same time and fell to the carpet of pine needles, laughing.

“Let’s wrestle,” he said. It seemed so natural. We had wrestled dozens of times before, all in innocence. I had won most often, too, but now it wasn’t much of a contest. I nearly got him in a headlock, but he was able to throw me onto the forest duff and pin me on my back. He was laughing, and then his face grew more serious. He was still smiling, looking at me intensely. I looked away. “Deirdre,” he said, and he began stroking the bare skin of my arm.

“I suppose you might think that was the perfect romantic moment,” I said, again looking only at Gerdur. “And it might have been, for another girl and boy. It might have been for us, if only … He started hugging me and I felt his scratchy cheeks against mine and then I felt his…” I stared at the floor, remembering. I could feel the flush rising on my face. “… his manhood. It was hard and I could feel it rubbing against my thigh. He still had me pinned down and he had grown so much bigger than me. That’s when I panicked.”

I didn’t tell them about the wave of revulsion that swept over me. Maybe if I had been speaking to Gerdur alone, but not with Ralof there. He reminded me too much of Osmer. In that moment, with Osmer on top of me and his manhood pressing needfully against me, I felt nothing but disgust. Of course, no girl can grow up without once or twice glimpsing her father’s privates. I had always found them grotesque. I knew the rudiments of what men did with women, but I couldn’t imagine letting that thing – those things – near me. I had asked my mother about this, and she assured me that every girl felt the same squeamishness, that once I met the right young man, it would all feel natural and right. And now here I was and it didn’t feel natural, or right, just disgusting.

Ralof broke in to my tale. “That lad was wrong. Every Nord boy is taught the consequences of mistreating a lass. Even touching a girl without permission, or stealing a kiss – everyone knows there are punishments for such things, and even more for what he did.”

I looked at Ralof. He seemed ready to go off and fight Osmer right then. “I don’t think he meant anything by it,” I said. “Looking back, I can see that he just got carried away. If only I had just asked him to stop! But I panicked, because I was frightened and I didn’t know if he would stop if I told him no, and I knew I couldn’t stop him if he kept on, and there was no one else around.”

“You shouldn’t have had to tell him to stop in the first place! No lad, even one that young, should put a lass in such a position!”

“Brother, let Deirdre finish her story,” Gerdur said.

“As it was,” I went on, “I yelled at him, ‘No!’ as loud as I could. And that’s when it happened. I was pushing against his chest, and he was blasted away from me. He flew through the air and hit a tree and crumpled to the ground.”

That was the only way I could describe it. Something happened then, something I didn’t understand while I told the story. I still don’t understand it completely, with all I’ve learned in the years since.

I sat there for a moment in disbelief. Then I started to cry. I ran over to him, shouting at him through my tears. “What have I done? Osmer, I didn’t mean to! Wake up, you have to wake up!” Or some such. This part all becomes a blur. He was still breathing, but unconscious. He had a scrape and his tunic was torn where his shoulder had hit the tree, but he seemed unhurt otherwise. I kept crying and pleading with him to wake up, slapping his face. Then the woodcutters came running.

“We heard a noise. What happened?” They were shouting and asking questions and trying to help Osmer and I could only cry and shake my head. Osmer’s father pushed me aside and tried to wake his son, examining his body for wounds. “What happened?” he repeated. I was becoming hysterical.

Finally, Osmer opened his eyes. He looked around for a moment, as if trying to remember where he was. Then he looked at me, and his eyes grew fearful. That’s almost the worst part of all – the fear in his eyes and then the accusing look that came over him as he remembered what had happened. “She … she hexed me!” he said, and shrank away.

The woodcutters turned to look at me. “Witch!” said one. “Breton witch!” said another. “There’s always been something unnatural about you,” said a third, “roaming about the woods on your own. What are you doing out here?”

“I’ll wager her mother’s been teaching her magic, and necromancy and who knows what all!”

“You never should have come here, Breton! Skyrim is for the Nords!” Never mind that I was half-Nord, born and raised in Skyrim.

I crept back away from them. They looked like they wanted to grab me, but they also looked afraid. I turned and ran. They didn’t follow. I suppose they wanted to get Osmer back to the village. “You’ll pay for this!” Osmer’s father yelled after me.

I didn’t go far. Whatever had happened to me, whatever I had done, it had weakened me. I collapsed in the shelter of a hawthorn bush and sobbed. I didn’t know what I should do or when I could go back to the village. I must have slept then, because when I opened my eyes it was dark. “Maybe it’s safe to go home,” I thought.

But as I was nearing the village I saw the first torches. The villagers were out looking for me. It was easy to keep to the shadows where they wouldn’t see me. I kept looking for my parents among them. Wouldn’t they be out looking for me too? But I only saw Nord faces in the torchlight. “We’ll catch the witch,” I heard one of them say, “and then we’ll show all these Bretons what we think of their magic.”

Closer to the village I could see a bright glow. I grew even more fearful then. I crept around on the hillside above the town, and my fear was confirmed. Our home and shop were aflame. Great jets of fire poured from the windows and out through holes in the roof. Occasionally, a popping sound would come from inside: a bottle of ale bursting, or maybe one of the potions my father sold. A crowd stood around, doing nothing, oohing and aahing with each explosion. Then with a loud crash the upper story fell inwards, sending sparks and billowing smoke into the night. That pushed the crowd back. By the firelight I could see that they all were Nords. The Bretons of the town knew to stay inside. But surely my parents had been able to escape the fire? I held on to this hope all through that long dark night, as I watched the fire die down, waiting for the dawn.

By this point in my story I had begun to cry. I hadn’t cried in years, why now? Gerdur squeezed my hand to give me strength for this last, most difficult part to tell. Tears rolled down her cheeks too.

“I waited on that hill for the villagers to go back to their beds. But they posted a watch, thinking to catch me when I tried to return home.”

Morning came and a crowd gathered again around the smoldering ruin while I remained hidden on the hillside above. The men returned from their fruitless search for me. Then the Nords went back to their business. When the streets seemed clear, a few of the Bretons who had been friendly toward my parents gathered around the house, discussing what to do. Finally, they began sifting through the ruin. When they hauled two charred bodies into the street and off toward the cemetery, my despair was complete.

“Even from a distance, it was awful,” I said. “I wished I had a chance to say goodbye. No, I wished I had died in their place. I was the one who brought us this ruin, I should have been the one to pay the price.”

Gerdur came around the table then and took me in her arms. “There, there, sweet child, don’t say that. No one deserves a death like that. You can’t blame yourself.” I sobbed and sobbed then, until the front of Gerdur’s dress was soaked with tears, while she stroked my hair. It was the first time in three years that I had cried. It was the first time in three years that I felt loved.

Once I had no more tears left in me, the rest of my story was quickly told – how I crept away from that hillside above Dragon Bridge with grief and revenge in my heart. How I nursed that hatred as I fled south, living from hand to mouth on edible plants I knew, berries, mushrooms, the occasional frog or fish I could catch with bare hands. I crossed into Cyrodiil before the first snows closed the high passes. I knew the climate would be warmer there, more forgiving to those who must live by their wits in the forest. That, and I wanted to be shut of the Nords for a time while I plotted my revenge.

Along the way I stole a bow and learned to make my own arrows. I became a good enough shot that I could catch small game, rabbits, squirrels and marmots, even a young deer sometimes. I learned some measure of control over my magical power. I learned to produce flame just by thinking about it, maybe because the fire that killed my parents was burned so intensely in my memory. I fell in with a group of thieves for a while, learning some of their arts. But I left them soon enough because I didn’t enjoy thieving, and they stole more than they needed to survive. And one of them was always eyeing me in a way I didn’t like. He knew I had magic or he might have tried to do more than look. I decided I felt safer in the forest than anywhere men were.

And so, when I felt ready to take my revenge, I returned to Skyrim. I was headed for Dragon Bridge to find the ones who set our home on fire. I assumed Osmer’s father was chief among them. I had recognized one or two faces standing around the burning house, and I had them on my list as well. But in truth, I didn’t care which Nords would pay for these villagers’ crimes. Nords would pay, that’s all I cared about.

“And how about now,” Gerdur asked. “Do you still seek your revenge?”

I stared long and hard at the floor. I realized my voice had grown louder during this last part of my story, my breathing more rapid. I felt my old anger returning. The vow I had made yesterday seemed far off. Why had I ever given in to such weakness? Then I looked at Gerdur. Her kind face was full of concern. I looked at Ralof and remembered he had saved my life.

“No, I … You and Ralof have shown me that not all Nords are like the ones in Dragon Bridge. Ralof saved my life yesterday, even though Ulfric wanted to leave me. And you’ve been so kind, almost like my…” I let the thought go, not trusting my voice to say the word, “mother.”

“And what about your father? He was a Nord, too.”

“My father was a great man, not like most … Well, there weren’t a lot of Nords like him in our town.”

“Yet you must have met other Nords on your trading trips. Were none of them as honorable and educated as your father?”

It was true, I had liked some of my father’s Nord trading partners. If they were surprised when he showed up with his half-Breton daughter, they didn’t show it. They had always treated me with courtesy and respect. But these were men of the marketplace and the cities, used to dealing with all sorts, Khajiits, Dunmer, Argonians, as well as Bretons. In the villages and towns of Skyrim it was different.

“There are good people and bad people everywhere, child,” Gerdur told me, “no matter what race. Most people are a bit of both. And even good people will do bad things if they’re scared enough. Seeking revenge in Dragon Bridge can only lead you to a bad end. You nearly lost your life yesterday. Don’t throw it away now.” She squeezed my hand again.

She was right, I told myself. My anger had come and gone like a summer rain shower. Now I saw that taking indiscriminate revenge on Nords would make me no better than the villagers who killed my parents. Then those Nords’ families would want their own revenge on the Bretons, and where would it end?

“I still want justice,” I told Gerdur. “Where were the guards when the villagers were setting our house afire? And where are the people who did it?”

Ralof spoke up then. “Deirdre, burning people out of their homes is not the Nord way. That was the work of cowards and milk-drinkers, and they should see justice. It was the jarl in Solitude’s fault, High King Torygg. He was supposed to keep all of his people safe, but he was weak. And now that his queen, Elisif, is jarl, I can’t imagine things will get much better in Haafingar Hold.”

Mention of the jarl turned the conversation back to politics. I was glad to change the topic. Telling my tale had been exhausting, and I doubted we would easily resolve what should be done about my parents’ killers. I soon excused myself to see if Gerdur’s guest bed might be more comfortable in the daytime.

 

*~*~*

 

That evening, Hod and Gerdur were making plans for the next day. They had a load of planks ready to take down to Whiterun. While Hod was dealing with the delivery, Gerdur would go up to Dragonsreach and try to speak to the jarl or his steward about more guards for Riverwood.

She turned to me. “Why don’t you come to the city with us, child? I’m sure the jarl will want to hear what happened at Helgen.”

Me? They wanted a seventeen-year-old who had spent three years in the forest to speak with the jarl? “Why not Ralof?” I asked.

“They know I’m with the Stormcloaks,” he replied. “Jarl Balgruuf has tried to maintain his independence from the Empire, but he still takes their money and their troops when need be. He can’t be seen to harbor rebels. He’d probably have me arrested, though I served him faithfully for five years.”

“You’re the only other who saw the dragon up close,” Gerdur said. “Jarl Balgruuf needs to hear your story. Besides, you’re a well-spoken young lady for all your time living in the forest. Must be all those books.”

“And there’s your magic,” Ralof said. “You want to know more about your power and how to control it, right? Maybe you could meet the court mage after you talk to the jarl.”

What else was there to do? Somehow, all of the events of the last three years began with my magic, or whatever had happened that day with Osmer. The more I thought about it, I didn’t even know if it was magic. It seemed more like what the dragon had done in Helgen. That was even more disturbing. Suddenly, I didn’t know who or what I was. Finding out seemed the most important thing I could do. There would be time for justice for my parents later. Magic or dragons, one of them held the answers I sought, and we were going to talk about both at Dragonsreach. “I’ll go,” I said, “if you think it will help you get more aid here in Riverwood. And if it will help me discover more about who I am.”

And so the next morning we stood around the loaded wagon saying our goodbyes. Hod and Gerdur had already climbed in. Ralof gave me a long hug, looking at me as if he had something important to tell me. But then he looked off into the distance for a moment before saying, “I hope you’ll think about joining the Stormcloaks one day, lass.” He looked down at his boots, and muttered, “I’m … I’m going to Windhelm myself in a few days.”

I looked at him seriously too. “I’ll think about it, Ralof, my friend.” I gave him a playful punch in the arm. “Don’t let those Imperials get you, eh? Or the dragon, either.”

Then I was in the cart and we were off. I turned back to see Ralof waving goodbye, still looking as if he had more to say.

Categories
Fiction Song of Deirdre

Song of Deirdre – Editor’s Introduction

The discovery of the collection of scrolls that have come to be known within the Imperial Palace Library as the Deirdre Manuscripts, but which I have chosen to title The Song of Deirdre: A Memoir of Skyrim, has ignited great controversy in scholarly circles. Apparently preserved for decades in several potion bottles adrift on the Sea of Ghosts, and discovered at various points on the shores of Skyrim in and around Dawnstar by one Lars Ice-Beard and other fisher-folk of those northern regions, the purported provenance of the manuscripts raises several questions. Are these authentic documents attributable to the hand of that historical personage known as Deirdre Morningsong, widely famed throughout Skyrim and beyond? Or is this all a clever fake, weaving bits of history and the protagonist’s own extant writings with strands of rumor, myth, and outright fancy? None can know for certain, which explains the years-long delay in the manuscripts’ publication – and the fact that even now they are being published without the permission of the Imperial Palace Library, and at great personal risk to this editor.

But whatever their provenance and ownership, and whether fact or fiction, this is a story too important to go untold. (And indeed, should you find this academic introduction a bit tedious, feel free to jump ahead to Chapter 1. You will find Deirdre Morningsong’s writing style much more vivid and lively than anything this dusty old scholar can conjure.)

The central question, of course, is why one such as Deirdre Morningsong should ever have felt the need to scribble her story in cramped handwriting on whatever scraps of paper came to hand, some of them already used and erased many times over, then roll them tightly, stuff them into the largest potion or wine bottles she could find, and finally cast them adrift on the Sea of Ghosts? And, assuming all of this to be true and not some hoax, from whence were they cast onto those waters? (Studies are ongoing of currents in that sea, correlated with the spots where the bottles were found. The research so far suggests a location far north and west of Solitude, which, of course, is absurd, as that part of the sea features nothing but a few uninhabited bits of ice-covered rock.)

Another possibility – to which this editor does not ascribe – is that these manuscripts are indeed the creations of Lars Ice-Beard and the other “discoverers,” whether working as co-authors or as co-conspirators in this hoax, with Ice-Beard as the scribe. That Nord, a fisherman out of Dawnstar – a hideously bleak and desolate little burg if ever this editor saw one – does have some small skill with the Common Tongue, having penned the little-known tome, A Natural and Personal History of the Fishes of the Skyrim Coast (Complete with a Dozen Recipes for both Hearth and Campfire). But for that author to go from such a humble volume to the present work? No, it is not to be credited. In the first place, the author of the Deirdre Manuscripts clearly had access to the major libraries of the land, the Arcanaeum at the College of Winterhold, the shelves of High Hrothgar, the Mystic Archives of the Arcane University, even the Imperial Palace Library itself, while there is no evidence that Ice-Beard has ever gone farther from Dawnstar than his tiny feræringr would take him. As well, Ice-Beard and his co-discoverers – the rest of whom are coarse Nords even less familiar with their letters than Ice-Beard – have asked for little in return for passing these discoveries on to the Imperial Palace Library. Indeed, they want no more than the present acknowledgment upon publication. Who ever heard of authors so disinterested in receiving acclaim for their works, not to mention gold?

And now to the work itself. Fiction or nonfiction, The Song of Deirdre is quite a tale, combining adventure, warfare, and swordplay; the arcane arts; dragons; bold deeds and harrowing escapes; a celebration of the natural beauties of Skyrim; histories natural, human, and merish; discourses on religion and the mystery of existence; meditations on the nature of power in a land governed by the might of the sword and the Power of the Voice; and not a little romance. The story centers on those momentous events just after the turn of the third century of the Fourth Era – or the Dawn of the Fifth Era, as the Council for a New Age would have it – when the dragons returned to Skyrim, Civil War raged, and the World Eater sought to destroy all of Mundus.

There is something in these pages to delight both those already familiar with this history and those completely unaware of it (and, I must ask the latter, have you been hiding under a standing stone of the Druadach Redoubt? Or perhaps you inhabit a plane of Mundus other than our own?). In a remarkable achievement, the author has taken great pains to appeal to both camps. Those familiar with the story will find much to appreciate in this fresh perspective, as it provides twists both humorous and dramatic on the accepted version of history. For those who are new to this material, I will not spoil the story by saying more than that you are in for a treat.

This editor is in possession of the complete First Manuscript, which arrived on Skyrim’s shores in four separate bottles, neatly dividing the tale into four separate parts. The second of these is the longest, perhaps not only because the author happened to have a larger wine bottle at hand at the time. (If further proof of the factual nature of these documents is needed, surely an author of fiction would have trimmed some of the more excessive digressions, speeding the story along for the impatient reader. But such license with events is not possible in a factual account. Thus the four parts of the manuscript comprise 780 closely written pages, or some 350,000 words, rivaling the most compendious tomes of our age.) Part II was also the first to be discovered, causing not a little confusion when it was delivered to Skyrim’s College of Winterhold and thence to the Palace Library in the Imperial City in Cyrodiil. Eventually the other three parts came to light and all was put in a semblance of order, though much remains to be done.

A fifth part of the manuscripts exists in a very sketchy state, hinting at further chapters remaining to be found that would comprise a Second Manuscript. Cursory as it is, this glimpse goes beyond the events in Skyrim to those that took place in other provinces of Tamriel, when the one we know as Deirdre Morningsong began her … but no, I must say no more for fear of spoiling the story. Suffice to say, if taken as fact, this account does much to bolster the arguments of the Council for a New Age, which holds that Deirdre’s deeds and achievements should mark a new era, the Fifth Era, beginning in or about the year 203 of the present one.

Finally, it is almost a requirement in these days to warn readers of content that might be found objectionable by this or that segment of society. While this editor believes in the salutary and broadening effect of reading widely and without prejudice, learning of those whose beliefs and practices differ from our own, neither does he wish to offend. So heed these warnings – herein you will find considerable blood and gore, though none of it presented in the heedless manner so common in today’s tales of high adventure and suspense. Indeed, putting an end to the necessity of such bloody events is central to the narrator’s purpose. As the world once more teeters on the brink of war, with barbarism of a variety of stripes arising throughout Mundus, Deirdre Morningsong’s is a voice that must be heard.

As for romance, while the author depicts loving relationships regardless of racial or gender boundaries, it is all done in the utmost taste, appropriate for any reader who has attained to his or her middle teens (and who younger than that would be interested in such a voluminous history?). Of course, each reader will respond in their own way. Devotees of Dibella may find the scenes of romance so tame as to entice a yawn, while Vigilants of Stendarr may find themselves reaching for their flint and tinder. The editor trusts that a wide audience exists between these extremes.

And so, without further ado, and at considerable risk to his own head – quite literally, if the warrior-scribes of the Imperial Library catch up to me! – the editor presents The Song of Deirdre: A Memoir of Skyrim, appending only the following epigraph, taken from an unknown poet of another time and place:

                            … Behaviour that’s admired

is the path to power among people everywhere.

                                           –Beowulf

–Laurentius Aaronius
Silverhome on the Water, Bravil
late of the Imperial Palace Library
 

P.S.: Readers unfamiliar with the geography of Tamriel may benefit from this map of that continent, and also this map of Skyrim. Those who would like more detail may find these interactive maps more helpful. (Since publication, the manuscript enchantment which allows readers to easily navigate between chapters has been upgraded to require more magicka than this poor editor possesses. Until a better solution can be found, readers will have to resort to the Table of Contents to move from chapter to chapter.)

Categories
Song of Deirdre

The Song of Deirdre – Chapter 1

Acknowledgments are here. The Editor’s Introduction is here. The Table of Contents is here. (To navigate between chapters, use the arrows at the bottom of each post.) You can also read it over at fanfiction.net, where you’ll find many fan reviews, and AO3.

Helgen

Picture of Deirdre hunting
Hunger drove me as I made my way toward Skyrim, until I fell into the Imperials’ trap.

“So, what do you think they’ll do with this one?” The voice was male, Nord by the accent.

Another Nord responded, closer this time. “A slip of a lass like her? It’s some mistake. They’ll let her go when they realize she’s not with us.”

I realized they were talking about me. I tried to open my eyes, but it was like trying to wake from a dream – all remained dark, and the dream went on. Yet the swaying of the wagon was real enough, every bump in the road sending a pulse of pain through my temple. I tried to remember where I should be, how I got into a moving cart, but couldn’t. I felt cords cutting into my wrists. I couldn’t explain that either. I remembered a deer. I was chasing it after my arrow missed its mark, then there was some confused movement off to my left, the glint of sunlight on metal. But what did that have to do with me? Was that part of the dream?

“Ach, I’m not with you either,” the first voice said, “but the damned Imperials haven’t shown any sign of releasing me.”

“Quiet back there!” came a rough voice up ahead. That one spoke in the accents of Cyrodiil.

With an effort, I opened my eyes, then quickly shut them against the glare of harsh sunlight off granite.

“Hey, lass, you’re finally awake.”

Awake? I didn’t feel awake. I tried opening my eyes again, slowly this time. We were in a forest now, and the sunlight wasn’t quite so harsh. Across from me sat a Nord fighter in a uniform I didn’t recognize. His hands were bound in front of him. With his red hair, square jaw, and well muscled arms, he reminded me of a boy I once knew. He wore his hair in the Nord fashion, like mine, but with just a single braid at the temple. His clear blue eyes regarded me with concern.

“You were unlucky,” he was saying. “You stumbled right into that Imperial ambush along with the rest of us, and that thief there.” He nodded toward the man sitting next to him.

I stumbled? I hadn’t survived three years on my own by stumbling into squads of Imperial soldiers. They had never come near me before – I was far too stealthy for that.

It was the hunger, I decided. Two hard days of cold and starvation on the high passes between Cyrodiil and Skyrim, no game, not a berry or a leaf to eat. I didn’t usually go after quarry as large as deer, but when a yearling presented itself, I took my shot. Hunger must have made me rush, the arrow missing high. It all came back to me now. Need drove me blindly into that willow thicket where the Imperial soldiers lay in wait. It must have been easy for them to knock me out then, if only to silence me as their true quarry approached.

The man sitting next to the Nord soldier turned to us. He wore a ragged tunic much like my own. “Hey, you and me, we’re not supposed to be here,” he said. He had a panicked look. “We’re not with these Stormcloaks. We have to tell them.”

Stormcloaks – so that explained the strange uniform. Last I’d heard, the Stormcloaks were a few ragged followers of Ulfric, one of Skyrim’s nine jarls. He had been agitating against the Empire for years, to no avail. But this fighter was well outfitted in mail and a padded cuirass wrapped in a blue surcoat, as if Ulfric’s hirth had grown into a full-fledged army. I could see that much had changed in my time away from Skyrim. Living on my own in the woods of Cyrodiil, I didn’t get much news.

“We’re all brothers and sisters in binds now, thief,” said the soldier. Then they began arguing about who was at fault for our predicament.

With the pounding in my head, it was hard to pay attention. I started working at the cords around my wrists, trying to stretch them and wriggle free. What I’d do after that I had no idea. Up ahead was another cart, filled with more Stormcloak rebels in identical uniforms, Nords all. Mounted soldiers of the Imperial Legion surrounded the carts – those uniforms I did recognize. They were a more diverse lot, Nords, Cyrodiilians, and several Redguards from Hammerfell.

At the head of the column rode an officer in more elaborate regalia with his own guard. All were armed with stout Legion swords, and some with bows. Which made me wonder, where was my bow? My dagger? My knapsack with all my possessions, few as they were?

“What’s wrong with him, huh?” The thief nodded toward the man seated next to me. This one was not only bound but gagged.

“Watch your tongue, thief,” the Stormcloak snapped. “You’re speaking to Ulfric Stormcloak, the true High King.”

The thief didn’t take this revelation well. “Ulfric? The Jarl of Windhelm? You’re the leader of the rebellion!” Ulfric just looked at him impassively.

So this was Ulfric Stormcloak? The name raised dim echoes from my childhood. I would sometimes overhear my parents talking about Ulfric and something terrible that happened in Markarth before I was born. I remembered the fear in their voices, and the way they changed the subject when they realized I was listening. Later, we would hear of Ulfric’s speeches advocating the rights of Nords to worship their own gods. My father was a Nord too, and he kept a secret shrine to Talos in our cellar. He said that giving up the Nord religion was too great a price for peace with the High Elves of the Aldmeri Dominion. Yet he wouldn’t take up arms against his own brethren over it, nor against the Empire in Cyrodiil. Whenever there was talk of Ulfric, my father would shake his head and look into the distance, lost in thought.

Ulfric didn’t look so fearsome, sitting next to me in that cart. He was older than the rest of us, with long, silver-streaked hair and a dark beard. I thought there was something wolfish about him. He wore a mud-stained cloak of fur over chainmail. Now he went back to staring dejectedly at his boots. Maybe the Stormcloak soldier was right – we were all equals now, jarls, warriors, thieves, and half-wild girls like me.

The thief went on, growing more agitated. “But if they’ve captured you… Oh, gods, where are they taking us?”

“I don’t know where we’re going,” replied the rebel, “but Sovngarde awaits.”

With this news the thief began calling to the gods. “Shor, Mara, Kynareth, Akatosh… help me!” There was no answer, though the thief kept scanning the skies as if expecting one.

We rode in silence for a moment, each of us lost in our own thoughts. Then the Stormcloak looked at me again. “That’s some fearsome warpaint you have there,” he said.

Reaching up with my bound hands, I touched the spot over my left eye. The tattoo was new, but I had almost forgotten it. I had it done just before returning to Skyrim. I had asked for a thick vertical stripe above my eye, and two curving strokes below it. I had hoped to look fierce for my homecoming, but when it was done the two curving stripes reminded me of tears.

“Why would you mar such a pretty face, lass?” the Nord asked. I shrugged.

“Flirting! That’s just what we need,” said the thief.

The gates of a walled village appeared ahead. Beyond the gray ramparts I could see several towers – they were bringing us to an Imperial keep. “This is Helgen,” the Stormcloak said. “I once knew a girl from Helgen.” Then he said something about juniper berries in their mead, but that was nothing to me. I’d never tasted mead in my life. My father wouldn’t allow it because I was too young, and then … after… I was more interested in laying hands on solid food, eggs from hen houses, cheeses from dairy barns, a hung fowl when I could get it.

As we passed through the gates, the officer at the head of the column broke off, joining a group of Imperial soldiers who had been waiting for us. Three High Elves were there as well, two of them resplendent in gold-colored armor, the third wearing dark mage robes.

The Stormcloak cursed them as we rolled past. “Damn Thalmor, I bet they had something to do with this.” The Thalmor of the Aldmeri Dominion had free run of Skyrim since the war, their justiciars patrolling the province, snuffing out any hint of Talos worship. My parents had taught me to avoid them, and never to mention Talos outside our home.

“General Tullius, sir!” one of the soldiers greeted the officer. “The headsman is waiting!”

“Good, let’s get this over with,” Tullius replied.

The Stormcloaks must have known this was our fate all along, but the gravity of our situation was just dawning on the thief and me. “Gods, no!” the thief screamed. “It was just a horse! Put me in jail if you want, but don’t kill me!” Then he turned to the Stormcloaks. “This is your fault! You deserve the axe, not us!”

“Calm yourself, thief,” said the Stormcloak. “Sovngarde is the only place we’re going. You don’t want your last thoughts on Nirn to be ones of fear and cowardice do you? Meet your end like a man.” Typical Nord – steady as the stones they use to build their keeps.

I struggled with my bonds with greater urgency, but the truth was sinking in. All of the running and hiding of the last three years would be for naught. My parents would go unavenged, their story untold. I might as well have died with them in that burning house.

As the carts came to a stop, I vowed I wouldn’t let them take me without a fight. Maybe I could take out one of these Imperial soldiers, if not escape entirely. Leave the stoicism to these Stormcloaks. What kind of fighters were they anyway? But for all my bravado, the cords around my wrists seemed all the tighter.

A Nord soldier was calling our names off lists now. He was tall and blonde, the classic son of Skyrim. He called Ulfric first, and another soldier led him down from our cart.

“What kind of a Nord are you, Hadvar?” the Stormcloak opposite me demanded. “You should be standing here with us!”

The soldier ignored him.

“Ach, the Imperials and their damned lists!” the rebel muttered. “Hadvar and I used to be friends, grew up in Riverwood together. But now look at him, crossing names off lists like a damned scribe. I’ll gladly die a Stormcloak rather than sink so low.”

Then Hadvar called his name – Ralof of Riverwood. True to his advice to the thief, Ralof marched proudly to the lineup in front of the block, head held high. The thief acted according to type as well, running as soon as his feet hit the cobblestones. “Archers,” called the female captain, and they shot him down before he had gone twenty paces. I stared in surprise – he had fallen just like the rabbits and squirrels I had killed over the years. I thought watching a man die would be different somehow.

“Anyone else want to try running?” barked the captain, a Redguard. “Next, the Breton!” Ah yes, Nord, Cyrodiili, or Redguard, they always noticed the Breton features and small stature I inherited from my mother, remnants of the mingling of elves and men long ago. Never the blonde hair and fair skin that came from my Nord father. “Breton, get down from the cart, now!” This captain certainly was used to giving commands.

I glared at her and gripped the rail at the back of the cart with both hands. At that moment I must have looked more like a wild animal than a young woman. Finally one of the soldiers climbed into the cart to pull me out, while the tall one tapped the list impatiently with his quill. But this one underestimated me, grabbing me by the shoulders instead of the wrists. Maybe he thought one good pull would loosen my grip. Instead, I swung my body back and forth, pulling him off balance. Then I jammed my shoulder into his chest. In the second it took him to regain his footing, I grasped at the knife he kept in his belt. Then I looped my hands over his head and swung up onto his back. Stealth and agility – without them, I never would have survived three years on my own in the forest. I had the knife nearly to his throat, but with bound hands it was awkward. He grabbed at my wrists, trying to keep the blade from his flesh.

“Free me or I’ll kill him,” I shouted.

“Fine,” the captain replied with a grim chuckle. “There are plenty more Nord soldiers where he came from.”

That gave us both pause. I could feel the soldier’s arms relax as he turned to stare at his superior.

“Kill him and we’ll shoot you down like the thief,” the captain went on. “Oh look, he’s still twitching. A painful way to die, arrow through the back. Wouldn’t you rather a good quick death at the hands of our headsman? I can promise he keeps his blade sharp.”

Another soldier must have climbed over the back of the cart while she talked, because now I felt arms grabbing me from behind. In a moment I was disarmed and the two soldiers grappled with me, the one cursing at the nick I had made in his neck. He had his arm around my leg as I struggled and kicked, his hand grinding up into my crotch as he lifted me off the cart. The other had me from behind, arms encircling my chest. I felt him squeezing me through my course tunic. I wondered if they’d laugh about that tonight in the inn, a good joke to end the day of killing.

Then it struck me that this was how it all started – the murder of my parents, the flight from Dragon Bridge, the three years of fear and loneliness while living on my own – with a Nord boy who I thought was my friend, his hands on my body and a hardness in his breeches. Then I had to wonder at the strange symmetry of events. Did time move forward, or was life just a series of experiences repeating in perpetual cycles? Strange thoughts to have when meeting one’s death.

The soldiers dumped me on the ground in front of the officers. “This one’s not on the list, Captain,” said Hadvar. “You, Breton, what’s your name?”

I looked around at the soldiers and my fellow captives, at the general and the headsman, at the elves and the priestess standing nearby, at the villagers looking on from their porches. They might as well know who they’re killing this day, I thought, though I was a girl of no renown.

“My name is Deirdre Morningsong,” I said in as strong a voice as I could muster. “My mother was Fiona Morningsong, a Breton from Jehanna. My father was a Nord, Sven Silver-Tongue, a trader of goods between the provinces of Tamriel. We lived in Dragon Bridge, where Nord and Breton alike hated us as mixed bloods. The filthy Nord bigots burned our house with my parents in it.” I left out the other reason they’d burned our house: their superstitious, ignorant fear of things they couldn’t understand. “I fled to Cyrodiil under my mother’s name. Now I have returned to Skyrim seeking justice, but I see there is none under the Empire. May Oblivion take all Nords, and the Empire as well!”

This speech elicited chuckles from the soldiers and sarcastic clapping from the elf wearing the hooded mage robes. “My good General,” she said, “Why don’t we just leave Skyrim to the Nords? Let them tear each other apart like the wild beasts they are.”

“What should we do with her, Captain?” asked Hadvar. “She’s not on the list.”

“Damn the list, Hadvar. She’s a threat to Skyrim’s peace, just as much as these Stormcloaks. Take her with the others.”

“I’m sorry, Deirdre,” said the soldier, and he really did seem sympathetic. “We’ll make sure your remains are taken back to High Rock.”

“I told you, Dragon Bridge, here in Skyrim. But there’s no one there to bury me.”

General Tullius addresses Ulfric Stormcloak before the execution.
General Tullius addresses Ulfric Stormcloak before the execution.

As another soldier dragged me over to the line of Stormcloaks waiting for death, the general began a speech. “Ulfric Stormcloak. Some here in Helgen call you a hero. But a hero doesn’t use a power like the Voice to murder his king and usurp his throne.” Ulfric had murdered High King Torygg? So that was how he had started his rebellion! The Voice was a power that took years to master, and few could stand against it – it hardly seemed a fair match. Still, what did I care for the high king’s death? Hadn’t I been one of his subjects? Where was he when my parents and I needed his protection?

Ulfric tried to make some response through his gag, but no defense would be heard this day. “You started this war,” Tullius continued, “plunged Skyrim into chaos, and now the Empire is going to put you down and restore the peace.” He motioned for the executions to begin.

The first Stormcloak marched bravely to the block, not even waiting for the priestess of Arkay’s benediction. He said some words about Talos and Sovngarde, then his head rolled and the ring of the axe echoed across the keep and his blood gushed onto the ground in great pulsing spurts. In one instant he was a person and in the next a mere object – two objects – lifeless, lying in the dust. The captain used the heel of her boot to shove the body aside and called, “Next, the Breton!”

Hadvar at the executioner's block
Hadvar seemed like a decent fellow, as have all soldiers throughout history who were “just following orders.”

My mind went numb then. I had been through much in my young life, but this was the first beheading I’d witnessed. And I was next. I couldn’t think. I had been saving one more trick for the last, desperate moment. I wasn’t even sure it would work. But before I could act, they had dragged me to the headsman’s block, forcing me to kneel with my neck across it, ready for the axe. The smell of blood was strong, and I began to feel nauseated. If only I could turn over, I thought. But I knew I had missed my chance. I would go like the rest of them.

I turned my head to the side, watching the headsman. The axe was rising…

And that’s when the dragon attacked.

*~*~*

Saved from the headsman by the arrival of a dragon
Saved from the headsman by a dragon’s arrival

Many stories have been told of that day, when Alduin swept down upon Helgen out of the clear blue sky of a summer’s morning. But most of them get it wrong. Some say I summoned Alduin to Helgen, that I called him down on my captors. Or worse, that I brought the World Eater back to Skyrim to wreak my revenge on the Nords. But no one called Alduin – he just came. And the truth is, no one in Helgen was more surprised or frightened than I.

Now, you may find it strange that at one minute I could be nearly resigned to my death, and in the next fear for my life with greater intensity than at any time before or since. But in that moment, I could do nothing. I could not move. I could not scream. My mouth was suddenly dry and my limbs numb. I could only watch, sprawled there on the executioner’s block, as an immense winged shape lit on the keep’s central tower. The monster was so huge it could barely find purchase on a platform made to hold a dozen archers. Its hide was intricately scaled, and two massive horns curved in S-shapes from the back of its head. Now that head was swinging back and forth on its long neck, blood-red eyes searching for its first victim.

In that instant I knew it was a dragon – though of course I didn’t know it was Alduin, that would come later – a dragon come to life out of the books of myth and legend my father read to me as a child. Many were the stories of the sky-serpents, winged corpse-makers that haunted Nords’ dreams. The ancient Nords even worshipped them, it was said. They had certainly left enough of their dragon carvings all across Skyrim. Indeed, how could I not recognize this beast, having grown up in Dragon Bridge, walking under the bridge’s two fierce dragon heads every time we crossed the river? Yet, as ominous as those carven images had seemed, they were mere effigies in stone, while this one was irrefutably alive. And now it was looking directly at me.

The courtyard had gone silent, the soldiers and prisoners and villagers too stunned to move. No dragon had been seen in Skyrim in thousands of years. Many thought they were a myth, creations of the dragon priests to keep the ancient Nords in thrall. Yet here was a beast as mighty as those in legend. How could any of us know what to do next?

Then it spoke. It didn’t breathe fire or frost, it just shouted a word so powerful that the blast made the ground roll underneath me, knocking soldiers and captives alike to their knees. Suddenly people were running and screaming all around me, while I could only lie there, helpless.

So you see, it’s absurd to think that I called Alduin down on Helgen. Although, if I dig deeply in my memory, there was something strangely familiar in that word he spoke. Of course I didn’t understand it, but I felt as if I should have. Why had he returned at the exact time and place appointed for my own death? Only Akatosh, Master of Time, can know. And though events worked in my favor that day, it was a touch-and-go thing. Scores of innocent people, and some not so innocent, lost their lives. Even had it been in my power to make such a thing happen, would I have traded all those lives to save my own? Perhaps on that day I would have. I had come to wreak my vengeance on the Nords, hadn’t I?

When the ground finally stopped shaking and I regained a portion of my wits, I heard Ralof, the Stormcloak, calling me. “Hey, Breton. Get up! Come on, the gods won’t give us another chance!”

I struggled to my feet and followed him as well as I could. The dragon had begun blasting everything in its path with fire. Everywhere it breathed, homes and shops and fortress walls exploded in blazing ruin. But more than the destruction wrought by the dragon, the sky itself rained fireballs down all around us. What kind of beast was this, that could command Nirn itself to do its bidding?

With my hands tied in front of me, I waddled more than ran to keep up with Ralof. He reached the south tower first. Yet he waited at the door, holding it open for me as I dashed inside. I had never been so glad to enter a building, Imperial keep though it was. I looked thankfully at Ralof as he slammed the door shut on the destruction taking place outside.

And then I caught myself. I had just vowed my revenge on all Nords, hadn’t I? And wasn’t Ralof a Nord? It didn’t help that he reminded me so much of that other boy, the one I thought was my friend. How long before this one also betrayed me?

Ulfric and several Stormcloaks were already inside, two of them wounded and burned. Two more had freed themselves from their bonds and were helping the others.

“By Ysmir, what is that thing?” Ralof demanded. “Could the legends be true?”

“Legends don’t burn down villages,” said Ulfric. Then he nodded toward me. “Why did you bring the lass?”

“She was helpless out there, my jarl.” Ralof had his hands free now. “I couldn’t leave a defenseless girl to die all alone.”

“She’s as like to knife us in the back as help us get out of here,” Ulfric replied. “Or maybe she’s an Imperial spy.”

“Come now, Ulfric,” said one of his warriors. “She’s just a lass.”

“That’s right. What help could she be, anyway?”

“Untie my hands and I’ll prove my use,” I said, meeting Ulfric’s gaze. Nords or no, I’d show them I was no defenseless girl.

Ulfric looked at me doubtfully. “All right, you can come with us, but your hands stay bound.”

The sounds of screams and rending wood and shattering stone suddenly grew louder outside the door. We weren’t going back out that way. “We’ve got to get out of this tower before that thing brings it down on our heads,” Ulfric yelled.

There was just one other way out – up the circular stairway to the top of the tower, then somehow down the other side. Ralof had the same idea. “Quick, up the stairs!” I followed him.

Another fighter was farther up the stairwell, trying to clear some rubble. He was there above us at one moment, and then the wall exploded inwards and he was gone. Fire filled the empty space, its heat forcing Ralof backward into the Stormcloaks below. Yet while the blast set Ralof’s cuirass to smoldering and singed his eyebrows, it had less effect on me. I felt warmth and that was all.

When the flame and smoke cleared I found myself looking through a hole in the tower wall, directly at the dragon. For the second time, it seemed as if he had singled me out. We held that gaze for a long moment, and I felt a sense of recognition. Deep in my memory there seemed to be something about dragons, and not from the books I had read as a child. The dragon seemed to recognize something about me too. Or maybe I was just imagining that. By all rights, that was the second time I should have died that day. It could have easily reached in with its powerful jaws and snapped me in two. Yet the dragon just flew away, off to find other prey.

The way upward was now blocked. “Through the hole, lass,” Ralof shouted. “Jump down through that gap in the roof of the inn.” I looked doubtfully below me. It was a dozen-foot drop through broken rafters onto the inn’s second floor – that was dangerous enough in itself. But worse, flames licked here and there at its timbers. There was no telling what I would find on the ground floor – a way out or a wall of flames.

I stepped into the opening in the wall and did my best to aim my jump into the hole in the roof. I dropped through the rafters, then tucked and rolled as I hit the floor. I came to rest against a shattered wall and lay there for a moment, expecting the Stormcloaks to follow. But when I looked back at the tower, everything was obscured by smoke. Fool, I thought. That was just their way of getting you out of the way. They didn’t want a lass slowing them down. They had probably found some way out of the tower and over the wall by now.

I began to cough, and I knew I had to get out of the building. The stairs leading down to the first floor were a blasted tangle of splinters and protruding nails. I roamed the second floor, looking for an escape as the smoke grew worse. Finally I found a wide opening in the floorboards with clear space below. Another drop and roll and I was running outside, onto the roadway where we had entered the village.

Helgen had become a scene of carnage. Broken, charred bodies lay scattered amid the wreckage of houses and carts. The gray stone walls of the town and much of the keep were still standing, but the dragon was doing its best to smash it all to bits. From somewhere behind me the dragon was roaring, then he swooped down, scooping up a fleeing Imperial soldier in his talons. Like a giant cat playing with a mouse, the dragon threw the soldier into the air. The man screamed as he cartwheeled through space, then went silent as he hit a buttress with a clank of armor and dropped to the ground.

“Prisoner, over here!” It was Hadvar, shouting at me from across the village street. I noticed he no longer had his list. “Run for it! You won’t get another chance.” I hesitated. It seemed ludicrous to follow one of the people who had almost killed me, but I saw no other choice. I didn’t know Helgen, and I was disoriented. Hadvar at least seemed to know where he was going. “This way! We have to get into the tunnels below the keep!” I followed.

As we passed through an alley between two buildings, the dragon landed on the wall above us. His body blotted out the sky, and one great talon clasped the wall not a yard in front of me. It looked razor-sharp, the skin around it ornately scaled. But he paid no attention to us, aiming a blast of fire at someone beyond us on the other side of the building. Then he flew off. As we rounded the building, I saw his victim, an unfortunate soldier lying crumpled and burnt.

Death – in half an hour I had seen more than most would in a lifetime, and the dragon showed no sign of ending its reign of carnage any time soon. But our way forward was clear.

Stepping over the fallen soldier, we found ourselves in the space in front of the town gate. It was closed. General Tullius was there, along with several Imperial soldiers. One of them was a mage, and he was aiming fireball spells at the dragon, to little effect. “Into the keep, soldier,” Tullius yelled. “We’ll regroup there for another assault on this monster.” Once again, I had no choice but to follow Hadvar, much as I had hoped the gate would lead to freedom.

I tried to keep up with Hadvar as we passed through an archway into the north courtyard of the keep, but it was difficult with my hands still bound in front of me. Now Ralof, the Stormcloak, came running up, making for the keep as well. He had found an axe somewhere.

Hadvar confronted him. “Ralof, you damned traitor, drop that axe and get into the keep!”

Ralof  brandished his weapon. “You’re not taking me prisoner again, Hadvar. We’re escaping.”

For one foolish moment I thought these two might put aside their differences and work together to escape the dragon. But it was not to be. “Fine,” said Hadvar, “may the dragon gnaw your bones.”  He seemed resigned to letting Ralof go. “Prisoner, the barracks are through here.”

Ralof headed to a different door, beckoning me to follow. “Come on, this way, into the keep!”

Just then, the dragon landed in the courtyard near us and spoke in a language none of us could understand. “Pahlok joorre!” His voice rumbled and shook the ground, and he snapped his razor-sharp fangs at us as he spoke. “Hin kah fen kos bonaar.”

We stood there, speechless, for a moment. Then the dragon was drawing breath and Ralof and Hadvar were running for different doors. There was no time to choose between them, yet I found myself running after Ralof, the one who hadn’t tried to kill me that day.