“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.
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.
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.