Categories
Fiction Song of Deirdre

The Song of Deirdre – Chap. 10

 

Keizaal

 

I was flying. The mountains and vales of Skyrim spread out below me like a map rolled out on a table. Even the loftiest peaks seemed mere bumps from this great height, their summits blazing orange with light from the newly risen sun. From this vantage, the sun rode high in the sky, though the valleys below were still lost in the gray light of dawn. To the north lay the frozen Sea of Ghosts, and to the south, across the Jerall Mountains, Cyrodiil and the lands of Tamriel beyond. Westward I could see the red, burning plains of the Alik’r Desert. Eastward, smoke from a smoldering mountain rose into the sky above Morrowind.

I flew on the back of a fell beast, a great sky-winger coursing over the land. I perched between its shoulders as it glided, held aloft by the breath of the wind. It flapped its wings now and again, rocking my seat. I clung to the scaled ridges along its spine to keep from falling. Its long neck stretched before me, its head sweeping from side to side, the horns sprouting from it like two double-curved scythes. We were at such a height that I couldn’t judge our speed, but it must have been prodigious, the wind buffeted me so.

Then the dragon folded those great wings and we were plunging down toward the jagged mountains of Skyrim. I clung more tightly to the bony ridges, crouching low over its back and bracing my feet behind its shoulders lest I plunge to the rocks below.

As the mountains rushed to meet us, the creature unfurled its wings and flew straight. We swept through a narrow pass, jagged peaks rushing past on either side. The beast swung to and fro as it carved its way through a twisting mountain defile, again threatening to throw me from my seat.

Yet I felt no fear, only elation. Never had I experienced such speed. Neither, it was safe to say, had anyone in all of Tamriel. I had only ever walked or run, ridden in a cart, or once in a while galloped my father’s old cart horse. But nothing could compare to this. There was no measure for our pace as we crossed a lake in a flash, then plunged down out of the mountains and streaked low across the plains of Whiterun. To the east I could see Dragonsreach rising into the sky. We were flying but we were below that lofty summit. I wondered if the denizens of that city could see us down here. A grove of trees in front of us grew quickly larger, then blurred as we rushed past. I gave a whoop of pure joy.

The dragon spotted a farm ahead and slowed. I could feel it gathering its breath as we approached. Then it exhaled a great jet of fire, spraying the farm-house with flame as we passed over. Looking back, I saw a woman gathering two children and making for the barn. They were all screaming.

I screamed too. “No!” I shouted to the monster. I beat its sides with my puny hands, to no effect.

Turning back toward the farm, we lit upon the roof of the barn. The beast cast its head to and fro, looking for targets. An ox that remained trapped in its pen received a blast of fire and screamed awfully as it died.

Then the farmer appeared, bow in hand, an axe strapped to his side. “Go away, dragon!” he yelled. “You’ll not take me and my family without a fight!”

Stupid, stupid Nord! “No!” I shouted to him. “Run! Hide yourself! Save your family!” But like the dragon, he seemed not to notice me.

It was too late, in any case. The arrow from his bow bounced harmlessly onto the ground after hitting the monster’s broad chest. He didn’t get a second shot. The dragon stretched out its long neck and clamped its mighty jaws around the farmer. The man’s scream seemed almost inhuman, a high-pitched wail. Then the corpse-maker shook him back and forth, nearly cutting him in half before dropping his lifeless form to the ground. The dragon curled its head toward me, as if it wanted me to see the blood dripping from its fangs. The eye that gazed coldly at me was round, with a single vertical slit at its center.

Then we launched back into the air. Something was different now. No longer did I ride astride the dragon. I was looking through the dragon’s eyes. I was the dragon. My vast wings beat the air as I gained height, then circled back for another pass at the farm. No longer did I feel dread or horror at the devastation the dragon had wrought – that I had wrought. No, it was pure joy to soar through the skies, wreaking destruction from above.

The farmhouse was all ablaze and the farm-yard was empty. Then I heard the shrieks of the mother and children from the barn. If a dragon can laugh, I laughed then. I dove at the barn and plunged through its thatch roof and rafters with both clawed feet, but met only rushes and wood. I plunged a talon in again, but still my quarry eluded me. I gave a hot jet of fire that quickly set the thatched roof alight, along with the hay stored within. Then I launched back into the air once more, taking a lazy circle around the wreckage.

Now the mother and children burst out the back of the barn and began running across the fields. The children, a boy and a girl, were faster than their mother and soon outdistanced her. “Run, children, run!” she screamed. “Keep running!”

I spoke to them as they ran. “Fools! Your hopes wither! I am your doom!” But I did not speak in the Common Tongue. I used a language I didn’t know I could understand, that I had heard only once before. “Meyye!” I called in a deep, roaring voice. “Him hinde liiv! Zu’u hin daan!”

I swooped down at them, the space between us closing swiftly. The mother looked back once, then tripped and fell. I lit on the ground a few yards from her. Her children, farther ahead, stopped and looked back in horror. It would be their doom.

The woman was crawling backward now, shouting at her children to keep running. I felt only elation as my jaws opened…

 

*~*~*

 

I woke screaming. My night clothes and sheets were drenched. Gray light filtered through the slit of a window in my cell, but it could not shake the reality of my dream, nor relieve the darkness I felt within. I kept screaming, then buried my head in my hands.

I heard someone rush into my room and looked up. It was Onmund, looking ready to fend off cave bears if need be. He stopped short when he saw me sitting up in bed. “Are you all right, Deirdre?” he asked, coming over to sit on the edge of the cot.

Brelyna appeared in the doorway too. “We heard screaming,” she said.

I rubbed tears from my eyes. “I know,” I said. “I’m sorry. It was just a nightmare.”

“Some nightmare!” said Onmund. “You must have been dreaming about Saarthal. All those draugr! I warned Tolfdir not to lead us there. It’s a wonder you survived!”

I looked him in the eye. I tried to imagine him or Brelyna or J’zargo in the tunnels with Tolfdir and me, fighting off draugr, but it was difficult. I saw the look of fear in Onmund’s eyes, and Brelyna looked worried as well. As close as we had become over these weeks, I felt a great distance separating us at that moment.

“Draugr,” I said. “Yes, that must have been it.” I couldn’t tell him I had dreamt I was a dragon and … I looked away as I remembered the end of the dream.

J’zargo was the next to appear in the doorway. “Yes, we heard from Tolfdir about your great exploits with the draugr. But this one wonders, why could you not share the glory with the rest of us? Why did you run off, leaving J’zargo and these two behind?”

This was the first I had seen of my fellow students since returning to the college. I had arrived in the evening and gone straight to the arch-mage’s quarters. It was my first visit to that chamber and I stood for a minute at the threshold, gawking. The room occupied the entire top floor of the college’s main tower. A well-tended alchemist’s garden grew in an atrium occupying the center of the room. It looked to offer every herbal ingredient a potion-maker could hope for. There was even a juniper tree in the middle, reaching up to the arched tower ceiling far above. An arcane enchanter, an alchemist’s table, and shelves and shelves of ingredients and soul gems lined the walls. And this was only part of that chamber. An interior wall beyond the garden screened off a good portion of the room’s circumference – the arch-mage’s sleeping quarters, I assumed.

Then I noticed Master Aren sitting at his desk near the chamber’s entrance, looking at me quizzically. I quickly made my report. He was as surprised to learn of the glowing orb within Saarthal as we had been to find it.

“A powerful object, you say? Can you be more specific?” He looked at me with penetrating eyes, as if he had expected me to conduct a thorough analysis of the orb.

I handed him the note about Jyrik Gauldurson. “It made Gauldurson’s undead corpse invincible until Tolfdir severed their connection,” I told him.

“Jyrik Gauldurson! Now there’s a dark name from ages long past. The orb must be powerful indeed. I’d best make my way to Saarthal and investigate your discovery. Meanwhile, I’m sure the Arcanaeum has something on the secrets buried within Saarthal. Please check with Lorekeeper Urag for anything he has in the collection.”

I told him I would do that first thing in the morning, then went straight to my bed. Not even my fellow students returning later that evening could wake me from my slumber.

Now I looked hard at the Khajiit. “Just consider yourself lucky you weren’t there to see the results of your flame cloak. That thing nearly killed us. Did you know the undead would explode?”

“Yes, that was the surprise J’zargo mentioned. But J’zargo made sure the explosion would kill the undead and not harm the caster – too badly.”

“There were two draugr, J’zargo. Tolfdir and I took a double blast.”

“Ah! J’zargo did not foresee that possibility. The spell needs more work.” He looked disappointed. “J’zargo will make some refinements.”

“Good,” I said. “That scroll was worse than the draugr themselves.”

“Well, you’re quite the hero around here now,” said Onmund. “None of the teachers can believe you had the courage to explore the depths of an ancient Nord city. And to find an object of such power!”

“Tolfdir was with me most of the time,” I said. “He was the one who discovered how to sever the connection between Gauldurson and the orb.”

“But no one expected even that much from a mere apprentice,” Onmund said. “You faced draugr on your own! And what were we doing? Sitting in that storeroom having tea, wondering what was taking you so long!”

I didn’t have the heart to tell them it had all been a test Tolfdir had set for them. The three students began to argue over whose idea it had been to sit and wait in that second chamber. I could only look on. After my nightmare – if that’s what it was – such concerns seemed petty. How could I have dreamed I was a dragon? How could I speak in a language I didn’t know? And the most distressing question of all, how could I take joy in such cruelty? What kind of person was I?

Onmund looked over at me, distracted from the argument. “Deirdre, you look worried. Are you sure you’re all right? I think those draugr scared you more than you’re letting on. Come now, you don’t have to play the brave lass with us.”

I looked at him doubtfully. Who could I talk to about my dream? “Mirabelle. I need to see Mirabelle,” I said, jumping out of bed and throwing an old tunic over my nightclothes. The others looked surprised as I rushed past them out of the room.

But the master-wizard of the college was not to be found in her bed-chamber, nor in her offices. It turned out she was closeted with the arch-mage, who had just returned from Saarthal. They were making arrangements for transporting the orb to the college. I suppose it should have troubled me more that they were making these decisions without me, the one whom the Psijics had entrusted to avert the danger within Saarthal. But my dragon nightmare had pushed all thoughts of the orb and Nerien’s warning from my mind.

While Mirabelle was preoccupied, I busied myself with restocking potions and cleaning the robes I had worn to Saarthal. I took the staff of Jyrik Gauldurson to Sergius so he could identify its enchantment. Everywhere I went in the college, I received the congratulations of the instructors and staff. I tried to look happy as I thanked them for their praise, but it was difficult. I shared a noon-time meal with my fellow students. They ate heartily while I picked at my food, and kept upbraiding me for my somber mood. Onmund even predicted that I would be promoted to the rank of Scholar. I could only smile wanly at this suggestion.

After our meal, I remembered the task Savos Aren had set me and went to see Urag gro-Shub in the Arcanaeum. The lorekeeper greeted me in his usual gruff fashion. It might seem odd for an Orc to devote himself to scholarly pursuits, but his war-like nature showed itself in his defense of his collection, and the dire threats he made against anyone who might harm one of his prize tomes. I told him about the orb and the arch-mage’s request for any information the Arcanaeum might contain.

“I don’t recall that we have anything much about Saarthal or any magic orb,” he said. “But some texts were stolen a while back. Maybe one of those is what you’re looking for.”

“What were they?” I asked.

“Let’s see, there was something about the Night of Tears, another tome titled The Last King of the Ayleids, and another on the isle of Artaeum. I suppose the Night of Tears might contain something, but as I remember it was very short.”

This did not seem very hopeful. Still, I asked him where he thought the books might be. Urag told a tale of a student named Orthorn who had left the college suddenly to join a group of powerful necromancers in a place called Fellglow Keep. He had taken the books with him to ingratiate himself to his new friends.

“When do you plan on retrieving them?” I asked.

“Me? I have far too much to do here without running across Skyrim after stolen books. The arch-mage set you this task of finding information on that orb, so I suggest you get yourself to Fellglow Keep without further ado. You had such success against those draugr, I doubt a group of mages will be much trouble for you.”

I left the Arcanaeum pondering this new task, wondering whether I could convince one of my fellow students to accompany me – and whether they would be any help.

Lost in thought, I nearly ran into Ancano, who was waiting for me in the library’s foyer. He loomed over me, his long silver hair pulled back to reveal a high forehead and pointed elven ears. He wore heavy black robes adorned with silver fasteners and stout gauntlets inset with black gems. He seemed more prepared for battle than for magical study and academic exchanges.

“I heard you found something deep within Saarthal,” he said. “Something powerfully magical. Please give me all the details.”

I didn’t trust the Altmer. No one did. I was still surprised he appeared to know nothing about what had happened in Whiterun. Perhaps he was too focused on snooping around the college. “Oh, you know how rumors spread,” I said. “We only found the usual enchanted objects, a couple of magic staves, and other items of lesser importance. I imagine Arniel Gane is still cataloging the lot. Maybe he would be a better one to ask.”

“Young lady, Tolfdir sent you back to the college, alone, with news for Savos Aren. Obviously whatever you found is too important to be left unattended. I will get to the bottom of this, and your lack of assistance will be noted. I can only do my duty as an advisor to the arch-mage if I know everything that happens here. Good day.” With that he turned and walked haughtily from the room.

I headed in the opposite direction, to Mirabelle Ervine’s offices. She was available, finally. She was seated at her desk when I entered, looking as if she expected me. “You had a big day yesterday, Deirdre,” she said. “We’re all very proud of you. Yet you don’t look as happy and full of accomplishment as one might expect.”

“No, ma’am. I…” I paused and thought for a moment, then began again. “When I came here, I thought the college would unlock the key to who I am. I thought it had something to do with magic, that one day I might become a great wizard, or at least put my magical ability to some use. But now … I’m not so sure. I think there’s something else…”

“Are you saying you’re thinking of leaving us?” she asked.

“I don’t know. It’s just, last night, I had this dream, or vision.” Then I told her of the dream from beginning to end, as difficult as it was. I felt I could trust Mirabelle, that she wouldn’t judge me harshly no matter what the vision meant. Her expression grew more grave as the story progressed. “I don’t know how I could possibly dream those things that the dragon did, if I hadn’t seen them or done them myself. It makes me think there’s something else buried deep within me, and I have to find out what it is.”

“Now, now, Deirdre,” she said, “I have been watching you over these weeks, and I know you are not capable of the evil you described in your dream. You are one of the few people in this age who has actually seen a dragon, witnessed its destructive acts, heard its speech. From these elements, and with a dollop of your own imagination, you conjured a dream that was terrifyingly real. Or it could be something more than that. There have been many seers who could look through the eyes of their familiars and view events from afar. Maybe something like that is happening with you. But even then, you did none of those things. You are still you.”

She paused for a moment before continuing. “Yet, from that first day we met, I knew there was something different about you. When you described the way your magic first appeared, I knew this was a different sort of power than any I have encountered.”

I waited for her to go on, but she seemed to think this was enough explanation. “Please, ma’am, can you tell me what it is?”

She looked at me searchingly, then said, “I cannot be sure what this power is, and it is not my place to tell you, even if I was certain. Only you can walk the path to your destiny, and anything I might say could lead you astray. But I believe you are right that you will not find it here. You may indeed rise to great heights among wizards and mages, and you may even return one day to aid the college. But the key to your destiny lies elsewhere.”

This was mystifying. I knew no more than before. “But where?” I asked, trying not to plead with her.

“With that, I believe I can be of some help. We’ve had a rider.” She drew an envelope from the folds of her robes. “He had been riding hard since just after dawn, taking every shortcut through mountain passes and across dangerous streams. When he arrived this afternoon, he had nearly ridden his horse to death. The letter is from Jarl Balgruuf of Whiterun. He calls for your aid. They have had another dragon attack.”

I was stunned. “So my dream … it was real.”

“It seems so. You appear to have some sort of connection with the dragon. I believe that therein lies the key to your power and the mystery of who and what you are.” She came around her desk then and took my hand. “But I say again: whatever it is, a mysterious power or a hidden part of yourself, I am certain you will use it for good and not for ill. If I am any judge of character, I know that much is true. And you can begin by going to the aid of Whiterun and helping them defeat this dragon. The rider is waiting to take you back to Dragonsreach.”

My head was spinning. Whiterun! I had thought it would be long before I saw that city again, considering the manner of my leaving. Then I grew suspicious. What if this was a trap set by the Thalmor justiciars to lure me back into their clutches? Had Farengar revealed my plans to come to the college? He seemed to care little for Skyrim’s politics, and I didn’t think he would put me in danger. But who knew what methods the Thalmor had used on him? And what about the task the Psijics had set me? I was the only one who could avert disaster, they had said. How could I do that if I left for Whiterun? Unless the dragon was the disaster I was meant to avert?

I opened the letter, hoping it would guide me. Though it bore Jarl Balgruuf’s seal, Farengar had written it:

Dearest Deirdre,

I hope this letter finds you well and that the college – but enough of that, I write in haste to urge you to return to Whiterun at once. The dragon attacked at dawn this morning, after remaining hidden since the events at Helgen. It destroyed a farm west of the city. The farmer and his wife were slain, but the children escaped, thank the Nine Eight. The jarl requests that you return to the city at once and aid us in whatever way you can. You are the only one who has seen the dragon and survived, after all. We would consult with the surviving soldiers from Helgen, but relations with the Imperial Army are … strained, shall we say?

You need have no worry about those Thalmor, by the way. The jarl expelled them from the city after the ruckus they caused, White-Gold Concordat or no. It’s just too bad that the events precipitated your untimely departure. I had hoped to see you off on your great adventure to the college. I am sure you will have much to tell when you return.

Please don’t write back. Just come straight away with the rider who bore this note.

Yours sincerely,

Farengar Secret-Fire

P.S.: If the dragon gives us a reprieve from its attacks, I have one task with which I could use your help. You wouldn’t happen to have gained any experience in ancient Nord ruins, would you?

The dream decided me. It matched too precisely the events Farengar described. He must be telling the truth, not setting a trap for me. And Mirabelle was right – if I was to learn my destiny, I would have to start with that dragon. “I’ll go to Whiterun,” I told her.

“I knew you would, though I’ll be sorry to see you leave so soon after joining us. Pack your things quickly. The rider is waiting in the village for you. I’ll come to see you off when you’re ready.”

I hurried out of her offices and back across the courtyard to my cell. The other students were loitering around the hall outside their rooms, taking a day off after their exertions in Saarthal. They looked up in surprise as I rushed in.

“I’m leaving,” I said, brushing past them into my room, to exclamations of “What?” and “You can’t be serious!”

“I knew it,” said Onmund. “Something has been bothering you since last night, and now you want out of here.” He looked more distressed than the others.

“Where are you going, Deirdre?” asked Brelyna. “What will you do?”

I was busy shoving clothing, enchanted jewelry, potions and ingredients into my knapsack. My possessions had increased considerably since my arrival at the college and it was a tight squeeze. “I’m going to Whiterun,” I told them. “The dragon is back.”

“Dragon?” asked Onmund. “The one that attacked Helgen?”

“Is there any other?” Brelyna snapped at him. “Do you think more than one dragon has come back to ravage Skyrim?” She turned to me. “But what does that have to do with you, Deirdre?”

I had forgotten I had chosen not to tell them of the events at Helgen. With Ancano around, it just seemed too risky. The less they knew about that part of my past, the better for them and for me. I considered how much to tell them now, as I also considered how to carry my bow, quiver, and the staff of Jyrik Gauldurson at once. Sergius had discovered that the staff would deal a powerful bolt of lightning, doing considerable damage and also reducing my opponents’ magicka. I had no time to learn more Destruction spells, and Farengar had mentioned an ancient Nord ruin. If I must face undead again, the staff would be invaluable. I consoled myself that the staff was already fully charged with Aetherial energy, and by using it I would release the soul energy trapped within.

Finally I had everything secured, but still could think of no sound explanation for my sudden departure. “I ran into the dragon right after it attacked Helgen,” I lied. “I’m one of the few living who has ever seen one. And now the Jarl of Whiterun has asked me to help them slay the dragon.” I knew I was making little sense, but I could think of nothing better.

“This one thinks the Breton girl is very full of herself since Saarthal. How could you help with a dragon?”

“There’s no time to explain,” I said as I gathered the last of my things and left the room, stuffing an apple into my pocket. “Wait! I almost forgot!” I turned to face them again. “Savos Aren and Urag set me the task of finding books that may have to do with the orb. I won’t be able to do that now. You three will have to get them.”

“Certainly,” said Onmund. “Where are they? Who has them?”

“They’re in a place called Fellglow Keep. It’s home to a group of powerful necromancers. Nothing you three can’t handle, I’m sure.”

“Necromancers!” Onmund exclaimed. “What can we do against them?”

“I’m sure you’ll think of something. Savos Aren needs as much information as he can get about that orb. I know you won’t let me down. Urag can tell you more. Now I really have to go.” I went out the door to the courtyard, and Onmund followed me.

“Wait, Deirdre. This really is goodbye then?”

“For now,” I said. I couldn’t stand these long, serious farewells, so I tried to lighten the mood. “I’ll just pop down to Whiterun, slay the dragon, then come right back. How long could it take?”

“Then Akatosh speed your journey,” he said and opened his arms for a hug, which I accepted. His arms felt good around me and I hugged him back. I almost wished I weren’t leaving. There was no kissing this time, and I couldn’t decide how I felt about that.

“I’ll be counting the days until your return,” he said as I turned away and walked through the archway out of the college. Mirabelle was waiting on the other side.

“I know you’ll return to the college one day, Deirdre,” she said. “I look forward to seeing what you have learned about yourself in the meantime.”

“That Psijic monk’s words still bother me,” I said. “I’m the one who is supposed to prevent disaster from the orb we found in Saarthal. Are you sure I’m doing the right thing?”

“I wouldn’t put too much stock in Psijic prophecies. They are often vague, if not incomprehensible. He didn’t say exactly what the danger would be, did he?”

I shook my head.

“I’m not certain I would bring the orb here, if it were up to me,” she said, a note of doubt creeping into her voice. She looked past me, up at the college’s main tower. “I told the arch-mage as much earlier today.” Then she shook it off. “But no, Master Aren is the most powerful wizard in Skyrim, and perhaps in all of Tamriel. Can you imagine a safer place for such a powerful magical object? Don’t worry about us, you have bigger things with which to concern yourself. Now off you go. The Whiterun rider is waiting.”

I found the rider in the village with two horses saddled and waiting. Jarl Balgruuf had sent him with gold to purchase fresh mounts for the return journey.

“The name’s Horik, miss,” he said. “I hope you’re ready for a tough road. We go by Wayward Pass in the mountains above the old Alftand ruins. But at least you’ll get some rest tonight in the Nightgate Inn – if we get there before sunup, that is.”

I climbed onto my horse. Whatever the rough journey ahead, I was glad we would travel no faster than a gallop.

Categories
Fiction Song of Deirdre

The Song of Deirdre – Chapter 9

 

Beneath Saarthal

 

The reality of an actual draugr was worse than even the darkest tale. The remains of a scraggly blonde beard hung from the creature’s skeletal cheek bones, and its desiccated lips were pulled back in a hideous sneer. Its ancient leather armor hung from it in tatters. A pestilential reek filled the chamber with the smell of rotting things.

The creature took a step toward me, then noticed Tolfdir to its right. It shouted, or tried to, as it closed on the old wizard. The sound was more like a cough or the bark of a dog. With one hand, the draugr grasped Tolfdir by the throat, shaking him as if he were a child’s doll, then threw him across the room. At the same time, I heard the coffins on either side of the room crack open. Now three draugr fixed me with their baleful stares. Instinctively, I backed toward the doorway so they couldn’t surround me.

Strangely, my fear had vanished and all I felt was anger. They wouldn’t kill me this day, nor would they harm Tolfdir. It was all I could do to keep from rushing headlong at them. I had felt this before, in the forest when thieves first accosted me, at Helgen when faced with my own beheading, in the Bannered Mare when I foolishly stood up to Avulstein. It was the anger that had been burning inside me since my parents’ deaths. Maybe it even explained what happened that day with Osmer.

I mastered the mad impulse to throw myself at the creatures, though grappling with draugr was the legendary way Nords dealt with the undead. Many were the stories of Nord heroes proving their strength and prowess by wrestling draugr to defeat, sometimes tearing them limb from limb. Yet that didn’t seem possible for someone of my stature, especially against three of the creatures. I still bore the Imperial sword I had acquired in Helgen, but that was more for show than anything. My bow was useless against three in these close quarters. My two spells of Destruction, sparks and flames, were probably too weak. I chided myself for refusing to learn the higher level Destruction spells. My vow to avoid killing now seemed foolish, especially when facing draugr. Why should I hesitate to kill what should already be dead?

Tolfdir struggled to his feet, distracting the one on the right, but the other two advanced on me. I could think of nothing better than to pull J’zargo’s flame cloak scroll from my pocket. He said the scroll contained a special surprise for undead, and I hoped he was right. Quickly I unrolled the parchment and read the words aloud. That’s the advantage of a scroll – no need to practice an incantation or train the mind on Aetherius. I didn’t even know what words I was reading, but their effect was immediate – and surprising.

The two draugr nearest me were just beginning to swing their weapons when they caught fire. So far so good. Then everything went bright orange as the draugr exploded and a fireball filled the room. I was blasted backwards and landed in the passageway, hair singed, robes smoldering, and skin blistered. I lost consciousness then, perhaps only for a few moments. Once I regained my senses I found it difficult to move. I looked at my scorched skin. It didn’t hurt much yet, but I knew that it soon would. Fortunately, using a scroll requires no magicka, so I had my full reserve left to cast a healing spell on myself. Immediately I felt better. Then I crept back toward the chamber, dreading what I might find.

Fortunately, Elders are tougher than they seem. Tolfdir was on his feet, looking nearly as burnt as I had been. He was using a ward to hold off the one remaining draugr. I notched an arrow to my bow and sent it between the draugr’s shoulder blades, felling it where it stood.

Tolfdir turned on me, looking as if he were ready to attack. “Why in Talos’ name did you do that, young lady? You nearly killed us both! It was a good thing I had cast stoneflesh on myself.”

I told him about the flame cloak scroll, and the surprise J’zargo had mentioned. Then I noticed how slowly the old wizard was moving. “Here, let me heal your wounds,” I said.

Tolfdir relaxed as the spell took its effect. “I forget you’re just a lass,” he said. “But there was no need to panic. Three restless draugr were nothing we couldn’t handle between us.”

There it was again – to the old wizard, I was a mere lass. And no wonder! Moments before, I had been filled with trepidation about the undead we might encounter and I had hesitated to put on the amulet. I had acted like a fearful young girl. But now the blood was rushing through my head and I was ready for anything.

“I beg your pardon, Master, but I didn’t panic,” I said. “I chose the best of my few weapons. Now, shall we get on with our exploration? We need to find this danger Nerien mentioned. And look, you were right about the coffins leading to further passageways.” I pointed at the coffin on the back wall. Its back was missing, and through it we could see another tunnel leading deeper into the catacombs.

“A moment ago you were all caution,” he said. “Are you sure you don’t want to enlist the aid of your fellow students?”

Between Brelyna’s difficulty with spell-casting, the near-disaster with J’zargo’s flame cloak, and Onmund’s concerns about exploring ancient crypts, I thought we might do better without them. “I’m ready to go. Are you with me?”

“Yes, by all means,” he said. “No one is more eager to explore Saarthal than I.” He looked at me as if seeing me for the first time. “But in case we encounter more draugr, it would be wise for you to have a more effective offensive spell. Your vow to avoid Destruction magic is laudable, but I believe you need have no such concerns when it comes to undead.”

The old wizard taught me how to conjure a flame atronach. It was a simple incantation, and I was able to cast it successfully on my first attempt. First, there was a glowing ball of blue light, much like the one that had preceded Nerien’s appearance. Then within the blue light a bright orange flame took shape, growing and transforming into the form of a female demon of fire. The ball of blue light was gone, and the atronach floated a few inches above the floor, occasionally turning a back flip. It could cast its own fireball spells and provide a distraction for any enemies we might encounter in the tunnels ahead. It followed us as we stepped into the passage.

After a few twists and turns, the tunnel opened into the largest room we had yet seen. It was circular, with coffins lining the walls and a bridge spanning a wide, grate-covered hole in the middle of the floor.

It was a good thing the atronach was with us. As we stepped into the chamber, four coffins burst open, two on each side of the room, a draugr stepping from each.

Tolfdir was ready this time. “I’ll take the two on the right,” he said.

“And these two are mine,” I replied, notching an arrow to my bow. I felt remarkably calm considering these were only the second draugr I’d ever faced. My anger had now burned itself into an intense concentration and focus. It was as if the draugr moved in slow motion and I could see ahead through every step of the coming battle. All my movements were fluid and precise as I released my first arrow at the nearest draugr. At the same time, my flame atronach cast a firebolt at it, forcing it to stagger.

I turned my attention to the second draugr as it aimed an arrow at me. My arrow caught it first, knocking the bow from its grasp. It drew its battle axe and advanced on me. My second arrow hit it square in the chest, but it kept coming. The atronach, which by now had finished off the first draugr, cast its last firebolt, then vanished. Tolfdir had warned me that any conjured companion would remain for only a minute, and this one must have run its course. The draugr staggered and caught fire, then advanced again. I switched to a lowly flame spell, but it was enough to fell the creature just as it swung its axe at my head.

I turned to see how Tolfdir was faring. One draugr lay smoldering next to a wall, but the other had Tolfdir backed up against a coffin, hitting him with a spell of frostbite. The old wizard’s ward was protecting him so far, but who knew how long that would last?

The draugr’s back was to me. Without thinking, I crept up on it from behind, then leapt onto its back, dagger in hand. I drew the blade across its throat, expecting the creature to fall instantly. My plan would have worked, too, had the draugr been truly alive. But no blood flows through a draugr’s veins. There was no feeling of the blade cutting through sinew and muscle, as there had been with that torturer in Helgen. Instead, it felt as if the blade were grating across solid rock. And instead of a gush of blood, there was a mere puff of dust from the draugr’s throat as my blade came away.

Before I could react to this disappointing outcome, the draugr reached up and grabbed me by a shoulder, then quickly flipped me head over heels into the wall next to Tolfdir. I felt stunned, but there was no time to gather my wits. The draugr resumed its ice spell, which now sprayed across both of us. Tolfdir’s ward partially shielded me, but I could feel the energy draining from the exposed side of my body where the chilling blast hit it.

Maybe it was the anger still burning within me that kept me from freezing on the spot. With my unfrozen hand I cast a flame spell. It met the draugr’s ice spell, and for a moment the two spells met and blended between us, neither one able to reach its target. Then my spell began to win out, pushing closer to the draugr. When Tolfdir realized the ice spell was weakening, he dropped his ward and cast his own flame spell at the creature. The two spells together were too much, and the draugr dropped to the floor just as my magicka ran out. I was amazed that Tolfdir seemed still to have magicka in reserve, despite using spells throughout the battle.

“You acquitted yourself quite well there, young lady,” he said after we had brushed ourselves off and healed ourselves with potions and spells. I felt my magicka slowly returning. “You act as if you’ve been fighting undead your whole life. I’ve never seen anyone attack a draugr from behind like that! I don’t know what I’d have done if you hadn’t distracted it.”

“Thank you, Master,” I said. It felt good to receive praise from such a respected wizard. “I was in a fight or two before I learned any magic.”

“Well, your magic skill is impressive as well. A few more months at the college and you will be a true Adept.”

He turned and surveyed the room. More unopened coffins lined the walls. On closer inspection, the grate at the center of the room covered not just a hole, but a deep chasm. A strange blue light glowed from deep within it. We avoided standing on it, lest the grate suddenly open and send us plunging to our deaths.

“This chamber is remarkable,” Tolfdir said. “Look at the stonework on these coffins! I’ve never seen anything like it. I feel I must spend more time studying this room. And someone needs to take care of all these corpses. It could take some time to burn their bodies to ash, which is the only sure way to keep draugr from coming back to life. It’s likely that we have some time before they stir themselves again, but it wouldn’t do to leave so many behind us as we advance.”

“What about the rest of these catacombs, and the danger Nerien mentioned?” I asked.

Tolfdir’s response caught me by surprise. “Push on ahead if you must,” he said. “I will follow when I can. And a word of advice: use your illusion and stealth abilities. You are a skilled young mage, but I wouldn’t want to see you confront a draugr death lord on your own.”

I didn’t stop to think about the old master’s sudden change from caution to recklessness. I pushed open the door and stepped into the next level of the catacombs.

 

*~*~*

 

Looking back, that decision to continue without Tolfdir seems like one of the more foolish of my life – up until then, at least. True, I had learned a bit of magic, and my stealth, agility, and skill with a bow stood me in good stead. But who knew exactly what lay in wait deeper in the ancient catacombs? Already we had encountered more than Tolfdir had foreseen. And the Psijics had warned of a danger ahead. Surely they meant something more dangerous than the draugr we had already encountered. If a powerful group of mages felt it was dangerous, how much more dangerous would it be for me? Yet I persisted. Why could I not have waited for Tolfdir? I can explain it only through the recklessness of my youth, and the anger that facing the draugr had yet to quench. I would master these catacombs, and prove to Tolfdir and the rest that I was no mere lass.

The door shut behind me, and I was alone – except for whatever draugr lay ahead. I took Tolfdir’s advice and cast the muffling spell on myself. Now I could move silently in addition to my natural stealth as I crept along the tunnels. The passage wound onward like the earlier ones. Here and there urns and pots lined the walls. Many contained a bit of gold or a potion. Yet somehow I began to think Onmund was right – maybe if I left the ancient Nords’ possessions undisturbed, they would do the same for me.

I came to a corridor with coffins tucked away in alcoves along its walls. If the corpses within were restless, would I be able to sneak past? There was only one way to find out. I crept cautiously into the room, but before I had gone far, I heard the crack of a coffin lid opening and a barking sound, similar to the one that first draugr made. I backed quickly into shadows as a draugr appeared ahead. It was looking in my direction, but I remained well hidden.

As it turned to search the other way, I released an arrow that caught it in the back, just beneath the shoulder blade. This is the advantage of a stealth attack – you have time to aim at the quarry’s weakest spots, thus dealing more damage. Whether draugr have weak spots I had yet to learn, but my shot stunned it for a moment before it turned on me. I got in another shot as it approached, then finished it with a burst of flame just as it spotted me. It didn’t even get in a swing of its axe. I looted its body. If the dead had no respect for the living, why should I have respect for the dead?

A little farther along the hall, I noticed a fire rune placed on the floor in a corner where the passage turned to the right. I peered around the corner, keeping clear of the rune, and saw two more draugr emerge from their crypts farther along the hall. My presence was enough to awaken them from their eons-long slumber, yet still they could not spot me. I backed around the corner and considered what to do.

I placed myself in one of the alcoves I had already passed, then loosed an arrow at the wall above the fire rune. My plan worked perfectly, the rune blasting both of the draugr as they went to investigate the sound, setting them alight. The ancient Nords had been cunning to place such magical wards, but not cunning enough to remember their location after years of undeath. It was an easy task to finish them with arrows and a further blast of fire.

Too easy, I began to think as I ascended a set of stairs to the second level of this chamber. Before I could get too carried away with confidence, I saw another draugr guarding a doorway beyond the top of the steps. He hadn’t noticed me yet, which was fortunate, since he looked more formidable than my previous foes. He wore a helm with tall, crown-like spikes and wielded a wicked-looking two-handed sword. He was standing right in front of the only exit from the chamber. Anything I did to distract him would draw his attention to me.

Suddenly, I did wish Tolfdir were with me, or one of my fellow students. It was unspeakably lonely in here with the draugr my only company. This seemed silly for a girl who had lived three years on her own. How could I be lonely now? Perhaps these weeks of companionship in Whiterun and the college had softened me. Now the anger that had fueled me through the earlier passages of these crypts seemed to lessen, and fear was taking its place. I shivered, beginning to feel how cold it was this deep underground. Could anger work like magicka, a power that I drew down until it was gone? If so, my reserves were nearly exhausted.

Then I remembered I could have a companion, albeit one I could never truly call friend. I conjured my flame atronach, aiming the spell so she would appear as far away from me as possible, out on a balcony that overlooked the passages through which I had just passed. Her glowing orange flame cheered me somewhat.

She caught the draugr’s attention as soon as she appeared, and he made his way toward her in that slow, awkward gait the draugr all seemed to have. Maybe being virtually ossified made them stiff. The atronach got in two firebolts as he approached. I remained hidden in the shadows at the top of the stair and began launching arrows at him as soon as he turned his back to me. Still, it was a tough fight, with the draugr dispelling my atronach then turning on me. He seemed in no hurry to die his second death.

I backed down the stairs, resorting to my flame spell. I kept blasting him while dodging blows from his sword as he descended after me. When I reached the first level, I nearly stumbled, and the point of his sword sliced my outstretched arm just below the shoulder. In the heat of battle I couldn’t feel much pain, but the sleeve of my robes quickly became wet with blood.

Still the draugr pressed forward, raising his sword with both hands for another swing. I tumbled to the side just in time, and came up ready to cast my flame spell again. The move put some distance between me and the undead creature, and he took a moment to gather himself for another charge. Maybe he was tiring after all. I blasted him yet again with a jet of flame, and he quickly went to one knee then fell backwards, dead once more.

My magicka was nearly gone, so I used a potion to heal myself. I could feel the wound on my arm closing, and the flow of blood slowing, then stopping completely. I felt a measure of energy returning too. I realized I had lost enough blood to begin to feel light-headed, though I hadn’t noticed it during the fight.

I considered waiting there for Tolfdir, but only for a moment. My foolish pride wouldn’t let me show weakness, though my enthusiasm for this project was waning. What was it the Psijic had said? That I was the only one who could prevent disaster. Then I had better get to the bottom of this mysterious danger, I told myself, even if I had to go to the deepest depths of Saarthal. I wouldn’t have Tolfdir accusing me of cowardice again.

Beyond the door the draugr had been guarding, the passages continued twisting and turning deeper underground, and my wonder increased at the size of this place, and at the skill required to delve it. And all of this to honor the dead! The ancients had taken many safeguards to protect the possessions of their departed as well. I began to find more of the magical traps as I went. One, a lightning rune by the look of it, was spread right across the middle of the floor, with no room to pass on either side. It was too large to jump as well. I didn’t want to try setting it off with a spell from distance, in case it awoke more draugr.  Instead, I tried sneaking over it, my healing spell at the ready in case it went off. But my stealth worked, and I was able to cross it unharmed.

Next I came to a spot where a portion of the flagstones in the floor seemed different than the rest, with a wider groove outlining it. I had heard about these pressure plate traps. Surely something terrible would happen if I stepped on it. I looked at the walls nearby and saw holes from which darts no doubt would shoot when the plate was depressed. I would never have seen it if I hadn’t been looking right at the floor as I crept forward. I crept carefully around it.

Now there were no coffins lining the walls, but sleeping draugr and skeletons lying in horizontal alcoves. It was like a dormitory for the dead. I muffled myself once again and hoped none of them would awaken. These must not have been quite so restless as the draugr in the earlier catacombs, because they slumbered on – or remained truly dead – as I passed.

Rounding a corner, I saw a portcullis blocking a doorway up ahead, and before it a series of pillars on each side of the room. Each pillar had three sides, each side bearing a skillfully carved engraving of a different beast: an eagle, a serpent, and a hwael, the great fish of the deep I recognized from childhood story books. A lever protruded from the floor directly in front of the door. I was ready to pull it when I noticed more dart holes in the walls on either side, pointing directly at me. Clearly the door was trapped, but how?

Guessing that the pillars had something to do with it, I examined them more closely. Each was set into an alcove, and the back wall of each alcove contained an image of one of the animals found on the pillars. I tested one of the pillars and found that it turned with just a slight push. The puzzle was too easy. I had only to turn the six pillars so that they matched the images on the walls behind them. That done, I pulled the lever and the portcullis rose from the doorway.

I was just beginning to hope that I had encountered my last restless draugr when I entered another large chamber. Two sets of stairs at the far end led up either side of a protruding balcony. A draugr, female this time, paced back and forth along it. Her yellow hair was braided in back, giving her a girlish look. Other than that, she looked formidable.

I was tired of fighting draugr, but I thought there was a way I could get around this one without a fight. When her back was turned, I fired an arrow into the far corner of the chamber. The steel arrowhead clattered against stone, and the draugr gave that distinctive bark as she advanced boldly down the left-hand stairs to face the threat. It seemed these ancient Nords were just as bright in death as modern Nords were in life. As she stared into the corner trying to puzzle out what could have made the noise, I crept up the other set of stairs and across the balcony, then through the door that led out of the chamber.

Down another set of stairs I found a chest. As I stooped to loot it, I heard footsteps behind me. I spun quickly, flame spell at the ready, to meet my attacker.

“I thought it was high time I caught up with you,” Tolfdir said, catching his breath. Then he noticed my startled expression. “What, did I scare you? Not a brave young lass such as yourself?”

“No, but I’ve been surprised by too many draugr so far to let myself relax,” I said. I didn’t want to admit how relieved I was to see him, even to myself.

“True – I saw the draugr corpses you left in your wake. I didn’t have time to deal with them properly. By the way, it wasn’t very polite of you to leave that last draugr wight.”

“I’m sorry, Master,” I said. “How did you get past it?”

“I have my ways,” he said, and winked.

“You seem as if you’ve faced draugr before,” I said, “even though you told us they were just legends.” Tired as I was, I was feeling a bit put-upon.

“Well spotted, young lady! I have faced many a draugr in my day. Skyrim is full of the creatures.”

“Then you lied to us.”

“A bit of a school-master’s trick, really,” the old wizard said sheepishly. “You see, I planned Saarthal as something of a test – one that you have passed with flying colors, by the way.”

“And what about the other students?” I couldn’t help wondering what they had been doing all this time. “Shouldn’t they have a chance to test their skill against the draugr as well?”

“Ah, you see, this is not just a test of skill, but also one of initiative. And you have shown more of both than I could have imagined. If your fellows had any initiative at all, they should have followed us by now. That was one reason I waited in that second chamber. I imagine they’re still in those storerooms, brewing a pot of masterwort tea. Now, shall we continue?”

I took the lead as we pressed ahead, still moving stealthily but more rapidly than I had when alone. I didn’t notice the pressure plate that I must have stepped on. I was too stealthy to set it off, but Tolfdir, following in my footsteps, received a barrage of darts. He had renewed his stoneflesh spell, or he might really have been hurt. I apologized for my oversight.

“Not to worry, young lady,” he said. “Your ability to creep over these traps is quite useful, no doubt. But maybe I should take the lead.”

Down another set of stairs we came out on a balcony overlooking the largest chamber yet. At its center was a dais encircled in a blue curtain of light. Within this wall, a large orb floated above the dais. It was taller than the tallest elf, and made of a lattice framework forming a perfect sphere. It was hard to see more detail with the blue shimmering light encircling it.

As I was taking all this in, Tolfdir spoke. “Amazing! What in the world is this thing? And why would the ancients seal it down here?”

While Tolfdir stared at the glowing ball, something else caught my attention, the thing we should have noticed first. Closer to the balcony where we stood, seated on an iron chair in front of a large stone table, was the largest and most fearsome draugr we had yet to see. He wore a viciously horned metal helm and elaborate armor. I couldn’t see his face because his head was down, as if asleep. I wondered forlornly if there was any chance he would remain asleep after hearing Tolfdir’s words.

I soon had my answer. While Tolfdir remained oblivious to the danger, the draugr raised its head and looked at him. Then with that familiar draugr bark, he rose from his chair and made for the stairs leading up to the balcony on the right. As he advanced, a swirling cloak of white frost enveloped him

“Master, look out!” I shouted, but there was no need. The draugr’s bark had roused Tolfdir from his reverie.

“Cast your atronach spell, Deirdre!” he called. “This fellow will have no chance against the three of us.”

I did as he asked, but our attacks seemed not to affect the creature. I hit it with several arrows, and the atronach got in three firebolts. Yet it still came at us up the stairs on the right, blasting Tolfdir with a frost spell as it advanced.

“It must take its energy from that orb,” Tolfdir said. “You keep him busy while I try to disable it.” The old wizard ran past me and down the other set of stairs, leaving us to do battle. Then the atronach disappeared in an explosion of flame, and the draugr and I had the balcony to ourselves. The creature advanced on me, preparing another frost spell.

I dashed down the stairs after Tolfdir. The draugr followed just as slowly as all the rest, and I knew I could evade it indefinitely. But I had to keep it away from Tolfdir without taking harm myself. I cast a new atronach at the top of the stairs, and we both kept it busy for a time, though our attacks had no effect.

“Now! Attack it now!” Tolfdir shouted. “The draugr should be vulnerable!”

Whatever the old wizard had done, it seemed to have worked, because the atronach’s next firebolt staggered our opponent. I launched another arrow as the creature remained stunned. Then the draugr’s defensive cloak changed from frost to fire, becoming a swirl of yellow flames whirling about its body. The atronach’s next bolt did nothing. The draugr closed on it and with a swing of its axe dispelled the fire demon back to Oblivion. Then it descended the stairs, intent on attacking me. I backed across the floor, but not too quickly. I didn’t want the draugr to attack Tolfdir. Whatever the old wizard was doing, he needed to keep doing it to sever the connection between the orb and the draugr. I narrowly avoided a blast of frost as I dodged around the table where the draugr had been sitting.

The draugr’s cloak shifted to the lightning element, enveloping it in sparks and wisps of dark cloud. I conjured my atronach once again, hoping that its firebolts would now do some damage. Then I began climbing the stairs, renewing my rain of arrows as I went. We could go around in circles up and down the stairs all day if necessary, or until I ran out of arrows. Finally, the undead Nord weakened and went to one knee. The atronach’s next firebolt blasted him into a corner beneath the stairs.

I went over to the draugr’s body and looked down on it, wondering who he had been in life. Surely a prince or a king, he was so powerful in death, and to be locked away here with this magical orb. I searched his body, and among the other loot found a broken amulet and a note. It was labeled “writ of sealing” and it contained these words:

Be bound here, Jyrik Gauldurson, murderer and betrayer,

Condemned by your crimes against realm and lord.

May your name and deeds be forgotten forever

And the charm which you bear be sealed by our ward.

Whoever Jyrik Gauldurson had been, that mystery would have to wait for another day. Another mystery was the powerful-looking staff the draugr had left on the table in front of him. Why hadn’t he picked it up and used it? I showed it to Tolfdir.

“That looks like it could be useful,” the old wizard said. “Why don’t you show it to Tergius to identify the enchantment for you? It seems a fitting reward for your efforts here today.”

“Thank you, Master,” I said, admiring the gem that crowned the staff.

“Now what about this orb?” said the old wizard. “It’s even more of a mystery.”

The curtain of light had disappeared now, and I could see the orb more clearly. It was covered in strange runes.

“What is it?” I asked.

“I have no idea! It’s powerful, whatever it is. I dare not leave it unattended, but we have to alert Savos Aren to its existence right away. Deirdre, I want you to make your way back to the college as quickly as possible and tell the arch-mage of our find.”

“Yes, sir,” I said, and turned to head up the stairs. I was looking forward to finding the other students to see how they were faring and tell them of our adventure.

Tolfdir stopped me. “I believe you’ll find that the quickest way out of a Nord catacomb is to continue to its end. The ancients almost always included shortcuts back to the surface just where you think you’ve reached the farthest point of the labyrinth. That door beyond the orb should lead you to your goal.”

I took his suggestion and left through the doorway, thinking I would soon be back to the regular world of snow and trees and rocks. I had had enough of mystery and adventure for one day. But I had one more puzzle to encounter as I made my way into the next chamber. Down another flight of stairs stood a curved wall bearing more strange markings. As I approached I heard a distant chanting that grew louder and louder. Three of the runes on the wall began to shimmer, sending streamers of light toward me. Then I heard a word – or a single syllable – in a language I didn’t recognize, though it seemed somehow familiar: “Iiz.The shouted syllable echoed in my mind as I stared at the wall. Then the chanting and the light faded, and everything seemed as before.

“Iiz,” I thought. What could it mean? And what was this wall? Did it have the same effect on every passerby? How long had it been since any had come this way?

Standing there pondering these questions was getting me nowhere, so I continued along the passageway that ascended from the chamber. I soon found myself emerging through a door into the first room we had entered, the one with the stone faces. My friends were nowhere to be seen, and I guessed they must still be deeper within. As much as I wanted to see them, I had to get Tolfdir’s message to Savos Aren.

I emerged from Saarthal into the frozen world of Winterhold in late afternoon, glad to breathe fresh air once again. Even the cloud-covered sky cheered me after that dark underworld. The walk back to the college didn’t seem so daunting, tired though I was.

Categories
Fiction Song of Deirdre

The Song of Deirdre – Chapter 8

 

Saarthal

 

To say that the sun had not yet risen when Tolfdir awakened us on the morning after the bonfire would not be saying much – the sun was seldom seen in Winterhold. Yet it was ungodsly early. The small window in my cell looking out on the courtyard showed a pitch-black sky.

“Rise and shine students,” Tolfdir called merrily as he made his circuit of our tower. “We have a big day ahead of us. We’re going to Saarthal!”

Saarthal – I tried to dredge the name from deep in my hungover brain as I struggled into my apprentice’s robes. Wasn’t it some sort of ancient Nord city? I thought it had something to do with Ysgramor and his five hundred brave companions, the ones Aela had told me about in Whiterun. I staggered out to the hall and saw my fellow apprentices gathered around the old wizard.

J’zargo was holding his head as if it hurt as much as my own. “This one needs hangover cure,” he said, “but there’s no time to make one.”

“Now students, we have a wonderful treat in store for us. The chief archaeologist…”

“But I thought we didn’t have classes on Loredas,” exclaimed Brelyna. Her red Dunmer eyes were even more red than usual. “And it’s so early. Doesn’t the college plan its field trips in advance?”

“As I was saying, the chief archaeologist at Saarthal just sent word last night that the excavation will be available today for our exploration. We have to seize this opportunity! I’m especially eager to delve into the ancient Nord use of magical wards.”

“We should let the dead rest in peace,” said Onmund. “Who knows what we’ll find down there? What about draugr? Wights? Skeletal walkers? I’ve heard all manner of powerful beings haunt these ancient ruins, guarding hoards of treasure. We shouldn’t disturb them.”

I had already faced much in my young life with bravery, yet the mention of draugr turned me cold inside. My father had told me the stories of draugr from Nord legend – corpses that come back to life to guard the treasure hoarded in their barrows, or to walk Skyrim terrorizing the living and dragging the young and innocent back to the land of the dead. There is nothing ghostly about a draugr. It is as real and solid as any mortal. More so, with all trace of soft human flesh wasted away, leaving nothing but rock-hard muscle and sinew stretched taut over bone. And in some places the bone shows through. Its eyes glow with a cold blue light. It remains clothed in whatever scraps of armor it wore to its burial and carries the weapons that were interred with it. When disturbed from its slumbers, it attacks instantly. In addition to its great strength, it possesses powerful magic and spreads contagion with its breath. There is only one way to kill a draugr for good – first by severing its head, then by burning the corpse to nothing but ash.

Suddenly my decision to focus on Illusion and Restoration didn’t seem so wise. All the Illusion spells I had learned would be little help, since I had yet to progress to the level where they would work on undead. A stronger fire spell, that’s what I needed, or the turn undead spell, but I had neglected to learn either.

“Now, now, let’s not let our imaginations carry us away,” replied Tolfdir. “The excavation hasn’t reached the level of the crypts yet. And these stories of draugr scourges and death lords, they’re just that – stories. You have nothing to be afraid of, I’ll be with you the entire time, and Arniel Gane is already on his way there to catalog items of a magical nature. No, the only thing you’ll have to worry about is an empty stomach. We’ll be gone most of the day, so get yourselves a hearty breakfast and pack a lunch. We leave in twenty minutes.”

Saarthal was southwest of Winterhold. As cold as it was, it felt good to be outside. The crisp air cleared my head as we walked up toward the snowy pass separating the village of Winterhold from the lands to the west. The contrast to my home in Dragon Bridge, or even the plains of Whiterun, was stark. We were familiar with winter in the mountains of Haafingar Hold, the time when snow blanketed everything and all but the evergreens lost their leaves. All of my favorite flowers died back to nothing, waiting until late in the spring to grow again. And of my bird friends, only the black raven, the snowy owl, and the black-capped chickadee remained. The snow-clad mountains did have an elegant, stark beauty, but within a few weeks of the first snowfall, I would find myself pining for the green shoots of spring and the long, languorous days of summer.

But here winter kept its hold year-round, as the name implied. The few evergreens were laden with snow. Not even the bits of green showing through the frost could relieve the black and white tone of the place. The only bit of color was that of the perennial snowberry, a hardy shrub brave enough to bear fruit even in the depths of winter. The bright red berries were the key ingredient in a potion that lent resistance to fire. I suspected I might need such a potion one day, so I had been stocking up on the berries during my time in Winterhold. It grew more abundantly here than anywhere I’d yet been in Skyrim. I gathered more as we ascended to the pass, darting from side to side off the trail, then running to catch up with my companions, who seemed intent only on following Tolfdir up the steep route. For an Elder, he was remarkably spry.

The other side of the pass presented a scene even more bleak. Before us stretched an unbroken complex of ice sheets and crevasses stepping down to the Sea of Ghosts. Here and there, bleak outcrops of black rock punctuated the field of white snow and ice. A series of cairns, each with its flag flapping in the stiff breeze, marked the route.

As we walked, Tolfdir refreshed our memories of Saarthal. Onmund added bits of his own, for the ancient city was famed in Nord lore. It was the first settlement of humans in Tamriel, founded before recorded history began. They came by ship from Atmora and built homes beside the race of mer who inhabited the province, the Snow Elves. The relationship between elves and humans started out well enough, then deteriorated as the newcomers pushed into more territory that had once belonged exclusively to the mer.

Then, on the Night of Tears, a force of Snow Elves attacked the city. The Atmorans were routed, and only three survivors, Ysgramor and his two sons, made it back to Atmora. Ysgramor vowed to return, amassing a large fighting force – the Five Hundred Companions. They returned to Tamriel, and drove the elves from Saarthal. Eventually, the people that would become the Nords pushed the elves out of this northern portion of Tamriel and claimed it for their own, under the new name of Skyrim.

In the eons since, Saarthal was literally buried by the sands and rock and ice of time, and even its location was forgotten. Only recently had archaeologists rediscovered it and begun to reveal its secrets. Little was left of the portions of the city that had been above ground, Tolfdir told us, but the catacombs beneath it remained for exploration.

After two hours’ journey we arrived at the Saarthal excavation. It was a deep, square pit in the ground, a hundred feet on a side, with scaffolding and stairs leading down to an iron door. Looming over the pit was a massive stone archway, all that was left of the great city. Tolfdir led us to the bottom of the pit, gave us a short lecture about safety, then pushed on the iron door.

It creaked open and we entered Saarthal, or what was left of it. We descended a narrow tunnel carved out of the granite bedrock, the roots that hung down from fissures in the stone brushing at our heads as we passed. I was toward the back, but I heard gasps from my fellow students up ahead. Emerging from the tunnel, I saw the object of their surprise – a giant stone face confronting me. It was carved into a pillar of stone at the center of a large room. The face was bearded in the Nord fashion and gazed sternly at us as we made our way into the chamber. I wondered how long it had taken the stone-masons to carve it. And they hadn’t stopped there, hewing similar faces into the three other sides of the pillar.

Stepping farther into the room, I saw that it was multi-leveled, and we had entered at the top. If there had once been stairs leading the two flights down to the main floor, they were long gone. Instead, the archaeologists had built wooden scaffolding that led down one level. From there, a stone bridge led to a platform encircling the middle of the central pillar, directly beneath the brooding stone faces. A circular ramp wrapped around the pillar, descending from the platform to the main floor. The archaeologists’ tools, shovels, buckets and wheel barrows were strewn everywhere. Lamps and torches burned here and there, illuminating the chamber in a wavering light.

The pillar was not the only feature of the chamber that had been carved by ancient hands. Portions of the room’s natural rock had been hewn with considerable skill into graceful arches and buttresses, and even adorned in places with elaborate designs. In other places the rock had been left in its rough natural state. The floor was laid with smooth flagstones to allow easy passage. We stood there for a moment, taking it all in.

“How the ancient Nords were able to delve so deeply and carve such elaborate stoneworks is still very much a mystery,” Tolfdir told us. “It’s nothing to rival the Dwemer, of course, yet these catacombs were created by people just arrived here from Atmora. Just imagine the time involved to create just one of these carvings! Our Nord ancestors are often looked on as barbaric, yet they clearly had an elaborate culture of artisans and craftsmen.”

Then he led us down the spiral ramps to the main floor to gave us our final instructions. “What are we seeking?” J’zargo asked. “Powerful magical items? Enchanted weapons? Rare potions? J’zargo will find them!” Under his breath he added, “And J’zargo will keep them,” but I was the only one standing near enough to hear him.

“We are looking for anything that might be of interest,” said Tolfdir. “That’s what I enjoy most about this place – you never know what you are going to find. And if my message about the dangers of magic sinks in during your search, so much the better.”

“I still believe we should let the dead rest in peace,” interrupted Onmund. “We’ve all heard how jealously the draugr guard their crypt treasure.”

“Young man, you can see very well there are no dead here. These are merely storerooms. The inhabitants must have taken precautions to keep their goods safe. If we could find any magical wards in these halls, it would greatly advance our understanding of ancient Nord magic. Brelyna, I want you to look for those.”

“Yes, master Tolfdir,” she said, and wandered off into the passageway leading out of the chamber.

“Deirdre, I want you to search for enchanted items. You’ll find Arniel Gane farther along these passages. He’s cataloging the artifacts the archaeologists have already found. He can certainly use your help. And students, while the archaeologists will have cleared out most of the non-magical objects, there may still be one or two items of interest lying about. You are welcome to keep whatever stray gold pieces or other artifacts that have been overlooked, as a sort of payment for your services.”

I followed Brelyna into the tunnel. Like the chamber, it was mostly rough-hewn stone with occasional carven arches and buttresses supporting the ceilings. There were wooden supports as well, whether placed by the archaeologists or the ancient Nords, I couldn’t tell. But I was glad for them, because occasionally I heard the sound of rock falls from deeper within. The passageway twisted and turned and seemed to descend slightly. This really is quite a labyrinth, I thought. Had I only known I was just at the beginning of it!

Soon I caught up to Brelyna. She was examining the floors, walls and ceiling as she went. “I doubt we will find anything of use down here,” she said. That was Brelyna – always the optimist. “The elves must have ransacked the place after the Night of Tears, and who knows who else has been through here since then?” Then she paused and put her hand on my arm. “Just think, eons ago my ancestors – or cousins of them, really – battled Onmund’s people here in these passageways. Now here we are, exploring the place together.”

“It is strange,” I agreed. “I could have had ancestors on both sides of that battle. And the war continues to this day, doesn’t it?”

“It seems so,” Brelyna said. “I’m glad we are well out of it. Since the sundering of Morrowind we Dunmer have too much to worry about to bother with the wars of elves and men. Besides, we’ve never had much use for the self-styled ‘High Elves,’ always so full of themselves, labeling us ‘Dark Elves.’ Not that the Nords treat us much better.”

We emerged into another chamber. It was much like the first, except larger, with three supporting pillars connected by stone bridges. Again we came into the room at the top level, and descended to the main floor on circular ramps and stone bridges. Though the room was larger, the main floor was more crowded with boulders fallen from the ceiling above and with the wide bases of the supports. I tried poking around in the debris on the floor, but didn’t find much other than a few clusters of mushrooms I couldn’t identify. I put a few of them in my satchel. Maybe Brelyna was right and we wouldn’t find much.

I had noticed a passageway leading off of the platform at the second level, so I left Brelyna behind with Onmund, who had joined us by now, and went to explore it. This looked much more promising. Several passages branched off of this first one, and in each there were broken urns and other pottery, and even some whole ones. Looking inside one, I found a few gold coins. Those I could certainly use, since I had depleted much of my own store of gold pieces purchasing spell tomes and paying for lessons at the college. I wondered how thorough a job the archaeologists could have done. The place seemed to go on and on, and small items were easily missed.

I decided to sift through the piles of broken pottery. Who knows what the urns had contained before being broken? I moved from passage to passage searching in this way, finding a few gold coins and a few dried flowers along the way. Finally I found something that looked promising – a gold ring. After I brushed away the centuries of dust, it gleamed with a warm yellow glow in the flickering torch light. But was it enchanted? I had no way of knowing, having yet to take lessons in that branch of magic. I wondered why Tolfdir had set me this task. I needed to find Arniel Gane. I was sure he would be pleased with my find.

I found him in an alcove off the next passageway ahead, bent over a table with his back to me.

“Sir,” I called to him from the doorway, “I found this ring.” Only then did I notice the piles of jewelry, weapons, and armor spreading across the table where he worked and spilling onto the floor into every corner of the room.

“Oh joy, a ring!” he exclaimed, turning to glare at me. “Aren’t you special? Put it over there with the others.” He nodded dismissively at a pile of a dozen identical rings. Mine looked no different than the rest.

“Yes sir,” I said, feeling foolish.

As I turned to leave, Arniel spoke again. “Wait. I’m sorry I snapped at you, young lady. It’s just that it is going to take forever to sort through all this.” He sounded tired. “I really should take it all back to the college where I could study it properly and get help from Sergius, but that spy Ancano asks too many questions. I’m sure he wants to steal my research. I’ll just have to carry on here as best I can, though I wish Sergius were here. He is our master of Enchantment, after all. Meanwhile, bring me anything else you find.”

I promised him I would, but left with my enthusiasm deflated. Still, it wasn’t long before I found another ring, identical to the first. It was lying in a dark corner, and I was lucky to spot it.

“What did you find there, Deirdre?” It was J’zargo, who had come up behind me just as I was picking up the ring. “Let J’zargo see. Maybe it will aid this one on his path to greatness!” His cat eyes shone brightly as he tried to see what I had in my hand.

Normally I wouldn’t give in to such a request. Had I been unable to guard my own possessions, I would never have survived those months traveling with a pack of thieves. But the going rate for magic rings now seemed quite low. Let J’zargo feel Arniel Gane’s ire when he added yet another ring to the pile. What did I care? I showed it to him.

The Khajiit gave a purr of anticipation. “That could be a ring of power! With it this one could… Give it to J’zargo!”

As I made to hand J’zargo the ring, something made me hesitate. I looked at it more closely. It suddenly seemed the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. It had a solidity and a weight that surpassed its small size. And as I looked more deeply at it I had a vision of myself seated on a throne, my loyal subjects kneeling before me, waiting to kiss the shining ring I bore on my right hand. A voice whispered from within the shining band, “Put on the ring. It is your destiny.”

The vision vanished as quickly as it had come, and I returned to my senses. A ring that spoke to me? That couldn’t be good. Or maybe it was just my imagination. The smoke from the torches in these enclosed spaces was making me light-headed.

“Well?” J’zargo asked. “Will you give me the ring or not?”

“As you wish, J’zargo.” I handed it over, curious to see whether it would have a similar effect on him.

J’zargo’s eyes glowed more brightly as he examined it. “Yes, this will be the key to J’zargo’s destiny,” he said. Then he slipped the ring on.

The effect was immediate, and powerful. Within seconds, the Khajiit shrank to half his normal size, lost all his feline hair, and grew a full white beard. His face took on a cherubic expression. “No, no, what is happening?!” he shrieked in a pinched, reedy voice. He had been transformed into a gnome.

I tried to suppress my laughter as I told him to take the ring off, but it was no good. The sight of him floundering around in his now much-too-large apprentice robes was just too ridiculous. He finally got his hands free from the sleeves to look at them. Gone were his clawed, fur-covered hands, and in their place were tiny human hands with pudgy, soft fingers. He began feeling at his face and his new beard. If only there had been a mirror! “No,” he wailed again, and began to run around the room, but soon tripped over his trailing hem. The humor began to fade as I grew concerned that he would hurt himself. “J’zargo, take the ring off!” I said again.

But the transformation seemed to make him forget that he was wearing a ring. Finally, I grabbed the flailing gnome, wrestled him to the floor and began fumbling for his hand. A gnome’s knuckles are surprisingly knobby, and the ring seemed to have shrunk along with the Khajiit. Finally, to the accompaniment of many gnomish shrieks, I pulled the ring free. J’zargo resumed his usual feline form and arrogant demeanor.

“You tricked J’zargo!” he said. “This one will not soon forget!”

“J’zargo, you demanded the ring of me,” I told him. “Maybe you should learn to detect enchantments before you don magic items. Now, we should take the ring to Arniel and tell him what happened.”

“Ah yes,” Gane said when we told him the story. “A ring of humor. Very common when enchanters have nothing else to do. I hope this will teach you a lesson about putting on magic items willy-nilly. It could have been much worse.”

With that task accomplished, the Khajiit and I went our separate ways. But before we parted he told me, “This one tested the magic ring for you, now you must test the flame cloak scroll for J’zargo. Surely we will encounter undead in these catacombs, no matter what the old wizard says.” Perhaps I should have wondered then why he didn’t just test them himself. He didn’t seem to be doing much else.

I entered another chamber, the last that the archaeologists had opened on this level. The floor was bare, no broken crockery or cast-aside jewelry lying about. I looked at the rest of the room and noticed that a portion of the far wall seemed different than the rest. It was an arched doorway of carven stone, inset with elaborate designs – spirals and curves and circles. But if it was a doorway, there was no obvious way of opening it. In its center a kind of sloping shelf had been carved, and on it rested a gold amulet bearing designs similar to those on the doorway. Or maybe it wasn’t a doorway after all, but an altar for displaying the amulet?

I hadn’t seen anything like this amulet in Arniel’s collection. It seemed just the kind of thing Tolfdir had set me to find. I plucked it from the shelf.

Immediately I heard the sound of metal scraping over stone behind me. I turned to see the entrance to the room blocked by iron bars. Inspecting them more closely, I saw that they had thrust upward from holes in the floor. I tried pushing one back down, to no avail. Why hadn’t I noticed those holes when I entered the room? Each bar was tipped with a sharp metal point. Shuddering at what could have happened if anyone had entered the room at the wrong moment, I vowed to be more careful in future.

Tolfdir had heard the sound too, and soon appeared on the other side of the bars.

“Now how in Sovngarde’s name did you get yourself into this predicament, young lady?” he asked. He seemed more amused than concerned.

I showed him the amulet. “I took this from the wall over there, and then these bars slid into place. I’m trapped here.”

“The amulet must be enchanted,” he said. “Is there some way you can use it?”

“You want me to put it on?” I had little interest in turning myself into a gnome, or something worse. “I thought we were supposed to be careful with magic?”

“Ah, I’m glad to see you’re learning caution,” said the old wizard. “Perhaps you are right. Let me see if I can find some sort of lever that will open the bars from this side.”

Tolfdir began searching the walls on his side of the bars and soon disappeared around a corner. While he was gone, I looked more closely at the amulet. Now I saw that the swirling patterns made an almost human figure. It was wearing a tall crown, and where its face should have been there was but a single eye. It seemed ominous somehow, and the fang-like pieces of gold adorning the amulet’s chain only added to the impression. The amulet had none of the attractive power of the gnome ring, no whispering voice encouraging me to wear it. If only I had focused on Enchantment during my time at the college!

Tolfdir returned. “I’m afraid there is no way to open these bars from either side,” he said. He grasped them then and tried to move them, for show more than anything. But he was a master of Alteration. Couldn’t he turn the iron of the bars into something we could break easily – ice, maybe, or glass?

“I’m afraid our only choice is to have you try on that amulet,” he said.

“Couldn’t we ask Arniel to examine it?” I asked.

“Arniel lacks the proper equipment here in the catacombs, and we don’t have time to send the amulet to the college. Besides, nothing ventured nothing gained, as they say, eh? Where’s your youthful sense of adventure?”

So much for caution and safety. Putting my last doubts aside, I slipped the amulet over my head. I didn’t notice anything at first, but Tolfdir grew amazed as he looked into the room behind me. “Would you look at that!” he exclaimed. I turned to see a glowing red light emanating from the shelf where the amulet had rested. The streamers of light reached out toward me like tendrils. “There is some sort of resonance between you and that wall,” said Tolfdir. “It must have to do with the amulet.”

“What should we do?” I asked.

The old wizard considered for a moment, stroking his graying blonde beard. “I wonder what would happen if you cast your magic at the wall. It looks suspiciously like a doorway that has been sealed over. Why don’t you try a flame spell?”

Tolfdir was right. When my flame spell hit it, the stone wall crumbled into blocks and fell inward, revealing a passageway beyond. At the same time, the bars slid down behind me and Tolfdir entered the room. “Well this is highly unusual and very interesting,” he said. “Come, let’s see where this goes.”

“Shouldn’t we tell the others where we’re going?” I asked.

“Come now, young lady, you’re with me. There is nothing to fear.” I followed him into the passageway, rankling a little at the suggestion that I was afraid.

Unlike the previous passages, this one was merely a rough-hewn tunnel. After several twists and turns we came to another chamber. Tolfdir stopped before entering. Through the doorway I could see an altar and beyond it a stone coffin upright against the far wall.

“Astounding!” Tolfdir exclaimed. “I’ve never seen anything like it! What is this place? And why would the ancient Nords seal it off like this?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe they wanted to keep their burial crypts safe from grave robbers?”

“Perhaps. There’s only one way to find out. Let us investigate.”

With that we stepped through the opening. Now I saw that the room contained two more vertical crypts on each of the side walls. Three burial urns rested atop the altar. So much for leaving the Nord dead in peace, I thought. But I had to admit, this ancient tomb had a grim allure. And no one had been inside it in thousands of years. What might we find in those urns?

Tolfdir took a step farther into the room but then froze. Surprised, I put a hand on his shoulder, but he was suddenly as immovable as stone. Then a glowing light appeared on the other side of the altar. It grew larger, and then a hooded figure appeared within it, whether human or elven I could not tell. The figure looked toward me and then spoke.

“Hold mage, and listen well. I am Nerien of the Psijic Order and I have stopped time for your companion so that I may communicate with you in private. You have set in motion a chain of events that cannot be stopped. Judgment has not been passed, as you had no way of knowing the danger here. Judgment will be passed as you deal with the dangers ahead of you. This warning is given because the Psijic Order believes in you. You mage, and you alone, have the potential to prevent disaster. Take great care, and know that the Order is watching.”

Before I could respond, the robed figure disappeared and time returned to its usual pace.

Tolfdir looked around. “What was that?” he asked. “I sensed something just then.” I told him what had happened. “The Psijic Order! But what could they want with this place? They’ve never been associated with Saarthal. And what could they want with you? Psijics only ever dealt with those they deemed worthy.”

“They did say I was the only one who could prevent disaster,” I reminded him.

“Disaster! What could they mean? Are you sure you heard correctly? Or that you weren’t dreaming?” He looked at me closely, as if trying to decide whether I was in my right mind.

“I saw him as clearly as I see you now,” I said. “But I have no idea what he was talking about. Who are the Psijics anyway?”

“Were, most likely,” he replied. “A group of mages that predated the Empire. Very powerful, very secretive. They felt magic should remain in the hands of a select few. They would never approve of sharing magical knowledge as we do at the college. They wanted Tamriel to remain in the dark ages. But they vanished over a century ago, along with their sanctuary on the isle of Artaeum.”

“Well,” I said, “maybe we should heed their warning and leave.” I edged closer to the doorway through which we had come.

“Nonsense,” said Tolfdir. “We have nothing to fear here. Now let’s see what’s in these coffins. I’m guessing they cover passageways to deeper levels of these catacombs. If there is a danger here, we had better find it before the archaeologists come to harm.”

He stepped around to the coffin on the back wall and grasped the edge of the lid. It popped open a crack and Tolfdir stepped back in surprise. A pale, sinewy arm appeared in the opening. Skeletal fingers grasped the lid, then threw it aside as though it weighed nothing.

Before us stood the most hideous creature I had ever seen, the thing I most feared to meet in Saarthal: a draugr, come to life out of Nord legend. Its blue eyes fixed on me with an evil glow.

Categories
Fiction Song of Deirdre

The Song of Deirdre – Chapter 7

 

Winterhold

 

“No one drinks a Nord under the table!” Onmund exclaimed as he passed the bottle of Colovian fire brandy down the line. We were standing around a bonfire in the circular courtyard of the College of Winterhold.

“But we haven’t got a table,” said J’zargo, the Khajiit. He wrinkled his feline nose as he sniffed at the brandy bottle.

Onmund stared at the fire for a moment. “True,” he said, as if he had just understood one of life’s deep meanings.

The bonfire crackled and roared, lighting our avid faces. When it began to die down, one of us would hit it with a flame spell. The light played off the walls of the courtyard and the statue of Arch-Mage Shalidor looming above us, making giants of our shadows. We were all dressed alike in college robes, we four apprentices, two scholars, and a wizard. After spending the day inside studying old tomes and practicing spells, it felt good to be outdoors, even in the bitter cold of a Winterhold night. The wagon driver had not been wrong as I boarded back in Whiterun – I had arrived in Winterhold half-frozen, even under the fur blankets he lent me. And that was in the first days of Hearthfire; now, toward the end of the month, it was even colder.

The fire kept us warm, and so did the brandy we were passing around. It was a rare concoction, but Enthir had gotten his hands on it somehow. He was good that way. Everyone at the college and in the town of Winterhold knew, if you needed anything hard to find, especially anything illicit, Enthir was the Bosmer to see. The rumor was that Phinis Gestor, a Breton wizard at the college, was exploring necromancy, and used Enthir’s services in acquiring certain banned agents. It was best not to ask where Enthir got any of the goods he had for sale.

No one was arguing with the provenance of the Colovian fire brandy. It had been a long week. Now, on Fredas night, with no classes in the morning, we were blowing off pent-up magicka. I’d taken several pulls, and the courtyard was already beginning to spin. Only then did I start to wonder if the college really allowed its scholars to get their subordinate apprentices drunk. The staff were lenient with any kind of magical investigation, as long as the results were shared with the rest of the college, and no one from outside the school got hurt. Maybe this was Enthir’s idea of an alchemy experiment, investigating the various tolerances to alcohol of the different races. We were a mixed lot, Breton, Altmer, Dunmer, Bosmer, Nord, Cyrodiili, Khajiit, and me, the mixed-blood – a good cross section of Tamriel’s people. We lacked only an Argonian and Orsimer to make the experiment complete. Urag gro-Shub, the college’s librarian, was an Orc, but he had refused to join us.

Judging by how I felt, I thought the Bretons must have the lowest tolerance for drink. A glance at Colette Marence, a Breton scholar emphasizing Restoration magic, confirmed my suspicion. She was swaying where she stood even more than I. Maybe Onmund was right, and my Nord side was helping in some way. But Onmund was a Nord, and he was growing louder as the bottle made its rounds, so maybe that wasn’t true either. The only one not affected was Enthir, helped no doubt by his Bosmer’s natural resistance to poison.

Clearly, Khajiits had no such tolerance – J’zargo was becoming almost as animated as Onmund. “This capacity to hold one’s drink is so trivial,” he said, his tail lashing back and forth behind him. “More important for those of us who aspire to greatness is magical capacity, no? And you shall see, none shall surpass J’zargo.”

“Nitwit,” said Nirya, the Altmer scholar. Like Faralda, her fellow High Elf, she had sharp features and a superior air. “No doubt your scant magical ability is very impressive in Elsweyr, but such bragging among true mages is unseemly.”

“Tell us, Nirya,” said the Cyrodiilian, Sergius Turrianus, “who are the true mages?” As a wizard, Sergius was the most senior of our group, a chaperone of sorts. His tone was notably frosty.

“Why, Sergius,” said Nirya with even greater contempt, “it is well known that the Altmer are the most advanced in the arcane arts. Our greater magical power alone puts us far ahead, certainly far beyond a mere Imperial with no innate magical ability. No, only the Bretons can challenge the Altmer in magical prowess.”

Brelyna, the Dunmer apprentice, cleared her throat. Her red eyes shown even brighter than usual in the firelight. “My family expects me to do well in Alteration, but I…”

Colette broke in, her speech mildly slurred, glaring at Nirya. “It ish true that you High Elves begin with a larger reserve of magical power, but anyone can increase their magicka through diligent training. If you focushed on improving your skills rather than striving for position in the college, the rest of us would not be shurpathing you now.”

“Dear Colette,” retorted Nirya, “I’ve always wondered, does the Breton’s natural resistance to magic mean that you have a greater resistance to learning magic? How else to explain your choice to focus on Restoration, the meanest and least useful of all the arcane arts?”

After a month at the college I had grown used to such bickering. While it was true the College of Winterhold was open to all of Tamriel’s races and remained neutral in its wars, political and racial enmities were never far beneath the surface. That had been driven home to me on the day I arrived at the college. Two days before, I had been fighting Altmer justiciars, and who did I find guarding the college’s entrance but another Altmer? Perhaps I was just being excessively cautious, but I assumed she was watching for me. Somehow the Thalmor must have gotten a message here ahead of me, I thought. I went back to the Frozen Hearth Inn in the town of Winterhold, and found that the college always posted a guard at the entrance. The arch-mage claimed this was to keep innocent bystanders from wandering onto the grounds and getting hurt. The villagers thought the real purpose was to defend the college from attack by the villagers themselves.

A divide between town and robe was common in any college community, but the split in Winterhold was extreme, symbolized by the crumbling bridge spanning a thousand-foot chasm between the town and the college. Everywhere I went in the village the people complained bitterly about the school, blaming a mysterious magical experiment for the catastrophe that had befallen Winterhold sixty years before. Prior to the disaster, the city had been one of the largest and most prosperous in Skyrim. Now, it was a small collection of houses and a few shops perched at the edge of a precipice above the Sea of Ghosts. Somehow the college had weathered the cataclysm better than the much-reduced city, giving rise to vicious speculation. Arch-Mage Savos Aren had tried to convince the townspeople that the college had nothing to do with the cataclysm. Perhaps it was a natural disaster, he told them, an after-effect of the eruption of the Red Mountain in neighboring Morrowind at the beginning of the era. But few had believed him, and the arch-mage had limited communication between town and college after a particularly nasty altercation.

I returned to the college entrance still with trepidation in my heart. But Faralda showed no sign of outward hostility other than the usual tone of elven superiority. She was taller than I, so it was hard for her to look at me without looking down her prominent, aquiline nose. Her pointed chin jutted toward me like a dagger.

When she learned I wanted to study magic, she gave me a test. After three tries I was able to produce a feeble jet of sparks, so she grudgingly allowed me entrance. “I hope you do well at our college,” she said as she led me across the narrow, crumbling bridge, “though I doubt you will.”

Things improved when I met Mirabelle Ervine, the college’s master-wizard and a fellow Breton. Savos Aren was constantly busy with his magical research, so Mirabelle saw to the college’s day-to-day operations. She seemed stern, and especially concerned to guard against further taints on the college’s reputation. But beneath her school master’s demeanor and cultured Wayrest accent, she reminded me of my mother. She had the same dark hair, and she was around the same age.

First, Mirabelle gave me a tour of the college. It formed a walled circle, with three circular towers arranged around it. Two dormitory towers stood on either side of the entrance, with the main tower directly opposite. This larger tower contained the Hall of the Elements, where most of the classes and practice sessions were held; the Arcanaeum, the college’s well-stocked library; and the arch-mage’s quarters. Then she showed me my cell in the Hall of Attainment. It was small, with a single bed, a chair and a dresser. Still, compared to the floor in Arcadia’s back room, this looked luxurious.

Finally, she handed me a new set of novice mage’s robes and hood. The clothing was enchanted to add to the new mage’s store of magicka and cunningly fashioned with many pockets and folds to store potion flasks, scrolls, and other magical items. Once I put them on, I felt I really was about to begin a new phase of my life.

After the introduction to the college, Mirabelle took me to my first class in the Hall of the Elements. This was a large, round chamber with tall windows and a sort of well in the center emitting a blue light. The class was already underway. Tolfdir, an Elder Nord wizard of Alteration, was leading J’zargo, Onmund, and Brelyna in a series of concentration exercises. His voice sounded like dry paper, but his dark eyes were full of energy. His face was gaunt, with deep-worn wrinkles like the grain of well polished wood.

When Tolfdir noticed me, he took time out to welcome me and explain the technique of concentration that was vital to casting any spell. We weren’t just learning words, he said, we were channeling the power of Aetherius, the immortal plane. “The source of magic is inherently unstable, and dangerous. That’s why it takes years of practice to master and control it.”

Behind him, I could see my fellow students rolling their eyes. They had been doing nothing but these exercises for the past week, and were close to open rebellion. I couldn’t blame them. After only an hour of “projecting our minds into Aetherius,” as Tolfdir called it, my old restlessness was coming back. I wondered how long it would be before I could go off exploring on my own.

Finally, as Tolfdir was about to introduce a new breathing exercise, Onmund spoke up. “We’ve been here a week and you haven’t even let us show you what we can do!” he exclaimed.

Brelyna and J’zargo spoke up in agreement. “It is time J’zargo demonstrated his greatness,” J’zargo said. Like all the cat-people of Elsweyr, the Khajiit spoke with a seductive purr in his voice.

“And what about our newcomer?” asked Tolfdir.

“I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to learn something practical,” I said. Maybe we could at least move around if we practiced spell casting, I thought.

“Very well then, I’ll teach you a spell that is both practical and will help keep you safe,” the wizard said. “Are you all familiar with the lesser ward spell?”

We shook our heads, and he spent a few moments teaching us the simple incantation and the proper method for casting it.

“Now, Deirdre, why don’t you stand over there and try casting the ward while I hit you with a flame spell?”

“This one thinks it is unfair!” protested the Khajiit, as if being blasted with flame were a rare treat. “J’zargo and these two have been here a week, why should this one be first?”

“Now, now,” said Tolfdir, “we don’t want to be unwelcoming to our new student, do we?” J’zargo grumbled, but grudgingly went over to stand with the other students behind Tolfdir.

“Over there, Deirdre, facing me,” the old wizard directed. “Now cast the spell, and be prepared to block my flame.”

I let the words of the incantation run through my mind, at the same time trying to concentrate on the energies of Aetherius, beyond the veil of Oblivion. I tried not to let doubts creep into my mind, but how could they not, when I wasn’t even sure what Aetherius was? “The source of all magical power,” Tolfdir had called it. How would I know I was tapping into it?

The answer came when I felt energy flowing into my hands. I held them out in front of me in the way Tolfdir had demonstrated, aiming directly at him. A blue, shimmering, transparent wall formed around my hands, growing larger and brighter as I continued casting it. Tolfdir cast his flame spell, and the jet of fire hit the magic shield. It spread out in an orange wall matching the shield’s blue one, but it could not get at me. Finally, sensing that my magicka was weakening, Tolfdir relented and both our spells flickered out at the same time.

“Very good!” exclaimed Tolfdir. “That was an excellent ward for a first attempt.” I looked at my hands, surprised at the power that had come from them and expecting to see some sort of change. But they were just my hands.

The other students were eager to try, and soon we were casting jets of ice and wards at each other. Tolfdir had brought plenty of magicka potions so we didn’t have to wait for our own reserves to regenerate. He had healing potions too, for the inevitable mishaps. To my own surprise and the consternation of my fellow students, I was the only one who didn’t need healing by the end.

At the end of the day, Mirabelle pulled me aside. “How did your first lessons go?” she asked. We were on the walkway between the Hall of Elements and the Hall of Attainment where I had my cell.

“As well as could be expected, I suppose,” I said. In truth, it had been better than that. I told her about the day.

“Outstanding!” she said. “You clearly have a strong innate ability.”

“Thank you, ma’am, but I don’t think I made any friends among my fellow apprentices.” The three had pointedly walked out of the hall without acknowledging my presence after practice was over.

“They’ll warm up to you. We’re all about sharing knowledge here. If you can help them by sharing your knowledge and advice, I’m sure they’ll come around. Tell me, how did your magical prowess first present itself?”

I gave her a shortened version of the account I had given Gerdur and Ralof. She looked at me with increasing concern as the story progressed, but she became thoughtful when I got to the part where my magic exploded out of me, casting Osmer away.

“The ignorance of these Nords is astounding,” she said, sounding not so much contemptuous as angry at their treatment of me and my family. “It’s good that you’ve come to study here. You’re around people who understand magic now, and you’ll never need to fear that kind of ignorant bigotry again. You’ll learn to control your magic. Such accidents are common when young mages first discover their power. Except…”

“Except?” I prompted.

“When you pushed Osmer away from you, did you feel the power flowing through your hands?”

I pretended to think back, but I didn’t really need to. The moment was etched in my memory. “No,” I said. “I had my hands on his chest pushing him away, but I wasn’t strong enough. When I shouted ‘No!’ at him, it was as if the word itself pushed him away.”

She looked at me for several moments then, searching my face for the truth of what had happened that day. Her eyes were gray and showed a keen sense of judgment. I felt she was somehow measuring what I was made of. Then she seemed to come to a decision, saying, “Well, magic presents itself in all sorts of ways, and none of us can predict how it will first appear. Just keep working on the exercises Tolfdir assigns you, and accidents like that won’t happen in future.” Her voice sounded certain, but her expression was still perplexed. It was clear that she had as many questions about my powers as did I.

 

*~*~*

 

If my magical power had provoked fear in those around me before I came to the college, now it provoked envy. Winterhold was a seething bed of petty jealousies, personal striving, and one-upmanship.

The rivalry was bad enough among my fellow students, especially Brelyna and J’zargo, who viewed me as an interloper after that first day. And how could they not? They had been at the school longer, yet I matched them or even bested them in those first exercises. Our relations were not helped by J’zargo’s inflated sense of his own skill, nor by Brelyna’s diminished one. While J’zargo thought he could tackle expert level Destruction spells before mastering the novice ones, Brelyna struggled to learn the most basic Alteration spells, even though she was quickly mastering Destruction. Back home in Morrowind she had developed some sort of block to her magical powers. She had come to the college in hopes of overcoming it, only to find continued frustration. When I asked her about it, she dismissed my concern. But I could see that her parents had placed enormous pressure on her to succeed, since she came from a long line of wizard-lords from house Telvanni.

With this rough beginning, it took me the better part of three weeks to win their trust. Only Onmund, always so chipper and optimistic, seemed undisturbed by my sudden arrival. “More people to practice spells on,” he explained. He was so glad to be away from his magic-fearing family that anything that happened at the college seemed an improvement.

Relations were worse among our superiors. Nirya and Faralda, the two High Elves, both thought they were next in line to be named arch-mage. We would often hear Faralda muttering that the college was due for a change in leadership. The facts that Faralda was not even a master-wizard and Nirya just a lowly scholar, one step above us apprentices, didn’t keep them from plotting against each other or their colleagues. There were many stories of delicate experiments being tampered with, and Colette Marence, the Restoration scholar, complained constantly about her research materials being stolen. Arch-Mage Savos Aren seemed content to let things go on this way, apparently believing that a healthy climate of competition was good for the school. I found it odd that Mirabelle, who could seem so stern at times, let the petty infighting continue, especially when so much of it was aimed at her job.

To the surprise of everyone, I chose to focus my studies on Restoration and Illusion. The others thought Destruction magic was the obvious choice. But I already had significant skill in stealth, and the Illusion spells could make me nearly undetectable once I became an expert. They could also be used to calm or frighten an opponent into submission. And learning healing magic was the main reason I was here. With the right skills, I hoped to fulfill my vow to never kill again while making my way through this dangerous land. Even if I didn’t join the Stormcloak rebellion, I doubted I could avoid the agents of the Aldmeri Dominion forever.

Colette was thrilled with my choice of Restoration, since so few chose to study it in depth. Drevis Neloran, the Illusion master, was nearly as glad, but he gave me a word of warning. “You realize, don’t you, that Illusion can be a very powerful weapon, but it won’t work on undead until you reach the highest levels?”

I shook my head.

“And on the machines left by the Dwemer, it won’t work at all?”

Again I shook my head, but assured him that since I wasn’t planning on exploring any ancient crypts or Dwemer ruins, this wouldn’t be a problem. He seemed satisfied, though he did look at me oddly as he shook my hand to welcome me under his tutelage.

Our days consisted of practice with various spells and incantations. My fellow students would blast each other with Destruction spells, their orange firebolts, white ice spikes, and silvery forks of lightning darting about the Hall of the Elements. When their wards failed, I would heal them with a Restoration spell, and when their tempers flared I would calm them with an Illusion spell. The wizards were available to teach us new spells or provide spell tomes – for a fee. As we advanced, we learned dual-casting, using both hands to make a particular spell more intense. The college also provided magical staves for practice. It took some time to learn the trick of bending a staff to our will, but once we managed it we could draw on the staff’s connection to the power of Aetherius, saving our own magicka.

Yet I recoiled from using staves – they were powered with soul gems, which I found disturbing. To charge a soul gem, the mage had to kill an animal and collect its soul in the gem. The energy of that soul could then be used to energize a magical staff. I had no trouble with hunting for food, yet I found the idea of killing an animal just to harvest its soul disgusting. And, of course, the dark art of harvesting a human soul in a black soul gem was banned. I decided to stick with channeling the power of Aetherius; it seemed cleaner somehow.

In addition to practice on the college grounds, I roamed the forest and mountains around Winterhold, looking for targets for my Illusion and Restoration spells. If a woodcutter had injured himself with an axe, I was there to heal the wound. If I came across a pack of wolves, common in these frozen mountains, I would use a calming spell on them, rather than simply sneaking by. I had always admired wolves from afar – the way they worked together on the hunt, and the way they played together between kills. But with calming spells, I could get much closer. Once I aimed the blue ball of Aetherial energy at them, they would become as docile as lapdogs. I even petted one, amazed by the softness of its thick winter coat. Its eyes were piercing, but when calmed had none of the fierce malice I associated with the beasts. It licked my face for a moment, then bounded back to its companions. I wished I belonged to a pack as close as that.

Yet, slowly, the college was becoming my pack. Mirabelle took me under her wing, inviting me to weekly tea. “We Bretons need to stick together,” she told me. The tea was fine – an excellent mint grown near Riften – and the conversation better. I enjoyed her stories of High Rock. I had only been as far as Jehanna, my mother’s home town, but Mirabelle had traveled all over the province. She knew Wayrest best, having grown up there, but she also had stories of Daggerfall, Shornhelm, and Evermore. She had even seen the Adamantine Tower, the oldest structure in all of Tamriel. And she would ask me about my mother, and what stories I remembered her telling about Jehanna. It felt good to talk about her, even if it made me sad. I had never felt so in touch with my Breton side.

My fellow apprentices slowly came to accept me as well. Though we all had different backgrounds, we shared the common bond of being the lowest mages in the pecking order. We struggled together in those first weeks, even as I gradually surpassed the rest, and we soon began to rely on one another.

First, I helped Brelyna get over her block with Alteration by letting her cast spells on me. This led to a variety of mishaps. Once, I ended up viewing everything through a green haze. It took several hours for that to wear off. Then she transformed me, first into a cow, then a horse, and finally a dog. Her face, usually a rich, deep gray, became paler with each mistake until it was almost ashen. It was quite unpleasant sitting there on all fours, feeling fleas bite through my thick hair, resisting the urge to urinate on one of the hall’s columns, and wondering whether Brelyna was going to faint before getting the spell right. But finally she put me back to my true form, apologizing profusely.

“Thank you,” she said. “This has been helpful. At least now I know where I need to focus my studies.”

Brelyna helped me with my own tasks in return. She was a good subject for my Illusion spells. When she was feeling particularly anxious about the progress of her studies, a spell of calming improved her mood greatly. In a relaxed state, she was able to absorb lessons more easily, and she finally began to progress in her study of Alteration.

Onmund needed help of an entirely different order. Despite all his complaints about his magic-fearing family, he had underestimated their importance in his life. He had foolishly traded away an heirloom amulet to Enthir – for what, he seemed too embarrassed to admit. He begged me to intercede with the elf and get the amulet back.

But Enthir remained adamant in his refusal. “All trades are final,” he said. He made it sound like a point of honor that he never reversed a deal. I tried persuading him, then bribing him, with no success. Finally, he came up with his own deal for me. If I retrieved a staff that he had lost in a foolish trade, he would give me the amulet. When I protested that this violated his own precept of the finality of trades, he chided me for my lack of subtlety.

“I suppose I shouldn’t expect a mere apprentice to recognize the obvious differences in the two cases,” he said.

“Fine,” I replied. “Who has this staff?”

“Oh, just a group of necromancers in Whispering Grotto,” he said.

When I returned with the staff early the next day, Enthir seemed surprised to see me. “I didn’t expect you back so soon – or at all,” he said. “How did you overcome the necromancers and their thralls?”

“They never knew I was there,” I said. “Never underestimate the arts of the common thief.”

“Well done,” he said. “I thank you most sincerely.”

“Now what about the amulet?” I reminded him.

“Ah yes, of course,” he said grudgingly. “A deal is a deal after all,” and he handed me a rather plain looking amulet. “I can’t imagine why the boy cares about it so much.”

Onmund was glad to get it back, as plain as it was. “They’re not perfect, but they are my family after all,” he said. “This is all I have to remember them by. Thank you for retrieving it for me.” He still wouldn’t tell me what he had traded it for, but he did offer me help if I ever needed it.

The Khajiit had his own favor to ask. “This one advances rapidly in his magical training. Developing new spells is a good way to progress, no? The problem is, J’zargo spends so much time developing spells for use on the undead, he has no time to find undead and test them. This is where you can help. J’zargo will give you scrolls, you find undead and try them. That way you get new spell, and J’zargo’s methods are proven. It is win-win, yes?”

“We’ll see about that,” I said. “What’s the spell?”

The Khajiit wrinkled his nose in that way he had. “It is a flame cloak,” he said, handing me a bundle of scrolls. “It works just like a common flame cloak, but when undead come near, they get big surprise.” I’d seen Onmund perform the flame cloak spell. It set a cloak of fire around the caster. Any enemies who came within fighting range received burns, freeing the spellcaster to wield a weapon or a shield. I wondered what the surprise was, but J’zargo wouldn’t elaborate.

“Great, J’zargo,” I said. “Next time I’m in a Nord crypt, I’ll make sure to use it.” I laughed, because I didn’t plan on going into a crypt any time soon, even if I knew where to find one. I still remembered the way Ralof shuddered when he looked up at Bleak Falls Barrow.

 

*~*~*

 

Four weeks had passed quickly at the college. I had made friends among my fellow students and had advanced considerably in my magical abilities. I knew a range of Restoration and Illusion spells from novice to adept, and had increased my reserves of magicka enough to cast them with ease. Tolfdir’s concentration exercises seemed to be working, because I had greater control over my magical powers, casting spells consistently and with precision. Gone were the days when I struggled to produce a simple flame or jet of sparks.

Yet I seemed no closer to solving the mystery of what had happened on that day with Osmer. I was born with innate magical power, true, but this was nothing extraordinary at the college. Other students could tell of awkward moments when their magic had burst out of them unbidden, before they learned to control it. But in their telling, it had always been one of the elemental forms of magic – fire, ice, or lightning. None had simply uttered a word to produce such a powerful effect. And if Mirabelle Ervine had developed any ideas about the source of my power, she hadn’t told me.

Nor was I any closer to deciding what to do with my new-found powers. The college remained sheltered from events in the rest of Skyrim. Was the Civil War raging, unbeknownst to us? Surely we would have heard something if that were the case. I wondered what had become of Ralof. And had Jarl Balgruuf sided with the Empire? The presence of Thalmor justiciars in his city made it seem likely. Could Lydia and Hrongar and their hirth-fellows be fighting Ralof’s war-band even now? If it came to it, how could I choose between them?

And I had other, darker thoughts. Though many Nords had shown me nothing but kindness over the past weeks, I could not forget my old plans for revenge. At odd moments, I would find that anger welling up within me. Waking or sleeping, images of our burning house would flash before my eyes, and worse, the charred corpses that had been my parents as our neighbors hauled them out of the wreckage. How had I so easily turned aside from my vengeance?

As I tried to stifle my rage, I told myself that I had been right to abandon my plans for indiscriminate revenge. But my parents’ killers were still free, no doubt going about their business in Dragon Bridge. I began to have thoughts of leaving the college and traveling there. I had come here for power, and now I had it, or at least a measure of it. Though I hadn’t focused on Destruction, I could do enough with ice and lightning to make the killers hurt. And with my Illusion spells I could strike fear in their hearts, or set them to attacking each other. Soon, I would return home and give those ignorant Nords a true reason to fear magic.

And what then? I struggled with this question, trying to master the irrational fury that had settled upon me, as if from nowhere. Would I kill them outright? But I had had enough of death, hadn’t I? That’s what I told myself in my calmer moments. Or capture them, and turn them over … to whom? The jarl of Haafingar Hold? What help could I find there?

“You’re awfully quiet, Deirdre,” Sergius said now around the bonfire. “Yet as a Breton, you’ve done well in your studies, from the reports I hear. Don’t you have an opinion on which race is the most magical?”

“I’ve always found a moons-lit night quite magical,” I replied. Onmund guffawed at my feeble joke, so I knew he must be drunk. “But if you mean magical power, why bother talking about it? So many things can affect it other than innate ability. Look at Tolfdir. He was born a Nord, yet he is one of the most advanced Alteration wizards in Tamriel.”

“A doddering fool,” I thought I heard Nirya say under her breath, but I let it go.

“Why waste words on speculation, when actions are the true measure of a mage?” I finished.

“The proof is in the casting, eh?” Sergius replied. “Well spoken indeed.”

“Aren’t we all here to learn?” said Onmund. “I’m just glad to be here and improve what small magical ability I have. “

Just then Mirabelle Ervine emerged from the Hall of the Elements. The statue of Shalidor glared down at her as she walked over to us. The sculptor had cast the famous First Era arch-mage in a serious pose, arms upraised, an expression of con­cen­tra­tion on his face, his robes blowing in an imagined wind. He looked as if he were about to blast Mirabelle with a whirlwind spell.

“Relaxing after a hard week I see,” she said as she came up to us. “You apprentices have earned it. Sergius, see that they don’t wander down into town. Our reputation is already bad enough without drunken mages disturbing the villagers’ sleep. And remember, students – inebriation is allowed; incineration is not.” With that she continued along the walkway bisecting the circular courtyard and entered the Hall of Countenance, the dormitory where most of the instructors had their chambers.

“She really cares about us, doesn’t she?” said Brelyna. “I wish I could be more like her. I bet she never had any trouble learning these basic spells.”

“Did you hear her arguing with Ancano?” asked Onmund. We all shook our heads. “I was walking past her chambers yesterday. Ancano had made some sort of request but I didn’t hear what it was. He seemed upset that Mirabelle had refused him. Then she told him that he might be used to the Empire bowing to his every whim, but the Thalmor receive no special treatment here. She said he should appreciate the opportunity Savos Aren has given him.”

“I don’t like the way he looks at me,” said Brelyna. “I don’t think he trusts any of us. Why did the arch-mage invite him here?”

Ancano was a Thalmor wizard, ostensibly here to promote relations with the college and advise the arch-mage. Everyone suspected he was simply a spy for the Aldmeri Dominion, sent here to watch for signs that the college was siding with the Stormcloaks. If he was able to gauge the strength of the college’s wizards and learn some of its secrets, all the better. I had kept away from him since arriving. It seemed just a matter of time until he heard from his Thalmor colleagues about the blonde half-Breton who had interrupted Thalmor war plans, so it was best to avoid him. But he seemed to be everywhere at the college, always popping up whenever anything of import happened.

“I wonder if he was asking for access to the basement,” said Sergius. “He could learn a thing or two from the Augur of Dunlain.”

“The who?” asked J’zargo, and we all looked at Sergius.

“Oh, just a wizard who likes to keep to himself,” said Sergius. He seemed relieved when Nirya interrupted him.

“I don’t know why you distrust Ancano,” she said. “The war is long over. He just wants to help the people of Skyrim through this time of transition and lead them to a better future.” Nirya might not have been a Thalmor agent, but sometimes she surely sounded like one.

“A future without Talos worship, you mean,” said Onmund.

I took that as my cue to leave. I didn’t want to get into a debate about Skyrim’s politics.

Instead of continuing with his argument, Onmund followed me from the courtyard and joined me on the circular walk around the perimeter of the college. It was often deserted since it was the longest route to anywhere else. We had the walk to ourselves.

“Deirdre, is anything wrong?” Onmund put a hand on my arm as he caught up to me. I stopped and looked at him. His eyes, though bleary with drink, showed concern. He had that slight frown he always had when he was nervous.

“No, I just didn’t want to get pulled into an argument about the war or religion,” I said.

I thought he would argue with me then, questioning my loyalty as a Nord, but he didn’t. “You’re right,” he said. “We shouldn’t be arguing with each other about the world outside. We should be working together to further our study of magic. I shouldn’t have let Nirya provoke me.”

“I can see how she would provoke you, with that superior attitude of hers.”

“I’m glad she’s not one of us apprentices,” he said. “Brelyna is all right, but those Altmer are so condescending.”

“They are,” I agreed.

“I mean, I’m glad we apprentices have all become friends. Especially you, you’ve helped me a lot.”

“Well, you helped me too. You let me practice that fury spell on you.” That had been a bit of a disaster. My spell worked too well, and Onmund’s ward failed to block it. The next thing we knew, he was attacking J’zargo, who happened to be nearest to him. Taken by surprise, the Khajiit couldn’t cast a ward in time to block the Nord’s fire spell. The smell of singed fur filled the air as they began to trade Destruction spells. Both of them had taken several wounds by the time I could cast calming spells on them, and we had to call on Colette to heal them.

“That didn’t work out so well, did it?” Onmund said now, grinning. “Still, you got to show what you can do with an Illusion spell, and we’re all friends again, right?”

“I suppose so,” I said.

“And maybe some of us are more than friends,” he said.

“Why…” I asked, “are you saying J’zargo and Brelyna, or you and Brelyna…?”

“No.” And then he was kissing me, his arms wrapped around me, nearly lifting me off my feet. To my surprise, I found myself kissing him back. Maybe it was the fire brandy – my head was still spinning. But his mouth felt … nice. He was one of the few Nord men who didn’t wear a beard, and he had shaved meticulously. There was none of that awful scratchiness I’d experienced with Osmer. His arms encircling me were strong, but I felt protected, not imprisoned. I kissed him back, and then everything was spinning and I felt myself tilting backward. Onmund barely caught us by throwing a hand out against the wall.

Then I realized that it wasn’t just my head spinning – my stomach was too. I pulled away from him and turned and retched on the cobblestones. It was my first experience with hard liquor. I had seen drunks in Dragon Bridge emerging from the Four Shields Tavern to empty their bellies in a dark alley, and I had vowed never to become that inebriated, if I ever started drinking at all. It hadn’t taken much to put me in the same state. Onmund stroked my hair as I brought up the last of the brandy.

“Come on, let’s get you to bed,” he said.

“Right, bed, tha’s what I need,” I said, and I tried not to think what else might happen when he got me back to my room.

In truth, there wasn’t much privacy at the college. The doorways to our cells were all open, and the other apprentices were returning from the bonfire, the scholars heading up the stairs to their chambers. When Onmund put the covers over me, patted me on the shoulder and said good night, I didn’t know whether I was disappointed or relieved.

Categories
Fiction Song of Deirdre

The Song of Deirdre – Chapter 6

 

Swindler’s Den

 

Lydia stepped back, her hands raised.
Lydia stepped back, her hands raised.

Lydia took a step back, her hands up. “Deirdre, it’s only me! What’s the matter?”

I still hadn’t put away the dagger. I held it in front of me, aimed at her chest. “You’ve been following me. This is the third time you’ve taken me by surprise today.”

“No, really, I just didn’t see you there. I must have been walking too fast, and not watching where I was going. I was looking at the stars, to tell you the truth.”

“Then what about that dart?”

“Dart? What are you talking about?” If Lydia’s surprise and confusion were feigned, then she had missed her calling as a traveling mummer. And she couldn’t have shot the dart at me because she was coming from the wrong direction. I lowered the dagger.

“Well, where are you headed so fast?” I demanded. “You seem to be taking the long way around if you’re headed back to the barracks.”

“I wanted to stretch my legs a bit before going to my rest. That’s why I was walking so fast. You’re a bit out of your way as well.” She looked at me more closely. I was still breathing hard, she had given me such a shock. “Are you sure you’re all right? Why would anyone be following you? And what was that about a dart?”

I still didn’t know whether I could trust her. I couldn’t see her face very well in the dark, but her voice seemed sincere, full of concern. “Someone fired a dart at me, then chased me. I ran into this alley to get away from him.”

“Who?” she demanded. “Who did this? Where did he go?”

“I don’t know. Maybe he went away when he saw you coming.”

She looked up and down the street. “Whoever it was, he seems to be gone now,” she said. “Let me walk you home. Or should we report this to the guard?”

I put away my dagger. “Let’s not involve the guards, I’m worried they … Lydia, do you think the jarl would have me followed because he thinks I’m with the Stormcloaks?”

“Jarl Balgruuf?” She pondered this for a moment as we began walking back to Arcadia’s. “I’m just a soldier, but I don’t think the jarl supports the Empire that much. There are many Stormcloak sympathizers here. Out of all of them, why would he have you followed? And even if he did have you watched, he wouldn’t try to kill you.”

“It was a dart,” I reminded her. We were passing through the plaza now. I went over to the bench and pulled it out. It was feathered, with an inch-long tip. “I bet there’s some sort of sleeping potion on it. Maybe Arcadia can identify it.”

“Jarl Balgruuf wouldn’t do that either,” Lydia said. “If he wanted to bring you in, he’d just have the guards arrest you.”

We arrived at Arcadia’s and I thanked her for accompanying me as she turned to head back to the barracks.

It was long before I fell asleep that night. Ignoring my followers had seemed the wisest course, but now they had turned hostile. What had I done to provoke them? Was it my conversation with Saadia? Could the Redguards be involved? But if they were, hadn’t I just led them directly to her? Why would they attack me over that? And why did Lydia just happen upon me right after the incident? It was toward morning before I finally fell asleep, the questions still roiling my head.

 

*~*~*

 

The next morning, Arcadia needed more tundra cotton so I headed out to the plains west of the city. I took no chances after the previous night. I wore my light armor and slung my bow and quiver (outfitted with newly purchased steel arrows) over my shoulder. My sword dangled at my hip. In my collecting satchel I had two vials of fear poison that should send any attackers running. I didn’t think they would approach me in broad daylight, and I felt better about facing them in the countryside than in the narrow city passages. It was my homeground.

The watchers were there, as I expected, but they kept their distance as usual. I gave no sign that I noticed them and went about my business. Maybe last night’s adventure had been the work of a mere thief, I thought. It was another lovely day, with a soft breeze rustling the tundra grasses and the scent of the heather pungent in the air. The snow-covered mountains across the plain glinted in the sun. I picked a few blaeberries and enjoyed their tartness, trying to forget my trouble.

It was around mid-day when Kematu came riding up on a handsome black courser. It was the most beautiful horse I’d ever seen. The trailing ends of the Redguard’s turban billowed out behind him as he approached.

Wonderful, I thought. Why wouldn’t these people let me go about my business? He looked surprised when I notched an arrow and leveled it at his chest.

“Well met, young lady,” he said as he brought his horse to a halt. “Have I done something to offend you?”

 If last night’s altercation had anything to do with my conversations with the Redguards, it wouldn’t do to be seen talking to this one now. At least I could make it look as if I wanted him to go away. “Stay away from me!” I shouted, though my watcher was probably too far away to hear.

“I merely wanted to ask if you had thought about what I said at the gate yesterday. I will gladly give you more information here where we won’t be overheard.”

Keeping my voice low, I said, “Someone attacked me last night. I think it had something to do with you Redguards. I want you to stay away from me.”

“Ah, more evidence that Iman is indeed in Whiterun. What name is she going by now? Saadia? Zhaheera? Her friends in Skyrim will do much to protect her.”

“I warn you we are being watched from a distance even now,” I said. “I told you, I can’t be seen with you. Now go away.”

He backed his horse off a yard or two, as if making ready to leave. “I know you would aid us if only you would hear me out,” he said. “Iman is about to do something that threatens the lives of thousands of our people. She is in league with the Aldmeri Dominion. Come to our camp tonight, if you think you can elude your watchers. We are at Swindler’s Den, just west of here. Can you find it?”

“I can, but don’t expect me.” Swindler’s Den had an evil reputation. Why were the Alik’r holed up there?

“I expect nothing, but I will still hope. Remember, thousands of innocent lives rest on your decision. Farewell for now.”

“Wait. I have to make a good showing for my watcher.” I fired an arrow just over his head, then quickly notched another one. “Leave me alone!” I shouted. His horse shied, then horse and rider wheeled and bolted away. I hoped the watchers would believe I had rejected the Alik’r’s questioning.

I returned to Whiterun at mid-day, my mind still wracked with indecision. Was Kematu telling the truth? He seemed sincere, yet how could I trust him? My instincts told me he was just what he seemed: a soldier on a mission. At the same time, Saadia was clearly more than she appeared. The woman who had put a knife to my throat was neither a simple barmaid nor a noble gentlewoman. But could she be this Iman Kematu spoke of?

It wouldn’t hurt to hear Kematu out, I told myself. But if I was followed to his camp… If I would do this, I must do it secretly, sneaking out of Whiterun while my watchers thought I was asleep at Arcadia’s. It could be done, but it was a risk.

 

*~*~*

 

That evening I waited in the shop for Arcadia to return from the Bannered Mare. When I heard her on the steps I drank a potion of invisibility, then slipped silently past her as she opened the door. To my watchers it would appear that Arcadia had come home while I remained inside. I had twenty seconds of invisibility to slink around the corner and away.

Once outside the city, I doubled back on my tracks several times to make sure I wasn’t being followed. When I was sure I was alone, I set out westward for Swindler’s Den. It was a beautiful moons-lit night. Both Masser and Secunda, Tamriel’s twin moons, were full, so there was plenty of light by which to make my way. Here and there the moons-light glinted off ripples in the tundra’s pools. It was quiet, the only sounds the breath of the wind, a few crickets, and the occasional music of water tumbling over stones when I passed a rill. The evening was warm, so the luna moths were out, their wings glowing white in the silver light. It was magical. I almost forgot I was on my way to the most notorious thieves’ den in all of Whiterun Hold.

As I approached the cave entrance, I was disappointed not to see the Alik’r warriors I’d come to meet. Instead, the entrance was guarded by a single Nord wearing the bits of mismatched low-grade armor that marked him as a common bandit. I crept up behind him, thought “You’re dead,” then stole past him into the cave.

Inside, the cavern seemed to go on and on. Narrow passages led to lower and lower levels, each with a wide chamber containing two or three bandits. Some played at cards, while others were sleeping on mats – or passed out from drink, more likely. I crept past them all. Finally, the passageway entered a long, narrow pool of water. Seeing no other way to go deeper into the cave, I stepped in, the water rising to my thighs. Ahead, a waterfall fell like a curtain over the passage. As I approached it, I could see light from many torches in the chamber behind and heard the sound of voices muffled by the falling water. Well, I thought, in for a septim, in for a drake, as they say. I sank into the water and pushed myself underneath the fall. I came up with just the top of my head and eyes out of the water at the edge of the falls. I hoped my hood would help me blend into the darkness.

I counted two dozen Alik’r warriors in the chamber. It’s not too late to turn back, I told myself. But curiosity got the better of me and I stepped out of the pool into the light of the torches. The Alik’r responded as if stung, shouting and grabbing for their scimitars. I saw Kematu standing at their center. He had doffed his turban. His skull was shaved close on the sides, leaving a shock of thick ropy hair in the style the Redguards favored running in a black stripe down the center. It gave him a fierce look. I could see why Saadia would be afraid of him, even when he wasn’t surrounded by a band of warriors.

“Kematu, I have come to hear your tale,” I called to him. “Have your warriors sheath their weapons. You’re not afraid of a mere girl, are you?”

The men relaxed and Kematu came over. “I told the thieves guarding the cave to expect you and give you safe passage. What happened to them?”

“They’re still out there. I know thieves too well to just walk right up to them. It seemed best to sneak past them.”

“Very impressive,” he said.

“Not really. They weren’t very attentive. Most thieves aren’t, in my experience. Why have you holed yourselves up with them?”

“They provide cover for us. We arrived here in twos and threes. A large Alik’r war-band would not be welcome in Skyrim.” He handed me a large, thick cloth. “Here, dry yourself and come sit. Would you like a cup of mead?”

When we had settled ourselves, I said, “Now, what are the charges against this Iman, assuming she exists?”

“Young lady, your presence here is proof enough that you know of this Iman. Otherwise, why come at all? I will speak plainly, and I expect you will as well.”

“Fine,” I said. “You go first.”

“Iman is not only a convicted traitor to Hammerfell. She is about to commit an even more heinous act of treason that could result in a renewed war with the Aldmeri Dominion.”

“Go on,” I said.

“In the Great War, when she was little more than a girl, a lass as you would call her, she betrayed her house, her city, and her country by selling secrets to the Thalmor, the ruling party of the Aldmeri Dominion…”

“Yes, I’m familiar with them.”

“Well… Without her betrayal, the city of Taneth could have withstood the Aldmeri forces. Instead, the city fell and it took another five years of bloody conflict to drive the Altmer from our shores. By that time she had taken refuge on Summerset Isle, where no doubt she was richly rewarded.”

“So Hammerfell wants her for treason. Why would she be foolish enough to leave Summerset and come here?”

“Five years ago, she returned to Hammerfell disguised as a servant. She worked her way into the service of one of our highest ranking generals, an officer with detailed knowledge of Hammerfell’s troop positions. She used her feminine wiles to gain entrance to the general’s bedchamber, his most deeply held secrets, and his document chest. She learned much from their pillow talk, and even more from the reports she stole. Armed with that knowledge, the Altmer may be emboldened to attack us at our weakest points, where thousands of our citizens are vulnerable. It’s been twenty years since our part in the Great War ended. Peace, harmony, and prosperity have been restored only recently, and much still needs rebuilding. All of that will be lost and we will be plunged into war once again if she achieves her aims.”

“Why did she come here instead of fleeing directly to Summerset with her secrets?”

“Fortunately, the general had moved to eastern Hammerfell, around Elinhir, before Iman could steal his secrets. Once he found her missing and his chest empty, his guilty conscience led him to report the crime immediately. Her trail was still warm when we began tracking her. All signs pointed to Skyrim. She was clearly hoping to make a quick connection with one of the Thalmor patrols now common here. Fortunately for us, chance was against her and she never made that contact. Then she tried sending messages to her masters in Summerset, but Thalmor field communications are not everything they could be. We intercepted a letter from her indicating that she would wait to be contacted in Whiterun.”

“And what makes you think this contact hasn’t been made by now?”

“We have monitored all of the approaches to Whiterun and have seen no Thalmor movement. Nor have we seen her leaving the city, though that would have been more easily hidden from us. So please, we must know if she remains in the city. If not, we must begin looking elsewhere and I fear our cause is lost.”

I looked at the document Kematu held out for me. It detailed Iman’s crimes and even bore a reasonable likeness of her. Truly, her fate and perhaps that of thousands of innocents rested in my hands. How could I decide?

Then I told Kematu about Saadia, that she had arrived only recently in Whiterun, and that she claimed to be a noble woman who had spoken out against the Aldmeri Dominion, while Kematu and his men were the real agents of the Thalmor.

“Ah, now you see the kind of manipulations she will use,” said Kematu. “But her story makes no sense. The Thalmor want all of Hammerfell dead or enslaved. Why would they go to such trouble for one woman?”

I had to admit the story seemed flimsy. What had she said? That she had spoken out against the Aldmeri Dominion? Such speech must be common in Hammerfell now. “Still,” I told Kematu, “it’s her word against yours, plus this warrant with a seal that means nothing to me. How can I possibly make such a choice? I could easily be sending an innocent woman to her death.”

“Young woman, you need only look in your heart. I believe you are a good judge of character. You trusted your judgment enough to come here and put yourself in my hands. Now think, is this Saadia just what she claims to be, or is there something more hiding behind that façade? And when you look at me, do I seem anything other than what I claim to be, a servant of Hammerfell and my queen?”

He was right, Saadia had shifted from incompetent barmaid to weak victim to a confident woman who was good with a blade, and back to helpless victim, all in a matter of minutes. Kematu’s behavior had been consistent throughout. But maybe that was because he wasn’t the one running in fear of his life.

“All right,” I said. “Hide yourself south of Whiterun after dark this evening. If I decide I can trust you, I will shine a light from the city walls. When you see my signal, make your way to the stables and I will have Saadia, or Iman as you call her, waiting there.”

 

*~*~*

 

It was morning by the time I returned to Whiterun. I stopped by the stables and spoke with the drayman there. When I arrived back at Arcadia’s, my purse was considerably lighter.

In my room I began gathering my things and packing them in my knapsack. If I went through with helping the Alik’r, it would only provoke whoever had attacked me. Besides, it was time I got myself to the college. Then I napped. I had been awake for nearly a whole sun’s turn.

I awakened to the sound of horses’ hooves in the street. They were moving fast, like single mounts, not the draft horses pulling wagons that were common in the Plains District. I looked out Arcadia’s door to see three figures on horseback passing through the market stalls and up the steps to the city’s second level. Two wore the elven armor of Thalmor justiciars and the third looked to be a Thalmor wizard. I pretended to sweep Arcadia’s steps while I watched them disappear out of sight in the direction of Dragonsreach. If they had wanted to announce their presence in Whiterun, they couldn’t have done it more plainly. It appeared that the jarl’s days of holding the Thalmor at arm’s distance were at an end.

I had slept into the early afternoon, but Kematu and his men wouldn’t be in position until nightfall. If Saadia really was an Aldmeri spy, I would have to keep her from them until then, and convince her to come with me to the stables. But how?

I found her in her room in the Bannered Mare. Before she opened the door to me, I thought I heard the sound of pages being stuffed into a satchel. When she let me in I took her by the arm. “The Alik’r have found a way into the city,” I told her, trying to inject as much fear into my voice as possible. “They’re coming for you now. You have to hide in Arcadia’s until tonight, when I can smuggle you out of the city.”

“I can’t leave now, there’s something I must do,” she said, shouldering the satchel. Her voice was quite calm for someone whose life was in danger. “The city guard will just have to protect me from them. What are they going to do, attack me in broad daylight? I’ll meet you at Arcadia’s at nightfall. Will your escape plans hold until then?”

I could only stare at her. Kematu had been right about everything. She had played me like a cheap wooden flute. What am I to say? I was but a seventeen-year-old girl, inexperienced with the wiles of foreign spies.

“Well, are you going to stand there staring, or get out of my way?” she demanded. I stepped aside to let her pass. When she felt the dart pierce her neck, she turned in surprise, grabbing to pull it out. But it was too late. Her eyelids fluttered and she slumped to the floor. Arcadia’s analysis had been correct – the dart was covered in sleeping potion. I dragged her back into her room and closed the door.

I searched Saadia’s satchel. It was full of documents containing information on troop movements in Hammerfell and much else besides. I had prevented her from delivering them to the Thalmor, but now I somehow had to get her unconscious body down to the stables without being seen. Nightfall was still two hours off. I had that much time to devise a plan.

I went downstairs and ordered a cup of nettle tea. I had to think. I wondered if Hulda would miss Saadia, or if the Redguard woman had given an excuse for her absence. And what would the Thalmor do when she didn’t appear at the appointed time? Probably begin looking for her here. I could only hope they had a bit of patience. Then the Gray-Mane brothers came in and I knew what I needed to do.

 

*~*~*

 

Back at the shop that evening, I said my farewells to Arcadia. She loaded my knapsack with a few potions and ingredients for more. Then I shouldered my pack and Saadia’s satchel, grabbed a lantern and opened the back door carefully. If my watchers were about, they were well hidden. Night had fallen by now, but the moons had not yet risen. I kept to the shadows as I crept toward the guard post on the wall. This one was hardly ever guarded, and it proved empty now, perfect for my purpose. Even with the walls enclosing me on two sides, I used a wolf pelt to shield the lantern from the rest of Whiterun. I used a flap of the pelt to alternately cover and uncover the side of the lantern facing south. It would have been much easier to signal the Alik’r with a jet of magical sparks, but I wanted to maintain stealth as long as possible. It took a minute for the Alik’r to respond with their own flash of light.

Back at the Mare, I found a commotion going on inside. Saadia’s limp form lay slumped across a table, the Gray-Mane brothers standing over it. The cook was talking to Hulda. “I found her unconscious like this, stinking of ale.” As well she should, I had doused her with enough of it.

“This is the last straw,” Hulda said.

“Wait,” I called, going up to the table. “Can’t you give her another chance? It was only this once.”

“You were up in her room long enough this afternoon,” said the cook. “What were you doing there?”

“We were just sharing a pint or two. We’re both new here, so we became friends, especially after the way these ruffians treated her. I tried to get her to stop drinking so much, I think she was just upset. But she wouldn’t listen. Finally I left, I couldn’t watch her do that to herself.”

“You’ve got a kind heart, Deirdre,” said Hulda. “But my patience is at an end. Get her out of my sight.” The Gray-Manes lifted her by the arms and began to drag her toward the door.

“What are you doing with her?” I demanded

“We’re going to put her on the next wagon heading out of town,” said Avulstein. “She’ll wake up by the time she gets to Falkreath, then she can make her way back to Hammerfell from there, or plague the people of Falkreath for all I care.”

“I don’t trust you,” I said. “I’m coming with you to make sure she’s not hurt.”

“Whatever you say, lass,” said Thorald. “It’s a fine night for a walk. You’re welcome to join us.”

I opened the door for them, and we walked down the steps, Saadia’s limp feet bumping down the steps behind us.

Stealth was no longer an option. I had considered getting the guards involved in removing Saadia from the city. While there were procedures for deporting foreigners from Skyrim, turning them over to Alik’r warriors wasn’t one of them. Nor did it seem likely that the guards would let two hulking Nords carry an unconscious woman, Redguard or not, through the gate without asking questions. I needed to be with them, and that meant my watchers would see my every move.

“Thorald! Avulstein!” the guards greeted the Gray-Manes. They hardly noticed me. “What’s going on here?”

“Ah, Brond, good to see you,” said Thorald. “This Redguard woman has served her last drink at the Mare. You can see she’s dead drunk. Hulda doesn’t need servants like that, and we’re taking her to the wagon and sending her to the border.”

The other guard chuckled. “I bet you have some other plans for her first, right? A fine-looking woman, Redguard though she be.” Apparently the Nordic laws against molesting women didn’t extend to foreigners.

“That’s why I’m here,” I said. “I knew I couldn’t trust these louts with her. If they lay a hand on her, they’ll answer to me.”

The guard laughed. “You really think you’re a match for these two?”

“We’ll find out, should they dare touch her,” I said.

“I told you, lass,” said Avulstein, “we mean her no harm. We’re just trying to do Hulda a favor.”

“Deporting undesirables is our job, Avulstein,” said Brond. “There are procedures, documentation.”

“Well, it’s your choice, Brond,” Thorald said. “We just thought we’d save you a lot of work with quill and ink. But if you’d rather write reports than share a flagon of ale with us when your shift is done, it’s all the same to me. There’s a mug waiting for me at the Mare right now.”

“Well, if you put it that way…” said Brond.

“Come on, no one cares about a Redguard wench,” put in Avulstein, “except for Deirdre here.”

As the guards opened the gates for us, I heard the sound of footsteps running back up the street toward Dragonsreach.

“Come!” I said to the Gray-Manes when we were through the gate. “We have to move quickly.”

“What’s the hurry? The wagon’s not going anywhere.”

“Don’t argue,” I said. “There’s coin in it for you, but only if we get her to the stables safely.”

We took a shortcut over the battlements that avoided a long loop of road. In another five minutes we were at the stables.

“The wagon’s not here,” Thorald said, puzzled.

“I know,” I said. “Don’t worry. Just bring her up here away from the road.”

As we rounded the stable master’s house, Kematu and two of his warriors stepped out of the shadow of the stables, the light of the newly risen moons turning them into looming silhouettes. The Nords dropped Saadia and drew their axes. “Alik’r!” Thorald exclaimed. “What kind of trick is this?”

“It’s all right,” I said. “Everyone put away your weapons.” The Alik’r had drawn their scimitars. “Thorald, Avulstein, there is more I didn’t tell you. This woman is a Thalmor spy. These Alik’r warriors are here to arrest her and take her home.”

“Alik’r on Skyrim soil,” said Thorald. “It stinks to the Nine.”

“Hammerfell has done what you Nords could not,” said Kematu, sheathing his scimitar. “The Thalmor still walk your lands. A true Nord would never side with them against any who oppose them.”

Thorald lowered his axe and seemed to be pondering this. A true Stormcloak sympathizer, he was sure to hate the Thalmor more than these Alik’r, once the wheels in his mind began turning. That could take a while with a Nord, however.

“Thorald, you may have to make that choice sooner than you think,” I said. “The Thalmor may be on their way here even now. You two need to get out of here before you’re seen with us. Here’s your gold.”

Thorald took the bag I handed him and turned to go, but Avulstein paused. “There’s more about you than I first thought, lass, I’ll hand you that.” Then he followed his brother.

I turned to Kematu. “I’m sorry, we were followed to the gate. If my watchers are in league with the Thalmor, they’re surely on their way here now.”

But I was too late. The two Alik’r warriors were just trying to get Saadia on her feet and I was about to hand her satchel to Kematu when we heard hoof beats on the road. Avulstein and Thorald had just started back up the hill and were the first to encounter the elves, while we remained hidden around the corner of the house and the stables. “We’re looking for the Redguard woman,” I heard one of the elves say. “Where is she?”

“Ain’t seen no Redguards,” came Thorald’s reply.

“We know you brought her here,” said the elf. “Speak, or die.” I peered around the corner of the house to see three Altmer on horseback looming over the Gray-Manes. Three more elves were arriving on foot, as well as a couple of men. Those must be my watchers, I thought. Even in the moons-light they looked familiar. But where had those three additional Altmer come from?

“Let’s see what you’ve got, you stinking elf!” Thorald shouted. Stupid Nord! He and his brother were both brandishing their axes, and the elves had drawn their swords. The Thalmor wizard on horseback dismounted, the better to cast spells. I looked back at Kematu and held up eight fingers. We had six. The odds didn’t seem bad, but the Thalmor justiciars had an evil reputation. Then Kematu whistled and a dozen Alik’r warriors stepped out from the stables.

The fight was short but bloody. Before we could do anything, the Thalmor wizard had aimed a lightning bolt at Thorald, blasting him back against the house, unconscious or dead. The stable master foolishly opened his door to see what the trouble was, then shut it quickly.

Avulstein hesitated, not sure whether to go to his brother or face his attackers. The wizard was about to aim another spell at him, but my arrow caught him in the chest. Then the Alik’r were upon them. The second Thalmor wizard took out one of the attacking Alik’r but then it was close work with swords, staves, and axes. I held back and let the Alik’r fight their battle. The lightly armored mercenaries fell first, and in moments three surviving Thalmor were retreating up the road, whistling for the horses.

Several of the Alik’r wanted to give chase, but Kematu held them back. “We’ve got to get the woman and depart before the city guard arrives,” he told them. A horn was sounding over the city, and we could hear shouts. Avulstein went over to check on his brother, who was stirring groggily. Two of the Alik’r picked up Iman and began to carry her down the road. The rest of the Alik’r followed them, with many glances back over their shoulders to make sure they weren’t being pursued.

Kematu came over to me and I handed him Saadia’s satchel. “All the documents should be in here,” I told him. “I searched her room thoroughly.”

“Gods praise you for your help today… Wait, I don’t even know your name.”

“Deirdre,” I told him. “Deirdre Morningsong.”

“Hammerfell owes you a tremendous debt, Deirdre Morningsong. Your name will not be forgotten among our people.”

“And Saadia, or Iman, as you call her? She won’t be harmed?”

“No harm shall come to her on our journey to Hammerfell. On that you have my word. After that, the queen and our courts will decide her fate.”

We heard the sounds of approaching city guards and he ran off after his men. Soon I heard many horses thundering westward, the guard giving chase on foot.

Avulstein had helped his brother get to his feet. “Are you all right, Thorald?” I asked.

“Just a bit stunned,” he said.

“We gave worse than we got,” said Avulstein. “I never guessed you’d lead us into a fight with the Thalmor, Deirdre, but I’d do it again. Those Alik’r are bloody good fighters, too. This is one to tell the kids someday.” Then they began making their way up the hill.

It was time for me to make my own escape. I headed stealthily cross-country, aiming to strike the north road near Battle-Born Farm. It wouldn’t be long before the guards and maybe even the Thalmor were swarming the stables. There was nothing left for me in Whiterun. If the jarl had thrown in his lot with the Imperials and the Thalmor, he would soon have me in a dungeon – or worse, the Thalmor would take me to one of their own prisons. I should be safe from them at the college. I’d heard Winterhold was Stormcloak territory.

The wagon was waiting for me at the place I had arranged. There was a steep charge for this special service.

“Have you been to Winterhold before, lass?” asked the driver. “Best bring your heavy cloak. It’s colder than a hagraven’s teat, pardon the expression, even in summer, so they say.”

I looked back at Whiterun, crowned by the outline of Dragonsreach jagged against the evening sky. It was hard not to feel regret at my sudden departure. I had made many friends over the last fortnight. I wondered when I would see Arcadia again, or Lydia, or Aela and Vilkas. Still, I was looking forward to the college. No doubt I would make many friends there. And more important, I would begin to find out about my magic ability and where it came from.

Tamriel’s twin moons shone down upon us as we made our way north.

Categories
Fiction Song of Deirdre

Song of Deirdre – Contents

 

Acknowledgments

Editor’s Introduction

Part I

Chapter 1, Helgen

Chapter 2, Helgen Keep

Chapter 3, Riverwood

Chapter 4, Whiterun

Chapter 5, The Plains of Whiterun

Chapter 6, Swindler’s Den

Chapter 7, Winterhold

Chapter 8, Saarthal

Chapter 9, Beneath Saarthal

Chapter 10, Keizaal

Chapter 11, Sheep-Shearer Farm

Chapter 12, Bleak Falls Barrow

Chapter 13, The Western Watchtower

Chapter 14, Dragonsreach

Part II

Chapter 15, The Road to Ivarstead

Chapter 16, High Hrothgar

Chapter 17, The Vilemyr Inn

Chapter 18, Ustengrav

Chapter 19, The Nightgate Inn

Chapter 20, Windhelm

Chapter 21, Ulfric’s War-Chamber

Chapter 22, Kynesgrove

Chapter 23, Council Chambers

Chapter 24, Dustman’s Cairn

Chapter 25, Labyrinthian

Chapter 26, Morokei’s Lair

Chapter 27, The Hall of the Elements

Chapter 28, Westward

Chapter 29, The Reach

Chapter 30, Markarth

Chapter 31, Dragon Bridge

Chapter 32, Solitude

Part III

Chapter 33 – Two Dungeons

Chapter 34 – The Emperor’s Tower

Chapter 35 – The Aldmeri Embassy

Chapter 36 – Through Smoke and Flame

Chapter 37 – The Nightgate Inn

Chapter 38 – The Palace of the Kings

Chapter 39 – The Blade and Dragon

Chapter 40 – Riften

Chapter 41 – Council Chambers

Chapter 42 – Paarthurnax’s Retreat

Chapter 43 – The Arcanaeum

Chapter 44 – The Mind of Septimus Signus

Chapter 45 – Alftand

Chapter 46 – Blackreach

Chapter 47 – Tiid-Ahraan

Part IV

Chapter 48 – Peace Council

Chapter 49 – The Great Porch

Chapter 50 – Skuldafn

Chapter 51 – Sovngarde

Chapter 52 – Fort Amol

Chapter 53 – The White River Bridge

Chapter 54 – The Temple of Mara

Chapter 55 – The Rift Pass

Chapter 56 – The Gates of Riften

Chapter 57 – Mistveil Keep

Chapter 58 – The Stormcloak Camp

Chapter 59 – Beneath Whiterun’s Walls

Chapter 60 – Castle Dour

Chapter 61 – The Temple of the Gods

Chapter 62 – Epilogue

Categories
Fiction Song of Deirdre

The Song of Deirdre – Chapter 5

 

The Plains of Whiterun

 

The next two weeks were the happiest I’d been since my parents’ deaths. My childhood wish had finally come true. I was spending my time in the fields and forests, picking flowers and catching butterflies, and earning a living to boot. It was a pleasure to be outdoors without having to worry if I would find enough to eat or a place to sleep. I was almost as carefree as I’d been as a girl. I would lie on the heath with my feet soaking in one of the many pools that dotted the plains about Whiterun. It was wonderful to feel the sun warming my face and hear the bees buzzing in the heather while the thunderheads built over the mountains. Sometimes those clouds would move out over the plains with incredible speed and I would race them to Whiterun. In the warmth of Last Seed it felt good to get soaked to the skin. I’d dry off in the Bannered Mare, the pungent smell of the peat fire redolent of the tundra where I just been roaming. I always had a coin or two for a bowl of beef stew and a cup of mead to take off the chill.

I even enjoyed working in the store, surprising myself by not growing bored. There was always something new to learn about potion making. Even dusting the shelves wasn’t so bad. I would come across a vial containing a potion I didn’t recognize, and Arcadia would tell me about its properties. Too, I had spent so much time alone for the last three years that waiting on customers was a pleasure.

Where at first I was shy and halting in my speech, I gradually grew better at conversing with people. I enjoyed hearing their stories about life in Whiterun and the surrounding farms. I learned a good deal about people’s views on the Civil War as well. There were factions supporting both sides, both adamant in their positions. I was surprised that open feuding hadn’t already broken out between the Gray-Manes and the Battle-Borns.

In my free time, I would wander the market stalls and poke my head in the shops. I even bought a dress, though I soon found I couldn’t really be comfortable in it – it was too confining, and the long skirt only got in the way. I wore it only in Arcadia’s shop, and only then when waiting on customers. When out of doors I’d wear the light armor and boots the jarl’s steward had grudgingly given me. It made me feel strong, like some sort of shield maiden.

The armor even helped me to feel more welcome in Jorrvaskr. Sitting in the Companions’ mead-hall with Aela and Vilkas, I’d imagine I was one of the original five hundred heroes traveling from Atmora to Tamriel across the Sea of Ghosts. It was easy to do – Jorrvaskr had been built from the upturned hull of one of the Companions’ boats, hauled overland to this early Nord settlement. But then I would remember myself. I was no Nord hero, nor did I aspire to be one.

Deirdre helping in Arcadia's shop.
Arcadia proved to be a kind and patient teacher.

Arcadia proved to be a patient teacher and a kind employer. She even showed me plants I hadn’t seen before. Most useful was tundra cotton, an ingredient in the potion to fortify magicka, the mage’s store of magic power. She taught me how to make that potion and others of particular value to a mage, those that restored health and increased ability in a particular branch of magic. There were also a few that could add to my skill in stealth, especially potions of invisibility and lockpicking, but those would come later.

When I wanted to apply to the college, she helped me write the message. My father had taught me my letters, of course, but after three years my handwriting was rusty. Farengar helped us with how to ask for admission and how much to say about my magical development so far. He even included a note attesting to my ability. I waited hopefully after the letter went off with the courier, wondering how long it would take the college to reply.

If Farengar hoped the dragon would show itself, he was disappointed. We saw no sign of a dragon for the fortnight. Nothing troubled the sky save the afternoon thunderstorms rumbling over the plains. Farengar kept studying his books on dragons. He was supposed to be looking for something that would help defeat one of the beasts, but he just enjoyed learning whatever he could about them.

I visited Dragonsreach often, since I was the only one Arcadia trusted with deliveries to the jarl and his court. Soon I was as familiar and comfortable in the great hall as I was in the Bannered Mare or Jorrvaskr or Arcadia’s. The guards would greet me cordially, asking if I could brew something for them – usually an ale. I had gotten to know the jarl’s hall-troops, the two I had seen that first day, Hrongar and Lydia, and several others. Hrongar was the jarl’s brother. He and Lydia were both part of the jarl’s hirth, the special war-band of skilled fighters and loyal retainers he had called up after the fall of Torygg. While the regular guard included several women, Lydia was the only shield-maiden accepted for this special service.

I would find the hirth-fellows sitting at table reliving some great exploit, then one of them would shout out to me, “Hey, lass,” and want to tell the story all over again for my benefit. They asked often about Helgen, but I could not revel in the tale, however much they pressed for details. “Come, Deirdre, tell us how you escaped the dragon,” one would say. I could see the lust for glory in their eyes, as they imagined themselves confronting the beast. Then I told them of the brave fighters I’d seen lose their lives that day, men and women battle-eager but death-bound, while I ran from the destruction like a frightened rabbit. What valor I had shown that day, I could not speak of – I still kept secret my temporary alliance with the Stormcloaks.

I could see the disappointment in their eyes. Nords were used to boasts and tales embellished to add to their glory, not stark confessions of cowardice. They found nothing in my tale to celebrate, no glory that would earn me entrance to Sovngarde, the eternal halls of the brave Nord departed. Bold deeds and a good death were all to these warriors.

Lydia would come to my defense then. She had heard me tell Jarl Balgruuf about the frostbite spiders and the cave bears beneath Helgen. “Anyone who can deal with frostbite spiders is all right by me,” she said. Her comrades mumbled in assent. No one liked frostbite spiders. Then they would return to one of their own tales, more befitting a Nord’s idea of valor.

As I listened to their stories, I admired the camaraderie among these hirth-fellows. They reminded me of my friends and myself when we were children, before the day I wanted to forget. They treated Lydia no differently than the rest. She would laugh heartily at the jokes and roar her approval for any act of valor, burnished though it was in the retelling. Even the most ribald jest couldn’t make her blush. She would look over at me then and give me a wink, as if to let me know her fellows meant no harm.

Though she was only two or three years older than I, none of the men called her “lass” or “girl.” I wasn’t surprised. At nearly six feet, Lydia stood on a par with many of the soldiers and even taller than a few. She was strong of limb from the constant training and carried herself with quiet confidence. I heard the men talk many times of her besting a male fighter in practice. One of the hirth-men once made the mistake of calling her “wench” and ended up on the floor.

Yet I wondered if the men found her attractive. She wore her jet black hair in the Nord fashion, with side braids like my own. I supposed a man would find her fair of face, with her high cheekbones and dark eyes. Although she complimented me on the tattoo I wore around my left eye, she had chosen not to mar her own face in similar fashion. And while she certainly wasn’t plump, a trait Nords found particularly attractive, there was something voluptuous about her that no amount of physical training could take away.

During my years in Cyrodiil, I had forgotten about the Nords’ predilection for plump women and burly men. Yet few such comely figures were to be found. Skyrim’s winters saw to that – no one could manage to keep the weight on, they spent so much energy trying to stay warm. Cyrodiilians, on the other hand, prized a svelte figure, though these were equally hard to find in that land, where the warmer climes led to lethargy and weight-gain. Thus, the old adage, “The lass is always fairer on the other side of the Jeralls.” During my time in Cyrodiil, I grew accustomed to those few men I came across ogling me, especially as I grew scrawnier from life in the forest. Now, I’d begun to put some weight back on from regular meals at the Bannered Mare, and I could feel the Nord men beginning to eye me in that certain way I found uncomfortable.

And if they thought me worth a second glance, how much more attractive must they find Lydia, whose curvaceous figure couldn’t be hidden even under her thick armor? No, I was sure that at least one of her hirth-fellows had wanted something more from her than the fraternal camaraderie on display in the great hall. Men always wanted something more from women, it seemed, like Osmer, or Ralof. I wondered if Lydia had ever found herself fending off an unwanted advance as I had, and what she had done about it. Or maybe she welcomed those advances? There was no way to ask about this while they were together in a group – and they were always in a group – so I found myself just getting more confused. After a bit more banter I would excuse myself and continue on my errand.

Other than my confusion on the subject of men and women, only one thing darkened my time in Whiterun: the feeling that I was being followed. It started on my second day working for Arcadia. I was returning from a delivery to Jorrvaskr. Old Kodlak Whitemane, Harbinger of the Companions, had been complaining of the rot, and Arcadia had something she thought might help. On my way back I felt the back of my neck tingling. I knew that feeling. It was the one I got in the forest when a dangerous animal was near. I looked around and saw nothing, except perhaps a shadow in a doorway out of the corner of my eye. When I looked again, it was gone.

It happened again the next day, and the next. The sound of footfalls behind me when no one was there; a tall, robed figure disappearing around a corner; glances passing between strangers I saw in the street – these were the only hints my followers gave, yet I knew they were there just the same. On the fourth day, I went to collect flowers on the tundra west of Whiterun and they were at it again. A hunter passed near me in the morning, then later in the day I came across a fisherman at a small stream, and toward evening I saw a man on horseback off in the distance on the road. I was sure they were all the same man in different costumes.

For the moment, I pretended not to notice my watchers. I was confident that I could turn the followers into the followed when I chose. But what would I do once I caught them at their game? It seemed better to keep my suspicion hidden and see what their next move would be. I guessed they were Imperial agents, or maybe the jarl’s own men who suspected me of ties to the Stormcloaks. So let them follow me. They would soon see I was no Stormcloak sympathizer – or so I thought.

Then one morning a strange thing happened. I was on my way to the mountains to collect lavender and scaly pholiota. It was the middle of my second week in Whiterun, and the day had started off well, with a courier bringing a letter from the college during breakfast. The school had space for another student, as long as I could prove my latent magical skill. I was thrilled, of course, and I planned to leave at the end of the week. A few more gold pieces in my pocket couldn’t hurt, and there were still a couple of potions I wanted to learn, especially the one that would make me invisible. While stealth was a valuable skill, becoming invisible was even better when you were being followed.

I was walking across the tundra toward the mountains, thinking about my good news, and whether I should make a trip to Riverwood to share it with Gerdur. I wondered too if Ralof was still there. Most likely not, I thought, not since the jarl had sent that detachment of guards. Then I felt the hair prickling on the back of my neck, and was certain I was being followed. I was just looking for an excuse to look around for my pursuer when I heard my name shouted from behind me, and turned to see Lydia on horseback. I paused to wait for her, and in a moment she had drawn even with me.

“Collecting flowers again?” she asked, smiling.

I nodded, holding her gaze, looking for any hint of deceit in her eye. Why would Lydia have followed me? If the jarl had put her on my track, she certainly wasn’t being very stealthy about it. “I’m headed for the mountain forests,” I said. “And what are you doing out here?”

“I’m on my way to visit my parents,” she said brightly. “They have a farm just over that rise.”

“You grew up on a farm?”

“Aye. My parents hated to lose my help when I went into the city to join the guard. There’s only my sister left to help them, but I try to visit as often as I can.” She sounded wistful as she said it. Then she brightened again. “Would you like to meet them, see the farm?”

“No, really, I need to get about my collecting.”

“The mountains rise up right behind the farm, and if we ride together it will shorten your journey. Come on, get up behind.” She held a hand out to me, and I couldn’t see a way to avoid accepting her offer. As I climbed up behind her, I tried to tell myself this was a chance meeting, and I was just being silly.

The farm was small, not more than a few acres scratched out of the tundra. The barn had plenty of places to let the rain and snow in. A few animals – horses, an ox or two, and several sheep – huddled forlornly in a small paddock. The house was small. I remembered Lydia mentioning brothers, and I wondered how they all had fit in such a place. I couldn’t blame Lydia for leaving for life in the city.

Lydia’s parents, Grimvar and Silda, seemed nice enough, though care-worn and a little distrustful of a half-Breton stranger. Their daughter Lisbet was several years older than Lydia, her face already lined from working outdoors in the blazing sun of summer and the bitter winds of winter. Her mouth turned downwards, as if it had been years since she had stretched it into a smile. She barely looked at Lydia and me when we arrived, while her parents greeted me stiffly. We exchanged a few pleasantries about the weather and the coming harvest, then I bid farewell to Lydia and went about my collecting.

I was still pondering the strange encounter that afternoon as I approached Whiterun, and was so lost in thought that I nearly walked into a commotion at the city gate. There were three guards rather than the usual two, and they were arguing with two Redguard men of Hammerfell, Alik’r warriors by the look of them, arrayed in garb appropriate for their desert land. With their dark skin, turbaned heads and tunics with wide, billowing sleeves, they stood in contrast to the fair-skinned, mail-clad guards.

Whiterun guards confront Redguards at the city gate.
Confrontation at the city gate.

“You aren’t welcome in the city,” one of the guards said. His hand was on his sword hilt, though the Alik’r looked more suppliant than aggressive.

Relations between the peoples of Hammerfell and Skyrim had never been cordial, and they had deteriorated further when the Empire severed ties with Hammerfell at the end of the Great War. The White-Gold Concordat required Hammerfell to cede half its lands to the Aldmeri Dominion. When Hammerfell chose to fight rather than submit, Emperor Titus Mede expelled them from the Empire to maintain the treaty with the Dominion. Then the Redguards pushed the Aldmeri forces from their lands, and they liked to brag that they had won a true victory over the elves where the Empire had only managed a stalemate.

Now Hammerfell stood independent and isolated, surrounded by the Empire to the north and east and the Altmer of Summerset Isle across a narrow stretch of sea to the south. Individual Redguards still lived in and served the Empire. They were a people who liked to roam, and could be found in every corner of Tamriel, like that Redguard captain back at Helgen. There was even a Redguard woman waiting tables at the Bannered Mare. She had arrived in town a day or two before I had. Everyone guessed this was her first job in an inn; the common joke was you could die of thirst before Saadia brought you an ale. There was even some grumbling about why Hulda had hired her rather than a more competent Nord.

“You don’t understand, Captain,” one of the Alik’r was saying. “We must find this woman. She is wanted in Hammerfell for terrible crimes. I have an official warrant for her arrest bearing our queen’s seal.”

“I understand very well,” said the older of the guards. It was a serious matter if the captain of the guard had been called out. “I understand that there is no treaty between Hammerfell and Skyrim allowing Redguards to hunt criminals across our lands. Your warrant is less than worthless here. To get permission you will need to go through channels at the Imperial City. Now be off and be glad I don’t throw you in a cell.”

“You’re making a grave mistake, Captain. We have tracked her here and we know she is somewhere in your city. We won’t be held responsible for any crimes she commits against your people.” With that he and his companion turned and walked away from the gate. I made for the gate myself, but the Alik’r stopped me as I passed.

“Young lady,” began the one who had spoken before. He was middle-aged and clearly used to wielding authority in his own lands. His eyes were stern but not unkind. “My name is Kematu of Taneth in Hammerfell. We are looking for a Redguard woman who has taken refuge here in Whiterun. We are representatives of the Alik’r Coterie and are here to deliver her to justice for crimes against our country. Yet these imbecile Nord guards will not allow us to search the city or even to speak with their jarl. If you help us, you will be rewarded. Have you seen such a one in your city?”

Of course I had. But what could Saadia have done? She didn’t seem like a criminal. Maybe these two were the criminals and Saadia their innocent victim. Official documents could easily be forged. “A Redguard woman you say?” I replied. “I haven’t seen anyone like that, but I’ll be sure to let you know when I do. What did you say were her crimes?”

“Her crimes are a matter of official Hammerfell business,” he said, sounding officious now. “It should be enough that we bear this warrant. We will camp on the plain west of Whiterun. I hope you will find us there if you happen to see her. Good day.”

The guards looked at me quizzically as I approached the gate, but I just shrugged. “You meet all sorts these days, don’t you?” I said, and they opened the gate for me.

That night in the Bannered Mare, I watched Saadia as she served a glass of alto wine and a plank of grilled salmon to me, then a mug of mead and a bowl of beef stew for Arcadia. As Arcadia and I switched our dishes, I wondered if Saadia could really be a criminal. She certainly wasn’t a very good bar maid. At least our food had arrived at the right table, and still warm. That was better treatment than the guests around us had received. Nor did she seem the sort to become a tavern wench. She wore the typical low-cut blouse and flowing skirt of a bar maid, but she held herself with a poise more befitting a lady-in-waiting to a queen, and her manners were more refined than those typically found in taverns.

Though none of the Bannered Mare’s patrons knew anything about her, there was much speculation. Most guessed that she came from a noble family that had fallen on hard times, maybe during the war with the elves. Much of southern Hammerfell had been razed before the Redguards had succeeded in driving the Aldmeri forces from their lands. She was the right age, at least thirty-five. But such guesses were the work of ale-addled imaginations. The only thing we knew for certain was that Saadia was a terrible bar maid.

She proved her inexperience again before we had finished our meal. She was waiting on three men at the table next to ours, two of the Gray-Mane brothers and another I didn’t know. As she bent to serve a dish to the man across from her, Avulstein Gray-Mane put a hand casually on her rump.

Now, most barmaids by necessity learn to deal with the constant advances they receive from their male customers. Many develop a playful way of admonishing their accosters that still manages to let the cads know they are serious. Many barmaids keep hidden knives, and since Nord law is on their side, most men know to go no further. Other serving girls take the random fondlings in stride, and some even encourage them. Saadia’s response was neither of these. She quickly turned on Avulstein and slapped him across the face. “Unhand me, you filthy pig!” she exclaimed, as if he were the servant and she his mistress.

The Mare went silent. Avulstein jumped up, grabbed her by the wrist and twisted. “Someone ought to teach you your place, Redguard wench!” he shouted. The Nord loomed over her as Saadia sank to her knees. He raised a hand to strike her.

I couldn’t help myself. I shouted, “Stop!” as I leapt to my feet and came around our table. I tried to make my voice as deep and commanding as possible. My hand was on the hilt of my dagger, but I did not draw it. “Let her go. Now.”

The Nord looked at me with a mixture of surprise and curiosity, his fist still poised above his head. He stood more than a head taller than I, and was probably wondering what I hoped to achieve. Then he looked down at my hand on my dagger, and grew more serious. Meanwhile, his companions had gotten to their feet and were coming around the table toward us.

“What is this, some sort of rebellion of the outlanders?” Avulstein smirked. “Take your hand off that dagger, lass, or this could turn ugly.” He still hadn’t let go of Saadia. She knelt before him, her face wrenched in pain as she looked back and forth between us.

“It’s gotten ugly enough already,” said a voice behind us. For the second time that day Lydia appeared unexpectedly. I hadn’t seen her come in, and she usually took her meals in Dragonsreach. She stepped forward to stand beside me, and Avulstein looked at her uncertainly. I could tell he was weighing his chances.

Then another voice spoke. This time it was Arcadia. “Deirdre’s right, Avulstein,” she said, stepping around Lydia and me and walking up to him. “Let Saadia go. This is no place for such behavior.”

Though she hailed from Cyrodiil, Arcadia was a respected merchant in the city, and her words carried weight. Even Avulstein, whose Stormcloak sympathies and Nord bigotry went together like ale and tavern brawls, paid heed. He loosened his grip, and Saadia got to her feet. “You saw what she did, Arcadia, she struck first.” It seemed a lame excuse coming from such a hulking brute. Many in the tavern jeered him.

“And I saw what you did before that,” Arcadia replied. “You should be ashamed. Nord men already have enough of a bad reputation without you making it worse.”

Hulda came over finally. “I’m sorry for this disturbance everyone.” She went over to Saadia. “Take a minute to calm yourself. If you can’t learn to treat our customers better, you’re going to have to leave. I’ve already had enough complaints about you.”

Saadia rubbed her wrist and lowered her eyes. “As you say, ma’am.” She turned and went into the kitchen, and the tavern broke out in debate about the event.

“It’s all over folks,” Hulda said. “Now, who needs another drink?”

That got some shouts of approval from the other patrons, but Avulstein still stood glaring at me. “You better watch yourself, lass,” he said in a low voice. “You don’t want to make an enemy out of the Gray-Manes. And if you’re going to wear a knife, you best be willing to use it.”

“Oh, I am, you can be sure of that,” I said coldly. Deirdre, your boastful mouth is going to be the death of you, I told myself even as I said it. “Keep your hands to yourself and we’ll get along.”

Avulstein’s brother, Thorald, came over. “Come on, Avy, let’s drop it.”

Lydia winked at me and went back to a table with a group of soldiers. Then Arcadia put her hand on my shoulder and suggested we finish our meal.

“I’ve lost my appetite,” I told her. “I think I’ll go check on Saadia. She’s not the only one who needs to calm down.” My heart was still pounding and my face felt flushed. My body had readied itself for a fight, and now I had nothing to do with all that energy.

Saadia and Deirdre in the kitchen
Saadia seemed surprisingly unruffled by her confrontation with a hulking Nord.

I found Saadia in the kitchen, standing at the open doorway looking down toward Whiterun’s main gate. While I still felt flustered, she hardly seemed bothered as she turned toward me, gazing at me curiously out of calm, dark eyes.

“Are you all right?” I asked.

She held out her wrist. “Just a bruise, I think. I’ve had worse.” There were no tears, no self-pity for her situation. I wondered how she could be so calm. “Thank you for trying to stop that brute. That was brave.”

“You’re not really a barmaid are you?” I blurted out.

Then I did see fear in her eyes. “Of course I am. Why would you ask that?”

I looked around to see that no one was listening. The cook was making too much noise with his pots on the other side of the kitchen to hear us. “Two men were at the gate this afternoon,” I said, “two Alik’r warriors. They were looking for a woman from Hammerfell. They said she had committed terrible crimes.”

As I spoke, Saadia looked more and more worried. She put her hand on my arm. “We shouldn’t talk about this here. Come to my room.”

I followed her up the stairs to the small cell above the kitchen Hulda had allowed her. As soon as the door shut behind us she took me firmly by the shoulder and pushed me up against the wall. I felt a knife at my throat, though I hadn’t noticed her draw it. What had happened to the cowering tavern wench I’d seen on the floor below?

Her friendly tone forgotten, Saadia confronted me at dagger-point.
Her friendly tone forgotten, Saadia confronted me at dagger-point.

“What did you say to them?” she hissed. “You didn’t tell them I was here, did you?”

I shook my head. “I wanted to hear what you had to say first.” She looked hard at me and I held her eye. I was telling the truth, even if I had doubts about who she was.

“I’m sorry,” she said, letting me go. “I had to be sure you weren’t spying for them.”

“So you are the one they’re after,” I said.

“Yes, but I’m no criminal. I belong to House Suda. We were prominent in the resistance against the Aldmeri Dominion. These Alik’r are only posing as officials of Hammerfell. They are really assassins in the employ of the Thalmor seeking the bounty on my head.” Now she did seem the innocent victim, pleading with me. “You have to believe me. Don’t turn me over to them.”

I still wasn’t sure I trusted her. She had appeared to be at least three different people in the last half hour. But I told her she had nothing to worry about on my account. The Redguards would probably decide she had never been in Whiterun and move on. The lie came easily; it seemed the quickest way to get out of that room and get on with my life. Why had I taken such a concern with this woman’s affairs? It was hard to remember after having a knife put to my throat.

“I should get back to work,” Saadia said, and went to open the door. As she did, I thought I heard the sound of footsteps outside. She heard it too. She pulled the door open quickly and we both looked out. A shadow was moving in the stairwell, as if someone was there, illuminated from below.

“I thought you said the Redguards weren’t allowed in the city?” Saadia said.

“They weren’t,” I said. “Maybe they recruited someone else to their service.” Or maybe it was my follower, I thought.

“Deirdre, I may need to leave the city at a moment’s notice. Not tomorrow, but maybe the next day. There is no one else in Whiterun I can trust, so I’m choosing to place my trust in you. Will you help me to escape without the Alik’r knowing I’ve left?” I told her I’d think about it.

I still felt jittery when I left the Mare, so I said goodnight to Arcadia at the door and went for a walk through the Wind District, Whiterun’s second level. I stopped at a bench under the old dead tree, known as the Goldergreen, at the center of the circular plaza. The tree had once been beautiful but now stood leafless, its bare branches making a lattice-work across the night sky. At least this way I could look up and see the stars. That was one thing I missed about sleeping out – I hadn’t seen as many stars in the weeks I had been living in the city. It was like saying hello to old friends after time away.

Some said that the stars were formed from Anu’s blood at the dawn of creation, others that they were holes in the fabric of Oblivion that let the light of Aetherius shine down on Nirn. I just thought they were pretty. Gazing at them had comforted me on many a lonely night after my parents died, the vast reaches of Mundus somehow making my own troubles seem small. Tonight the Apprentice, patron of mages, was high in the sky. The Warrior was just rising. His eye, formed by the planet Akatosh, blazed particularly bright. Facing him was the Serpent, a malign constellation that wandered the skies threatening its neighbors. I wondered what that could portend.

Nearby, a giant statue of Talos loomed over the plaza. All was silent now, but in the daytime a priest of Talos would harangue the people about the evils of the Thalmor and the Talos ban. Heimskr would even encourage them to join the Stormcloak side. Jarl Balgruuf’s loyalties must truly be divided, I thought, for him to allow such seditious talk. I wondered how he had prevented the Thalmor justiciars from seizing the priest and tearing down the statue.

Then I felt that familiar tingling on the back of my neck, and I knew my follower was near. I had grown so accustomed to it by now that I would normally ignore it, showing no sign that I was alert to the watcher’s presence. But this time something made me move. And just as I did, I heard a whoosh in the air near my head and the thunk of a projectile piercing wood. I turned back to where I had been sitting and saw a three-inch dart sticking out of the bench, its feathers still vibrating.

I broke into a run and made for the houses to the north of the plaza. Whoever was following me now gave up on stealth, and I could hear the sound of footfalls coming behind me. I ran faster and darted around a corner. There was an alley between two houses just past the corner and I turned into it. Now I would have to employ all of my skill in stealth to evade my pursuer. I found some pebbles on the cobbled alleyway and quickly threw them farther down the street in the direction I had been running. They made a satisfying clattering sound as they bounced down the hill. Then I put my hood up, flattened my back against the house wall, and silently crept deeper into the alley, waiting for my pursuer to run past.

Seconds passed, then a minute. All seemed silent. Could they have given up the chase so easily? I decided to check the street. I crept around the corner, looking to my right, the way I had come. Suddenly, someone coming the other way ran into me, nearly knocking me over. Strong hands grabbed me by the arms. My attacker must not have realized my quickness because I whirled out of his grasp and turned on him, drawing my dagger.

Then I saw that it was Lydia.

Lydia and Deirdre in the alley
Then I saw that the person I thought was my attacker was Lydia.
Categories
Fiction Song of Deirdre

The Song of Deirdre – Chapter 4

 

Whiterun

 

Deirdre looking at Whiterun
My first view of Whiterun since I was a child.

I was out of breath when I reached the top of the stairs to Dragonsreach, the great hall that crowned the city of Whiterun. But the climb wasn’t the reason my heart was racing. I would have to speak to the jarl on my own, and I was nervous. I hadn’t been in a great city for years, and I had never spoken to a jarl before – unless I counted meeting Ulfric in Helgen, and that hardly seemed the same. There, we were all “brothers and sisters in binds.” Now I was supposed to face a different jarl in his great hall, the imposing building with lofty peaked roofs looming in front of me. How would I be received, a mere girl dressed in a tattered tunic and fur boots?

I wished Ralof were here. He knew Dragonsreach well, and he was known to Jarl Balgruuf. But there was the possibility of a price on his head in Whiterun. Even I would have to be careful with what I said about my time in Helgen – yet one more reason to be nervous, at least until I learned where the jarl stood on the Civil War. But how would I do that? It all seemed too difficult. Surely this was a job better suited to someone familiar with the ways of great palaces and courts, not a girl who had been living on her own in the woods.

Already the guards standing on either side of the great hall doors were looking quizzically at me. To steady my nerves I turned away and pretended to take in the view.

And a spectacular view it was. East to west stretched the great Plains of Whiterun far below Dragonsreach, a high expanse of tundra dotted with pools and streams sparkling in the late afternoon sun. Bordering the plain, snow-clad peaks thrust skyward. To the east stood the greatest mountain in all Tamriel, the Throat of the World, with the mighty White River flowing at its feet. Even from the lofty summit of Dragonsreach, that mountain seemed to stretch into the sky forever. I had to tilt my head far back to view the summit, but it was lost in a ring of cloud. To the south were the lesser but still imposing Brittleshin Mountains around Riverwood, with the White River flowing out of them.

Dragonsreach view
The view from Dragonsreach was breathtaking.

That had been the course of our journey, down from the mountains along the river, then west across the plains for a short distance to Whiterun. From here it was easy to pick out each of the spots where our progress had been delayed. First, the wagon had lost a wheel. It took hours to retrieve it from the deep gorge into which it had rolled, then to fashion a lever to raise the wagon and all of its load, and finally to reattach the wheel and set the wagon down again. Then, as we approached Whiterun with its three levels looming over us, we came across a group of fighters battling a giant.

Giants are harmless if left alone, but fearsome when roused to anger. They live on their own away from towns and cities, and are usually no trouble as they tend their herds of mammoth. But this one had wandered onto a farm, wreaking havoc as he went. Carts were overturned, fences broken and the livestock long fled. The giant stood twice as high as the tallest fighter facing him. He wielded a mammoth-bone cudgel and wore rough mammoth-hide armor reinforced with mammoth bones. One blow from that club would likely crush any fighter who came within reach.

Unfortunately for us, the giant had taken his stand in a field near the road. Hod stopped the wagon well back to avoid getting caught in the fight. Already the horses were whickering with fear.

The three fighters were having difficulty. Two of them took turns darting in and out with their two-handed swords, always remaining cautious of the giant’s club. An archer stood farther back, firing over and over again. Her arrows seemed to enrage the giant more than harm it. The fight went on like this for a minute or two and it seemed the giant was finally tiring. Then the archer ran out of arrows.

“I’ll be right back,” I told Hod and Gerdur, and I jumped down from the wagon before they could stop me. I only meant to give the archer the arrows from my quiver, but adventures seemed determined to find me wherever I went. Before I could reach her, the giant had come between us. It was very near the road now, swinging its club wildly at the two sword-wielders.

I notched an arrow and let fly at the giant’s back. The missile pierced his shoulder. It didn’t seem to hurt him much but it did get his attention. He turned and took a step toward me. One of the sword-wielders took advantage of this distraction, plunging in and giving a great blow to the giant’s lower leg, right above his calf-high boot. The giant threw his head back in a howl of pain and rage, exposing the soft flesh of his throat. My next arrow flew true, and then the giant was pawing at his neck while a fount of blood gushed forth. The fighters were on him then, and he soon fell – right across the road.

That quickly, I had broken my vow that I was done with killing. Why couldn’t the giant have stayed at his mound, tending his mammoths and keeping out of harm’s way? But who knew? Maybe this one had killed the farmer or his family and deserved death. It was sad either way.

Deirdre and the Companions
My introduction to the Companions.

The archer came over. She had long brown hair with red highlights. Her leather armor seemed designed more to provide freedom of movement than protection, it left so much flesh exposed. Her blue eyes were piercing, and her war paint was three diagonal stripes that made her look fierce, as if she had been raked by a sabre cat’s claws. “Thanks for your help, stranger,” she said. “That was a good shot.”

“It was there, and I took it,” I said. “You were doing fine until you ran out of arrows. I only wanted to give you some of mine.”

“It was a good thing you chose to shoot instead. Giants are dangerous even for us Companions. We are in your debt. I’m Aela, and this is Vilkas.” She nodded at one of the sword-wielders who had come up to join us, a dark-featured Nord with black hair, dark circles under his eyes, and a three-day beard. He wore stout plate armor inset with the head of a wolf on the chest plate.

“Companions?” I asked as Hod and the other fighter began trying to drag the giant clear of the road.

“You haven’t heard of us?” Aela asked. “You must not be from around here. We are an ancient order of brothers and sisters in arms, founded by Ysgramor when he sailed from Atmora to retake Skyrim from the elves. I’m descended from Hrotti Blackblade, one of the original Five Hundred Companions who accompanied Ysgramor. Now we help people and solve problems, if the coin is right. You look like a good fighter. You should think about joining us.”

“I’ll think about it,” I told her. “I’m new here, and I could use some friends.”

“You can find us at Jorrvaskr, our mead-hall in Whiterun’s Wind District,” Vilkas said. “You can’t miss it – it looks like an upturned boat.”

It took us another hour to haul the giant out of the way and reopen the road. By the time we reached the stables, the sun was slanting low in the west.

“Deirdre,” Gerdur said as she got down from the wagon, “I said I would go with you to Dragonsreach, but now I’m needed here, and we have to warn Jarl Balgruuf today. I know you’ll do just fine delivering the message to him. Anyone in Whiterun can point you the way to his hall. You can’t miss it, right at the top of the hill.”

She didn’t need to tell me the way to Dragonsreach. It had been long since my last trip to Whiterun with my father, but its shops and houses and mead halls seemed familiar. It even felt a bit like a homecoming. My father had known many of the townspeople, having grown up here. I thought I recognized one or two of the people I passed on the street, but none recognized me. Five years had changed me more than they had changed the city. I remembered looking up at the long flight of stairs leading to the Great Hall atop Dragonsreach. It had seemed impossibly high and imposing then. It still did. But I climbed those steps and now found myself at the jarl’s doors. Would he listen to me, or would his thoughts be on his fast-approaching supper? I took a deep breath and approached the guards.

“I bring news for the jarl,” I told them.

“We don’t get many teenage girls petitioning the jarl, lass,” the taller one said. “Were your parents too busy to come?”

“I have news of a dragon that attacked Helgen two days past. I was there, I saw it.”

The guard laughed. “A dragon, you say. You’ve been listening to too many old tales.”

“No Badnir, wait,” said the other guard. “I heard the steward say something about dragons before I started my watch. We had better let her in.”

“All right, you may pass,” said the first guard, and the great doors swung open at his push.

Inside, the hall was almost as imposing as without. It was built all from wood, with great timbers rising to the vaulted ceiling far above. At the center of the ceiling, a skylight let in shafts of sunlight, sending rays of brilliance through the rafters. The room had three levels, starting with the lower entry where I stood. Up a half flight of steps was a banquet area lined with long tables and rooms off to either side. As I climbed those steps several warriors sitting at the tables looked up to stare at me. Beyond them, up a shorter set of stairs, was the jarl’s dais. He sat there on his throne, counselors and guards surrounding him, and a dragon’s skull looming on the wall above, its jaws opened wide. Dragonsreach was aptly named, it seemed.

Deirdre and Irileth
Jarl Balgruuf’s housecarl Irileth confronted me, but not before I overheard the Jarl and his steward.

It was a long walk up that hall, with so many eyes on me. The fighters at the table, a large man in a full set of steel armor and a shield-maiden with jet black hair, nodded as I passed. Through the side door to the right, I could see a man in hooded robes poring over a stack of books. Finally I approached the dais. A female Dunmer in full armor descended the steps to confront me, but not before I overheard the jarl.

“What you say is true, Avenicci,” he was saying. “The Empire has helped us immensely. Yet I will not plunge my city into this Civil War, on either side. Many good people here support the Stormcloaks, and many more yearn to once again worship Talos freely. If we enter the war on the Imperial side, there will be bloodshed in our streets. Let the Empire deal with Ulfric and the other jarls who support him. Leave me and my city out of it.”

“I say again, what is your business here?” I had forgotten about the Dark Elf, the jarl’s words had so distracted me. She glared at me now, her eyes a bright red that matched her magenta hair. “Receiving hours are almost at an end, and the jarl will be going to his dinner. I am Irileth, Jarl Balgruuf’s housecarl and marshal of his hall-troops. Whatever your business, you can conduct it with me.”

“I bring news for the jarl from Riverwood and Helgen,” I told her.

“Helgen! What do you know of Helgen?”

I looked at her stern face. Would she believe my story? I almost didn’t believe it myself. I took a deep breath. “There was a dragon. It destroyed the town and the keep, along with many lives.”

The jarl must have heard me. “Come closer, lass,” he said. Up close, he was not that imposing. Though he was dressed regally, with a golden circlet around his long blonde hair, a thick fur mantle about his shoulders, and a richly woven surcoat draped over his tunic, he slouched on his throne taking his ease. In the books, jarls and kings always bore themselves proudly erect, but so far that had not been my experience. I stood two steps below the dais, and met him at eye level.

“If you tell true, lass,” the jarl said, “then you were one of the few who made it out of Helgen alive. We had the news just this morning, though I didn’t want to believe it. Yet I don’t know what could have caused such destruction other than some beast out of legend. And you saw the dragon with your own eyes?”

Deirdre meets Jarl Balgruuf
Jarl Balgruuf’s bearing was far from regal, yet he still managed to intimidate.

“Yes, my lord, as close as I am to you right now.”

The jarl drew a quick breath and his eyes grew wider. “And what did you think when you saw this dragon?”

“I … I could hardly believe it though it was right in front of me. I’ve read about dragons in storybooks, but I thought they were all dead long ago, if they ever existed. I thought I was having a dream, or a vision, right before…” I was going to say before the Imperials beheaded me, but then thought better of it. “But then everyone was running and screaming and fire was raining from the sky, and I knew it was real.”

The jarl looked at me as if appraising my story, then looked up at the dragon skull, its jaws wide above his head. “Many say the dragons were always just a myth, but I cannot sit beneath this skull and doubt they once existed. But for one to come back to life now, it’s almost too much to believe.” He turned back to me, and his voice became stern. “Now tell me, how comes it that a slip of a girl such as yourself survived when so many others died?”

This was not what I expected. I thought my challenge would be to convince the jarl there really had been a dragon. Now I had to explain how I had survived, without mentioning the help the Stormcloaks had given me. He seemed neutral toward the rebels, but it would do no good tempting fate.

“Well,” I began. “I … I escaped through the caverns below the keep. And I … someone helped me.”

Jarl Balgruuf looked at me more kindly. “I didn’t mean to frighten you, lass. I’m just a gruff old man. We have had but a few lines in a message this morning. If you were there, you can tell us much more. If there is a dragon in Skyrim, we need to learn as much as we can about it. Now, tell me your name.”

“Deirdre, my lord,” I said.

“No need to call me my lord, Deirdre. Jarl Balgruuf will do. And are you from Helgen, Deirdre?”

“Dragon Bridge.”

“Ah, I’ve been through there several times when visiting Solitude. I always admired those carven dragon heads on the bridge. Tell me, was this dragon much like those?”

“Very like, only this dragon’s head was larger.”

“Larger? And how did it compare to the one above me here? This is the skull of Numinex, the dragon that was imprisoned in Dragonsreach by my predecessor of long ago, Olaf One-Eye.”

I looked at the skull, trying to imagine how large it would appear when covered with flesh and scales. “Larger, I believe, Jarl Balgruuf.”

deirdre, Balgruuf and Irileth with dragon skull
The Jarl blanched when I told him that Alduin was larger than Numinex, the dragon whose skull was mounted above his throne.

He thought about that for a moment. “And what were you doing in Helgen, Deirdre? Were you there with your parents?”

“My parents died three years ago, sir. I live on my own now. I was … just passing through Helgen when the dragon attacked.”

He looked at Avenicci and then at Irileth, then back at me. “Something else was happening in Helgen that day. Did you see anything out of the ordinary before the dragon attacked?”

“I was in the inn. Some Imperial soldiers came into town, and there was some shouting, but I didn’t pay it much attention. I was busy packing to leave.”

“And where were you headed?”

I said the first thing that came into my head. “Winterhold, Jarl Balgruuf. The college, I mean.”

He looked surprised. “Winterhold! Do you have some skill with magic?”

“A bit, sir. I want to learn more.”

He looked at the knapsack I carried. “And does it take you long to pack, Deirdre?”

Avenicci had been growing increasingly impatient with the jarl’s lengthy questioning, fidgeting and shifting his weight from foot to foot. He was balding, and dressed in fine garments from Cyrodiil. Now he spoke up. “What if we told you that Ulfric and a band of his Stormcloak brigands were scheduled for execution on that morning? And that Ulfric escaped when the dragon attacked? Surely the whole town had turned out to view the spectacle. And you’re telling us you remained in the inn because you were too busy packing a small knapsack? Her story smells to Aetherius, my jarl.”

I tried to look at him as calmly as I could. I pretended I was the girl of three days before, the one who didn’t even know what a Stormcloak was. “Do you mean those warriors with the blue uniforms? Are they some sort of rebel war-band?”

“You mean you don’t know Skyrim is in the midst of a civil war with Ulfric and his Stormcloak traitors?” Avenicci frowned at me.

“I’ve been living in the wilds of Cyrodiil for the past three years. I’ve had no news of Skyrim in that time. When I heard the roar of the dragon, I thought to stay hidden in the inn. Then it set the inn on fire and I ran out into the street. A soldier was standing there. He said to follow him into the keep, so I did.” Then I told them everything I could of the dragon attacking, keeping silent on the fighting between the Imperials and the Stormcloaks and my part in it.

“You say the walls of Helgen couldn’t withstand the blasts of the dragon’s fire breath?” the jarl asked me when I was done.

I shook my head. “Many of the tower walls lay in rubble when we entered the keep. I can only imagine how much more the dragon destroyed after we descended into the caverns.”

“What do you say now, Avenicci? Do you still think our city walls will defend us if the dragon comes here?”

“Still, my jarl, this is no time for rash action. We need more information.”

“And that’s what this girl is giving us.” He turned to me again. “I’ve heard there are frightening things in those caverns – spiders and bears. How did you get past them?”

“I’ve survived on my own in the forests of Cyrodiil, Jarl Balgruuf. Frostbite spiders and cave bears hold little fear for me. I saw far worse things in the dungeons below Helgen.” I looked him square in the eye. Remembering the horrors of Helgen suddenly made facing a jarl seem a small thing. Did he know of that chamber of Oblivion beneath the keep, and the methods the Imperials employed on their enemies?

“You are a brave girl to have made it out of Helgen and through its caverns alive, Deirdre.  I thank you for bringing me this information. I had hoped you might have seen a weakness in the dragon’s defenses. Yet you say nothing the soldiers did seemed to harm it?”

“No, sir,” I replied. “They used arrows, bolts, fire arrows, and even a mage’s fire spells. Nothing seemed to slow it.”

“We will have our hands full then, if the dragon attacks us. Still, it is good to know what we are facing. You’ve shown initiative in coming here on your own. Avenicci, see that she gets a new set of studded armor as a token of our appreciation.”

“My jarl, I have to protest,” Avenicci said. “For all we know this girl was with the Stormcloaks when they escaped. She still hasn’t said which soldiers helped her out of Helgen. Maybe Ulfric sent her here as a spy.”

“Proventus,” said the jarl, “why must you always be so mistrustful? Does this girl look like a warrior, or a spy? She’s a Breton, too. Why would she side with them? And what could they hope to achieve, in any case?”

“They might learn what we know about the dragon. Or whether we plan to join the Imperials in the Civil War.”

“It’s no secret that I plan to stay out of the war. I’ve told both sides as much. And we know nothing of this dragon, what of it? No, I believe the girl speaks true. Now, Deirdre, was there anything else?”

“My jarl, someone did send me here – the people of Riverwood. When I passed there, they were in a panic about the dragon. They saw it flying over the town after it left Helgen. Also, there was a burglary at the Riverwood Traders. They request a detachment of guards to help protect them.”

“My jarl,” said Irileth. “We should send guards to Riverwood at once. They face the most immediate danger of attack. And a strong presence will deter thievery as well.”

“Jarl Balgruuf, this is just what the Stormcloaks want,” said Avenicci. “They would love nothing more than to see us weaken our defense of Whiterun by sending our fighters hither and yon. And Jarl Siddgeir of Falkreath will view the massing of Whiterun troops on his borders as a provocation. He may conclude that we’ve joined the Stormcloak rebellion.”

“That’s enough, Avenicci,” Jarl Balgruuf snapped. “I will not sit idle while a dragon threatens any part of my hold. And I would rather fight the beast out in the countryside than here in the crowded streets of Whiterun. Can you imagine the carnage if the dragon attacked here? I will have those guards sent to Riverwood, understood?”

Avenicci knew he was beaten. “Yes, my jarl, as you wish,” he said, bowing and taking his leave.

“Now, Deirdre, the people of Riverwood can rest more easily, thanks to you. Your experience with the dragon may prove useful to us as well, should it attack here. Will you be staying in Whiterun long?”

“I’m not sure I could be any help with a dragon, Jarl Balgruuf,” I said, “unless your warriors need lessons in running from one.” He smiled at that. “Helgen taught me that I have much to learn. I was wondering … does your court mage need help? Or maybe an apprentice?”

“I see you still plan to pursue your interest in the arcane arts. It could be that Farengar needs help, I wouldn’t know. I’ve set him to learning as much as he can about dragons. It’s strange, he was already interested in dragon lore, and he’s beside himself with excitement now that one has turned up alive. He’s a prickly sort, though, and I can’t imagine he’d be a very good teacher. But feel free to talk to him. He’ll certainly want to hear your story.”

Balgruuf was right. Farengar Secret-Fire made me repeat every detail about the dragon, down to how big his scales were. “Dragons are such fascinating creatures,” he said. “I’d give anything to see one up close. You should consider yourself lucky.”

This one had a strange idea of luck. He was less interested in my desire to learn magic. “I’m no teacher,” he said. “You should go to the College of Winterhold. Old Tolfdir is a wonderful teacher, even if he does keep his students on a short leash. And you’ll meet people from all over Tamriel. Mirabelle Ervine is the Master Wizard, and she’s a Breton like you. You should fit right in.”

“But I have this spell tome,” I told him, digging through my knapsack and pulling it out. “And I don’t even know how to read it.” I had been poring over the book I had taken from Helgen Keep, but no matter how hard I concentrated, the runes would not reveal their secrets to me. “Are you sure you couldn’t just teach me this one spell?”

Deirdre and Farengar
With his face hidden by the hood of his robes, the mage Farengar was hard to read.

With his face hidden behind his dark mage’s hood, it was hard to read Farengar. I couldn’t even be sure where he was from. If I had to guess, I’d say he was from Cyrodiil. “Well, all right,” he said. “I suppose I shouldn’t be too hard on anyone with an interest in the arcane arts. Julianos knows, most Nords are too dense to understand their value. Here, let’s see that tome.”

I handed it over.

“Ah yes, Sparks. It’s one of the most basic Destruction spells in the lightning branch. Won’t really cause much damage, but it could distract an opponent enough to allow you to get away. Here, this rune means ‘lightning.'” There were only five runes to learn in the whole tome, so within a few minutes he had taught me the words behind the spell. “Okay, now give it a try, over on that wall. Just let the words pass through your mind, you don’t have to say them out loud. Eventually, you’ll be able to simply concentrate on the result you want, and the spell will come.”

I did as he said, holding my hands out toward the wall and thinking the words he had taught me. At first I felt only a tingle in my fingertips, then a few sparks flickered and died. Finally, I had a thin stream of sparks striking the wall. They made little black scorch marks where they struck, but the spell didn’t seem likely to defeat anything larger than a fly. Then the sparks flickered out as the last of my magic power drained away. I felt weakened.

If I thought it was a poor showing, Farengar was pleased. “Excellent!” he exclaimed, clapping his hands. “Most students need several tries to produce even a few sputterings. Come, you must have had some magic training before now.”

I told him about learning to produce flames on a cold wet night when I couldn’t get the kindling to light, though it was literally to save my life. I had concentrated so hard that the kindling burst into flame on its own. Eventually, I had gained partial control over it.

“Extraordinary!” Farengar exclaimed again. “Most people with magic ability find it popping up sometime in their teens, moving objects from a distance, setting things on fire by accident, that sort of thing. But few are able to channel that power into a spell they can use at will, unless they get training. I’d say you have an extraordinary gift for magic, like many Bretons. You should make your way to Winterhold as soon as you can.”

This was encouraging, but at that moment I was feeling drained from the spell, not to mention I hadn’t fully recovered from the ordeal in Helgen. “I was hoping to stay here for a time and rest. I could earn some gold for the trip to Winterhold, and I imagine the college will charge tuition. Are you sure you don’t have any tasks you could give me?

“Well,” he said, rubbing his cheek, “I suppose there are a few errands you can run. Here, why don’t you take these frost salts down to Arcadia on the lower level of Whiterun. Do you know her shop, Arcadia’s Cauldron? She may have some work for you too. Besides, Alchemy is one of the most important of the arcane arts for a young mage to master.”

I did know Arcadia, but she didn’t recognize me, fortunately. I couldn’t bear to repeat the story of my father just then. Also, I didn’t know what stories had been told about how my parents had died. I wouldn’t put it past those Nords to claim that I burned my home, then fled. No, it was better to keep my identity a secret for now. “Deirdre Morningsong,” I told her when she asked my name. She had known me as Deirdre Silver-Tongue, and she didn’t make the connection now. She was just glad to receive the frost salts. Farengar had kept her waiting for them.

Arcadia questioned me closely on my herbal knowledge.
Arcadia questioned me closely on my herbal knowledge.

“Do you have any other errands,” I asked her, “or chores around the store I could help with? I’d love to learn something about alchemy as well.”

“There are always town boys available for simple deliveries,” she said. “But if there are instructions that go with the potion, they sometimes get confused. I don’t suppose you know anything about the different kinds of flowers, or how to tell the difference between a luna moth and a blue butterfly?”

I grinned. “I’m just the girl for the job, ma’am.”

“Oho, you sound very confident. Can you tell me what these are?” She pointed to a glass jar filled with bright red flowers. After I had correctly identified ten flowers in a row, some of them in their dried state, she was satisfied. “I don’t have much time to collect ingredients for my potions, the shop keeps me so busy. But I can’t trust just anyone to gather items properly without getting them cross-contaminated. It will be wonderful to have your help. When can you start?”

We arranged that I would be paid a small amount of gold for everything I collected, and she would teach me potion-making as well. She even gave me space to sleep on the floor in the back of her shop.

I found Gerdur at the Bannered Mare and told her the news. She was glad for me, and thankful that the jarl would send a contingent of guards to Riverwood. “You will learn much from Arcadia, and even more if you go to the college. Ralof will be glad too. I had almost hoped you’d decide to come back to Riverwood. Ralof grew attached to you after your experience together at Helgen, you know. I’m sure he wishes you’d go with him to Windhelm.”

I didn’t know what to say. “I know,” I began, looking at the table in front of me. “I wish…” but my voice trailed off. I didn’t know what I wished.

“Do you know what he told me this morning before we left? He said that if he had been one of those boys in Dragon Bridge he would have taken on the whole town to defend you and your parents. That’s my brother – he always wanted to be the white knight protecting the innocent and undertaking dangerous quests. I think he sees you as a damsel in distress.” She smiled when she said that, as if she knew how foolish her brother could be.

I laughed. Me, a damsel in distress? I was the Girl the Nords Couldn’t Kill, the Girl Who Escaped Helgen. Surely, Ralof had helped me get through the keep, but I’d helped him too. What kind of girl did he think I was? “Give him a punch for me,” I said.

When we said our farewells in the morning, part of me did wish I was going back to Riverwood. It was the closest thing to a home I’d had in three years, even if only for a day. But I had a new life to begin. I told Gerdur I’d try to visit when Arcadia needed flowers that grew only in the mountains.

Categories
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

The Song of Deirdre – Chapter 2

 

Helgen Keep

 

pic of Ralof
Ralof stepped forward to undo my binds, still uncertain whether I meant to carry out my vengeance on all Nords.

Ralof entered the keep and I followed. Inside, we found a hastily deserted guard-room. Chairs had been kicked aside and playing cards lay strewn across a table. In the center of the room lay a dead Stormcloak. She must have run into the room just before us, and then succumbed to her wounds.

Ralof groaned. “Oh, no, not Alva!” He went to her side and felt for signs of life. “There’s nothing we can do for her now.” He looked back at me. “Maybe you could use her armor. That tunic isn’t doing you much good. But first we need to get those cords off you.”

pic of Ralof and fallen soldier
Ralof knelt by the side of his fallen comrade.

A workbench on the wall opposite held a scatter of weapons, as if a soldier had been polishing them before running out of the room. Ralof picked up one of the dirks and turned to me with it. He paused and gave me a grim smile. “As long as you promise you won’t slit my throat.” Then he carefully cut the cords binding my wrists. He had a closely trimmed beard with a three-day stubble on his cheeks. “Take what weapons you need, and then let’s see if Alva’s cuirass will fit you.”

“I thought you were trying to get rid of me back at the tower,” I told him as I rummaged through the gear. I stuck one of the daggers in my belt, and picked up the axe and a shield.

“No,” he said. “I was about to follow you when flames shot up on that side of the inn. I thought we’d sent you to your death. But I’m glad you made it.” He watched me taking a few practice swings with the axe. “You haven’t used one of those before, have you?”

screencap of Deirdre and Ralof
Deirdre meets Ralof

I shook my head. “Only for chopping wood, but that’s a different kind of axe.” This one was heavier than the hatchets I’d used. I imagined chopping at people would be quite different.

We worked together awkwardly to get the cuirass off Alva, a task neither of us liked at all. “Just remember it’s not doing her any good,” Ralof said, as if reminding himself. “She would want it to help someone else get out of this mess.”

When we were done, I put the armor on and found it only a bit too large.

We couldn’t go back out the way we had come in, not with the dragon still smashing the walls to bits outside. The room had two other exits. The open doorway on the left wouldn’t do, since it led in the direction of the barracks Hadvar had entered. An iron gate barred the one to the right, beyond which there was a wide hall. “Ach, it’s locked!” Ralof exclaimed, rattling the bars. “There are steps leading downward at the end of that hallway.”

pic of Deirdre in Stormcloak armor
I felt better once I had some armor and a weapon.

“Hadvar said something about tunnels beneath the keep,” I said.

Just then we heard the sound of footsteps coming down the hall to the left, and the unmistakable commanding voice of the captain.

“Quick,” Ralof whispered. “Get under cover. We’ll take them by surprise, and just hope they aren’t too many.” I flattened myself against the wall next to the doorway. The captain was in the lead, followed by one soldier. They spotted Ralof first and didn’t stop to ask questions. Their single-mindedness was impressive – not even a dragon attack could keep them from killing Stormcloaks.

Ralof backed away from their onslaught, blocking expertly and keeping close to the wall. Still, they looked to be too much for him. Creeping up behind the captain, I aimed a blow at the back of her helmeted head. My aim was none too good, and the side of the axe glanced off her steel helmet. She wheeled on me, and in an instant I was backed against the wall, blocking slashes and thrusts as best I could with my shield. I barely deflected one thrust, and her blade grazed my temple, drawing blood. Then she bashed me with her shield, forcing me to one knee. I was off balance, leaning to my left with my weight supported by my shield. I raised my axe as a feeble defense against her next swing, but I thought it would be my end.

pic of Stormcloaks and Imperials fighting
The battle with the Imperials.

She never got the chance to make that killing blow. Her arm went limp before it could begin its downward arc, and a dazed, disbelieving expression came over her face. Pink foam burbled from her mouth. Then her eyes went blank and she dropped to the floor, Ralof’s axe buried in her back. The Nord had saved my life.

 “Are you all right, lass?” he asked, coming over to check on me. I nodded as he helped me to my feet. He took a cloth from inside his cuirass and daubed at my head wound. It was shallow but bleeding freely, dripping into my eyes. “Here hold this on that cut while I look for something to clean it with.” He found a flask of water dropped on the floor in the soldiers’ haste to get outside.

“I owe you my life,” I told him as he rinsed the wound.

He waved me off. “I was in a tight spot myself, until you distracted the captain. That was brave.” He tied the cloth around my head. “There, that should stop the bleeding. You were lucky though. You don’t have much battle experience, do you?”

I shook my head. “I used to play at sword fighting with the boys in our village, but that’s all.” I could remember the boys’ shouts now. “Come on DeeDee, play swords with us.” I just wanted to roam the woods and fields around Dragon Bridge, but the boys were my only playmates. “Come on,” they’d shout, “we just need one more to make it fair.” They meant they needed someone small like me. I took more than my share of bruises and scraped knuckles, but maybe I had learned something.

Ralof picked up the captain’s sword. “Here, maybe this would suit you better than that axe. And look, maybe one of her keys will open that gate,” he said, holding up a ring with several keys he had found in the captain’s satchel.

“We’ve got to keep moving,” Ralof said once he had the gate open. “Tullius and the rest of the Imperials could be on us at any moment.”

Just then the sounds of mayhem outside grew louder, with the dragon roaring and people screaming. Then there were shouts and the sound of many booted feet entering the barracks and the crashing rumble of walls being torn apart. The walls around the doorway where we had entered began to tremble, the mortar between the blocks of stone giving off puffs of dust.

We rushed into the hallway. “Wait,” I said. “Shouldn’t we lock that gate behind us?”

Ralof paused. “Ulfric and my comrades may still be alive out there and may need to come this way…” But there was no time to consider further as the wall around the entry door gave way in a cloud of dust and flame. “Quick, down those stairs!” Ralof shouted.

The rest of that awful day passed in a blur that I hardly remember. We fought from room to room, fortunate to encounter just one or two Imperials at a time. We used the same pattern of attack that had worked in the guard room. Ralof went first, then I launched a sneak attack, Ralof finished his opponent, then came over to help with mine. Along the way, I managed to fill a knapsack I had found with a good deal of loot – some potions and food from a store room, a few coins left lying about, and bits of armor and weapons from the dead or unconscious soldiers we left in our wake. Even in my dazed state I wasn’t about to let loose gear go to waste. Three years living from hand to mouth had taught me that much.

But amid the blurred details of that long, grim day, one room of Helgen Keep is burned into my memory. We were descending a stair when we heard low moaning coming through a doorway beyond.

“Deirdre, sneak up there and see who’s making that noise,” Ralof said. I did as he asked, though I no longer felt so stealthy in the heavy armor. I crept to the edge of the doorway and peered around. What I saw then, I hoped to never see again – in vain as it turned out. Cages hung from the ceiling, casting eerie shadows in the dim light of candles and braziers. Barred cells lined one wall, and iron manacles dangled from another, some clasped around the wrists of skeletons. The cages held corpses in various stages of rot. Some of the bodies had been disemboweled, their entrails hanging from the cages like silver snakes. Blood was everywhere, and the stench was over­whelming. I had to fight down a powerful wave of nausea.

The smell didn’t seem to bother the two wardens of this level of Oblivion. They were taking a break from their torturing, sharing a flagon of ale at a table in the center of the room, heedless of the destruction going on above. Fortunately, they were both facing away from me, toward the Stormcloak prisoners in their cages on the far wall. Amid all the gore and horror of that room, one absurd detail stood out, staying with me all these years. The gaolers were eating peaches. They had quite a pile of the pits between them, and now they were throwing them at the prisoners, laughing. The grim business of torture seemed just a schoolyard prank to these two.

Then I noticed movement coming from one of the cages. This was also the source of the moaning. The victim was rolling from side to side as if to escape his pain. When he shifted toward me I could just make out the blue of a Stormcloak’s uniform.

“Quit your moaning,” barked one of the torturers. He was a gaunt man with a pair of tongs and an awl looped into his belt. “You’re going to tell us all about Ulfric’s troops, numbers, placements, and what his plans were. The sooner you do, the sooner the pain will end. Meantime, shut up and let me enjoy my ale or I’ll hurt you again.”

“He won’t talk, you Imperial dog!” The speaker was in a part of the room I couldn’t see, but he sounded in much better shape than his comrade. “True sons of Skyrim don’t fear your coward’s tools.”

“That was Galmar Stone-Fist,” Ralof said when I crept back to him with the report. “He’s the marshal of Ulfric’s forces. He and a couple of Ulfric’s top commanders were with us when we were captured, but the Imperials must have brought them here ahead of us. We’ve got to save them.”

“All right,” I said. “But I think I have a better idea this time.” Some madness had taken hold of me. The Imperials would have beheaded me with no cause, and now to witness this pit of Oblivion … all I knew was that I wanted that torturer dead. And I had had enough of making inept swings with my sword, then hoping to defend myself until Ralof could rescue me. I set down the sword and shield, careful to avoid them clanking and alarming the torturers. Then I took the dagger from my belt. “Let me go first,” I told Ralof.

“Deirdre, are you sure you can do this? Those two could be tougher than the guards and foot soldiers we’ve met so far.”

“I’m sure,” I said. “I’ve practiced this a thousand times.” That much was true. I could creep up on animals in the forest, rabbits, squirrels, marmots and such, and get within striking range before they noticed me. I had also practiced with a group of thieves I traveled with for a time. We would sneak up on each other from behind, pull the victim’s head back and put a stick to their throats. I was successful nine times out of ten. For years I had imagined sneaking into Dragon Bridge and doing the same to my parents’ killers. Now this torturer would pay for his crimes.

Still, I thought, practice with a stick must be different than actually slitting a man’s throat. But I kept such doubts from Ralof. “Just make sure you get into the room quickly after I take care of  the first one,” I told him. He looked at me uncertainly, but nodded.

I crept back to the room. The Stormcloaks in the cages had turned their backs on their captors’ foolery, so I didn’t have to worry about them giving me away in their surprise at seeing me. I snuck toward the table until I was behind the nearest Imperial, making myself focus only on him. I knew if I looked again at the rest of that room’s contents, the horror might weaken my resolve. The stench was already threatening to overwhelm me with nausea.

With one practiced movement, I pulled the torturer’s head back with my left hand while I drew the razor-sharp dirk across his throat with my right. I could feel the blade passing through muscle and sinew and the more resistant windpipe, then the gush of hot blood on my hand. It was different than practicing with a stick.

The torturer slumped to the floor, gurgling and clutching his throat while I stared at him, shocked at my own deed. I had come to Skyrim to kill, and now I had succeeded. I watched as his struggle lessened and he finally lay still, and I felt only numb.

Fortunately, the other gaoler was just as stunned by my action, and that was his undoing. Ralof was halfway into the room as the torturer was rising from his chair; he swung his axe before the torturer could draw his sword. That quickly, it was all over. New blood atop old, layers and layers of it, how many years deep?

Deirdre in the torture chamber beneath Helgen
The torture chamber beneath Helgen

Now I just wanted to leave, but Ralof remembered his companions, who were shouting to be freed. I went to the room’s far door and used the cloth Ralof had given me to wipe the blood from my hands.

Soon Ralof had removed a key from the head torturer’s belt and opened all the cages. The two healthy Stormcloaks helped the third out of his cage and over to the table where they could look at his wounds while Ralof explained about the dragon.

“Gods, a dragon?” exclaimed Galmar. “How could that be?” He was an older warrior with long blonde hair and graying beard. He wore hardened leather armor rather than the standard Stormcloak uniform.

“You didn’t hear anything down here?” Ralof asked.

Galmar shook his head. “And what about Ulfric?”

Ralof explained that he had gotten separated from Ulfric and his companions when they escaped the first tower.

I watched all this from the doorway, wishing they would hurry. I wanted only to be out of that place, whatever this soldier’s wounds were. I wanted to forget what I had seen here, and what I had done. Meanwhile, Ralof was checking the rest of the chamber for useful gear. A knapsack and some coins lay on a table.

“They put our weapons in there,” Galmar said, nodding at chest against one wall.

Ralof found it locked, then checked the gaolers’ pockets for a key, with no luck. Neither did any of the captain’s keys fit it. “Deirdre, are you any good with a lock?” He held out a couple of picks he had taken from the satchel.

“I’ll try,” I said doubtfully. Considering that I had just shown myself to be rather an adept assassin, I don’t know why I was shy about my skill with a lockpick. I had never been comfortable as a thief, though I had stolen only to survive. I became skilled enough with a pick that the rustic locks the villagers of Cyrodiil used were no deterrent.

As it turned out, this one was even easier. Perhaps the gaolers thought strong locks were wasted when the prisoners were all behind bars. The lock turned with ease, and the lid of the chest swung open. Inside, I found more coins, several potions, and a book that appeared to be some sort of magic tome. Galmar came over and retrieved the Stormcloak weapons.

Finally the Stormcloaks had bandaged the wounded soldier as best they could. He had a cloth around his head to stanch the bleeding where the torturers had cut away most of his ear. His left hand was bandaged where they had used tongs to pry off two of his fingers. He had bled a lot and looked pale. I pulled one of the healing potions from my satchel and it seemed to revive him as he drank it down.

“Can you walk, comrade?” Ralof asked. “We have to get out of here. We’re not safe from the dragon even here.”

Galmar looked at the wounded soldier. “You go and scout ahead, we’ll follow as best we can.”

Even after we left that chamber, we could see that the connecting hallways and rooms were used for the same dark purposes, with hanging cages filled with skeletons and blood stains on the stone floor. I imagined the place full of prisoners screaming and moaning, and shuddered at the thought of becoming one of those captives myself. I doubted I would be as brave as Galmar had sounded back in his cage. But maybe he would have broken eventually, despite his brave words.

I was glad when we came to the end of those chambers, at a place where a masonry wall had been torn away to reveal tunnels beyond. Whether this passage was a natural feature of these mountains, or roughly hewn by human hands, I couldn’t tell. But here and there were stoneworks – support columns, archways, and stairs – that were vastly more ancient than the keep itself. The work looked to be thousands of years old, while the keep could only have stood a few centuries.

After a few twists and turns of the passage, we came to a stone archway and the sound of voices from the cavern within. More Imperial soldiers, arguing about whether they should investigate the noises they had heard from above or wait there as Tullius had ordered them.

“The general told us to stay here in case the Stormcloaks send a war-band up through these tunnels to rescue Ulfric,” said a commanding voice, “and that’s what we’re going to do!”

I peered through the archway to see that there were more Imperials this time, mostly archers, occupying a cavernous chamber with a stream flowing down the middle. There were stone supports for the ceiling and a stone bridge crossing the stream, but the rest was natural rock and earth, with mosses and hanging ferns growing from the walls. A natural skylight let in sunshine and snowmelt from somewhere above. It also let in the roars of the dragon still attacking Helgen.

When we had regrouped, we agreed that the wounded Stormcloak would remain outside while we took the room, where the Imperials were still arguing. “Deirdre, we’ll go first and get the attention of the main group down by the stream,” said Ralof. “But there are two archers on the opposite bank. You sneak over the bridge and take them out or they’ll shoot us like ducks on a pond.”

The three Stormcloaks went first into the room, sneaking at first, and then shouting as they charged the Imperials standing by the stream. Soon the clash of swords and axes filled the cavern. I sneaked over the bridge, keeping my eye on the two archers across the stream. They had their arrows notched, looking for open shots, but hesitated to risk wounding their comrades. From the sounds of the battle, the Stormcloaks were having no easy time of it.

The archers still didn’t notice me as I crept closer. How I wished I had my own bow and quiver of arrows! Then I saw that the archers were standing next to a long pool of oil on the floor, one of them with his feet right in it. I had heard about oil traps like this. The ancient Nords used them to safeguard their crypts, to the dismay of many a grave robber. The builders of Helgen must have kept this one filled to prevent enemies from coming up these tunnels and caves into the keep itself. But these archers had forgotten all about it, they were so focused on the battle below them.

Now how to light the oil trap? There were no candles or torches in this naturally lit chamber. The time had come, I knew, for my last, desperate trick. I put down my shield and cupped my hands in front of me. I concentrated as hard as I could on the word and idea and feeling of fire. My hands began to feel warm, there was a faint glow, and then … nothing.

“Deirdre, the archers!” Ralof shouted. One of the bowmen had taken a shot and was notching another arrow. I hoped he hadn’t hit one of the Stormcloaks, but I couldn’t worry about that now. I concentrated harder.

Pic of Deirdre using her first flame spell
At last I got the flame spell to work.

Why wasn’t anything happening? It had worked before … sometimes. I didn’t know how it worked or why it worked or how to make it work every time, but I knew if I just concentrated harder, it had to happen. I tried again, concentrating, thinking and whispering and feeling fire. My hands began to feel warm again, and warmer still, then they began to glow, and suddenly a jet of flame was flowing from them. I aimed it at the pool of oil. It caught fire and went up in one whoomp! of heat and light and black smoke. Flame engulfed the first archer, and his screams were terrible to hear. He dropped his bow, running from the fire as far as he could go, but there was no escaping. The cloth of his tunic had caught and it wouldn’t go out. Finally he slumped to the ground and was silent.

The second archer hadn’t been standing in the oil, and he stepped farther back before the flames reached him. But now that the smoke and fire obscured his view of the melee, he couldn’t get in a shot. Finally, when the smoke and flame died down, he faced three armed Stormcloaks just a few feet from him. He didn’t even have time to drop his bow and draw his sword.

“I yield,” he shouted. “I plead mercy, by the warrior’s code.”

Galmar stepped forward, ready to strike with his axe. “Like the mercy you Imperials were showing us in that torture room? I spit on your mercy.”

The Imperial cowered, but Ralof put a hand on Galmar’s arm before he could strike. “Wait, Galmar … my captain. He’s a Nord too. Maybe he’ll join our side if we give him a chance.”

Galmar turned on Ralof. “You dare question me, Ralof? You’re just a pup. Get out of my way.”

“Or maybe he could be worth something to us alive. Maybe we could trade him. The Imperials could have recaptured Ulfric for all we know.”

That gave Galmar pause. “Well, by the great god Stuhn, maybe you’re right, ” he said, scratching his beard. He turned to the third soldier. “Find something to bind him with. I’ll go see if Eimar can walk on his own now. And you two,” he said, gesturing to Ralof and me, “scout on ahead and see what other horrors this day has in store for us.”

I grabbed the captured soldier’s bow and quiver, and followed Ralof into the next tunnel. He stopped me when we got away from the others. “What you did back there … was that … magic? Are … are you a mage?” It was dark in the tunnel but I knew I would see fear in his eyes if the light were better. Just as there had been fear in Osmer’s eyes that day three years before.

“I don’t know what I am,” I told him. “I don’t know what it is, or how I do it, but I guess it must be magic. I can’t always get it to work though.” He didn’t respond, and I could tell he was still afraid. “You don’t have to worry. I won’t hex you. And I haven’t blown myself up yet.”

“Well,” he said at last. “We Nords don’t much like magic, it’s true. But I’ve heard the Jarl of Whiterun keeps a mage, and Ulfric even hired one at Windhelm, so it can’t be all bad. Without your magic, we might all be dead back there. That was a good move.” He clapped me on the shoulder as if I were one of his hirth-fellows. “Come on, let’s find the way out.”

As we descended another flight of stairs to a lower level of the cavern, we heard a loud crash behind us. The rock walls of the tunnel exploded inward blocking the passage. When the slide had settled, we could hear the roar of the dragon from far above. Whatever he had done up there must have triggered this cave-in.

“Well,” Ralof said grimly. “We’re not going back that way. The others will have to find their own way out. Maybe they’ll join up with Ulfric.” He turned and continued down the stairs. They ended at a path that rejoined the riverbank.

From here on, the tunnels of Helgen offered little to challenge a girl used to living on her own in the woods. One chamber was filled with frostbite spiders. I probably could have gotten past without bothering them, but I knew Ralof in his creaking leather and mail would attract their attention. I drew my bow and had the three small ones down before the two mother spiders descended from the ceiling. These were average for frostbite spiders, about the size of a large hound, but rounder and with more legs. I took out one while Ralof dispatched the second with his axe.

“Ugh,” he said as I collected my spent arrows. “I hate spiders. Too many eyes, you know?”

After that, we spotted a bear in a large cavern. Ralof didn’t have to tell me to try sneaking around it. I just hoped he could follow his own advice. I crept ahead and the bear just dozed on. But the bear stirred when Ralof followed, and I thought we would have to fight. I stifled a groan. Not another thing to kill! Besides, I liked bears. No bear had ever bothered  me, which was more than I could say of men. But this one just rolled over in its sleep and I let Ralof push ahead while I made sure the bear stayed asleep.

“Whew, that was close,” he said when I rejoined him.

“For you maybe,” I said, and for a moment I forgot he was Ralof, not Osmer. I punched him in the arm. “Clumsy Nord.” There was enough light in the mouth of the cave for me to see him grinning sheepishly. What had happened to all my plans for revenge?

 

*~*~*

 

Pic of Alduin soaring overhead as Deirdre and Ralof emerge from the caverns beneath Helgen
The dragon had one last scare for us as we emerged from Helgen’s caverns.

We emerged from the tunnels of Helgen bruised, filthy, and exhausted. But fear was not done with us that day, for at that moment the dragon flew overhead, casting its immense shadow over us. We crouched, trembling, under what small bushes we could find. The dragon appeared not to see us, making a straight course down the valley, finally receding to a tiny dot in the sky before rounding the shoulder of a mountain.

“I think he’s gone for good,” said Ralof. He looked around, peering back in the direction of Helgen. “There’s no telling where Ulfric and the others got out, if they got out at all. And the Imperials will be storming the hills soon, looking for any escapees.” He looked uncertain for a moment, and then turned to look at me. “We need to get down to Riverwood. That’s the most likely direction for the others to head. My sister Gerdur lives there, and I’m sure she’d help you. Soft beds, hot food and some strong ale would put us both right.”

I hadn’t needed anyone’s help in three years, but I couldn’t deny the appeal of a home-cooked meal and an actual bed. I didn’t remember what a mattress felt like, and all I had in my knapsack were a few cabbages and carrots pilfered from a storeroom in the keep. If Ralof knew the way to food and a bed, I was with him. The road led downhill toward a deep valley carving through the mountains.

Weary though I was, I couldn’t help noticing how beautiful these forested mountains were. It was a lot like Dragon Bridge, only more so – the mountains taller, the streams merrier, the forest more verdant. The pines and cedars along the road exhaled their tangy scents to the warm afternoon breezes. It was good to breathe fresh air after hours in the bowels of Helgen Keep. Boulders dotted the forest everywhere, some as large as houses, and farther up the slopes ramparts of stone rose to the highest summits, still clad in snow this late in summer.

Soon our road joined the course of a river, the water playing merrily over the stones and falls on its way down the valley. Countless birds sang out from every bush and tree. Butterflies flitted from sunlight to shade. Flowers were out in their summer profusion – red columbines, blue asters, purple clover, orange paintbrush, yellow wood poppies. The bees buzzed happily, and I couldn’t help thinking of honey dripping over good bread, hungry as I was. I thought of my childhood too, when all I’d wanted was to roam the forests and fields, looking at the flowers and learning their names, listening to the birdsong and feeling the sun on my face. But then thinking of my childhood made me think of my parents, and I knew I would never be that carefree, innocent girl again – not after what had happened to them, and not after the events of this day.

We rounded a bend in the road and Ralof pointed at an old ruin high on the mountainside across the river. Its gray stone archways soared into the sky like the steepled fingers of two hands growing from the mountain itself. “Bleak Falls Barrow,” Ralof said. “When I was a boy, that place always used to give me nightmares. Draugr creeping down the mountain to climb in my window at night, that kind of thing. I admit, I still don’t like the look of it.”

Pic of Bleak Falls Barrow
Bleak Falls Barrow

The beauty of the country had made me forget for a while the dark events of the day, but now they came rushing back. Suddenly the sunny afternoon didn’t seem quite so bright. The dragon had disappeared quickly, and who was to say it wouldn’t return just as fast?

Ralof must have noticed how somber I’d become because he turned to look at me then. “Were those the first men you’ve killed, lass?” I nodded. “Aye, I know how you feel. My first time – it was awful. The soldiers I killed would haunt my dreams – they still do, sometimes. Of course, some of the fighters are women, and that’s even harder. I hoped never to kill a woman, and now I have. Some of the older soldiers say you get used to it, that killing a person becomes as easy as killing an ox, but I’d hate to think that’s true. What kind of person can kill with no remorse?”

He looked harder at me then. “What do you think, Breton, do you still want to take your revenge on the Nords? You dispatched a good few today, Imperials too.”

I shook my head. It was hard to speak, partly because I was so unaccustomed to being with other people, partly because I no longer knew how I felt. It was ironic – I’d come to Skyrim seeking vengeance on the Nords, and now I owed my life to one. He seemed a decent person too. And the fighting, the killing – it wasn’t what I’d imagined it would be. The smell of blood and charred flesh, the gouts of gore spread on the ground, the screams of terror and pain. Worse, the look in the eyes of that dying soldier as she realized her end was coming, and then the light fading into a blank, sightless stare.

But worst of all was that torrent of rage that had come over me when I cut the torturer’s throat. My whole being rebelled against it now, even though the Imperials would have killed me without a second thought. It was just wrong, as killing my parents had been wrong. And my hatred for the Nords – was it any better than the Nords’ hatred for Altmer and Bretons and mixed bloods? I had come into Skyrim convinced of the justness of my cause, but now I didn’t know what to think.

“I think I’m done with killing,” I said finally.

“Well, I hope you get your wish, lass. I wish I could be done with it too. But it will be long before killing is done in Skyrim.” We both looked at Bleak Falls Barrow then, wondering how many more barrows this war would fill. With a shudder, we turned toward Riverwood.