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.”
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?”
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.”
“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.
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?
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.
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?
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.”
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.