Chapter 15, The Road to Ivarstead
Chapter 21, Ulfric’s War-Chamber
Chapter 27, The Hall of the Elements
Part II of the Song of Deirdre
Chapter 15, The Road to Ivarstead
Chapter 21, Ulfric’s War-Chamber
Chapter 27, The Hall of the Elements
We set out for High Hrothgar on one of those rare Frostfall days when summer returns for a brief spell before the deep plunge into winter. It was a brisk, bright morning, with the Throat of the World’s summit outlined against the blue sky and the promise of warmth ahead. Our destination didn’t seem so far away after all. Strange, how a little thing like a clear sky could so lighten my mood.
The pleasant weather hadn’t had the same effect on Lydia. She was quiet as she secured the last of our baggage onto our horses. A group of our friends had come to see us off – Farengar, Arcadia, Aela and Vilkas, Thorald and Avulstein, Adrianne Avenicci, and several of Lydia’s hirth-fellows and city guards. Yet she barely acknowledged them, looking over their heads at the road west of Whiterun, as if expecting someone else. Then we mounted and were away, the shouts of our friends in our ears. We rode in silence for a time, Lydia staring down at the back of her horse’s head.
By the time we reached the White River Bridge, I could take the silence no longer. “Lydia, is anything the matter?” I asked.
She looked up, trying to seem brighter, yet her brow was still knitted in a frown. “I shouldn’t burden you with my cares, my thane.”
“I told you not to call me that. I’m just Deirdre, and I hope I’m your friend. It will be a lonely road if we cannot tell each other our troubles.”
She considered that for a moment before speaking. “Oh, it’s my family,” she said finally, her voice bitter. “There was no time to visit them and say my farewells. Who knows when I’ll see them again? I’d hoped they would come to see me off, but they only sent a note.”
As she didn’t elaborate, I had to ask what message the note contained.
“I’d sooner forget it than repeat its contents. They nearly disowned me. Ever since I returned to Whiterun last year, they’ve been at me to leave the jarl’s service and help them with the farm. Now that I’m your housecarl, they’ve given up hope, as they should have long ago. My parents are bad enough, but my sister is worse. She resents that I escaped the farm life where she could not. And to think, we used to be the best of playmates when we were small!” She shook her head.
“Yet you still looked for your family before we departed.”
“More fool I. I hoped they might have a change of heart and come bid me farewell on our great journey.”
“But what of your brothers? Don’t your parents expect help from them?”
Lydia snorted with laughter. “They’re off in the Imperial City making their fortunes, and that’s fine for them. Rustleif was in line to inherit the farm, but he wanted none of it. They never visit, they never write, nor do my parents expect it.”
I didn’t know what to say. As much as I missed my parents, I knew that, had they lived, I would have disappointed them in much the same way by now. How would they have treated me if I had left them to run their shop on their own? “Perhaps in time they will come to appreciate the life you have chosen and the honor you have gained,” I said finally, though it seemed a faint hope.
She laughed again. “I will grow old before that day arrives. No, I must be content with my own pride in my achievements.”
I rode closer to her and put a hand on her shoulder. “You’re the only woman to be named to Jarl Balgruuf’s hirth. Of course you should be proud, and I am proud for you.”
She seemed to brighten, and again we rode in silence, though now it was a comfortable one. In time we moved out of the shadow of the Throat of the World and the warmth of the sun cheered Lydia further. Soon we were riding along, chatting about nothing important, as if neither of us had a care in all of Nirn. Whatever challenges I would face at High Hrothgar, they were three days off. Too, I had roamed so much on my own that I had almost forgotten what it was like to share the sights with a partner. Even with her troubles, Lydia made a better companion than the thieves of Cyrodiil. It took me back to the days of travelling Skyrim with my father.
By mid-day we had reached the White River Gorge, where the much-increased river carved its way in a narrow chasm through lofty peaks. The day had indeed grown warm, and the sun beat down. There was no wind. Few trees grew here, leaving the sunlight to glint off sheer granite cliffs. I was glad of my novice’s hood, which shaded my dragon-burnt face without being too hot. Far below us the river sparkled blue and green in pools between white-foaming falls, taunting us with thoughts of cool water.
I looked wistfully down at the stream far below. “It looks inviting, doesn’t it?” I said.
“Fancying a swim, my thane?” Lydia asked. I raised my eyebrows at her. “Deirdre, I mean.” She looked as if she would enjoy a swim as well. She had shed her cloak and bracers, and undone the top fastenings of her leather armor. “I do wish we could get down there,” she said, staring down at the pools.
We continued on the road, descending all the while. In the distance ahead, a pair of tall towers came into view, one on either side of the river, connected by a high footbridge. “That will be Valtheim Towers,” Lydia told me. “They sit on the boundary between Whiterun and Eastmarch. I think we’ve abandoned them since the Civil War broke out.”
We continued down the road, descending to a bluff just above the river. Now we had our wish – the bank was steep, but looked passable for our horses.
“Come on!” Lydia called and dug her heels into her horse’s flanks. She guided it expertly down the slope to the water’s edge, then up the stream a short distance. She stopped and looked back at me. “Come down, it’s easy!” she called.
I wasn’t the expert horsewoman Lydia was, and it didn’t look so easy to me. I dismounted and led my horse by the reins, soon rejoining my housecarl on the bank of the stream.
“The water’s too fast here,” she said. “Let’s find those pools farther up.” A quarter-mile back upstream, the river made a bend, creating a sheltered alcove. The towers were lost from sight here and the rocks closed around a pool on this side of the stream. Across the river, an open slope led up to steep, rocky peaks. We were quite alone – except for the mud crabs.
“Damn these pests,” Lydia said as she dismounted. “They won’t make good swimming companions.” She was right – the smaller ones were merely a nuisance, but the giant mud crabs, about the size of a large dog, were a serious threat.
Lydia was reaching for her axe, but I interrupted her. “Here, it’s easier this way,” I said, and cast a calming spell at the nearest crab, which was already clacking its claws in our direction.
“As you will, my thane,” she replied, a cool edge in her voice. She seemed disappointed to miss a chance at demonstrating her skill with an axe. Then she grinned. “You carry on with your spell-casting and I’ll be the first one in the water.” She sat on the bank and began unbuckling her boots.
By the time I had finished calming the rest of the smaller mud crabs and striking fear into the hearts of the giant ones, Lydia had stripped down to the light tunic she wore beneath her armor. Then she stripped that off too and stood there clothed only in an amethyst amulet she wore about her neck. Out of her armor, she was lean and well-muscled, with ivory-white skin that seldom saw the sun. Somehow, she managed to look strong yet womanly at the same time.
Suddenly I was embarrassed. I turned back to my horse and pretended to search for something in my baggage. Why should I feel such modesty? When I was small I would strip my clothes as fast as any of the boys for a summertime dip. We would laugh and frolic in the cool water, all in innocence. Then that had all changed, along with everything else when we entered our teens. Perhaps it had just been so long since I had seen anyone naked that it was a shock.
“Well?” Lydia asked. “Aren’t you going to get in?” With that she turned and plunged in, coming up with just her head poking out of the pool while she treaded water. Droplets streamed off her ebony hair, and she exhaled with a great spray of water. “Come on! It’s fine!” she called.
I went around to the other side of my horse where I would be less visible and began taking off my boots. My already red cheeks felt even redder. I stripped off my gloves and my deerskin braies, and then pulled my robes over my head. Beneath that I wore a short shift.
I walked down to the pool’s edge and waded in until the water came up to my knees. Lydia was swimming back and forth across the pool. I waited until her back was turned, then pulled the shift over my head, threw it onto the bank, and quickly sank into the deeper water.
Lydia turned to look at me quizzically once more. “Why such modesty?” she asked. “We’re alone here, and both of us maidens. You looked like you were disrobing in the jarl’s great hall.”
I shrugged “Too many years living on my own, I suppose.”
“You’re a strange one, Deirdre Morningsong,” she said, and looked at me as if I were a puzzle she was trying to solve.
I splashed her for her impudence.
Soon we were having a water fight, as the boys and I used to, and before long the cares and the burdens of the last weeks seemed to lift. I felt like a girl once again, having an innocent frolic. We splashed each other and dove to the bottom and made a contest of staying under the longest, our white bodies flashing in the clear water, distorted in that way of objects seen through liquid, lit by the bright sun above.
In truth, the water was frigid, it being snowmelt from the peaks of perpetual snow all around. We soon climbed out, shivering, all modesty forgotten, and found spots on the warm rocks on which to sun ourselves. When we were dry and warm again we lay basking in the luxuriance of the summer-like day.
We must have dozed then, for maybe a quarter hour. I was just stirring, thinking that soon we would both be as red as my dragon-burned face, when I heard a shout from far up on the slope across the river. The voice sounded feminine, but I didn’t stop to make sure. Lydia was awake too, and we both scrambled for our clothes. Lydia grabbed her tunic while I went straight for my mage robes, the shift forgotten.
When I was clothed to the point of decency, I turned to see who had called down to us. Three figures were descending the slope. As they drew nearer, I could see that all three wore apprentice robes like my own. Their hoods were thrown back, and I could see that one was a Khajiit, another was a Dunmer, and the last was human, Nord by his reddish-blonde hair. No, it can’t be, I told myself.
“Deirdre Morningsong, is that you?” the elf called, and now I recognized her as Brelyna. The other two were Onmund and J’zargo – who else? It had only been a little over a week since we parted, how could I not recognize them?
“What are you three doing here?” I called across to them.
“We’re just coming from Fellglow Keep,” Onmund shouted, waving back up the slope to the mountain above.
The conversation was difficult with the river between us. “Wait there, we’ll come across!” called Brelyna.
We finished dressing while the mages looked for a crossing downstream, disappearing around a corner. It took them some time, and I filled it by telling Lydia about the three.
“Great,” she said, “now it’s four mages when I was just getting used to the one.”
My friends reappeared on our side and approached us. “We thought we had come across two maids of the forest,” Onmund said, his eyes glowing. “But to think, it was you!”
Brelyna looked at him severely. “We would have passed you by undisturbed, but this was the only way down to the river. These letches would have snuck up on you quietly if I hadn’t shouted.” She cuffed Onmund on the side of the head.
“Hey!” he retorted. “As I said, it’s not every day you see two unclothed maidens in the wilderness.”
“This one was surprised that such hairless bodies could be so … attractive,” said the Khajiit with a purr. “J’zargo just wanted to … investigate further.” Brelyna swatted him even harder than she had Onmund.
Then I realized we hadn’t greeted each other properly. After hugging the three, I introduced Lydia.
“Your housecarl!” exclaimed Onmund. “Much has happened since you left the college!”
“It has, and I will tell you about it as we walk. I believe we’re all headed in the same direction.”
I gave them the briefest summary of events as we walked back along the river, Lydia and I leading our horses. I told them about the rune wall in Saarthal I had neglected to mention in the first telling, and about the similar wall in Bleak Falls Barrow. I told of the battle with the dragon, and what had happened after.
“You, the Dragonborn!” Brelyna said. “And you can shout!”
“Yes, I know. You’re not the only one who was surprised.” I looked at Lydia. “None more than I.”
No one knew what to say for a moment.
“So, you were at Fellglow Keep,” I said as the Valtheim Towers came into view once again. “I didn’t know it was so close.”
“Yes, right above us,” said Brelyna, “but far up in those mountains. It was this blustering Khajiit who convinced us we could take a shortcut down to the road. He thought it would put us out beyond those towers and the falls, but that was not to be. The descent of those rocks was more perilous than the mages of Fellglow Keep!”
“Pfft,” said J’zargo. “It wasn’t that bad. We only had to bivouac one night on those ledges.”
“You are a bit out of your way, if I’m not mistaken,” I said. “Why not take the north road to Winterhold?”
“You are correct,” said Brelyna. “We were forced to take the wilderness route to Windhelm because a group of vampires has taken over Fort Kastav. So we avoided the vampires but ran into those thieves.”
“Bandits have taken over Valtheim Towers,” she replied, pointing to the towers ahead.
Lydia spoke up for the first time. “It’s these troubled times. The jarls are supposed to keep the roads open and the forts guarded, but with the Civil War and now the dragons, keeping the ways has fallen by the wayside.”
“Someone should see to it,” said Brelyna. “Another good reason for this bloody war to be over and done with.”
“We should see to it now, my thane,” said Lydia. “It is our duty as retainers of Whiterun. How many are there?”
“Six or eight, as far as we could tell,” said Brelyna.
“And you three mages couldn’t handle them?” Lydia asked.
J’zargo spoke up. “J’zargo wanted to fight them, but these two have the bravery of dormice.”
“J’zargo the Cocky, we should name you,” said Brelyna. “They had mages as well. They charged us two hundred gold for passage.”
“Bandits and thieves usually seem tougher than they are,” Lydia said. “Once one or two of them feel the bite of my axe, the rest will start running.”
I thought about the band of thieves I had travelled with for a time. Did we deserve death? “I hope we can run them off without bloodshed,” I said. We had come near the towers now, and we could see archers patrolling the bridge between them.
We left our horses out of bow range and approached the tower that guarded the road. A large fellow in a horned helmet emerged from it, along with three ruffians. Two archers looked over the parapet above.
“Oy! Back for more, I see,” said the bandit chief. “And you’ve brought friends! That’ll be three hundred gold. Group discount, we call tha’. Har!”
“We thought the two hundred gold we already paid would cover our return journey,” Onmund said.
“Yes,” put in J’zargo, “plus those flame scrolls this one gave you.”
“Look, it’s the same deal coming as going, and be glad we don’t do worse.”
I stepped forward as Lydia unslung her bow. “You don’t seem to realize when you’re outmatched,” I said.
“Oho! Big words! That big lass has a bow, but what do you got? That dinky sword? Or are you a mage, like these three? You’re not the only ones wot knows magic, lassie. Now, why don’t you just pay up…”
“Fus!” I shouted before he could finish speaking. He and the bandits around him staggered. In the seconds it took them to recover, I cast my most powerful fear spell on the chief. He turned and ran past his compatriots into the tower, shouting, “No, please, have mercy!”
The other bandits stared in awe. “She shouted!” one said. “How could it be?”
They were already turning to follow their leader as I stepped forward to cast another fear spell on them. Just then an arrow whistled past my head, striking the ground where I had been standing a moment before. I looked up to see an archer aiming another arrow directly at me.
He never got a chance to release it. Lydia’s arrow caught him in the chest, and he fell over the parapet to land with a thud at my feet.
“Everyone retreat!” the bandit chief called from within the tower. “We are routed!”
We soon saw the bandits fleeing across the bridge spanning the White River Gorge. I turned to Lydia, flushed with our success. “You see, Lydia, that’s how we do it – only one dead, and the problem solved.”
“For now,” she said. “Until they regroup and begin robbing again. We should pursue them.”
“We can only do so much. Our task is to reach High Hrothgar. We’ll send a message to Jarl Balgruuf when we reach Ivarstead.”
She still didn’t seem happy. “You were lucky that first arrow missed you. His second would have done the job if I hadn’t gotten him first. It isn’t always so easy to avoid killing, my thane.”
Putting my jocularity aside, I looked her in the eye. “I know, my friend. I owe you my life and I am thankful.”
We held each other’s gaze until Onmund broke in. “That’s my Deirdre, always the peace-maker. Never wanted to learn any Destruction spells at the college, did you?”
“I’ve gone some way toward mending that oversight,” I said. “Yet I hope to never use it on people, if I can help it.” I pretended not to hear when Lydia gave a loud sigh.
After Lydia and I retrieved our horses and my friends retrieved their gold and J’zargo’s precious scrolls, we continued our journey. “So,” I asked, “what happened in Fellglow Keep?”
Onmund took up the tale. “The mages were no trouble, but their leader – she was a different matter.”
“A powerful necromancer known as the Caller,” said Brelyna. “We knew that even the three of us could not hope to defeat her, and she had the books in her chambers.”
“This one enjoyed the look on Orthorn’s face when we traded him for the books,” J’zargo said with a satisfied purr.
“The mage who stole the books in the first place,” said Onmund. “His offering didn’t appease the necromancers and they had him locked in a cell.”
“We thought to free him,” said Brelyna, “and he did help us get to the Caller’s chambers. But when she offered us the deal, the books for the mage, it seemed an obvious choice. He was the one who got us into the predicament, after all.”
“Have you had a chance to look at the books?” We had entered a pine forest now, and begun a twisting descent to the foot of the falls beyond the towers.
“Certainly,” said Brelyna, glaring at J’zargo, “we had plenty of time, as we were stuck on that ledge all night.”
“None of them seemed important except for one, The Night of Tears,“ said Onmund. “The writer believed that the elves were looking for a powerful object when they sacked Saarthal, and when Ysgramor retook the city he had it sealed deep within.”
“The orb!” I said.
“Yes,” said Brelyna. “The Eye of Magnus, Savos Aren is calling it now. They believe it connects directly to the power of Aetherius.”
“Where is it now?” I asked.
“It took some time, but Savos Aren and the other masters were able to move it to the college. It’s in the Hall of the Elements. Why? You look worried.”
“Ancano questioned me closely about what we found in Saarthal,” I said. “Just think, if the elves attacked the city all those years ago to get the orb, what wouldn’t the Thalmor do now to get their hands on it?” I thought of Mirabelle’s reservations about bringing the orb out of Saarthal. Why hadn’t the arch-mage listened to her?
“It’s true, Ancano has been spending a lot of time studying it,” Brelyna said. “What would you have us do?”
“I don’t think the college is a safe place for the orb as long as Ancano is there. You must get back to the college with all haste and warn Savos Aren. He’ll know what to do.”
“Why can’t you come with us?” Onmund asked. “You’re the Dragonborn! Who better to help secure the Eye of Magnus?” He looked back and forth uncertainly between Lydia and me. “Your housecarl can come too, I suppose.”
“No,” I said firmly. “I must help fight these dragons. They are a bigger threat than any orb. And to do that, I must make this pilgrimage to High Hrothgar. Savos Aren and Tolfdir and Mirabelle will know what to do with the orb, and I think all of you together can handle one Thalmor wizard.”
By now we had descended to the foot of the falls. A short distance farther, we came to a meeting of roads where my friends would head north toward Windhelm.
“But this is too short a reunion!” said Onmund.
“I know, it’s good to see the three of you too,” I said.
J’zargo was eyeing our horses. “J’zargo, is something bothering you?” Lydia asked.
“This one thinks we would make faster time if we had our own horses,” he said. “All this walking makes J’zargo’s feet tired.”
“You might be able to rent some at the Mixwater Mill, just down the road here,” said Lydia. “Although I don’t know how well they’ll take to three mages, and two of them foreigners at that.”
“Ah, the people of Skyrim,” said Brelyna, “always so welcoming.”
I interrupted them before either could say more. “Well, my friends, it has been a happy meeting, though too short.”
“When will we see you again?” Onmund asked.
“I will be at High Hrothgar for some days, I imagine, but who knows where my path will lead after that? I’ve learned not to make predictions in such uncertain times. Probably I’ll be wherever there are dragons.”
“I never thought I’d wish for a dragon to attack Winterhold, but if that is what it takes…” Onmund said. “Or maybe I could come with you and help fight them.”
“No, my friend, you’re needed at the college,” I said. “Now come, I’m not one for long partings.” I hugged each of my friends, and Onmund held me longer than the others. I tried to remember how good it had felt when he hugged and kissed me that night before Saarthal, but I couldn’t. Was that just the drink?
We parted, with Onmund turning to look back before a bend in the road took them out of view. Then Lydia and I mounted our horses and made the best of what daylight we had left.
We camped on a bluff just above Fort Amol, finding a spot well screened by trees. The fort had been taken over by rogue mages, and we wanted to stay well out of their view. The deteriorating state of security in Skyrim bothered Lydia, but we were out of Whiterun Hold now, so clearing this fort was not our duty.
When it was time to set up camp, my housecarl refused my offers of help. I sat back and watched with amusement as she went about pitching tarps and rolling out our bedding.
“Really, Lydia, it’s a fine night, I don’t think we’ll need those shelters.”
“It’s always good to be prepared, my thane,” she said.
She gathered wood and went about setting a campfire. “Just let me hit that with a flame spell, will you?”
“I’ve got this, my thane,” she said. She was such an expert with flint and tinder that she had the fire going nearly as fast as I could have.
She cooked us a stew of salted beef, onions and carrots. We washed it down with bottles of mead, and for dessert we shared a tart baked at the Bannered Mare that morning.
“Really, I could help with the washing up,” I protested.
“No, my job,” she said.
If I had been an old wizard, this is where I would have sat smoking my pipe, blowing smoke rings, and watching the stars. But as I was not, I found an excuse for idle talk.
“What did you think of my college friends?” I asked her.
“Hmm,” she said, and I could tell she was searching for something diplomatic. “It seems it’s true what they say about the college attracting all types.”
“That’s true,” I said. “You don’t think that’s a good thing?”
“I don’t know. I’ve been around Nords most of my life. A few Redguards when I was with the Imperial Legion. They were brave, if a little foolhardy in battle. And Cyrodiilians of course, but they’re just like citified Nords.”
“You were in the Imperial Legion?” I was surprised I hadn’t learned that before, though I should have guessed. She seemed to have more experience than serving in the Whiterun guard, or even the jarl’s hirth, would provide.
“I joined the guard when I was your age, seventeen,” she said. “I served a year, then joined the army in the Imperial City.”
“The Imperial City! I always wanted to visit there!”
“It’s not Whiterun, let me tell you. That was a place where you would see all sorts, Argonians, Bosmer, Dunmer. But I stayed in the garrison, and in our off hours we Nords would gather in A Taste of Skyrim. That was a tavern for those of us who longed for home. I served a year there, then came back to Whiterun in the spring when Jarl Balgruuf called his hirth. So I’ve still mostly been around Nords.”
“Yet now you take orders from Irileth, a Dark Elf.”
“And a braver soldier and more inspiring hirth-marshal you won’t find,” she said.
“But do you think she’s the exception? Brelyna is as true-hearted as any. J’zargo is prideful and covetous, but no more so than your average Nord braggart. And Onmund is a Nord through and through.”
“Maybe so,” she said, “though he’s a little on the small side … and magical.” She looked up from her scrubbing and grinned at me. “He seemed to like you. Did you and he … when you were at the college … ?” She left the question hanging, but I knew what she meant.
“He kissed me once. It was nice. I know he likes me, but…”
“Was that all?” she asked.
“Of course!” I exclaimed. “That was right before I left and … I don’t know if I wanted anything more. It all happened so fast, and then we went to Saarthal, and the next morning I was summoned to Whiterun. He really didn’t want to see me go, I could tell.”
“But there must have been others. You with your blonde hair. Nord lads like that.”
I shook my head.
“Oh, I forgot,” she said. “I’m sorry. I should have realized you wouldn’t have many chances for romance as an orphan.”
I had told Lydia and the other soldiers that I was an orphan, and I was glad when they didn’t ask for the details. They had many orphans within their ranks, so it was unremarkable.
“Just some nasty thieves,” I said, “but I stayed as far away from them as possible.”
Now Lydia was finished with her washing. She stoked the fire and came over to sit beside me.
“What about you?” I asked. “Were there any special lads in the army? I imagine with sharing close quarters you had plenty of opportunities to inspect them.”
She gave me a playful slap on my shoulder. “It wasn’t like that!” she exclaimed. “They were my brothers!” She thought for a moment. “But there was one. His name was Sigurd, and he had long blonde hair. He was taller than me, which is hard to find, and strong. His stomach was as flat as a washboard.” She smiled while remembering. “And he wasn’t a ruffian like so many of the other soldiers. You might have noticed I’m a hale fighter, so I soon convinced them not to try anything with me.”
“But I thought they were your brothers?”
“Well, they were, but you know how men are – or maybe you don’t! But Sigurd was sweet.”
“And, did you … ?”
“You’re a nosy thane, aren’t you?” She grinned again. “Let’s just say that what I said earlier about being a maiden wasn’t strictly true.”
I hoped Lydia couldn’t see me blushing in the firelight. Of course she had been with a man! She was twenty, a woman grown. I was a woman as well, but in many ways still a child. I knew that many of the girls my age back in Dragon Bridge must be married and have children of their own by now. There was so much I wanted to ask her. I could have told her about Osmer then, but I was feeling bashful again. “So, what happened?”
“Sigurd wanted to marry me, but I couldn’t see becoming a housewife.” She threw back her head and gave a laugh. “Can you see me, cooped in a house with a couple of bairns, waiting for my brave soldier to come home?”
“No, I can’t,” I said, thinking how little I would like that life either.
“I liked being a soldier. I hadn’t gotten enough of adventure and glory – I still haven’t. Most women want to leave their mark in the world through the children they raise. But not me. Give me glory and a song sung about me after I’m gone. Then word came that Balgruuf was calling his hirth, and I knew that’s what I wanted to do. Sigurd wanted to stay in the Imperial City.”
“Do you miss him?”
“Of course I do! But you know, having a mate is a lot of work, even without the bairns. You have to spend time with them, and you can’t always do just what you want. I couldn’t joke with the other soldiers the way I used to, Sigurd was so jealous. So I miss him, and I surely miss sharing his bed, but being single is all right too.”
“Being single is all I’ve ever known.”
“You’ve really only had that one kiss?”
I nodded. “You forget, I’m only seventeen.”
“That’s easy to do, and it’s not just you being the Dragonborn. You’ve always seemed older to me somehow. I remember the way you’d listen so seriously to those stories in Balgruuf’s mead-hall. You must have been through much in your life, I can see that in your eyes.”
That would have been a good time to tell her about my parents, even about how I had felt about Osmer rubbing against me the way he did. But something held me back. Maybe it was that I didn’t know how she would react to my anger against the Nords, which I still found bubbling to the surface whenever I thought of my parents. I just nodded.
Seeing that I wasn’t going to elaborate, she went on. “Don’t worry, someone will come along to make you happy. Maybe you will have a chance to see Onmund again. Or maybe we’ll find a strapping young lad for you in Ivarstead.”
Now it was my turn to punch her in the arm. “What kind of lass do you think I am?” I protested. Then I rubbed my hand. Her muscles were nearly as hard as Ralof’s.
“Oww!” she whined mockingly.
“Well, there was one other,” I said. “Did you ever know Ralof of Riverwood?”
“You mean the Ralof who used to be a guard in Whiterun? I heard about him. He went off to join the Stormcloaks, didn’t he?”
“Yes. I never told you or anyone in Whiterun how I really got out of Helgen, but I might as well tell you now.” Then I told her the story of how I found myself held captive along with the Stormcloaks and how Ralof and I helped each other escape once the dragon attacked. “After fighting together like that, he really was like a brother to me. Only, the day we parted, I could tell he wanted it to be something more. Men always want something more, don’t they?”
“Usually,” she said. Then she jumped to her feet and did her best impression of a Nord braggart, hands on her hips and chest out. “We’re soldiers, eh, lass? We have to take our pleasure where we can, for tomorrow’s sunrise might be our last. Now bring me my ale!”
We both laughed for a moment. “No, he wasn’t like that,” I said. “More like your Sigurd, really. After what we went through together, how could we not become close?” I paused, thinking back on that terrible day. “That was the first time I killed anyone. When I slit that torturer’s throat, I was so overcome with rage, it was like someone else doing it. The others, it was self-defense, the heat of battle, and I didn’t have time to think about it. But I felt such remorse after it was over. I’ll never forget the look in that Redguard captain’s eyes as she realized she was going to die. Even though she nearly had me put to death, I couldn’t help wondering if she had a family who would miss her. So you see, that’s why I didn’t want to kill those bandits back there, if there was any way we could help it. And Ralof seemed to understand.”
“That’s rare for a hardened soldier,” Lydia said. “For most, how you die is more important than when you die. We don’t see why it should be different for anyone else.”
“You must have killed many.”
“Only a few, but it’s part of the job. Bandits mostly, those holed up out in the countryside where the city guard couldn’t get to them. Then there was a Khajiit incursion near Leyawiin when I was with the Imperials. That’s why I was a bit short with your friend J’zargo. The last Khajiit I saw, I had to put my axe in his skull. But I know that everyone I killed deserved death.”
“But what if Balgruuf enters the Civil War on one side or the other? How would you feel about killing your fellow Nords, soldiers who are just doing their jobs, as you are?”
She looked at the fire for a moment. “That would be harder. But my allegiance is to my jarl. If he decides we must enter the war, then I will follow his command – as should you.”
I pondered that for a moment. To whom did Lydia owe her ultimate loyalty, I wondered – me or her jarl? “I am glad Jarl Balgruuf has remained neutral then,” I said. “You should know that I can’t follow him if he joins with the Imperials – not after what I saw in Helgen. And I have my doubts about the Stormcloaks too, and their intentions for … people like me.”
“Let’s hope we never have to make that choice, then,” Lydia said.
With that, we went to our beds. Lydia had placed our bedrolls near each other under the tarps, but I pulled mine out so I could see the stars. I didn’t know how many more starry nights there might be before winter set in, and I wanted to enjoy them while I could. After a while all grew quiet. I could hear Lydia’s soft breathing from her bedroll, and the occasional hoot of an owl. It had been long since I had enjoyed such an evening out in the wild.
Masser and Secunda were just rising in the east when everything seemed to freeze, and a blue whirling light appeared near our dying campfire. A hooded figure appeared, and soon Nerien stood there, just as he had appeared within Saarthal.
I stood up and he looked at me. “We have been attending your progress, mage. It seems you do not recognize the threat the orb represents. If it falls into the wrong hands – Thalmor hands – it will be the end of Tamriel.”
“The end of Tamriel? That’s going quite far. They already control most of Tamriel, or as good as. What else could they do?”
“You cannot see it. You think the Thalmor simply want control over men. But with the power of the orb, they could do much worse – wipe humans from the face of Nirn.”
“No! They wouldn’t! Besides, I am taking the threat seriously, that’s why I sent my friends back to the college with all haste.”
“Yes, your three fellow students. We have no confidence in them. A trio of bumbling fools. Just look how long it has taken them to retrieve those books. That was a fool’s errand in any case. Anyone could have told the arch-mage that the elves have always sought the power of the orb. And he was a fool to let Ancano near it.”
“But once they are warned, Master Aren, Tolfdir, Mirabelle, they’ll know what to do. They’ll lock the orb away where it can’t be used, or banish Ancano from the college.”
“No, Savos Aren is so bent on gaining knowledge that he is blind to the dangers of the orb and the threat Ancano presents. We Psijics have been quarreling with these mages since long before the college existed, since the days of the Mage’s Guild and before. Magic is too great a power to give to just anyone.”
“Yet without the college, I would have no power at all,” I said.
“On that you are wrong, Dragonborn. You have great power, more than you know. That is why we chose you.”
“And I am on my way to develop that power further. These dragons are also a threat to Tamriel, and I mean to stop them.”
“Yes, we have seen these dragons in our visions as well. They may pose a greater threat than even you realize. That is why we have withheld judgment on your actions. We see that you are beset on all sides, pulled in many directions. Even to us, your path forward is not clear. So, go to High Hrothgar, but just hope that your friends will persuade Savos Aren to secure the orb before it is too late. There is one at the college who may help them, though they haven’t thought of him yet. Now I bid you farewell, and may you grow in power so you are ready to meet the danger ahead.”
With that enigmatic statement, he disappeared and I could once again hear the sounds of Lydia’s breathing and the birds in the trees. It was so peaceful, it was hard to imagine Tamriel was threatened from all sides.
The doors to High Hrothgar were locked. We had travelled for three days, climbed the Seven Thousand Steps, struggled through wind and snow and frost trolls, only to find ourselves shut out on the doorstep of the Greybeards’ castle-like retreat. We were exhausted and half-frozen, and our only thoughts were for a warm fire and hot food. The purpose of my pilgrimage, to discover what it meant to be dragonborn, seemed but a distant memory, one that belonged to a warmer world where one could contemplate more than simple survival.
We had pushed on the doors, knocked on them, looked for hidden locks to pick, finally banged on them with Lydia’s axe – all to no avail. If the Greybeards had called me here, why wouldn’t they let me in? From the lintel above the door, a graven image of a dragon’s face grinned down at us without pity.
What little light there had been was now fading, while the snow fell all the harder. The prospect of spending the night out was not pleasant. We had left our camping gear back in Ivarstead, carrying only bare necessities up the mountain. True, there was food in a great chest outside the doors, offerings for the Greybeards from the people of Ivarstead. We would not starve, and we could burn the wooden chest to keep warm. It would be a rough night but we would probably survive. Our chances were better that way than trying to make our way back down the icy path through storm and darkness.
I gazed hopelessly up at the carven dragon. Then I remembered the stone altars we had passed on the way up. Each contained a plaque engraved with a few lines about the history of dragons, mortals, and the Voice. I had insisted on reading every one, despite the blowing snow and streamers of cloud. Some of it was familiar from books I had read about the Dragon Wars of legend, when humans had rebelled against the dragons and the dragon priests who ruled them. Yet much was strange to me. There was one named Paarthurnax who sided with humans and taught them the Voice. And there was a hero named Jurgen Windcaller who chose silence after the great battle of Red Mountain. The final altar contained the lines:The Voice is worship Follow the Inner Path
Speak only in True Need.
Now, at the door to High Hrothgar, I realized our need was true, so I took the tablet’s advice. “Fus!” I shouted at the door.
A moment later the door creaked open and there stood an old man in a thickly woven hooded cloak. His beard was indeed gray, flecked with its original blonde, and knotted at the end. His eyes regarded me steadily, reflecting depths of calm I had never before seen.
“Welcome, Dragonborn, if Dragonborn you be, to High Hrothgar. You must be tired from your journey.”
We stumbled more than walked past him, we were that tired and cold. From the outside, High Hrothgar seemed an extensive stone palace, with a central tower flanked by two massive sets of doors. But within, it was close and dark, a low-ceilinged hall with chambers and passages extending on either side. Skylights were meant to illuminate the hall, but there had been no sun this day. Darkness seemed to seep from the very stones of the castle. Stone braziers along the sides of the hall gave off little heat and less light. Still, it felt warm to us, after the bone-chilling cold of the mountainside.
“I am Master Arngeir,” said the old monk as we entered the great hall. “I speak for the Masters of the Voice.” Three other monks stood nearby. “Let me introduce Masters Borri, Einarth and Wulfgar. They won’t speak to you – they have taken vows of silence, apart from using their Thu’um. Now, let me show you to the refectory for some refreshment.”
After we dropped our packs and weapons by the door, he led us down halls to a small room with a fireplace, a trestle table and cupboards. A pot of tea, masterwort by the smell of it, already stood steaming in the middle of the table. Arngeir poured us each a mug as we took our seats on benches around the table. He sat there with us silently as we sipped our tea.
When I had revived sufficiently, I told him my name and introduced Lydia.
“We weren’t expecting two,” Arngeir said.
“Lydia is my housecarl,” I said. “I might not have arrived at all without her help.”
I spoke true. The battle with the frost troll had been a close thing. I foolishly thought I could cast a fear spell on such a large beast. When that failed, I barely escaped with a glancing blow from its massive fur-covered fist. If Lydia hadn’t come between us, the next hit would have finished me. We finally prevailed, but not before Lydia took an injury to her shield arm that I hadn’t been able to heal properly. She still held her left arm awkwardly.
“Then she is welcome as well,” the master said.
“I have answered your call, Master Arngeir. What do I do now?”
“All in good time, young lady. Tomorrow we will further test your powers to see whether you are indeed the Dragonborn. You have already passed the first test, with your shout outside the door.”
“I thought it was obvious I was the Dragonborn,” I said, then realized how arrogant that sounded. “At least, everyone in Whiterun seemed to think so, though I had my doubts.”
“That may be. However, anyone can learn to shout, though you seem quite young to have put in the practice required. But we will get to that tomorrow. For now, you and your companion need food and rest.”
After we had eaten a plain meal of salted fish and dried fruit, Arngeir led us to cots in the same dormitory where the masters took turns sleeping. I slept well that night, though I awoke once when one master came in to sleep, and another rose and left the room.
In the morning, we awoke to sunlight streaming in through the narrow slit of a window. We found our way back to the refectory before Arngeir came to rouse us. The fare was meager – bread, fruit, and water from snowmelt so cold it made my teeth hurt.
“Arngeir said he wants to test me further,” I said to Lydia. “Do you want to come and watch?”
“I wouldn’t miss it for anything. Too, I’m supposed to protect you, and how can I do that if I’m not at your side?” She rubbed her shoulder, and I could tell it still bothered her. I had given her healing potions and tried more healing spells, but there was some deep injury my skills couldn’t reach. Arcadia had given me a liniment that would have served better, but I had left it with our other gear in Ivarstead.
“I don’t think we have anything to worry about here,” I said. “You probably don’t need to protect me every minute.”
“I don’t know, what if they start shouting at you? Arngeir already said they can’t even speak to us, their Voices are so powerful.”
“Then there’s little you could do to help me. But we’ll see if spectators are allowed.”
Arngeir found us just as we finished breaking our fast. “Your housecarl is welcome to join us, though I doubt she will learn much in the way we will teach you. Perhaps we can arrange separate lessons for her in the usual way. With what you both may be facing, learning the dragon tongue could be useful, even if she doesn’t learn to shout.”
That sounded ominous, but Arngeir didn’t elaborate, and I had other things on my mind. “Master,” I said, “I have many questions.”
“Of course you do. And how could you not? You must feel as if you’ve been taken over by some other being.”
I was amazed at his insight. “Exactly!” I said. “At first, I wanted to root it out of me like a weed.”
“Every Dragonborn who has come to High Hrothgar has felt the same way. It may be that others never arrived here before being driven to madness by this strange power within.”
“Yes,” he said. “For you see, you have lived most of your life knowing only your outer self, the Deirdre Morningsong you know as you, the self you show to the world. But sleeping within is your inner self, your dragon soul, the one that has now awoken. And when those two selves meet, it can be quite disturbing.”
Suddenly I knew that these Greybeards were the ones who would unlock the mystery of who I was and reveal my destiny. In a rush, I told Arngeir of the time I had first used the Voice. I left out everything that followed, worried it would be a distraction from the lesson at hand, and aware that I had never told Lydia that part of my past.
“Ah yes,” Arngeir said sympathetically, “that kind of thing is all too common, and it must have put you in quite a pickle. Tell me, how else has your dragon soul revealed itself?”
I told him about the nearly uncontrollable bursts of anger that had overtaken me more and more, the madness that gripped me as I fought the dragon. “So this is what it means to be dragonborn?” I asked.
“Yes, I’m afraid it is. Whether being born with the soul of a dragon is a gift or a curse has been a matter of debate down through the centuries.”
He looked as if he wanted to go on, but I interrupted him. “I even had a dream in which I saw through the eyes of the dragon. That was the worst. It was as if I was suddenly a ferocious beast.”
Arngeir’s calm eyes grew concerned then. “That is strange. I have never heard of such a direct connection in previous cases. Dragonborn have the innate ability to learn words of power and to project their Voice. They also can absorb the knowledge and life force of a slain dragon. But along with these abilities comes a great burden – one which you have already faced. Perhaps this vision was a boon, one that allowed you to recognize early on the dangers inherent in your dragon nature. I take that as a very good sign.”
“Why is that, Master?” I asked.
“Some who have been gifted with the Voice – or learned it – seek only power. They never become aware of this danger, and that can lead to disaster. With our guidance, you will learn to balance your two selves. For true mastery of the Voice comes only when your inner spirit is in harmony with your outward actions.”
“That is what I want,” I said. “Can you help me tame my dragon soul?”
“To speak of taming is to misunderstand your dragon nature, as if it belonged to some wild animal. But dragons are no mere beasts. They are an ancient race, rich in wisdom, language, and culture. In fact, they view us mortals as the beasts.”
“So there is no hope for me? My dragon soul will overpower my own true self?”
“It will take much contemplation and hours of meditation, but you can balance your inner and outer selves. Follow our Way, and you will achieve harmony with your dragon nature. Now, the time for questions is at an end, and our testing must begin. There are formalities, ancient protocols that must be followed. We must ensure not only that you have the gift, but that you have the temperament and the discipline to follow the Way laid out before you. Come, to the Great Hall.”
The three other masters were waiting for us when we reached the hall. “You have learned Fus, or Force,” Arngeir said, “the first word of the shout, Unrelenting Force. Each shout comprises three words, and all three must be used to achieve the shout’s full force and effect. Now, we will test your ability to learn a new word, Ro, or Balance, the second word in Unrelenting Force. It will sharpen and focus your shout. Master Borri will teach you the word.”
Master Borri spoke and a set of glowing runes appeared on the floor before us. They were very like the glowing runes on the two walls I had already encountered. I knew what to do. As I approached the runes, they began sending out streamers of light in that way now familiar to me – but not to Lydia.
“What’s happening?” she asked, stepping toward me.
“It’s all right,” I said. Then I heard the word Ro echoing through my mind.
“Deirdre has just learned a new word of power,” Arngeir explained to Lydia, “taking it into the deepest part of her being. Such learning takes the rest of us years to achieve. The second phase of learning a shout is to attain a deep understanding of the word’s meaning. This phase takes us even longer, but the Dragonborn can absorb that knowledge directly from the soul of a slain dragon, as your thane did to learn Fus. Lacking a dragon, Master Borri will now make his understanding of Ro available to Deirdre, and we will see if she is indeed able to absorb it. Prepare yourself, Lydia, this could be even more startling.”
Now Master Borri was looking at me, and jets of what appeared to be flame were sprouting from his head. It looked very much like the whirlwind of fire that had come off the dragon. I drew it in, and I felt a powerful new energy coursing through me, along with a deep understanding of Ro, or balance. Then it was over and the four masters and Lydia were all looking at me expectantly.
“That is exactly how it felt when I absorbed the dragon’s soul,” I said.
“Good,” said Arngeir. “Now it is time to put your new shout into practice. Only a Dragonborn could master a shout in such a short time. Master Einarth will cast a target for your shout.”
Einarth spoke, and a spectral figure appeared in the middle of the hall. I gathered my breath and shouted, “Fus-Ro!” The figure staggered, then faded.
“Well done! Again.”
We repeated the exercise twice more, with the same results.
“Impressive! Your Thu’um is precise. You show great promise, Dragonborn. Now we will continue your training out in the courtyard.”
Outside, the day was bright but cold. Snow and ice glistened on the walls of the courtyard and on the mountain above. I noticed for the first time that High Hrothgar sat not at the top of the Throat of the World, but some distance below the summit. Exactly how far the mountain reached above us was hard to discern, with the dense, swirling mist that enveloped the peak, despite clear skies all around.
“Now we will see how quickly you learn a completely new shout,” Arngeir said.
“Wait,” I interrupted. “When will I learn the final word of Unrelenting Force?” If Ulfric had indeed used that shout to slay High King Torygg, I thought it must be useful against a dragon. I was impatient to gain this weapon and get back to hunting the beasts.
“All in good time, young lady,” the master replied. He eyed me for a moment, as if appraising how serious I was about the task at hand. Then he gestured to the monk beside him. “Now, Master Borri will teach you Wuld, which means Whirlwind, the first part of Whirlwind Sprint.”
Master Borri followed the same process to teach me this new word. When it was complete, Arngeir tested me by having me shout my way through a gate before it closed. When the gate opened thirty yards away, I shouted “Wuld!” and I felt myself pulled forward at a speed I had experience only one other time – in my vision of the dragon. When I came to a stop beyond the gate, I heard Lydia gasping in astonishment. It took me a moment to recover my breath as well.
When I rejoined Arngeir in the center of the courtyard, he was as enthusiastic as such a calm man could be. “Your quick mastery of a new Thu’um is … astonishing. I have heard stories of the abilities of the Dragonborn, but to see it for myself…”
Then he recollected himself. “We have seen that you have the gift, now we must determine whether you have the desire and the discipline to follow the Way. For although you can learn a new shout almost instantly, even you will have to practice patiently to balance the inner with the outer. We will teach you a series of meditations, and it should take you at least a week to complete them. After that, we will give you a quest in which you can demonstrate your understanding of the Way. When that is complete, we will accept you into High Hrothgar and you can begin learning new shouts.”
A week, or more! I had known it might take some time to master the Voice, but this seemed absurd.
“Please, Master Arngeir,” I pleaded. “Couldn’t you teach me the final word of Unrelenting Force now? At least one more dragon yet lives, and Whiterun depends on me. Innocent lives are at stake. I promise, once I have slain the dragons, I will return for more training.”
Arngeir regarded me closely. “Much more than the lives of the people of Whiterun may depend on you before the end. Thus will you be tempted from the Way, by a noble goal that lures you into fatal shortcuts. Beware that your skill does not outstrip your wisdom! No, I would not teach you a full shout before you are ready, not though Alduin himself threatened all of Mundus. We have made that mistake once before.”
Alduin? Why did he mention the World Eater of legend just then? But I was too concerned with my immediate problem to question him. “Then what must I do?” I asked.
“Stay with us, spend your time contemplating the sky, meditating on balance. It is the only way you can achieve the inner harmony you say you desire. Only then can we trust you with a full shout.”
“Then I am ready, Master.”
“Good. Today is a fine day to contemplate the sky. Come, sit with Master Einarth and you can meditate together. Now, as you observe the sky, let its emptiness fill your mind. Concentrate on nothing but that. When you can tell me what sound the sky makes, we will move on to the next meditation.”
I looked up at the sky and listened. I heard nothing but the wind, which blew through the sky. “That’s easy,” I said, full of confidence. “It’s the sound of the wind.”
“Impatience will not help you follow the Way, young Deirdre. No, the sound of the wind is but the sound of air moving over stone or through trees. The sky is a different thing entirely. Sit with Master Einarth and observe how deeply he contemplates the sky. He has been in contemplation his entire life, and he is just beginning to understand sky speech.”
I looked at Master Einarth. How old was he, anyway? Would I have to grow that old before I could come down from the mountain and fight the dragons? It seemed impossible. “What of Lydia?” I asked. “What will she do while I meditate?”
“If she is willing, I will teach her something of the dragon tongue in the usual way. It may be useful as a defense against a dragon’s breath. We will see you at dinner.” He gave a slight bow. “Sky above, Voice within.”
With that, he and the two other masters and Lydia returned to the Great Hall, Lydia looking over her shoulder at me just as they entered.
I sat down opposite Master Einarth and tried to do as he did. He sat in a completely relaxed but upright pose and simply stared at the sky. I watched him a long time, and he didn’t even blink. I tried to do the same. The sky was clear today, that deep cobalt blue of the high mountains. An occasional cloud floated past, remnants of the recently departed storm. I tried to think only about the sky’s emptiness, to fill my mind with it. But how could I fill my mind with nothingness?
Soon, other thoughts intruded. What was the sky, anyway? Was it just the same air we had down here on the ground, but higher up? Why was it blue? Why a deeper blue here than in the lowlands? What happened to the blue at night, when the moons and the stars came out? And what happened to the stars in the daytime? I had contemplated similar questions many a time as I slept out under a night sky. And what were clouds? How could they carry water up in the sky that then fell down as rain or snow? Then there were birds. They flew through the sky. Maybe their chirps and calls were the sound of the sky? But no, the birds, like the wind, weren’t the sky itself.
Long before time for dinner my stomach was growling and my body was growing restless. Emptiness hadn’t entered my mind, but the cold, even on this bright day, had entered my body. I sat with my woolen cloak wrapped tightly about me. The stone bench was far from comfortable, even for one who had not been sitting on it for hours. How long had I been sitting here, anyway? I looked at Master Einarth. He hadn’t moved an eyelid. A smile had spread slowly across his face, however. Whatever he was seeing up there, it made him happy.
Finally I could contain myself no longer. I got up and went inside, in search of an apple or a piece of cheese in the refectory. I found Lydia there as well, carving into a sausage.
“I don’t know that this studying is for me,” she said. “Have you discovered what sound the sky makes?” She couldn’t suppress a smile.
“Far from it,” I said, ripping a piece of bread from a loaf on the table. I took the slice of sausage Lydia handed me and sat down. We ate in silence, more out of dejection than because we were followers of the Way.
“Come on,” Lydia said when we were done. “Let’s get outside.” I quickly agreed and we made for the front doors.
We found Master Arngeir waiting for us at the bottom of the steps outside. “Ah, escaping High Hrothgar so soon?” The skin around his eyes wrinkled just the tiniest bit.
“Just going for a walk,” I said.
“Certainly. It is good to appease the body rather than forcing it to do what it will not. Many of us find that some exercise helps to relieve pent-up energy, allowing for more focused meditation and study. Why don’t you run down as far as the seventh altar and back up?”
“Run?” Lydia repeated.
“Yes, run. Nothing like a little exercise to calm the body and sharpen the mind. You will find it easier to concentrate when you return.”
I had to admit, it felt good to run down the path, even after yesterday’s arduous journey. Lydia clumped along heavily in her steel boots, lagging behind. We had not gone far when a view opened out to the west and north.
“Whoa!” Lydia exclaimed as she came up beside me at the edge of a precipice. It dropped thousands of feet to the Plains of Whiterun. She kept well back from the edge. “I’ve never been up this high before.”
Neither had I. Peak after snow-capped peak stretched off into the distance. Though each was lofty in its own right, we looked down on their summits from an even greater height. The air was crystal clear, revealing every detail in the landscape. Far in the north the water and ice of the Sea of Ghosts sparkled in the sunlight. And directly below us, there was Whiterun, with the White River flowing nearby. The three levels of the city were spread out for us, with the great hall of Dragonsreach seeming little more than a doll’s house.
“Look, there’s home,” Lydia said wistfully. “It looks so tiny from up here – yet so close. I can almost see people moving around. And to think, it took us three days to get up here.”
“It’s beautiful,” I said. “Just imagine how noisy those streets are right now, with the vendors shouting and the children playing. But up here, we can’t hear a thing.”
We continued our run, surprised at how long it took us to reach the seventh altar. Its tablet bore the inscription:The Tongues at Red Mountain went away humbled Jurgen Windcaller began his seven-year meditation
To understand how strong Voices could fail.
I had read about the Battle of Red Mountain, but I had never heard that Nords using the Voice were there. And Jurgen had meditated for seven years? Would it take me that long to acquire the power to fight dragons?
We were moving at far less than a run by the end. I returned to my meditating and Lydia to her studies. The sun was angling lower by now and the air grew colder. I wrapped my cloak tighter about me to keep the built-up sweat from causing a chill. Master Einarth was still there, immovable, staring up at the sky. I stared at the sky too. It didn’t take too much longer to arrive at the answer.
I found Master Arngeir with Lydia at the great circular table in High Hrothgar’s council chambers, a book open before them. “Shul,” Lydia was pronouncing slowly.
“Silence!” I exclaimed, and they both looked up, startled. “No, I’m sorry Lydia, I didn’t mean you. Excuse me, Master Arngeir. The sound of the sky is silence.”
“Excellent!” said the master. “That is one of the best of the possible answers. Obvious, isn’t it? Sometimes the simplest solution is the one we overlook.”
“But why do you concentrate so much on silence here?” I asked. “It seems strange for ones who wield the Power of the Voice.”
“Ah, I see you are not familiar with the story of our founder, Jurgen Windcaller.” I shook my head. “And it’s no wonder! Nords are a warlike race and have forgotten Jurgen the Calm, who should be their most exalted hero. Too, the history of Tamriel is confusing and contradictory. One day some great loremaster will straighten out the many conflicting narratives. For instance, what do you know of the Battle of Red Mountain?”
“I read about that one when I was a child. That was the battle between the Chimer and the Dwemer, or Dwarves, right? The one in which the Dwemer suddenly disappeared. And after that the Chimer were cursed and were transformed into the Dunmer.”
“Very good! I see that you are a bit of a loremaster yourself. But did you know that before that there was another Battle of Red Mountain?”
I shook my head.
“About two hundred years before the battle of which you speak, in the early First Era, the Nords occupied Red Mountain in Morrowind. The Chimer and the Dwemer put aside their differences, uniting to drive the Nords out. Jurgen Windcaller commanded the Nordic defenses. He and many of the other Nord warriors wielded the Power of the Voice. Tongues, they were called, and Jurgen was the most powerful. But the elven forces defeated them! Jurgen went away from that battle and for seven years contemplated the meaning of the defeat. Finally he saw that the Nords’ arrogant misuse of the Voice to gain power had assured their downfall. He realized that the only true use of the Voice is to sing the glory of the gods. It is a gift that should only be used for true needs, not for mundane reasons – such as showing off for one’s friends.” He paused then and fixed me with a stern look, and I knew he meant the day we ran the thieves out of Valtheim Towers.
“Strangely, though Jurgen chose silence, his Voice only grew stronger. Seventeen other Tongues tried to turn him from his new Way by shouting him down, but they could not. He prevailed over them all, though he uttered not a word. That is the paradox upon which our order was founded. After that, he made his seat here at High Hrothgar. A group of Tongues followed him, becoming Masters of the Way of the Voice.”
“Is that what I must do? Learn the Voice only to put it aside? I came here to gain a weapon that will help stop the dragons.”
“The rules of our order do not apply to the Dragonborn. Akatosh gave you this gift for a purpose, and surely you must use it. Yet we would counsel you to speak only for True Needs. If you use your Voice only in service to the purposes of Akatosh, you will remain true to the Way.”
I pondered this. How could I know the purposes of Akatosh, greatest of the Nine Divines?
Seeing my knit brow, he went on. “But come, it is late in the day for such weighty questions, and you have already achieved much insight. Now why don’t you take some well-earned rest?”
I did as he suggested, returning to the dormitory and changing out of my sweat-soaked clothes in favor of my second set of robes. Then I took a long nap. Lydia thought it hardly fair, and said so, when she returned to find me sleeping after she had been struggling with the dragon tongue for hours. “I thought you were the one who was here to learn, not me.”
“Arngeir says it will help you when we encounter a dragon.” I told her about being able to understand Mirmulnir’s fire breath as shouted words, avoiding much of its damage.
“I’ll have my axe and my shield,” she said. “Maybe that will have to do.”
As she changed her clothes, I could see that her left shoulder still bothered her. “I wish I hadn’t left that liniment down in Ivarstead,” I said. “Or that the plants I need to make it grew up here.”
“It’s all right, my thane,” she said. “I’ll be fine.” These Nords and their stoicism!
Then we went off to the refectory where we found the masters. We sat down to table and Master Arngeir said a few words of thanks to Kynareth for the food before us. Some might have questioned the amount of thanks to be given for a thin oat gruel accompanied by last year’s shriveled apples and mugs of tea, but not I – I had spent too many a hungry night in the forests of Cyrodiil. It did seem that the Greybeards carried their asceticism to an extreme, however. Were we meant to fill our bellies with emptiness as well as our minds? Lydia and I finished our portions rapidly.
“Ah, I see the young people have worked up quite an appetite,” said Arngeir. “Master Wulfgar, why don’t you bring out that smoked salmon? And I don’t think a goblet of wine would be amiss to honor the arrival of the Dragonborn.”
The salmon was beautiful, and had been perfectly cured, neither too dry nor too salty. And the wine was like a dream of summer – I could practically feel the sun beating down on the grapes, bringing them to their peak of sweetness.
As we continued our meal, the silence lengthened. Lydia and I had always found something to chat about on our journey here, but such conversation did not seem fitting in the Greybeards’ presence. Finally, I asked Master Arngeir a question, more to relieve the silence than anything else.
“Master, why are the dragons returning now? Does it have something to do with me?”
Arngeir looked at me appraisingly, as if wondering how much to tell me. “No doubt the appearance of a Dragonborn at this time is not an accident. Your destiny is surely bound up with the return of the dragons.”
Now we were getting somewhere! “What is my destiny, Master? Can you show me? Is it to fight the dragons? Or to join in the Civil War? Or to follow the Psijics’ request and help secure the Eye of Magnus?”
“I see that you find yourself pulled in many directions, a problem common to those who wield such power. Why else do you think we cloister ourselves up here away from the world? The demands placed upon you will only become greater when you go back into the world and your fame inevitably grows. That is when you must adhere to the Way at all costs. But no, to answer your question, we cannot show you your destiny. We can only show you the Way; it is up to you to discover your ultimate destination. You should focus on honing your Voice and soon your path will be made clear.”
It was hard not to show my disappointment. “Oh,” I said. “I hoped that ones as venerable and wise as yourselves would be able to tell me what I should do.”
“It is part of our wisdom to know that we cannot predict the future. Unlike your friends the Psijics, we do not engage in divination, a precarious art at best. Nor do we seek to influence the course of events. But come, I believe that we have something that will help guide you.”
Lydia and I followed him out of the refectory and down the hall to the council chamber. From among the dozen or so tomes on the chamber’s circular table, Arngeir selected one and handed it to me. A stylized image of a dragon adorned its cover. The first page bore the title “Book of the Dragonborn, by Prior Emelene Madrine, Order of Talos, Weynon Priory.”
“A book about me?” I asked.
“Well, yes, since you put it that way,” said Arngeir. “Or rather, about the lineage of the dragonblood in Tamriel, of which you are the latest incarnation. It may provide clues to the manner in which you can fulfill your destiny. Now, I will leave you; it is time for my evening meditation.”
“Thank you, Master,” I said. “I will read it right away.”
“More studying, eh?” said Lydia as we headed for the dormitory. “I thought it was time for a break! Even a round of ‘Ragnar the Red’ would be good about now.” I could see her smile in the dim glow of the braziers in the hall. It was true, everyone groaned whenever the Mare’s tavern singer played the opening notes of that song, they’d heard it so often. It was one of only three he knew, and he couldn’t sing the third, “The Age of Aggression,” without starting a fight between the Stormcloak and Imperial sympathizers.
“I’m sorry, Lydia, but I must do this,” I said. “Besides, I have a terrible voice, and you don’t want to hear me sing even a drinking song like that. Maybe we can find a book for you too.”
High Hrothgar was filled with books scattered here and there on shelves and tables. After the strict control Urag had over the books in the college’s library, it was a pleasant change to have so many tomes free to hand. I hadn’t had an opportunity to go through them yet, but now we found they were mostly histories and religious tracts. Finally we found a copy of The Oblivion Crisis.
“Here,” I said, “this should tell of glorious deeds and fearsome battles. You might find it interesting.” I knew a bit about the events that had brought about the end of the Third Age – just enough to know that it would involve plenty of heroic exploits.
“If you say so, my thane,” Lydia said, resigning herself to an evening of quiet reading.
I had found so many books that interested me that I couldn’t carry them all – The Dragon Break, The Dragon War, The Great War, The Mystery of Talara, and several volumes of Songs of the Return.
“Here,” I said, “help me with these.”
Lydia feigned a sigh and said, “I am sworn to carry your burdens,” her tone dripping with ironic resignation. I nearly took offense, but her half smile showed that she meant no harm. I was still getting used to her wry sense of humor.
We returned to the dormitory with our “burdens.” I was so tired that I went to bed immediately, reading by candle light, as I used to as a child in my parents’ home. Lydia sat in a chair nearby, reading her own book. Although she kept humming the tune to “Ragnar the Red,” she seemed quite engrossed. That was more than I could say. The Dragonborn book purported to “illuminate the history and significance of those known as Dragonborn down through the ages,” but I didn’t find it very revealing.
The book began well, with a discussion of the Covenant of Akatosh. “Akatosh, looking with pity on the plight of men, drew precious blood from his own heart, and blessed St. Alessia with this blood of dragons…” Alessia, as every human child knows, and many a mer as well, was the saint who freed humans from slavery by the Heartland High Elves. Akatosh granted her the Amulet of Kings. With that, she founded the first Cyrodiilic Empire, then formed the religion of the Eight Divines, with Akatosh as its chief deity.
After that, the book went into a long discussion of how this dragonblood was passed from one generation to the next, whether by hereditary or mystical means, and how the generations of the Empire’s rulers related one to another. That’s when I began to lose the thread of the history. There was mention of the Blades, the Emperor’s bodyguards, having something to do with finding the next Dragonborn in succession. One thing became clear – all the Empire’s “legitimate” rulers had been Dragonborn, from Alessia through Pelagius Septim IV, the emperor at the time of the book’s writing in the year 360 of the Third Era.
I was just beginning to wonder if this meant my destiny was to rule Tamriel – but how could that be? – when my eyes grew heavy, the book dropped forward onto my chest, and I lapsed into a pleasant dream in which I sat on a throne in the Imperial City. My subjects came from far and wide to shower me with their affections, for there was no war, the dragons had been banished, and the land prospered. Somehow my parents had been brought back to life and stood beaming at me from a spot just below the dais. Lydia stood nearby, protecting me with her life as ever, resplendent in ebony armor.
Sometime later I must have awoken, because I heard Lydia yawn, then she came over and removed the book from where it had fallen. She blew out the candle and pulled the fur cover up to my chin, her hand resting lightly for a moment on my shoulder. “Good night, my thane,” she said softly. It was just as it had been years ago, when I would fall asleep reading and my mother would tuck me in and blow out my candle. I snuggled deeper under the cover.
“Good night, my Lydia,” I said, though that might have been part of my dream too.
In the morning I awoke early, while Lydia and the two masters who now occupied cots nearby dozed on. I took my book to the refectory and tried reading it over a cup of tea. Somehow, the history would not penetrate my sleep-fogged mind. What was happening to me? I could now learn the dragon tongue as if it were second nature, but a book written in plain Common Tongue was giving me difficulty? I soon put it aside in favor of The Ruins of Kemel-Ze. I found the adventurous tale of an explorer delving into an ancient dwarven ruin to be much more gripping.
Soon Lydia came in, rubbing her shoulder.
“It hasn’t gotten better, has it?” I said.
“Worse,” she replied. She had thrown her woolen cloak over her tunic and left her armor in the dormitory.
“You must be getting comfortable here,” I said, “if you’ve left your armor behind.”
She poured herself a mug of tea from the pot and sat down. “These old men seem harmless,” she said, but then corrected herself – “or, they don’t seem to mean us any harm, beyond making us run down a thousand feet and back up again.”
I had to grin at that. “Surely there was mountain running in your guard training?”
“Yes, only the mountains around Whiterun are not so high.” She looked at the books in front of me. “You didn’t get very far in your book last night.”
“No, and I still haven’t,” I said, pointing to the Dragonborn book that lay open to the fifth page. “How did you do with The Oblivion Crisis?”
“Finished it,” she said, grinning. “It was exciting, although there could have been a bit more action. Every time it got to a big battle scene, the writer claimed that no one knew how the hero prevailed. I kept wanting him to just make something up to fill in the details.”
“Then it wouldn’t be history, would it?” I said.
“So? It would be more interesting! But it wasn’t as dull as some of the military histories they made us read in training. And it was about your ancestors!”
“Yes, Martin Septim, the last Dragonblood Emperor.”
“I don’t think I’m related to any Septims,” I said, although I had to wonder. The Book of the Dragonborn had said that the heredity of the dragonblood was a divine mystery.
“How do you know?” Lydia said. “Martin didn’t either. Unbeknownst to him until he was a grown man, he was the bastard son of Uriel Septim VII, who was assassinated at the beginning of the Oblivion Crisis.”
“I knew Uriel was assassinated, but this sounds like one of those cheap romances they sell on the streets of Whiterun.”
“Yes, it was almost that exciting,” she said, nodding appreciatively. “It has evil Daedric lords trying to break out of the plane of Oblivion and invade Tamriel. And it has a brave hero who tries to hold them at bay, the Hero of Kvatch, or the Savior of Bruma as he was later called. In the end, Martin gave his life by shattering the Amulet of Kings and taking on the form of the avatar of Akatosh – that must be a dragon, right? Then he did battle with the Daedric prince Mehrunes Dagon, with the Savior of Bruma’s help.”
“Wait, you said the Amulet of Kings was broken?”
“That’s right. That’s why Martin was the last Dragonblood Emperor. After the battle, Martin was turned to stone in his dragon form. You can still see him in the Imperial City at the Temple of the One. He was one big dragon.”
“So none of the Emperors since then have been dragonborn?”
“I suppose not,” she said.
Master Arngeir came in just then. “Good morning, young ones. Up early I see.”
“We were just discussing the succession of the Dragonblood Emperors,” I said.
“Ah, then I take it you made good progress in the book I gave you. Any interesting … discoveries?”
I shook my head sheepishly. “I’m afraid not, Master, but I promise to finish it today. It seems Lydia is the better student. She finished The Oblivion Crisis while I slept.”
“Very good! But see that you do finish your book, Deirdre. I’m sure it will be helpful. Now, break your fast if you haven’t yet. There is much to be done if you wish to complete your training in good time.”
If there was much to be done, as Arngeir claimed, a casual visitor to High Hrothgar over the next week might have missed it. Mostly what I did was sit in quiet contemplation in various corners and hallways, or outdoors when the weather was bright. Master Arngeir had me meditate on a series of questions, each more difficult than the last. Soon that first question seemed a mere child’s riddle. There was “How can the weak overcome the powerful?” and “How can silence speak louder than a shout?” and worst, “How can one do something by doing nothing?” – exactly what I wanted to know!
Mostly there was a lot of contemplating the nothingness of the sky, and trying to fill my being with that emptiness. “For only when the silence fills you,” Arngeir told me, “can you speak truly. Only when the mind is empty, will you achieve wisdom.” There were breathing exercises to be practiced out of doors, with a regular count of inhalations, held breath, and exhalations, all to fill my being with the Breath of the Sky.
Around mid-day, when all the sitting and contemplating was driving me to distraction, Lydia and I would run part way down the mountain and back up, trading stories of the masters’ latest quirks and absurd requests. Yet it was all starting to make a strange kind of sense. On each run, Master Arngeir sent us to a different shrine on the Seven Thousand Steps. One day it was about Jurgen Windcaller choosing silence and defeating the seventeen disputants. I actually thought I understood that.
In spare moments between meditating and running, I would read from the retreat’s many books. Yet my assigned text continued to give me difficulty. Maybe it was something about Prior Emelene’s writing style. When I got to the part about the Blades, who originated with the Akaviri warriors, I was reminded of a book I had seen on one of the shelves, Mysterious Akavir. I put the Dragonborn book down and went to find it. Of course I knew that Akavir was one of the five continents of our planet Nirn, along with Atmora, the continent from whence the Nords sprang, and our own Tamriel. Beyond that, I knew little. Taking up this new tome, I found much that was strange, yet fascinating. There was talk of a “Snow Hall” and a “Snake Palace,” of monkey-folk and serpent-folk and a Tiger-Dragon. Though I understood little, it was certainly more interesting than the book about Tamriel’s emperors.
So it was not until the third day at High Hrothgar that I came to the end of The Book of the Dragonborn. It concluded with a prophecy, said to have originated with the ancient Akaviri or in an Elder Scroll. The prophecy read:When misrule takes its place at the eight corners of the world When the Brass Tower walks and Time is reshaped When the thrice-blessed fail and the Red Tower trembles When the Dragonborn Ruler loses his throne and the White Tower falls When the Snow Tower lies sundered, kingless, bleeding
The World-Eater wakes, and the Wheel turns upon the Last Dragonborn.
I stared blankly at the page. I puzzled over the first five lines, but couldn’t glean much. Yet the last line I understood clearly – it heralded my doom.
I put the book down and stared up at the black stonework of the ceiling. My fate was sealed. Alduin, the World Eater, God of Destruction, had returned to Mundus, and it was my doom to face him.
I had no doubt which of us would prevail.
I don’t know how long I sat there pondering my fate, searching for some way out of it. Maybe the prophecy hadn’t yet been fulfilled, or it referred to some other Dragonborn than I.
I read the lines over and over, to no avail. It seemed that the first prophecy had been fulfilled long ago – misrule had indeed swept across much of Tamriel. I knew nothing of the second line, but could the Red Tower trembling in the third line refer to the eruption of Red Mountain? I didn’t know what the thrice-blessed meant, however. The Dragonborn Ruler losing his throne, surely that referred to Martin Septim, whose tale Lydia had just read? Then the White Tower would be the White-Gold Tower of the Imperial City. One could say that it had fallen to the Altmer during the Great War, though it had been regained by Titus Mede when he retook the city.
That left the Snow Tower, sundered, kingless, bleeding. I couldn’t think of snow without thinking of Skyrim – it was certainly kingless and would soon be bleeding if Ulfric pressed ahead with his Civil War. Its people were already sundered from one another. The Snow Tower could refer to the very mountain on which High Hrothgar perched.
If the prophecy was being fulfilled, did that mean … No, it couldn’t be … Alduin could not be among the dragons who had already returned, could he? Then I had a flash of memory, from that day in Helgen. At the time, I thought I couldn’t understand dragon speech, but now the dragon’s first words came back clearly: “Zu’u Alduin. Zok sahrot do naan ko Lein!” “I am Alduin.” I couldn’t make out the second part. Some dragon boast, no doubt. Then I remembered the way the dragon had looked at me, as if recognizing me – the Dovahkiin. Then why hadn’t he put an end to me then and there?
This couldn’t be. The task was impossible. Some viewed Alduin as one aspect of Akatosh himself. And it was my destiny to confront him? To stop him? That was impossible – wasn’t it?
I ran out of the council chamber where I had been reading and found Arngeir meditating in the long hallway before a stained glass window. “Master Arngeir!” I exclaimed as I came to a halt next to him. “Is the prophecy coming true? But how can it be? I’m not … I can’t … Alduin … It cannot be!”
“Ah, I see you have finally come to the end of The Book of the Dragonborn,” Arngeir said, rising slowly to his feet. “I thought that part would get your attention.”
“But it can’t be true! I’m no match for Alduin, the World Eater.”
“That remains to be seen. Did you understand the signs that would foretell his awakening?”
“Some of them,” I said. I told him my guesses.
“Yes, very good, although I believe a true loremaster would quibble with your interpretation of the eight points of misrule. The first four lines of the prediction came to pass in the last four decades of the last era. The fall of the thrice-blessed refers to the Dunmer, whose three ‘living gods,’ Amalexia, Sotha Sil and Vivec were destroyed, leading to the eruption of Red Mountain at the beginning of this era. It has taken nearly two centuries for the last omen to appear.”
“But what about the Brass Tower? Maybe that hasn’t come to pass yet,” I said hopefully.
“I’m afraid it has, young Deirdre. The Brass Tower refers to strange events in the provinces of High Rock and Hammerfell. Tiber Septim’s Totem, the Dwemer machine known as the Numidium, was revived. That event transformed the nature of time in that region, allowing several contradictory outcomes to occur at once. Thus the Brass Tower walked and time was reshaped.”
“So it’s all true?” I said, sitting on a nearby bench. Suddenly I didn’t even have the strength to stand.
“It seems so. We have been expecting you since Ulfric murdered High King Torygg last spring, leaving Skyrim – the Snow Tower – kingless. Even more so, since we heard Alduin’s shouts at Helgen. But come, you are agitated. Now is the time to follow the Way. Use your breath. Draw on the power of the sky.”
I did as he asked, breathing in, holding the breath, breathing out, three times in a row. It did make me feel calmer. “So my fate is to confront Alduin in battle?”
“Perhaps. It is clear that if you do not prevent Alduin from destroying the world, no one will. That is, if preventing the world’s destruction is a thing you desire.”
That caught me off guard. “Certainly, why wouldn’t it be?” I said.
“It is said that our own world was created out of the World Eater’s destruction of the previous one. If the cycle is to continue and a new world is to be born, then our world must in turn be destroyed. Would you interrupt that cycle? Just a thought.”
“And that is what he wants? To destroy the world?”
“That is the role he has played in our creation story. It would be rash to assume the World Eater will not live up to his name.”
“Yet as you said before, I was given the gift of dragonblood by the gods for a reason. Surely I must play my role and try to stop Alduin. But … I cannot best a god.”
“You have only begun to discover your full power. Follow the Way, hone your Voice, and you will be ready for what is to come.”
He left me there contemplating my fate. Soon Lydia found me in the darkening hallway – the sun was sliding lower, dimming the stained glass window.
“Arngeir told me of your discovery, and the prophecy,” she said.
I looked up at her, and for the first time I saw something like fear in her eyes. “I imagine you’re regretting being chosen as my housecarl,” I said, “with what we face now.”
“Didn’t I tell you?” she replied. “I volunteered for the duty.”
“Yes, of course. I vowed to protect you with my life, and I will stay with you to the end, World Eater or no.” She reached out to put her hand on my shoulder – to buck up my courage, I thought – but it was her left arm. I saw her wince and her hand fell back to her side.
“I wish there was something I could do for you,” I said, standing up, glad to have something to take my mind off the future. I had tried healing spells time and again, and had given her all the potions I carried up the mountain. Nothing seemed to work. “If only I had packed that liniment!”
“I suppose I could just run down to get it,” Lydia said, grinning.
“You could, but you’d have to stay the night, of course. You couldn’t make it down and back up in one day.”
She grew more serious then, and wouldn’t look at me. “Well, to tell you the truth, my thane, I could use a break from all this reading and silence. I don’t think I’ll ever get far with the dragon tongue. And, well, you seem pretty safe here.”
“You’re right. Listen, I hope my training won’t take more than three or four more days. It would almost be a waste for you to come back up. Why don’t you wait for me at the Vilemyr Inn and I’ll see you when I’m done?”
“No,” she said, her dark eyes growing stern. “I swore to protect you, and I mean to. I will return here to escort you down the mountain. Just name the day.”
“You forget how long I lived on my own in the wild. This mountain holds no terrors for me. As your thane, I will rule you in this. I will not have you climbing the Seven Thousand Steps just to walk back down with me. Is that clear, housecarl?” I tried to sound as I imagined Irileth would when giving an order, but I couldn’t help smiling.
“Yes, my thane.”
“Good. Apply that liniment daily, and I will expect to find you in full health when I arrive four days hence.”
She sighed, but I could tell that she was not altogether unhappy with the plan.
The next morning I watched from the steps of the retreat as Lydia began her journey down to Ivarstead. I stayed there until she turned and waved, just before going around a corner. I waved back, and then she was gone.
The next three days were some of the most difficult of my life. It wasn’t just that the training grew harder each day. The weight of what I would soon face was settling on me, and it all seemed too much. “One step at a time,” Arngeir kept saying to me. “The greatest journeys are accomplished by putting one foot in front of the other.”
Too, the silence and the gravity of High Hrothgar weighed on me. I was a young girl surrounded by silent old men. Certainly they had wisdom, but where was the life? I longed for noise and the bustle of a city, the uproar of a tavern, or even just the babbling of some mountain stream. I was only seventeen and I wanted to laugh, and not to be burdened with achieving wisdom beyond my years, much less saving the world. Could I tell Arngeir a joke? No. I missed my friends from the college – as difficult as they could be, Onmund, J’zargo and Brelyna could bring a smile to my face. I missed having tea with Mirabelle and listening to her stories of my mother’s home. I missed jesting with Ralof, though I had known him for just two days. What I wouldn’t give to be able to punch him in the arm once more! And I missed Lydia, more than I had expected. With her here, the solemnity of High Hrothgar had been bearable; without her dry wit to buoy me, my mood grew darker by the day. I stalked the dark, cramped halls of High Hrothgar, trying not to scowl, but no doubt failing.
Worse, a storm raged the day after Lydia left, and the mountain was cloaked in fog and rime ice the day after that. I was trapped indoors, and High Hrothgar began to feel like a prison. It seemed as if all light had been withdrawn from Mundus. I tried to concentrate on my meditations, but it was little use. The answers I gave to Arngeir’s questions felt more than half made-up, though they seemed to satisfy him.
Finally, at the end of the third day after Lydia’s departure, and the sixth since my arrival at High Hrothgar, Arngeir called me into High Hrothgar’s council chamber, a large room with a long stone table in its center.
“Dovahkiin,” he said. He only called me that when he had something formal to say. “This phase of your training is at an end. You have made good progress in balancing the inner with the outer. You already have developed a calm that you hadn’t when you came here. Now we will see whether you can follow the Way when put to the test. The time has come for the quest I mentioned before. You are to retrieve the Horn of Jurgen Windcaller from the ancient fane of Ustengrav, in the wilds outside of Morthal. It is a dangerous journey to get there, and even more dangerous within. But the horn is sacred to us. If you follow the Way, you will return. And while your housecarl is welcome to accompany you there, she must not enter. The task is for you alone. She would not survive, in any case.”
The truth was, I was more than ready for an adventure. Travelling through the wilds? Exactly what I needed. A catacomb filled with draugr and wights? A fine challenge. Anything to be out of High Hrothgar and back in the world!
“Don’t worry, Master. I will return with the horn.”
“Sky guard you,” he said, and left me to pack for my journey.
The Vilemyr Inn was crowded and hot, a welcome change after my icy trip down the mountain. It was after dark when I arrived, and I was tired, footsore, and chilled to the core. To be sure, it was easier descending the mountain than climbing up it. But I had started late, having waited for the weather to break at the top. Half-way down, a freezing rain moved in, and I had to pick my way carefully over patches of black ice. Then an ice-wraith caught me unawares, giving me a chilling blast that froze my soaked robes to my skin. It took me some time to drive it off with a flame spell. So it was good to feel the rush of heat as I opened the inn’s door, and to hear voices raised in song.
The place was filled with a smattering of townspeople, but mostly off-duty guards, both women and men. In the midst of the soldiers sat Lydia, singing along with the rest. She held a mug in her left hand, and occasionally she would clink it with her neighbors to punctuate the drinking song. She certainly looked in her element. I couldn’t help wondering if this was what she had been doing, drinking and singing for three days, while I toiled away in the darkness and silence of High Hrothgar. I stood just inside the doorway watching her and her new friends, trying to put such thoughts aside. Yet somehow I couldn’t just break in on their merriment.
Finally Lydia looked up and saw me. “Deirdre!” I saw more than heard her exclaim, since her voice was drowned out in the din of the music. She stood from her place and came over to give me a hearty hug. “You’re so cold!” she said, looking at me with concern. “I’ve been wondering when you’d arrive.”
“Yes,” I said. “It looks like you’ve been out of your mind with worry.” I tried to smile, to hide the icy tone I couldn’t keep out of my voice.
“Just passing the time until you got here,” she replied.
“I’m glad you were having a good time,” I said. “One of us had to, at least.”
“Those old men were finally too much for you, weren’t they? But come, let’s get you a hot drink and some food, and you can meet my friends.”
We went over to the table and Lydia began naming off her companions: Drahff, Garthar, Britte, Iddra, until I couldn’t keep up. “Lads and lasses, this is Deirdre, whom I am proud to serve.” Most of the guards at the table greeted me politely, if not too warmly – except for one, a large Nord down at the end of the table. He just sipped his ale and looked at me. His eyes were bleary from drink.
The tavern lass brought me a mug of hot cider and a bowl of steaming soup made from onions, potatoes, and peas in a beef broth. The cider was fermented and the first sip went straight to my head. I concentrated on the soup for a time, Lydia seated beside me drinking her ale and telling the guards about High Hrothgar. I could tell this wasn’t the first time they had heard her tale. How much had she told them, I wondered.
“So you’re learning the Voice up at the Greybeards’ place, eh?” said the Nord at the end of the table. I had forgotten his name already.
“That’s right,” I said warily. The last thing I needed was this lot finding out I was the Dragonborn.
“So how ’bout it then? Give us a shout. Let’s see what ye can do.”
The other guards nodded and shouted in agreement. “I’ve always wanted to hear someone use the Voice,” said one of the female guards. “Especially after Ulfric shouted down High King Torygg.”
“The first thing the Greybeards teach,” I told them, “is that the Voice is to be used only for True Needs. I can’t use it just for show.”
“Sod the Greybeards and their rules,” said the large Nord. “What good’s a weapon like that if you don’t show people you mean to use it? You should be going to Windhelm and joining Ulfric’s cause, that ye should.”
“No,” I said firmly. I held his gaze until he went back to his mug.
He didn’t stay quiet for long. I was half way done with my soup and into my second mug of cider – feeling considerably warmer and even more light-headed – when the fool spoke up again.
“What are ye, anyway?” he said, glaring toward me. “Ye don’t look like any Nord I’ve ever seen.”
I took a breath. I could feel Lydia tensing next to me. “My mother was a Breton, and my father was a Nord,” I said as evenly as I could. With difficulty, I refrained from asking if he had a problem with my parentage. I tried taking another deep breath, filling my mind with the serenity of the sky, but the hulking brute went on.
“A mixed-blood, eh? Pfft! We don’t get a lot of that around here, nor none of the other races. Just true Nords here in Ivarstead. Never seen any but Nords go up the mountain, neither. I’m surprised they took ye.”
My breathing wasn’t working. I felt the blood rushing through my head and my heart pounding. My arms and legs felt numb. I don’t know what would have happened if Lydia hadn’t stood up just then.
“That’s my thane you’re talking about, Lars!” she said. Lars – of course! What else could his name be? Large Lars. I stood up too, trying to calm her down. I was still enough in my right mind to remember that we were supposed to be anonymous pilgrims.
“Thane, eh?” Lars said, tipping back in his chair and smiling. “Thane of what, some Nine-forsaken bit of Breton rock?” That got some laughs from his friends.
“Deirdre is as true-hearted and brave as any Nord you’ll find, no matter who her parents were,” Lydia said. “If you could only hear the stories they’re telling in Whiterun of the day she fought…”
I stepped on her boot under the table before she could say more. “Come, Lydia,” I said, taking her by the arm, “I think it’s time we retired. We have an early…”
But Lydia would not be calmed, short of magic at least. “Speak of my th… my friend in that way again, and you’ll have me to answer to.”
Now it was Lars’ turn to stand up. He really was large, looming over Lydia by more than a head. To me, he was like a giant. His muscle-bound arms rippled as he clenched and unclenched his fists. He jabbed a finger at her and said, “You had a sweeter tongue when I was rubbing that salve on your back!”
Everything seemed to stop then. The tavern had grown silent and I could feel dozens of pairs of eyes on the three of us. I could only stare at Lydia. She stared at Lars, blinking.
Finally, she said, “That was before you started insulting my friend.”
Suddenly I wanted to be shut of all of them. Let Lydia sort this problem out. “Right then,” I said. “I’ll leave you to it. I’m off to bed.”
I turned to leave the main hall, and I heard Lydia turn to follow, when one of Lars’ friends spoke up. “Leave the lasses be, Lars. We’ve got ale to drink.”
“Aye,” Lars said. “What do I care who the wench hangs about with?”
I closed my eyes and groaned. By the time I could turn around, Lydia had rushed up to Lars, her finger thumping him in the chest. “What did you call me?” she demanded.
“A sharp-tongued wench, and I’ll call ye that again.”
Lydia moved so fast I couldn’t see exactly what happened. In two blinks Lars found himself on his back, Lydia’s knee driving into his belly, her dagger at his throat. With her left hand, she held his head down while jabbing a thumb into his eye. Her shoulder must be feeling better, I thought.
“I gave you a chance, you arrogant bastard, now tell me why I shouldn’t cut out your tongue.”
“I’m sorry,” he said through gritted teeth. “Ow, not my eye! I just … I didn’t mean any harm. I was just sportin’ with ye, and the Breton lass.”
“Sport is what you call that, eh?” she said. “I’ll show you a few sports you won’t much like. One’s called ‘Watch the Nord Chase his Balls.’ How does that sound?”
“No, no, you’re not serious!”
“Swear you’ll go home and sleep it off and never bother my friend or me again!”
“I swear,” he gasped. I could see the fear in his eyes, but there was also hatred. Finally she let him up off the floor.
“Go on home, Lars,” said the tavern keeper, who was now standing nearby. “You’ve caused enough trouble for one night. How am I supposed to stay in business if you chase away every pilgrim who passes through?”
Lars staggered from the building. “About time someone taught that bully a lesson,” said one of the female guards. Several other women, and even a couple of men, applauded. Someone spoke up in Lars’ defense, and soon the whole tavern was debating the altercation. I turned and headed for our room.
I began to change out of my still-clammy robes. Lydia came in and we went about our business in silence. I dried my hair and re-braided my plaits. I was about to get into bed when I heard her give a half-suppressed grunt of pain. She had tried to take the bottle of salve down from the top shelf of the room’s wardrobe with her left hand. “Gods!” she groaned, rubbing her shoulder.
“Is it no better?” I asked.
“It was, but I think I just reinjured it,” she said. “By the Nine, how could I be so stupid?”
“You don’t have to tell me about anger,” I said. “It’s a good thing you stepped in when you did. I wish you hadn’t attacked him though – we’ll have to return here soon enough. There are worse things to be called than wench.”
“If they’re calling you wench to your face, they’re calling you worse behind your back, I reckon. I won’t stand for any of it.”
She pulled her cuirass over her head with difficulty, then undid the leather laces holding together the neck of her tunic, shrugging it down off her left shoulder. Then she tried awkwardly to apply the liniment with her right hand. I sat silently on the edge of my bed, offering no help.
Finally she got up and came over, holding out the bottle. “Here, would you? It’s difficult to reach.”
I took the bottle from her – it was already half empty. She sat down on the edge of the bed with her back to me and I rubbed a dollop of the salve into the spot just below her shoulder where she hadn’t been able to reach. I noticed she was still breathing hard from the confrontation. I was none too gentle, telling myself the injury must be deep, and needed a good kneading. Lydia took her medicine without complaint.
“Is this how Lars did it?” I asked.
“Yes, very like,” she said. “Actually, he was a bit gentler, though his hands are strong.” She sighed.
“A minute ago you had him on the ground with your knife at his throat, and now you’re sighing over his strong hands?”
“Yes, strange, isn’t it?” she said.
I stood up, jamming the stopper back into the bottle. “How could you let that brute touch you?” I demanded.
She re-tied the laces at the neck of her tunic, then stood up too. “You’re just a lass in many ways, my thane. What do you know of what a woman wants?”
She was right – I had no idea. I doubted I ever would. But surely not that – not Lydia and that lout. “You don’t mean…?”
“What, me and Lars?” she said. Now her eyes flashed at me, as if I was the one who had called her a wench. “Not to worry, it was just the shoulder rub once or twice. You don’t think I fall into bed with every rugged Nord who comes along, do you?”
“No, no,” I said as she turned and began putting her armor back on. “It’s just that, it was so lonely up there for three days with the Greybeards, no one to talk to or joke with, and then it was such a long cold trek down the mountain, and I was looking forward to seeing you, and then there you were, surrounded by your new friends. What was I to think, coming from three days of solitary meditation only to find you’ve spent those days making merry?”
Her voice became quiet then, and dropped half a register. “My thane,” she said, tugging at the straps and buckles on her cuirass, “I have spent the last three days exercising the horses, which they sorely needed after five days cooped up in a pen. I laid in stores and sorted our gear in preparation for journeying to wherever we’re off to next, which you still haven’t told me. In between, the guards here allowed me to practice with them. I worked on my archery, my hand-to-hand, my axe-and-shield, and both one- and two-handed sword skills, all to be ready for whatever we might face. I even practiced some of the dragon tongue Arngeir taught me. If I could shout Shul at you now, I likely would. Now I’m going to bed before I say anything else. I imagine we have an early start tomorrow.”
With that, she pulled her knife from its sheath and laid it on the table next to her bed. Her axe and shield were close to hand. Angry as she was, she still took her duty to protect me seriously. Then she got into her bed, facing the wall.
I went to my own bed, and lay there, staring at the ceiling and feeling more alone than I had at High Hrothgar.
The next days of traveling were difficult – and not because of bandits, rogue mages, or wild beasts we met along the way. We ate a silent breakfast that next morning, just the two of us in the silent tavern. We packed our gear onto our horses in silence and departed Ivarstead silently in a raw, gray dawn. Even the autumn leaves with their bright reds and golds couldn’t cheer us, nor could the better weather we found as we descended the bench upon which Ivarstead sat.
I knew I should apologize. I remembered apologizing to my parents for my lack of diligence in their shop, but it had always been difficult. There was something prideful in me that couldn’t admit to being wrong. It was the same now. But I knew I must make amends, or we would face many a difficult mile as thane and housecarl.
“Lydia,” I began.
“I don’t blame you for being angry with me, my thane,” she interrupted. Her voice sounded stiff and formal. “No housecarl should ever speak to her thane the way I spoke to you. I am sorry for my words, and beg you not to release me from your service before it has truly begun.” She must have been rehearsing that for some time, I thought.
“No, Lydia,” I said. I tried to catch her eye, but she only looked down at her horse’s mane. “No housecarl should hesitate to speak freely when her words are just. I am the one who must apologize. I shouldn’t have doubted your sense of duty, and as for those with whom you keep company – and how you keep it – it is no business of mine or anyone else’s. I hope you will forgive me, and agree to continue in my service.” I held out a gloved hand. “Friends again?”
She looked up at me finally and reached across between our horses to shake my hand. “Friends,” she agreed and smiled for the first time that day. It was a welcome sight.
Yet she remained quiet, even after we struck the main road between Riften and Whiterun. When we did talk, our conversation lacked the easiness I had grown used to on our journey to the Throat of the World. I tried pointing out the hardy late-blooming flowers along the roadside – a welcome sight for me after a week in the permanent winter of High Hrothgar – but nothing seemed to catch her attention or lift her mood. She didn’t even protest when I proposed that we take the Windhelm road rather than the one that passed Whiterun. I knew Lydia would surely welcome a visit home, yet how could I show my face in Dragonsreach before gaining a weapon to wield against the dragons? She merely nodded in silent assent to my plan.
So we rode north mostly in silence, arriving at a junction of roads just west of Windhelm in mid-afternoon of the second day. It was my first view of the imposing city, with its high, sturdy walls of square-cut stone. The Palace of the Kings was set well back from those walls and loomed above them. Where Dragonsreach towered into the sky, this castle was solid and fortress-like. It was easy to see how it had survived the thousands of years since Ysgramor had it built. Its square-topped battlements were covered in snow, for we had traveled out of the country of autumn into the lands of permanent winter.
As we paused to take it in, I thought idly of stopping in the city to visit Ralof – it was not far out of our way. Then we heard a roaring from far off. At first I thought it was a bear, but it was much deeper. Lydia spotted it first, pointing to the north. “Look! A dragon!”
She was right. The beast’s wings stretched out over the mountains north of Windhelm as it soared toward the city, its long tail trailing behind. When those wings flapped, we could feel their beating even from this distance. I remembered the feeling of my dream dragon flight, as we rushed through the mountain passes. Even now, as the sky-winger flew in a straight line toward the city, I thought it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. Was it Alduin? I couldn’t be sure.
“It’s going to attack Windhelm!” Lydia exclaimed. “Let us meet it!” She turned her horse toward the city. Her first view of a dragon, and she showed not a hint of fear, wanting only to rush into battle.
But as we watched, the dragon sailed high above Windhelm and continued its way south and east, disappearing over the mountains between Eastmarch and the Rift. In a few minutes it had covered ground that would take us half a day to ride over.
“Should we follow?” Lydia asked.
“We cannot chase a dragon that way,” I said to her. “Nor do I think we are ready to face one on our own. But we must complete our task all the quicker!”
So we turned away from Windhelm. We pushed our horses hard and camped near Fort Dunstad that evening. The next morning we descended from the ice-clad mountains to the low marshlands of Hjaalmarch. Cedars and a few scrubby trees grew sparsely here, clinging to life in the boggy soil. The rest was bare, lichen-covered rock with a few sedges and the poisonous nightshade growing in between, interspersed with channels of open water. Though the sun was out, patches of low fog hung over the lowlands. We arrived at Ustengrav at mid-day.
It was not what I expected – neither a pit in the ground with a door leading to catacombs within, nor a mountain temple like Bleak Falls Barrow. It was an ancient walled fane with the remains of out-buildings around the perimeter. At its center stood the hof, remarkably well preserved for its age. It was built of stone, partly crumbling, with one supporting arch visible where the roof had fallen away. Tall gabled windows decorated its sides. The roof ends and one set of arches bore carven dragon heads guarding the four directions. With its great height and soaring buttresses, it must have struck awe in the people who once worshipped here. Now, the place seemed deserted.
Well preserved though it was, the whole place was sinking. Ustengrav sat next to one of Hjaalmarch’s many wetlands, and water was reclaiming it. Its western wall stood a foot deep already, and the temple itself tilted to that side. Boggy patches spread across the temple grounds, and green growth covered every structure – moss, lichen, or mold, we could not tell.
“I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” Lydia said as we sat our horses on a low rise to the east, looking down on the place. She would not look at me, but I could tell she was worried for me. “This is wrong,” she protested. “I am sworn to protect you from all danger. How can I let you go in there alone?”
“I must pass this test on my own,” I said. “Arngeir must think I can survive, or why would he send me? But he was certain you wouldn’t. I won’t have you dying needlessly on my behalf.”
“Swear to me you won’t die in there, my thane,” she said. “I couldn’t show my face in Dragonsreach if anything happened to you.”
“Don’t worry,” I told her. “I will pass this test.” Yet she still looked worried as I dismounted and made a final check of the potions and weapons I would take with me. Then I walked through one of the archways in the wall.
I was surprised that the place seemed so deserted, since bandits usually took up residence in ruins like this. The low wall with its openings to the four directions certainly wouldn’t keep anyone out. I had simply walked in. Now I had to decide where in this compound to begin my search for the Horn of Jurgen Windcaller. Little was left of the out-buildings but stone foundations and one or two arches where doorways had been. The rest must have been made of timber. I decided that the temple itself was the obvious hiding place.
I had taken only a few steps toward it when a spectral figure appeared before me. So this explained Ustengrav’s desolation – it was haunted. The figure looked much like one of the Greybeards. It wore the same robes, but its hood was drawn so low I couldn’t see the face, only a bit of beard tied in a knot. Perhaps this wasn’t a ghost, but some sort of magical projection from High Hrothgar?
“Master, I am ready…” I began, but the figure shouted at me.
The shout shook me, but I knew those words. The Masters had taught me only two shouts, but I had taken time to look at the book of dragon speech Arngeir had given Lydia to study. It was not the same as a rune wall etching a word into my mind, but it had to be good for something. They are only words, I told myself. “Fear. Run. Terror.” They cannot harm me. I can ignore them if I choose. At the same time I breathed, filling myself with the emptiness of the sky. How could words hurt nothing? I felt fear creeping through me and my heart beating faster, but I did not run away.
“I do not fear you, Master,” I said.
The figure gave a little chuckle. I had never heard Arngeir or the other masters at High Hrothgar laugh.
“Strun-Bah-Qo!” he shouted. Storm-Wrath-Lightning. Those might be just words, but now real clouds blotted out the weak noonday sun, and the wind began to blow. Soon real rain was falling, then hail. Lightning struck the hof, leaving a phosphorescent glow in the moss clinging to its sides. Thunder clapped a split-second later, shaking the air and ground.
I breathed again. “Kynareth, goddess of sky and the elements, I have devoted myself to you. Do not slay me now. Let me be empty like the sky and let the storm pass through me.”
Lightning was striking all around, yet it did not come near me. But the hailstones had grown larger and my hood and mage’s robes offered little protection from the sting of the pellets. I made my way over to one of the standing arches and huddled beneath its shelter, hoping to wait for the storm to pass.
Then I heard the clatter of hail on metal and turned to see Lydia. She had entered the compound the same way I had, and now crouched under her shield. Lightning flashed all around her.
“No!” I shouted, leaving my shelter and running toward her. “Go back! This storm will kill you!”
Before I could reach her, a thunderclap shook the air and everything around me lit up. I felt a vibrating power coursing through me. I had just time to think that this is how it feels to be struck by lightning before I hit the ground. But then it was over, and I was still alive. The bolt seemed not to have hurt me at all, other than to leave a tingling at the ends of my fingers and toes. I gathered myself and got to my feet.
Lydia still crouched under her shield, her eyes wide as she gaped at me. Whether her luck or Kynareth had protected her, the lightning had not struck her, and now the storm grew less.
“You fool!” I said when I reached her. “That storm could have killed you.”
“As it could have killed you, my thane,” she said, though she still stared at me in wonder.
“Yet as you can see, it did not. Now go wait outside the walls before I cast a fear spell and make you run away.” The sky was growing lighter within the walls, and beyond them it looked as if there had never been a storm at all.
She did as I asked, though she looked none too happy. Then I turned back to my task. The Greybeard’s specter had disappeared, and the way to the temple was clear.
I reached the massive iron doors, only to find them locked, with no keyhole to pick. Making my way around the structure, I found no other entrances, just sheer walls and stone buttresses soaring into the sky. The windows were all too high to reach. Even then, they were too narrow to allow me passage. I quickly discarded the thought of climbing up to the opening in the roof – the stone blocks were so close-set that such a feat surpassed my skill. Surely the horn would be inside the hof, yet how could I retrieve it if I couldn’t get inside?
Frustrated, I began exploring the rest of the temple grounds. I found stone foundations of what must have been dormitories, a large fireplace in what was once a kitchen, and a circular arrangement of stone columns forming an outdoor shrine. If there had ever been a statue or an altar within the circle, it was gone.
Then I saw five large, grass-covered mounds at the farthest corner of the compound. Paths sloped down to doorways set in their faces, all shut save one, which stood ajar. Of course! How could I explore a Nord temple without going into its catacombs?
The door creaked open as I pushed on it, revealing a stone chamber beyond. The weak sunlight illuminated only the first few feet. Beyond that, it was pitch dark. I took a step inside. A half-inch of water and green slime sloshed around my leather boots. Rats squeaked in the far corners of the chamber. I stood there for a moment expecting skeevers – or something worse – to attack out of the darkness.
I needed light. Heat wouldn’t go amiss either, so I chose a torch rather than cast a spell of magelight. The rats scampered away as the light filled the room, but otherwise it was empty. The chamber formed a long hallway, with an arch supporting the roof halfway down its length. Stone crypts lined the walls, each in its own alcove. Fortunately, the caskets’ occupants remained sleeping as I passed.
At the far end of the chamber, I descended a spiral wooden stairway, accompanied by the sound of water dripping down the stairwell. The water on the floor was deeper on the level below, which extended at a right angle to the one above it. That was good – the upper passage led away from the temple, maybe this one would lead toward it. The hall was lined with alcoves like the one above, but these contained no crypts, only the remains of ancient Nords lying in the open. These were no draugr, but skeletons whose flesh had rotted away long ago.
Of course I had read of skeletal walkers in many a storybook, but I still gasped as two of them awakened and began laboriously to unfold their limbs from the alcoves in which they had slept for millennia. Blast the flame! I had been sneaking, but the heat or the light must have given me away. Still, the torch proved useful – I bashed the nearest walker with it before he could fully rise from his resting place. He exploded into a scatter of bones. A flame spell took care of the second one. I should have known that skeletons would be less formidable than draugr, but that had been too easy. I wasn’t even breathing hard.
Still, it wouldn’t do to awaken all of Ustengrav’s undead denizens with a torch. I reluctantly extinguished it, but not before casting magelight at the far end of the corridor. The glowing ball stuck where it struck the wall. I drew my bow and hid in the shadows, waiting for anything else to awaken. When there was no sound, I crept to the end of the corridor, turned the corner, and cast another ball of light to its farthest end. In this way, I made my way along the hall as it twisted and turned in what I hoped was the direction of the temple. I disturbed no more skeletal sleepers.
After three or four turns in the passage, I came to a wider hallway containing neither skeletons nor crypts. Three stone pillars stood in a line and beyond them was a narrower corridor barred by three portcullises in a row. As I approached the pillars, I wondered if they could be a door puzzle like the ones I had seen before. But these had no markings, and they would not turn. Nor was there an obvious trap, no spiked gate and no dart-holes in the walls nearby. Then I noticed circles of stone in the otherwise irregular flagging next to each pillar. I put my full weight on the first one, and the first portcullis withdrew into the ceiling. The next two gates opened in similar fashion. An easy puzzle, I thought as I stepped toward the open passageway.
Then the first portcullis slid shut, followed quickly by the second, then the third. Not so easy after all. I tried running and then sprinting as hard as I could, but still the gates closed before I could get through. I sat down, leaning against my knapsack and the first pillar, pondering my predicament. If ever there was a place for the Whirlwind Sprint shout, this was it. Yet Master Arngeir said I must follow the Way, using the Voice only for true needs. Was this a true need? If I hoped to retrieve the horn, I could see no other way.
I stood once again before the first pillar, then sprinted toward the portcullises. The instant my foot struck the third plate, I shouted “Wuld!” I felt the same exhilarating burst of speed I had experienced at High Hrothgar, and in an instant found myself on the other side of the third gate.
Now I was in a larger, round chamber. Water dripped from its walls and a tangle of roots grew from the ceiling and along the floor. At its opposite end was a word wall, illuminated by dim rays shining through a skylight. I approached the wall and heard the chanting and saw the glowing runes. This time Feim was the word that echoed in my mind, etching its way deep into my memory. That was Fade, the first word of the Become Ethereal shout. That could be useful, I thought, but not until I absorbed another dragon soul or Master Borri shared its deep meaning with me. If I had to learn all the shouts in this way – first learning a word from one of these walls, then slaying a dragon or traveling to High Hrothgar – it would be long indeed until I was ready to face Alduin.
Only one narrow passage led out of the word wall chamber, and it was the wettest yet, with slimy green water up to my ankles. The leather uppers of my boots had soaked through. I guessed that the passages had taken me beyond the temple nearly to the open water of the marshes. The walls were dripping and covered with glow mushrooms. I didn’t pause to collect them, I was that focused on my task. I was glad to see a ladder leading up a level, where I hoped it would be drier.
I emerged into a small ante-chamber. Beyond it was another long hall, its walls adorned with crude engravings of dragons, and the lintel above the far door with a carven dragon head, its jaws thrusting wide toward any who dared to pass beneath. But the mute dragon was not the doorway’s only guardian. A spectral Greybeard blocked the passage, and there were two more masters, one on either side of the hall. They stood on low galleries raised two steps above the main floor. The one at the far end beckoned me forward with a slow wave of his hand.
I took two deep breaths, then walked slowly forward, still focusing on breathing, though communing with the sky was difficult in such a dank place. Would all three shout at me at once? I needed to be prepared.
On my fifth breath, I drew even with the two masters in the middle of the hall. At first they only stared at me as I looked from one to the other. Then they drew breath at the same time and I knew they would shout. Taking shouts from two directions at once – that couldn’t be good.
Without thinking, I dropped to my belly and flattened myself on the floor, breathing and trying to concentrate on the words of their shouts. But each spoke different words and I couldn’t sort them out. I thought I heard Iiz from one, and maybe Shul from the other. How could I deflect the Words of Power if I couldn’t understand them? Then the blast of the shouts came.
I don’t know why I covered my head with my hands. I could feel one glove scorching and the other glove freezing. Either the main force of the shouts passed over me, or I was able to understand enough of each to deflect them, or perhaps both. One side of my body felt warm and the other felt cold, but I was neither burned nor frozen. Then the shouts met in the air above me, neutralizing each other. The fire turned the ice to vapor and a fine mist fell all around me.
As I got back to my feet, the two masters gestured for me to continue forward to the third, then disappeared. I walked slowly forward, trying to recover my breathing. The spectral Greybeard seemed to be inviting me forward. Then he too drew breath for a shout. We were on the same level. There would be no ducking beneath his voice. I could only stand and take it.
Maybe it was a lucky guess, but I thought I knew what this master would shout. “Ro!” I said to myself, and tried to let the meaning of the word, balance, suffuse my being. Breathe in, Ro, hold, Ro, breathe out.
When the master shouted, he put his whole body into it, taking a step toward me to add force and striking at the air with his fists. His face jutted out at me then, and spectral though he was, I thought I recognized Master Wulfgar. “Fus-Ro-Dah!” he shouted.
I had braced myself, but still the shout knocked me back a step and left me gasping for air. But it had not flung me across the room, nor had it torn me apart. I had survived. When I recovered my breath, the master stood aside and ushered me through the doorway, beneath the dragon’s gaping maw. Beyond it I found a ladder leading upward, with natural light shining from above.
I emerged from the catacombs into a small ante-chamber. The sun must have come out now, because beams of light shone through the two narrow windows, creating shafts of brilliance separated by motes of darkness. A set of iron doors stood at one end of the chamber, barred by a stout oak beam. I realized I was in the temple. I had passed all of the tests and obstacles set for me by the Greybeards. Now where would I find the Horn of Jurgen Windcaller?
Brighter light came through the archway opposite the iron doors. I stepped toward it, thinking the horn must be somewhere within. Then all thought of my quest left me as I gasped at the sight of the temple’s main hall. Shafts of light shone through the narrow windows, suffusing the carven stone buttresses and rows of stone pews in a warm glow. But what really drew my eye was the temple altar, illumined by the brighter light shining through the gaps in the roof. Mosses hung from the walls and ivy clung to the stone arch spanning the empty space where the roof had fallen in. All glistened with droplets from the recent rain storm.
The altar was a stone table with stylized stone dragon heads at each corner. But the dragons’ features weren’t simply etched into the stone, they were inlaid with silver that reflected the sun’s rays in dazzling radiance. High up on the wall behind the altar was another carven dragon head, this one worked in exquisite detail from white stone rather than the usual black. Short curved horns sprouted from its head, and there were more around its chin, rather like a beard. Its scales were inlaid silver and its eyes were red rubies. In the brilliant sunlight the dragon glowed with both fire and frost.
Beneath the dragon’s head, raised up to a place of prominence on a tall dais, sat an elaborately worked chest, banded in silver and gold and rich with silver inlay, giving off its own radiant glow. Surely, the Horn of Jurgen Windcaller lay within it, I thought, and I began making my way up the long aisle toward it.
Then the spectral Greybeards appeared in front of me, one before the altar, and one on either side of the aisle and about halfway along it. I noticed too a pedestal in the center of the aisle between the two masters. Above it, floating in mid-air, was a large silver key, its handle encrusted in rubies. It revolved slowly, giving off flashes of light.
The three masters turned in my direction and bowed – but not to me, to someone behind me. I turned, and there was another Greybeard. His hood was far back on his head so I could see his face. It was incredibly old and reflected that same deep calm the other masters had, but it was one I did not recognize. He spoke to me.
“Dovahkiin, you have done well. You face one more test of your Voice, and one final challenge, then my Horn will be yours. You have only to take the key and open the chest you see on the altar. Do you understand?”
“I think so, Master Jurgen,” I said. “But it must be more difficult than that, am I right?”
“Indeed,” he said. “You must reach the key before Master Bolli, who stands before the altar. Since you know only the first word of Whirlwind Sprint, he will refrain from using it. You, however, should attempt to reach the key by whatever means necessary. Understood?”
“Good. Let the race begin when the key drops to the pedestal.”
I turned to face the pedestal and prepared myself to spring and shout Wuld at the same time. But Master Bolli just stood there calmly with his hands clasped before him. Then the key dropped and the race was on.
I lunged forward as Bolli took a slow and deliberate step toward the key. Then from behind me I heard a shout. It was not Fus-Ro-Dah, though it shook me just the same, it was so strong. “Tiid-Klo-Ul!” I heard. Time-Sand-Eternity. The Slow Time shout. Suddenly I was frozen. I was straining to run but my arms and legs barely moved. Across from me, Bolli continued his slow and deliberate stroll down the aisle to the key. He would reach it in less than a minute while I moved imperceptibly.
I tried to breathe, to call on the power of the sky, but my breathing was just as slow as my running. Only my thoughts moved apace with the rest of the temple’s occupants. I gave a silent prayer. “Akatosh, Master of Time, if you hear me, remove this shout and let time return to normal.” It was a weak appeal, but it was the best I could do in the time available. Master Bolli was more than halfway to the key.
Whirlwind Sprint was the only way I could beat Bolli now, slowed time or no. I couldn’t utter the shout, but I could think it. “Wuld!” I said to myself. I concentrated on the word as hard as I could, tried to let its meaning suffuse my being. I closed my eyes, because the sight of Master Bolli reaching toward the key was too distracting. “Wuld!” I tried to hear in my mind as loud as if I had actually shouted.
When I opened my eyes, my hand rested on the key. Master Bolli’s spectral hand was only inches away. Then he withdrew it, folded his hands together, and bowed. It was strange – I never felt the lurch of speed I had felt the two other times I had used the shout. Maybe Akatosh had intervened after all.
I turned back to Master Jurgen. “Very good, Dovahkiin. You have the key, and the way to the chest is clear.” Then he disappeared. I looked down at the key in my hand. I had only to walk a score of paces and my quest would be fulfilled. I would have the horn to deliver to High Hrothgar. I turned and looked up the aisle. The three other masters had disappeared as well. The way really was clear. Yet somehow it seemed too easy. Had I really demonstrated my mastery of the Way of the Voice?
Then I heard a sound from behind me, in the temple’s nave. I turned to look. The light was dimmer there, and it was hard to see, but it seemed I was no longer looking at the nave. Instead, I saw a house – my house, the one where I grew up.
A woman’s voice called from the shadows beside it. “Deirdre, darling, is it really you?”
I knew that voice, but it couldn’t be. I moved toward that end of the temple, but it was still difficult to see into the gloom. Then a man’s voice: “Deirdre, lass, we’ve missed you.”
Now I could see two figures. “Mother? Father?” I called. I took two more steps and finally I could see that it really was my parents. There was my father, with his long blonde hair and beard. He was dressed in the finely woven tunic he always wore on his trading trips. My mother stood next to him, petite, with dark hair. I saw her kind eyes and remembered how many times they had gazed gently down at me, as she soothed some hurt. I almost sobbed.
“Yes, dearest, we’re here,” she said. They took a step toward me.
I was about to run to them when another voice called out. “You there, Silver-Tongue!” A man stepped out from behind a stone column and I recognized Osmer’s father. He was carrying a torch. Behind him Osmer cowered with his hands out, as if trying to restrain him, but afraid to do more than plead. “What kind of Breton witchcraft have you brought to our village? You should have seen what your daughter did to my son!”
“No, father, it’s all right,” called Osmer. I had never heard his voice sound so timid before.
Then there were more shouts and a crowd of men appeared behind Osmer and his father. “Breton witch!” they yelled. Then I saw my father turn to my mother and push her toward the house. I couldn’t hear what he said to her over the shouting. Nor could they hear me as I shouted, “No, not that way, run to me!” It all looked so real, I wanted to run to them and save them. But something held me back and I just watched in horror as my mother disappeared inside.
Father turned back to the mob and began arguing with Osmer’s father. I couldn’t make out the words, but soon another of the Nords approached Father from one side and knocked him to the ground. Father was tall, but not as tall and strong as the woodcutters, and they were many. He got up and ran into the house.
I could not watch what I knew would happen next. The yelling of the men grew louder and angrier as they debated what to do. They passed a jug of some type of alcohol around between them. When the first torch flew through a window, I turned my back on the scene, covering my ears. Now I saw that four spectral masters stood before the altar. There was no escaping the vision that way. I dropped to my knees and buried my face in my lap, stopping my ears with my arms. But still the screams I had heard in my nightmares came through, more real than I could ever have imagined, until I drowned them with my own screams.
Some time must have passed because quiet had come to the temple once again. The only sounds were those of the last flames flickering in the remains of the house. I rose and turned to look. I had no fear of it – the image was already seared into my mind. Then I saw three figures approaching – Osmer’s father and two of his friends, even larger than he. Somehow, they were able to come closer to me than my parents had been able to do. They stopped just three paces away.
“This is all your fault, you Breton slut,” Osmer’s father almost spat at me. “You bewitched him! You lured my son away from his work and then you tried to kill him! Your foreign sorcery didn’t work, and now your parents are dead. But it should have been you!”
His face was nearly purple with rage, and my own anger had risen to meet his. I was breathing hard, and not in a way that let in the serenity of the sky. My heart was beating fast and my fists were clenched. Just a shout, just a spike of ice, or a burst of flame, and my parents would be avenged. I was so angry I felt I could tear the three of them apart with my bare hands. And they were only three steps away.
I’ll never know if I truly mastered my anger that day. Did I really find balance with my dragon nature, or did I simply realize that this was just a vision, and not my parents’ murderers? Whatever the reason, my heart’s beating finally slowed and I drew a deep breath. I turned to look up at the patch of sky visible through the hole in the roof. “Kynareth give me strength,” I breathed. I took three more breaths, ignoring the men taunting me for my cowardice. Then I turned back to them.
“No, go away,” I said in an even voice. “I will have justice upon you another day.” The men said nothing, but simply vanished.
I turned back to the Greybeards’ specters. “Was that really necessary?” I asked, though I knew I wouldn’t get an answer. I realized my cheeks were wet and I tried to dry them on my sleeve. Surely I’ve passed the final test, I thought. As if confirming it, the masters bowed toward me, then vanished.
Key in hand, I went around the altar and approached the dais where the chest sat. Only then did I notice that the light from the windows and the openings in the roof had grown dimmer. What rays there were slanted in from the west, casting shadows far into the temple.
Climbing the steps of the dais, I quickly found the lock on the front of the chest. I inserted the key. It turned easily, with a gratifying tumbling of blocks, and the chest’s lid popped ajar. I took a moment to admire the intricately inlaid engravings of shapes both dragon and human. Then I lifted the lid.
The chest was empty, save for a single piece of paper.
“Well,” Lydia asked, “did you get it? Do you have the horn?”
I leaned against the arched opening in Ustengrav’s outer wall and shook my head, holding the note out to her. Something about enduring the Greybeards’ shouts, or perhaps the confrontation with my parents’ killers, had sapped my strength.
“‘Dragonborn, I need to speak with you,'” Lydia read from the message. “‘Urgently. Meet me at the Blade and Dragon in Windhelm. Ask for the upstairs room. A friend.’ What does this mean? Do we have to go to Windhelm now?”
“Yes,” I said, “and as soon as possible. Whoever left the note must have the horn, though they don’t…” Suddenly my legs felt weak and the world began to spin.
“Deirdre? Are you all right?” Lydia said, reaching out to steady me.
“Just tired,” I said, “but we must keep moving.”
“I’m guessing you didn’t eat while you were in there, did you?” I shook my head. “That and whatever you went through – it must have been a trial, if it was anything like what I saw out here.”
I shook my head. “No, worse.”
“Well no wonder you’re feeling weak. Could you eat anything?”
My belly felt empty, but also nauseated. “I don’t think so,” I said.
“I could set up camp, build a fire. You look awfully pale.”
“No,” I said, as sternly as I could. “I want to be away from here.”
“All right, I know where we can go. Can you ride?”
She had to help me to my horse, and then I didn’t have the strength to lift my foot to the stirrup.
“You can’t ride on your own like that, my thane. Why don’t we ride double and lead your horse?” She wrapped my cloak about me before boosting me onto her mount. Even then it took all the strength I had to get myself into a sitting position. Then she got up behind me, grasping my horse’s lead in one hand. She put the other arm around me to keep me from falling off, then pointed the horses eastward.
In a short time we were back in snow country, yet I began to feel warmer.
“Where are we going?” I asked her.
“To that Stormcloak camp we saw on the way here. It’s not more than an hour away, and they’ll have a fire and food.”
I wanted to argue, but I was too tired. I didn’t want to get involved with the Stormcloaks, but the thought of a warm fire and something hot to drink was too enticing. My head dropped back on Lydia’s shoulder and I slipped into a dream. It must have been a pleasant one because I awoke with a smile on my lips. I wished I could remember what I had dreamt of – so many of my dreams had been disturbing of late.
I opened my eyes to see a fire blazing in a little hollow below us. A guard was challenging us. “We are travellers seeking shelter,” Lydia responded. “My friend needs food and warmth.”
“Well, come forward where I can see you,” said the guard, lifting his torch to see us better in the dim light of dusk. He nodded toward Lydia. “You look all right, but we don’t much hold with mages.”
“Does she look like she’s in any condition to hex a band of soldiers?”
The guard looked at us uncertainly. “Very well then,” he said finally. “Let’s take you to the captain and see what she says.”
The captain, a short Nord woman wearing a cuirass that was too large for her, was more amenable – at first. She soon had us in prized spots before the fire, with steaming bowls of venison broth in our hands. She offered me a dram of brandy, which I declined. My strength was returning somewhat with the warmth and the food, but I doubted I could hold strong drink. As I began to regain my senses, I noticed that most of the camp’s soldiers had gathered around the fire and were eyeing us watchfully. Only the cook went about his business, stirring a large pot over the fire.
Then the captain began to question us, and we had trouble convincing her we weren’t Imperial spies. I let Lydia do most of the talking, as my head was still swimming.
“Come on, Captain,” broke in the cook. “Can’t you see they’re adventurers? Back from plundering Ustengrav, I bet.”
“Ustengrav!” exclaimed one of the other soldiers. “That place is haunted!”
“No more than most, I reckon,” the cook replied. There was something wistful in his tone as he turned to us. “I used to be an adventurer like you. Then I took an arrow in the knee. Now look at me.”
“But you make an excellent broth, my friend,” Lydia said. “It’s much appreciated.”
“Yes, well, this is all very nice,” said the captain, “but the title of adventurer can cover a multitude of sins.”
Finally I mentioned Ralof’s name, and told her I had escaped Helgen with him.
“That’s right, Captain,” one of the soldiers broke in. “When I was in Windhelm last, Ralof told me the story. Said he escaped with a blonde-haired Breton lass. Everyone else is calling her the Assassin of Helgen, after the tale Galmar told. But not Ralof. He hoped she would join our cause. Couldn’t seem to stop talking about her, really. Come to think of it, he mentioned she had a tattoo around her eye. He couldn’t get over how she had marred such a pretty face.”
Lydia elbowed me in the ribs and I turned to see her grinning at me. At least her sense of humor was back, even if it was to tease me.
“Is Ralof still in Windhelm?” I asked. “That’s where we’re bound.”
“Last I heard,” said the soldier. “Anyway, Captain, her story matches Ralof’s.”
With that the captain agreed to let us go on our way, as long as I promised to report to Ulfric when we arrived in Windhelm. “Will you take some rest here?” she asked.
Lydia was ready to say yes, but I interrupted her. “No, we must press on. Our business in Windhelm will not wait.” Ustengrav had taken its toll on me, but I knew we must hasten to find the horn. I felt I had regained enough strength to sit my horse for a few hours.
And so we left the Stormcloak camp an hour after we arrived. The captain still didn’t trust us completely, and sent an escort part way with us, on the pretext of seeing us safely past the bandits who had taken over Fort Dunstad. It was pleasant riding cross-country through the snow with Masser and Secunda shining bright, Lydia bantering with the soldiers in that easy way she had. Once our escort turned back, she reined in beside me. We were back on the road east of Fort Dunstad, and our horses’ hooves clopped along the cobbled roadway.
“It seems we’re killing two birds with one stone by going to Windhelm,” she said. “You’ll get the horn, and get to see Ralof as well.” I didn’t need the moons-light to tell she was grinning at me.
“I do want to see Ralof,” I said, “but he’s a friend, nothing more.”
“In Windhelm they said he was quite the ladies’ man – strong, good looking, red hair. I’d like to lay eyes on him myself. That is, if you’re sure he’s not spoken for.”
It had been long since I had felt jealousy – not since the days when two of my playmates would go off on their own, abandoning me. But this was a grown-up jealousy. Was this the only way to know I was in love – by growing jealous when someone else threatened to take my loved one away? But no, I was sure I didn’t love Ralof, more than I would love a brother.
“Do as you please, I care not,” I said, though I felt something cold in me as I said it. Then to change the subject, I said, “Really, we may kill three birds by going to Windhelm.”
“Really? What’s the third one?”
“I would look on this Ulfric, see if he is deserving of the esteem in which Ralof holds him. He seemed little worthy in Helgen.”
“I thought you wanted to avoid getting caught up with the Stormcloaks?”
“I do, yet I feel that something began on that day in Helgen, and I must see it through. Too, I promised the captain that I would report to Ulfric when we arrived in the city.”
Then we rode in silence, but this time it was a comfortable one, befitting the quiet of the night. Our horses clopped along the roadway and an owl or other night-bird called occasionally, but other than that, all was still. Occasionally I would remark on a flutter of luna moths or the moons-light striking the peaks in a particular way.
If I had hoped to journey all the way to Windhelm that night, it was not to be. No matter the urgency of my errand, I found my eyelids growing heavy and my shoulders sagging. By midnight I could hardly sit my horse, and I was ravenously hungry. Lydia looked tired as well. When the sign outside the Nightgate Inn, with its crescent moon and stars, came into view, we urged our horses ahead.
The place was as rustic as I remembered it, little more than a fishing lodge that happened to sit on the main road between Windhelm and the cities to the west. A pier jutted out into the waters of a small pond, and fish were strung out on drying racks nearby. I went inside to see about a room while Lydia tended the horses.
Inside, the place was equally crude. A plaque of a fish was mounted on the wall behind the small wooden bar, and various bits of fishing gear adorned the hall. There were two tables and a firepit, but not much else. The sleeping rooms adjoining the main hall lacked doors. The same drunkard I had seen last time sat in his usual spot. But tonight a lone woman sat at the one remaining table. She had dark hair and an exotic look, and wore a fine dress that could only have come from Skyrim’s capital, Solitude.
Hadring, the innkeeper, greeted me as I entered. “Welcome, stranger!” I felt comfortable enough that I threw back my hood, and then he recognized me. “Ah, it’s you!” he said. “Deirdre, wasn’t it? I love getting repeat visitors. Have you come over the Wayward Pass again? You’re late enough.”
“No, from the west,” I said, leaning on the bar top. “I’m headed to Windhelm this time.”
“Windhelm! Well, you certainly get around. Weren’t you travelling to Whiterun last time? In a bit of a hurry if I remember.” Lydia entered just then. “I see your choice of travel companions has improved,” Hadring said, smiling at her. “Aren’t you going to introduce me?”
“This is Lydia, my housecarl.” As I turned to introduce her, I noticed the woman at the table was staring at us.
“Housecarl, eh? Haven’t you come up in the world? And Talos strike me if I can remember the last time we had three women here at the same time. Maybe I’ll have to put doors on the rooms after all. Your fellow traveller there gave me quite an earful about the lack of privacy.” He gestured in her direction. She was still looking at us curiously. “My grandfather never put doors on when he built the place, so I figured, why should I? But maybe times are changing and we’ll get more business. Lot of people moving about what with the Civil War and rumors of dragons. Now what can I get you? Feel free to order anything you like – as long as it’s fish!”
It was a difficult decision, but we finally settled on the fish, along with ale for Lydia and mead for me. I paid for our meals and two single rooms, then we took our drinks over to the dark-haired woman’s table. “Do you mind if we sit here?” I asked.
“Oh, sure,” the drunkard called in our direction. “Ignore an old man. What’s wrong with my company, I ask you?”
“Pipe down, Fultheim,” Hadring called from the bar. “You haven’t had a bath in a month and you stink of ale. Who would want to sit with you?” Fultheim went back to grumbling into his mug.
“It would be a pleasure,” the woman said, and we both sat down heavily on the bench opposite her. I tried to place her accent – it reminded me of Cyrodiil. Up close she seemed slightly older than Lydia.
“I’m Deirdre, and this is Lydia,” I said. A basket with sliced bread sat in the center of the table. I reached for a piece without asking, I was that hungry.
“I heard!” the woman said. “I’m Malukah. I’m so glad you’re here. If you let me play a song for you, I get tonight’s room and board for free.”
“Really?” Lydia asked through a mouthful of bread. “This place looks too small to have a tavern singer, especially one dressed so nice.”
“Yes, certainly, but I’m just passing through,” she said. “I’m headed for Windhelm. I come from the Bard’s College in Solitude, and I’ve been going from town to town along the way, playing for my room and board.”
“We’d love to hear a song,” I said as Hadring brought our food over. “It’s not every day we get to hear a true bard.”
“Oh, good,” she said. “Let me get my lute.” We tucked into our food as she got up from the table.
Malukah returned from her room with a strange type of lute whose design I’d never seen before. She took a position at the head of the hall in front of the bar and plucked a few notes. It was a special instrument indeed, more resonant than any lute I’d heard.
“This is a song that’s being requested all over Skyrim,” she said, “but I’ve given it a twist.” She looked at me meaningfully, then launched into the opening notes of “The Dragonborn Comes.” I nearly banged my head on the table. Not that again! I’d had enough of it in Whiterun. Why couldn’t she just sing “Ragnar the Red”?
But then she began to sing and I forgot my objections. She had the most beautiful voice I’d ever heard, as sweet as Mara’s and as resonant as the lute she played. I imagined this is how singers in Sovngarde would sound. In a less-skilled musician’s hands the tune to the song sounded awkward, but Malukah smoothed its rough edges and made it a thing of beauty. A look of joy came over her face as she sang, and anyone could see that she had found her true calling. By the second verse, she had me convinced that I would be the end to the evil of all Skyrim’s foes, whoever they turned out to be. Tired as I had been, my fatigue lifted.
Then, just where the song usually ended, she brought in a different melody. There were no words, just the purity of her voice. She must have learned some sort of musical magic at the Bard’s College, because instead of one singer, she now sounded like two, then four. It was as if an Aetherial choir filled the small inn.
New lyrics came in here too, but this time they were in Dovah. “Dovahkiin, Dovahkiin, naal ak zin los vahrin.” She went on like that for another verse, and her eyes bored into mine until I had to look away. She finished and both Hadring and Fultheim began to applaud loudly. Even Balagog, the Orc who lived in the basement, came up to give a cheer. I could only sit there, stunned. Lydia looked over at me, no doubt wondering what was happening.
“Would you like to hear another?” Malukah asked. “Maybe ‘The Age of Oppression’? Or there’s a new one written by one of my fellow bards, ‘Legends of the Frost’.”
I stood and went up to her. “No,” I said. “But tell me what those words meant.”
“You mean you don’t speak the dragon tongue?” she asked, looking a bit surprised.
“No, why do you think I would? Please tell me what the song says.”
“I can do better than tell you. Come to my room.”
We followed her into the small chamber, and now I too wished for doors that we could shut behind us. As soon as we were inside, she put down her lute and turned on me. “I am surprised you are travelling openly … Dovahkiin!” she said in a low voice.
“How did you know me? Who are you?” Next to me, Lydia was loosening her dagger in its sheath.
“Don’t worry, I am one who means you well – luckily for you. But I could have been anyone. An Imperial agent, or a spy for the Thalmor.”
I looked her up and down. “I ask again, how do you know me? And why do you think anyone is after me?”
“Reckless girl! You’ve made too much of a name for yourself to go about undisguised – especially with that tattoo on your face. The Thalmor have broadsheets with your name and likeness all over Solitude and the western holds. Jarl Balgruuf was either a hero or a fool not to turn you over to them. Now the elves want his head too.”
“But why do they want me?” I asked, though of course I knew.
“Officially, you’re wanted for undermining the White-Gold Concordat and organizing an attack on a band of justiciars. The interesting part is that they want you alive.”
“And the Imperials?”
“They were willing to overlook your escape from their executioner, but now they suspect you will side with Ulfric. And you had to give them your name at Helgen. Then Deirdre Morningsong is named Thane of Whiterun after some strange event with a dragon, and the Greybeards call the Dragonborn to High Hrothgar. They can’t risk a power like yours going over to Ulfric’s side.”
“How do you know all this?”
“I sing at both the Winking Skeever in Solitude and at the Blue Palace. I hear a lot of talk. Bards travel about and bring news as well. The rest I put together on my own. When you walked in here, a young, blonde, Breton woman with a peculiar face tattoo, calling yourself Deirdre, and accompanied by your housecarl Lydia, it was easy to spot. No, you can be sure the Thalmor know exactly who you are, and they are even more afraid of you than the Imperials.”
“Why is that?”
“They cannot bear to see another Ysmir rising to power. They are quite content to let this skirmish between Ulfric and the Empire go on indefinitely, but you are the one who can unite Skyrim against the Aldmeri Dominion. And not just Skyrim, but all of the Empire.”
“Another Ysmir? You must be joking.”
“I assure you I am not. It has been just ten days since you revealed yourself, but already the true Nords in Solitude whisper that you are Talos come again, in woman’s form.”
I mulled this for a long moment. “But I just want to stop the dragons, to keep Alduin from…”
“So it’s true then? Alduin is the dragon that has returned? Akatosh save us!”
“Yes, it seems so. But how could you know about Alduin?”
“It’s in the song. You wanted to know what the lyrics meant. Here, let me show you.” She went to her travelling bag and pulled out a scroll. When she unrolled it for me I saw it was in Dovah, with Common Tongue translations side by side. It was much longer than the one verse she had sung for us.
“Where did you get this?” I asked.
“The master at my college discovered it ages ago in a barrow. He has labored over its translation, making many trips to High Hrothgar, where they know Dovah best. He completed it only recently.”
I quickly found the verse about Alduin:And the Scrolls have foretold, of black wings in the cold, That when brothers wage war come unfurled! Alduin, Bane of Kings, ancient shadow unbound,
With a hunger to swallow the world!
“Yes, that’s the prophecy,” I said. “Do you know what it means, ‘to swallow the world’?”
“He and his dragon followers will kill many and destroy their homes, maybe even returning us to the days of the Dragon Lords. It would be awful.”
“No, worse,” I said. “For the prophecy speaks of four towers. These are not just any towers – they support the very existence of Mundus. Three have already fallen – the Brass, the Red, and the White. That leaves one, the Snow Tower or the Throat of the World. If Alduin and his dragons can break that, our entire world will be destroyed. That is the meaning of World Eater.”
“By the Nine, you have to save us!” she exclaimed. She pointed to the next verse, and sang the words softly. They spoke of Alduin being silenced forever. It ended:
Fair Skyrim will be free from foul Alduin’s maw,
Dragonborn be the savior of men!
“So you see,” I said. “It is Alduin I must face. That’s quite enough, thank you, without also going to war with the Thalmor and the Empire.”
“Ah,” she said, “but you skipped this part, the chorus: ‘Dragonborn, by his honor is sworn, to keep evil forever at bay.’ That’s the evil of all Skyrim’s foes, remember? And if anyone is evil, it’s the Thalmor.”
“You sound like you actually want to help me. I thought everyone in Solitude was on the Imperials’ side.”
“I’m not from Solitude, as you might guess from my accent. I’m from Bravil, far to the south in Cyrodiil. Titus Mede was none too gentle with our city after it declared independence during the Stormcrown Interregnum at the beginning of this Era. My whole family was nearly wiped out back then, and we bear the grudge to this day.”
“Then weren’t you glad when the Aldmeri Dominion sacked the Imperial City?”
“How can you say such a thing? The Thalmor are far worse than the Medic emperors. Our problem is not with the Empire. It’s that there hasn’t been a legitimate ruler since Martin Septim.”
“Wait,” I said. “You’re not saying…”
“Skyrim is not the only place where Talos is revered. My family, and many more throughout southern Cyrodiil, will not accept a ruler who is not Dragonborn. It’s in the covenant Akatosh made with humans.”
“But that covenant was broken with the Amulet of Kings.”
“We knew Akatosh would not abandon us. For two hundred years our people waited, through the chaos of the Interregnum, through the depths of crime and violence to which the Empire brought our city, through the Great War. And still we waited. We could not abandon hope. At last Akatosh has heard us, because here you are.”
I swallowed hard. This was too much to take in. “No, that is asking too much,” I said.
“It is your destiny.”
“Why were you in Solitude anyway, if you hate Imperials so much?”
“I came to study at the Bard’s College, of course. And it was a welcome relief after the chaos that has befallen my city under the skooma trade. A secret plot of the Empire to weaken us, many believe. But I have grown sick of the Imperials and the Thalmor strutting about. General Tullius makes me ashamed that I am Cyrodilli with the way he treats the Nords and other races, and his groveling to the Thalmor. Too, it would be dangerous to sing this new song openly in Solitude. I am but a starving student, and I need to earn some gold. I hope by taking this song to Windhelm I can make my name and enough gold to return home. They can’t have heard of your return so soon. I will be the one to bring them this news of our renewed hope.”
“Please,” I said. “If you want to help me, tell the people of Windhelm that I want nothing to do with the Civil War, but only to stop the dragons.”
“Yet to do that, I would have to admit that I had met you, and that would be dangerous – for both of us.” She thought for a moment, looking at the scroll. “I will emphasize the parts of the song that focus on Alduin, and omit the others that hint at a greater destiny. But one day I hope to add new verses of your victories over the Thalmor and this false emperor.”
“That should be enough. If the Imperials and the Thalmor become convinced that Alduin threatens all Mundus, maybe they will let me go about my work.”
“I’m afraid they view Alduin as little more than a Nord fairy tale. They know for certain that one dragon came back and one dragon was killed. They doubt the tales that there are more.”
“But we saw one just the other day, flying in the distance. There can be no doubt that the dragons are returning, and even the Thalmor must realize that eventually.”
“Until they do, promise me that you will be more discreet. I don’t know what errand you are on, but I could have been anyone. I could have kept my suspicions to myself, discovered your destination, then handed the information over to Thalmor spies.”
“You are right,” I said. “It was foolish of me. In future, we will keep our faces hidden, use false names, and avoid towns and inns where we can.”
“That is good. It would be a tragedy to lose our savior to the Thalmor before your work is even begun.”
“I will try,” I said, “but at some point I must go where the dragons are, no? If that takes me to a western city, so be it.”
Malukah just shook her head, as if she didn’t know how to counsel me.
“Would you like to travel with us tomorrow? Or should I say, later today? We’ll be off at dawn.”
She shook her head. “We bards never rise that early. Perhaps I will see you in Windhelm.”
With that, Lydia and I retired to our rooms. I spent a sleepless night going over and over all that Malukah had said. I must have dozed at some point in the wee hours, because when I awoke in darkness I heard someone else’s breathing in my room. I cast magelight and saw that it was Lydia, asleep on my floor, axe at her side. After Malukah’s warning, she was taking no chances.
As late as we had gone to our beds, we did manage to leave just after dawn the next morning. We had not gone far when we came to a meeting of roads. A lone Khajiit in a traveller’s cloak stood there, as if awaiting us.
“Greetings, friends,” he said as we approached. “You look weary this morning. This one thinks you’re in need of a lift.”
“A lift?” I asked. He seemed the one who needed a lift, as I saw no horse nearby.
“Yes,” he said. “You will find only the finest skooma here.”
“That stands against the High King’s doom, does it not?” I asked, intending to ride on.
His attitude changed instantly. “Ah, a snitch, eh? You’re not going to report me to the guard!” He drew a sword from beneath his cloak. Now I saw he also carried a bow slung across his back. I’m not sure what he hoped to accomplish. He must have mistaken us for two unarmed, helpless women, since our cloaks covered our weapons and Lydia’s armor. It would have been a minor incident if not for Lydia’s bravado.
She leapt from her horse, drawing her axe from its scabbard at the same time. “You never should have come here, fur-face!” she yelled. “Skyrim is for the Nords!”
I had readied a fear spell to cast at the witless skooma dealer, but now I gaped at my housecarl. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. Lydia’s bigotry had been there all along if only I had paid more attention. There was the way her family had treated me. They must have brought her up the same way. And then there was her treatment of my college friends, and the way she over-looked Lars’ roughness. “No matter who her parents were,” was all the defense she had been able to muster when he was accosting me. I felt anger rising in me. I didn’t stop to think that I was perhaps being over-sensitive, having so recently relived the day when those awful words were directed at my parents and me.
As I sat my horse reflecting on all this, the fight had begun. Fortunately for the hapless skooma dealer, he was capable with a sword, or Lydia would have cloven his skull by now. Neither of them had yet to land a blow.
“Come, my thane,” Lydia called. “I could use some small measure of help here!”
“Well, if it’s help you want,” I said, more to myself than to her. Then I cast the fear spell, not really caring which one of them it hit. Luck was with Lydia, however, as the glowing red ball of light skimmed past her and hit the Khajiit full in the chest. He turned and ran up the road in the direction of Winterhold, screaming, “No, no more, I cannot best you!”
Lydia turned to me, surprised. “That was close, my thane!”
I jumped down from my horse and ran up to her. “And it will be a lot closer,” I said, jabbing her in the shoulder for emphasis, “the next time I hear you utter words so disgusting” – jab – “bigoted” – jab – “and vile!” – jab!
She drew back, hurt and confused. “But that … it doesn’t mean anything. Those are just words we yell when we go into battle, or any fight. I never thought about what they meant.”
“That’s what’s wrong with you, Lydia – you never think! Those are just the words my parents heard when the filthy Nords burned them to death!” Her face, flushed from the fight, went pale then. “What a mistake I made to think you were any different!” I jabbed her again in the shoulder, but it didn’t seem to be enough. My anger had risen and I doubted all the breathing in High Hrothgar could keep it in. The words were right there, waiting to be shouted. With an effort of will I made myself turn away and climb back on my horse.
“What are you doing?” Lydia called to me.
“It’s time we parted ways, housecarl,” I said through clenched teeth, almost spitting out the last word. Then I dug my heels into my horse’s flanks and we galloped down the road east.
“No,” I could hear Lydia calling. “Wait! I’m sorry…” Then her words were lost in the clatter of hooves and the rush of the wind.
I don’t know how far we galloped, but eventually my horse tired and I let it slow to a walk. I could barely see the road through my tears anyway. I turned the horse off the road and let it have its head as we wandered down a shallow draw. I lost track of where we were going, seeing nothing but an image of Lydia riding away toward Whiterun – I had sent her away, hadn’t I? Finally the horse found a trickle of meltwater in a small stream and began to drink. I got down and sat on the snowy bank and buried my head in my arms.
Of course it was easy for Lydia to track us there. I think now that I must really have wanted her to find me – I had done nothing to cover the horse’s tracks, despite telling myself I never wanted to see her again. I heard her horse crunching through the snow, then Lydia dismounting, but I didn’t look up.
“My thane, I am so sorry,” she said as she approached. Then I felt her hand on my shoulder.
“Don’t touch me!” I exclaimed, jerking away. I looked up at her and saw only concern in her eyes.
“I didn’t mean to…” she began, but I cut her off.
“I never told you how my parents died, did I?” I asked. She shook her head. Then I told her – all of it, of Osmer’s strong grip and his rubbing himself against me, the nascent shout that blasted him away from me, the hateful tones of his father as he called me a Breton witch, the shouts of “You never should have come here! Skyrim is for the Nords!” The sight of our house burning, my parents’ bodies being dragged out of it. The grief and anger I nurtured for three years until I was ready to return to Skyrim to take my revenge – not just on my parents’ killers but on Nords, any Nords. Of getting my face tattooed in token of the depth of my resolve, every prick of the tattooist’s needle an inkling of the pain I hoped to inflict on Skyrim’s people. Then my capture by the Imperials and the dragon interrupting my plans. I learned then that there were bigger troubles in the world than my own single story, that there was blind rage that had killed my parents and then there was the true wickedness I had seen in the dungeons of Helgen. I told her of Ralof and Gerdur showing me that Nords could be good and kind – which I should have known, as Sven Silver-Tongue’s daughter – and that maybe my life had a better purpose than revenge.
Before I was halfway through my story, Lydia’s cheeks were wet with tears. Meanwhile, I had cried all mine out. By the time I finished she was weeping openly and took a moment to compose herself. “My thane – Deirdre – if I had known…”
She reached out to hug me but I held up my hand to stop her. “What you and the rest of your kind need to learn is that all people have the same feelings. It matters not whether you’re a Nord, a Breton, a Dunmer or a Bosmer, a Khajiit or an Argonian, we all weep over the death of a loved one. What the Atmorans felt on the Night of Tears, the Snow Elves no doubt felt when the Nords pushed them out of Skyrim. Everyone feels the same pain. I want it to stop – all of it.”
“Yes, but how?” she asked, looking hopeless.
“I don’t know, but I mean to start with these dragons. If I can, I’ll make sure that Huldi and Harry are the last children to lose their parents to the beasts. After that, I don’t know.”
“My thane, don’t send me away, I will try to be better.”
She reached out to touch me again, but I grasped her hand and held it to my forehead. “There, do you feel those ridges?” I said. “Those furrows in my brow come from my Breton side, and from the mer before that. You don’t know how many times as a child I would sit in my room rubbing at them, trying to flatten them so I would look more like the beautiful Nord children in our village, the ones the adults were always calling pretty. I wanted to be called pretty too, not teased for my elvish features. My mother would find me rubbing at my forehead and I couldn’t even look at her, I was so embarrassed.”
I stood up. “If you esteem me – as I think you do – and if you respect me – as I think you do – then you must esteem and respect what is merish in me as well. And if you esteem and respect the mer in me, you will esteem and respect the Dunmer, the Bosmer, and yes, even the Altmer, and all peoples. Or, if not esteem and respect, at least show them the treatment you feel is due the Nords. For I will have no housecarl who harbors hatred and bigotry in her heart.”
Lydia was crying again. “I will try to do better, my thane. I bear no ill will toward anyone, I promise you. It’s just that, other peoples are so different. Maybe I just need to be around them more.”
“I have heard that Windhelm is home to many Dunmer since the eruption of the Red Mountain, and many Argonians as well. It will be a good opportunity for you to practice your tolerance.”
She brightened then. “You mean I can come with you? You’re not sending me away after all?”
“Yes,” I said. “You proved your value to me when you saved me from that archer at Valtheim Towers, and I may need you again.” I could see the hurt in her eyes as she reacted to the coldness in my voice. “So you may continue to serve as my housecarl, as long as I never hear such vile words from your mouth, and you endeavor to banish all such feelings from your heart. For the time being, I feel it’s best if we ride a bit apart. Perhaps you should take the lead, the better to guard me from danger.”
I watched as she absorbed these words, mastering who knows what feelings. Then she went to one knee and took my hand. “It will be an honor, my thane,” she said. “I will protect you with my life.” Hurt as she was, she still said it in that same earnest way she had in Whiterun. I felt something flutter in my chest then, but I was determined not to let it show on my face. We mounted our horses and Lydia led up the slope. I followed behind, wondering how long this ice around my heart would last.
Up close, Windhelm was more imposing than when seen from afar, and its great age was even more apparent. While the city’s walls were built of stout blocks of stone, ice had been working for centuries to accomplish what armies could not. Cycles of freeze and thaw had pried blocks loose, leaving gaping holes with hardy shrubs growing in the gaps. Ice clung to every eave and gutter, continuing the demolition. Yet the city somehow retained its impression of strength – its walls had been built of such a height and thickness that even in their decrepit state they seemed impregnable.
Towering mountains protected the city on the north, while the White River, now wide and deep near its mouth, guarded the south. As we crossed the massive walled bridge between the stables on the south bank and the city itself, I thought of the circuitous route I had taken to arrive here. My journey had begun near the headwaters of this very river, in that cart with Ulfric and Ralof. The waters flowing through Helgen on that day must have long since made their way past Windhelm, yet I was just now arriving here. Still, I must have known that my path would lead here one day, no matter how roundabout the route.
By rights, I shouldn’t even be here, I told myself. I should be on my way to High Hrothgar, Horn of Jurgen Windcaller in hand. But the fates and whoever had written that note conspired to bring me here, where it seemed I was destined finally to take the measure of Ulfric Stormcloak. It was with mixed feelings that I watched the guard open the massive iron door to the city. Lydia stood stiffly beside me, the awkward silence of our journey still heavy upon us.
Within the city walls, the buildings were even more decrepit than without. Piles of rubbish lay in the streets and the stone walls were worn with age. Blocks fallen from those walls lay here and there. One featured a carven likeness of a dragon. It rested at an odd angle against the wall of Candlehearth Hall, the inn near the city gate. And now I saw that similar dragon heads topped the ends of every rooftop.
I had been seeing these dragon carvings all my life, yet they had always seemed mere decorations, relics of a long-forgotten, if not legendary, past. Now, the fact that the ancient Nords were dragon worshippers struck me with greater force than ever before. Not for them the divines over whom we fought our wars. They worshipped animals and the forces of nature, with dragons being the most powerful. Their dragon priests ruled the people alongside their kings, until the people rebelled, locking the priests away in ancient tombs at the end of the Dragon Wars, slaying the last of the dragons or driving them into hiding. It was odd to think that this city’s ancient kings had worshipped beings with souls like my own.
My ponderings were interrupted by a man yelling from the steps of the inn. The object of his outrage was a female Dunmer. “You come here where you’re not wanted, you eat our food, you pollute our city with your stink, and you refuse to help the Stormcloaks!”
I looked over at Lydia pointedly. She looked as angry as I felt.
“We haven’t taken a side because it’s not our fight,” said the Dunmer.
Another Nord put in, “Hey, maybe the reason these gray-skins don’t help in the war is because they’re Imperial spies!”
“Imperial spies? Don’t be absurd!” the woman replied.
The first Nord took a step closer to her. “Maybe we’ll pay you a visit tonight, little spy. We got ways of finding out what you really are.”
I couldn’t stand to watch any more. “What’s going on here? Why are you accosting this woman?” I demanded, approaching the Nord who had spoken first. He was dressed in old, dirty clothing, and his companion not much better. Both stank of ale, and it was not yet mid-day.
He turned on me and looked me up and down. “Woman? She’s not a woman, she’s just a gray-skinned she-elf. It’s just like you outlanders to band together. You Bretons are as bad as her lot.” Then he looked at Lydia. “And what are you, a race traitor?”
“That’s no way for a true Nord to behave,” said Lydia. “You’re a disgrace to our kind. And you will not speak to my th… my friend in that manner.” Her hand was on her axe. I tried to calm her with a hand on her arm. This was no way to avoid attracting attention.
“Just leave the woman alone, and go on your way,” I said to the Nord.
“Oh yeah, who’s going to make me? Come on, let’s fight. Bet you a hundred gold you don’t land a punch. And none of that magic, neither.”
I regarded him for a moment, thinking how easy it would be to cast a fear spell that would send him scurrying. But that would certainly draw a crowd.
Lydia stepped in. “She doesn’t fight hand-to-hand, but I do. Let’s make it two hundred gold, if you think you’re man enough. I’ll teach you some manners.”
It wasn’t much of a fight. The Nord looked strong, but the drink must have affected his timing. He went down after throwing a few futile punches. Lydia’s skill was a thing of beauty – dodging and weaving to miss his swings, landing all of her blows – but the results were brutal. It took another minute for his friend to revive him.
“Wha’ happened?” he asked, looking around blearily from his swollen eye.
“You lost the fight,” said Lydia. “Now pay up. And don’t forget you’re not to bother the Dunmer, or it will go worse for you next time.”
While Lydia retrieved her weapons, I went over to the elf and introduced myself, using my new travelling name, Fiona Pure-Spring.
“I’m Suvaris,” she replied. “It looks like you’ve come to the wrong city. Windhelm is a haven of prejudice, narrow thinking, and bullies like those two.”
“I have business here that I couldn’t avoid. Why was that Nord giving you trouble?”
“Nothing new there. Most of the Nords don’t appreciate our presence here, but Rolf is one of the worst. He likes to get drunk and roam the Gray Quarter late at night shouting insults and picking fights.”
“The Gray Quarter?”
“We Dunmer arrived here as refugees after the Red Year. We had nowhere else to go. The Nords confined us to the eastern, lower portion of the city, and named it the Gray Quarter after the color of our skin. Such generosity, don’t you think?”
Lydia spoke up. “Life here is hard for you, then?”
“I have it better than many of my kind. I have a good job with the Shatter-Shield clan’s trading office on the docks, and I am one of the few Dunmer who dare enter the other quarters of the city. Many Dunmer have little or no work and spend their days on the streets or in the New Gnisis Corner Club, and their nights in the gutter. Some of the women make a living catering to the baser needs of men like Rolf.”
“You mean … ?” I couldn’t keep the look of shock off my face.
“Are you surprised at the hypocrisy of a man who will take his pleasure with a Dunmer while seeking to drive us out of Skyrim? Or does it shock you that the Dunmer would stoop to prostitution? That’s just one sign of the depths to which this city has driven us. We do many of the city’s dirtiest jobs, allowing the Nords to live in leisure. Yet still they treat us with contempt. So yes, for many of my kind life here is hard. Many wish they’d never left Morrowind, volcanic ash or no.”
Lydia looked at me and then back at Suvaris. “Here,” she said, holding out the bag of gold pieces Rolf had given her. “I don’t want that lout’s money. You may not be able to use it, but would you see that it goes to help your people?”
Suvaris couldn’t have looked more surprised. “You’re a rare kind of Nord!” she said. “Only Brunwulf Free-Winter has ever lifted a finger to help us, and never like this. Yes, I know two or three families who could desperately use this.”
“I’m glad to be of help,” Lydia said as Suvaris went on her way. She turned to me. “Should we go find the Blade and Dragon?”
“Trying to make amends for this morning are you?” I asked.
She grinned sheepishly. “Only partly. But it just seems unfair to make them live like that after what happened to their homeland. You have to believe me, my thane, those words I shouted earlier were just a battle cry, and I’ve never really thought about what they meant before.”
“Well, I’m impressed, Lydia,” I said. I was already beginning to regret my harsh treatment of her. I feared it would take years of study with the Greybeards to learn to control my anger. “But come, let’s find this inn. We can’t right all of Windhelm’s wrongs, and I’m eager to meet whoever has this horn.”
After asking for directions, we found the Blade and Dragon in the Market Quarter, next to the alchemist’s shop. Its sign bore a katana – a thin, slightly curved type of sword I recognized from an illustration in Mysterious Akavir – crossed over the throat of a rearing dragon. Inside, we found a young Nord tending the bar.
“We’re here for the upstairs room,” I said to him.
He looked surprised. “Upstairs room? We don’t … Ah, yes, the upstairs room! A common mistake. Our second floor is all used for storage. But we do have one room left down here, nice double bed and all. I’m sure travellers such as yourselves won’t mind sharing.”
I just looked at him, but Lydia spoke up. “That will be fine.”
I paid the ten gold and the barkeep led us to the room.
“This is surprising,” I said, closing the door on our host. “I imagined the horn’s thief would be waiting for us.”
“Maybe he’ll show up later,” Lydia suggested. “I know I could use some rest after the night and morning we had.”
We couldn’t have had more than four hours’ sleep out of the last thirty. I could sorely use sleep myself, I thought.
Lydia saw me doubtfully eyeing the bed. “What, you don’t have a problem sharing the bed do you? Are you still cross with me? I’ll sleep on the floor if you insist.”
“No, it’s just that…”
“Ah, I forgot! You’re an only child, you’ve never shared a bed, have you?”
I shook my head.
“It’s fine, once you get used to it. Very common in the army, and in inns like these. I grew up sharing with my sister, so it’s never bothered me. Just give me a shove if I start to snore.” With that she got into the bed, armor, boots and all, and with her axe within easy reach. She slid all the way to one side, leaving plenty of room for me.
I sighed, then took off my boots and bracers and climbed in on my side. We were both soon fast asleep.
I awoke in mid-afternoon to find Lydia’s arm flung across my shoulders. She was snoring lightly. As instructed, I gave her a push.
“Oh, beg your pardon, my thane,” she said, sitting up. “I didn’t mean to … I must have rolled over in my sleep.”
“It’s all right,” I said. I turned away from her, both to put on my boots and to hide my blushing. “Are you hungry? I’m half-starved.” We had eaten only a couple of apples on the road.
“Yes,” she said. “I wonder what they have here?”
“I was thinking of heading to that club Suvaris told us about in the Gray Quarter.”
“What about Ralof?” she asked. “Don’t you want to find him?”
“I do,” I said, “but I know he’ll ask me about joining the Stormcloaks, and before I have to answer that question, I want to see if what Suvaris said is true. Besides, you made some progress today, but you could use more experience with other peoples.”
We made our way to the New Gnisis Corner Club in the Gray Quarter. As we progressed, descending to lower and lower levels of the city, the buildings became more dilapidated, with beggars loitering here and there, Dunmer women and children, mostly. The higher levels of the city must have had an underground sewage system, but here it emptied into an open ditch running along the street. The stench was awful. A Dunmer woman came out of a building and emptied a night bucket into it.
Surprisingly, the Gray Quarter was the only area of the city making preparations for a dragon attack. We had seen no stores of water or other defenses in the Market Quarter or at the city gate. But here there was a constant stream of Dunmer carrying water in buckets from the docks and emptying them into every barrel and cistern they could find. Rows of buckets stood outside every building, no matter how shabby. The few city guards just looked on with disinterest.
We finally arrived at the club. I was glad to see that it was situated a level above the stench of the street. Inside, we found the barkeep in an animated conversation with a large Nord man in fur-lined battle gear.
“You’re a war hero, Brunwulf,” the Dunmer was saying. “Ulfric will listen to you.”
“I promise you, Malthyr, I will speak with Ulfric,” Brunwulf said. “But I can’t promise it will do any good.”
Then Malthyr looked up to greet his new patrons. “It’s not every day that we have two Nords in the New Gnisis Corner Club at once, unless it’s the guard here to harass us. And a Breton as well!”
“I hope you’re not here to make trouble,” Brunwulf said, eyeing Lydia and her weapons. “Are you one of them ‘Skyrim is for the Nords’ types?”
Lydia looked from Brunwulf to me. “Well, um … no, not really,” she said. “I mean Skyrim is our home, but there’s room for other people too.”
We quickly fell into conversation with Brunwulf as Malthyr went to get our food. Brunwulf questioned us about who we were and where we were from. We were as evasive as possible, using our travelling names, Fiona and Gertrude (Trudi to her friends). Lydia tried to change the subject by turning the questioning on Brunwulf.
“So, you’re a war hero?” She didn’t need to feign her admiration for anyone who had achieved glory in battle.
Brunwulf looked Lydia up and down for a moment, eyeing her armor. “Aye, I fought in the Great War, and I didn’t die. I killed many elves. Some say that makes me a hero, but there was no glory in it. It was just butchery, and what did it gain us? More war.”
“So you atone for what you did in the war by helping the Dunmer?” I asked.
Brunwulf looked at me in surprise. “I suppose that could be it,” he said. “I just think a true Nord should treat all people with honor and respect. That’s a sign of our strength, not weakness.”
“Well spoken,” said Malthyr, bringing our food – hard sausages, fresh cheese and hard-tack bread – along with weak ale. “And Brunwulf’s help is appreciated here in the quarter. He’s the only Nord who will lift a finger to help us.”
Then Malthyr told us the tale of his people’s troubles since leaving Morrowind and of their grim life in the Gray Quarter. But it wasn’t really necessary, since we had seen it for ourselves.
“But why does Ulfric keep you penned down here?” Lydia asked. “In Whiterun the Dark Elves and the Nords don’t mix a lot, but the Dunmer can live where they want.”
“Ulfric prefers that we live in squalor,” Malthyr said. “He doesn’t trust people he calls outsiders, and he thinks we’ll just go away if life here is hard enough. And as hard as life is for us, you should visit the Argonians on the docks. They break their backs for a pittance, and the jarl won’t even allow them into the city proper. Suvaris drives them pretty hard.”
“Not Suvaris Atheron?”
“We met her when we came into the city this morning, and we stopped two Nords from mistreating her.”
“Surprised that she treats the Argonians just as poorly as the Nords treat us? Excrement flows downhill, as they say. You should see where the sewer empties into the river near the docks. Hits the ice and solidifies into a giant mound of frozen you-know-what. And the Argonians have to live next to that filth. Still, the lizard people are hardly … human.”
Malthyr didn’t seem aware of the irony of his statement. “How do you expect anything to improve if you yourselves won’t change?” I asked.
“Well, you have a point there,” Malthyr said. Then he seemed to realize something. “Wait! Then you must be the ones Suvaris mentioned when she was in for her noon meal. I should have realized! Your generosity will not go amiss in the Gray Quarter!”
“Let’s hope the generosity flows downhill as well as the excrement,” I said. “Come, Trudi, let’s investigate those docks.” With that, we left the Corner Club. Malthyr wouldn’t hear of us paying.
As we walked back up-hill to the dock gate, I reflected on Malthyr and Suvaris. This was Tamriel’s problem – everyone had a complaint against everyone else, grievances that went back thousands of years, if not to the creation of men, mer, and the other peoples. Where would it end, if no one was willing to forgive past wrongs?
Malthyr was right about the docks. We left the city proper through another massive iron door, then descended a long flight of steps to the river side. Here were ships from Solitude and Dawnstar, and even Solstheim to the northeast across the Sea of Ghosts. The docks were heavily guarded, lest the Imperials attempt a surprise attack from warships disguised as trading vessels. Or maybe the guards were keeping an eye on the many Argonians scurrying about the docks, unloading and repairing the ships and the like.
We did not stay long, for it was clear we weren’t welcome. That, and the stench of the nearby sewer outfall didn’t tempt us to linger. The first Argonian we encountered, a male working at a whetstone, accosted us as we passed near.
“Do you need something?” he demanded. His scaled skin was green, and spikes grew from the top of his head, yet he was dressed in Nord fashion, with a simple tunic and boots. Perhaps the oddest thing about the Argonians was that, unlike all other peoples of Tamriel, their eyes were placed on the sides of their heads, allowing them to look in two directions at once.
Lydia looked at him with a mixture of revulsion and anger. I put my hand on her elbow to steer her past.
“Just looking around, friend,” I said.
“I am far from being your friend, stranger,” he replied with a hiss. “Look, we don’t have much love for your kind down here. Probably best if you just left. And be careful – the docks can be slippery, and the water is icy.”
I could feel Lydia tensing, and I guided her away before she could say anything.
“How am I supposed to not judge him by his skin,” Lydia demanded, “when he is so quick to judge us by ours?” I had no answer.
Farther down the dock we came to an old Argonian woman working at scraping a hide. “Greetings, strangers,” she said as we approached.
“Hello,” I said. “It’s nice to find someone who is more friendly than that last fellow we met.”
“You mean Neetrenaza? Yes, he has a large chip on his shoulder. But he is young. He has not yet learned that sometimes Fortune is with you and sometimes against you. It is true that Fortune has not favored us here in Skyrim. Me, I choose to be happy no matter what comes. My name is Shahvee,” and she held out a clawed hand to shake.
“How can you accept conditions here so calmly?” I asked.
“Maybe it is payment for what my people did to the Dunmer of southern Morrowind after the Red Year. And that was payment for centuries of my people being enslaved by the Dunmer. As the saying goes, sometimes you’re the master, sometimes you’re the slave. But I know that happiness is in my own hands, no matter which way Fortune’s wheel turns.”
“That’s remarkably wise,” I said. “I wish I could live with such equanimity.”
“Still,” she said, “I pray that Fortune will shine on my people once again. It seems we have been in the gutter long enough.”
“Best of luck, then,” I said, and we took our leave. “You see, Lydia? People everywhere want the same things – a comfortable life free from fear and hatred.”
“I suppose so,” she said. “Except for those who want wealth and power.”
“Yes, there are those,” I agreed. But what about those who wanted revenge, I couldn’t help thinking. Neetrenaza certainly seemed to want revenge against the Nords and the Dunmer. And was I any better?
“But they just look so strange, these Argonians,” Lydia said as we passed through the city gate once more. “I can’t stop thinking about that whenever I’m around them, and then I get nervous and can’t say anything. It’s hard to believe they can even speak our language. Have you ever heard them talking amongst themselves? It’s little more than grunts, squeaks, and hisses.”
“Yet I’ve heard that their language is as close to pure thought as possible,” I said. “And they probably think we look strange too – no scales, hair on our heads, and we can’t even breathe under water. But I don’t think you’ll find many Nords as wise as Shahvee.”
“No, that’s probably true,” Lydia said. “It was nice, listening to her. I almost felt I could join the conversation … almost. You’re so easy with everyone here. Where did you learn it?”
“It must have been travelling with my father. He dealt with all types and I watched how he treated them. He would try learning their languages, even Argonian. Sometimes they talked with me, too. Argonians, Khajiits, Redguards. They always had wonderful stories of their homelands.”
I stopped and took Lydia by the arm, looking her in the eye. “Look, Lydia, I’m sorry I treated you so harshly this morning. I was tired, and it was only yesterday that I heard those same Nord taunts hurled at my parents. I know you have a good heart, and I shouldn’t blame you for your upbringing, where mine was so different. And I appreciate the effort you’re making to see things my way.”
“And I’m sorry I disappointed you, my thane. I will do whatever it takes to regain your respect and trust.”
“Come,” I said finally. “It’s getting late. Let’s find Ralof. I want to see what he thinks of all this.”
Back in the city, we checked Candlehearth Hall, as it was the tavern most frequented by the Stormcloaks. They knew Ralof but they hadn’t seen him. One of the drinkers guessed we’d find him in the barracks in the Palace of the Kings. “Or maybe out in the courtyard later tonight. The king … I mean the jarl is supposed to give a big speech.”
We stopped back at the Blade and Dragon to see if we had any visitors. “No,” said the bar-keep, “but I was sure you’d have had one by now.”
“Why?” I asked. “Did you expect someone to come looking for us?”
He looked perplexed. “Can’t say, really. Shouldn’t have said as much as I did.”
I was growing impatient. I should have been halfway to High Hrothgar with the horn by now. “Listen,” I said, placing my hands flat on the bar and leaning forward. “We are here to meet someone on urgent business, and if you know anything about it, you’d best tell me now.”
“All right, all right!” said the bar-keep, looking from me to Lydia and back again. “Someone was going to meet you here. Said you’d ask for the upstairs room. But Del … this person is away, I have no idea where, and that’s the truth.”
“When do you expect him back?” I asked.
“That I don’t know either. You’ll just have to be patient.”
“Well, if this mysterious person comes in, we’ll be up at the palace,” I told him.
We made our way toward the palace through the northwest quarter known as the Valunstrad, with its well appointed houses belonging to the city’s prosperous Nord families. It was quite a contrast from the Gray Quarter. The air was fresh, the snow sparkled white on the rooftops in the last rays of the sun, and the people looked prosperous and content.
Still, as we passed groups in the street, I heard worried talk of the dragon. Apparently, another one had been sighted south of the city just that morning. “We must go to Ulfric,” one man was saying. “He must do something to protect his city.”
“Maybe that’s what tonight’s speech is about,” said another.
“Ach,” said a third. “Just another speech telling us ‘now is the time for war,’ I’ll wager.”
“But this is a travesty! Even the Dunmer are more prepared for the dragon than we are!”
We passed through a long, arched passageway into the courtyard of the Palace of the Kings, once known as the Palace of Ysgramor. The high walls of the castle loomed on all sides. The large iron doors were to our left. Above them the main palace ascended in six tiers constructed from massive stone blocks and arches. It made me feel small. And I had thought Dragonsreach imposing!
To our right, workers scurried back and forth, lighting torches and putting the finishing touches on a speaker’s platform in a gap in the palace’s south wall, the oldest part of the city. Ancient tombs were set within it, bearing the early kings of Skyrim, Harald on one side, Olaf One-Eye on the other. The dates of their reign and the inscriptions were so faded I couldn’t read them. Maybe the first building blocks of this palace had been laid by Ysgramor himself, I thought. Windhelm, not Solitude, had once been the seat of Skyrim’s kings. That same throne – the Throne of Ysgramor – was the one now occupied by Ulfric. And I was about to enter this ancient and imposing building. I hoped we could find Ralof and leave. If I had to meet Ulfric, I wanted to speak with my friend first.
I stated our business to the guard and he opened the large metal-plated doors to the palace. They looked as if they could withstand armies. “Wait here in the hall,” said the guard, “and lay your weapons by the door. I will send a runner to find Ralof. No outsiders are allowed in the barracks.”
Lydia and I took seats near the door. I couldn’t help gaping at the large chamber. This was no mere jarl’s receiving hall, for it had been built for a king. The Throne of Ysgramor stood at one end, empty and seemingly far away. The hall was lined with stone archways, some merely decorative, others leading to passageways beyond. Between each arch was a column with a protruding carven dragon-head. Blue and gold flags hung from the ceiling, with here and there a Stormcloak banner featuring a snarling bear. Even the ceiling bore intricately carved stone laid in a grid pattern and inset with diamond shapes.
The throne itself was a massive affair, more like a hearth and chimney, with a stone seat where the fireplace would be. The throne’s tall stone back bore the graven likeness of swords crossed behind a shield showing the Stormcloak bear sigil. I wondered, did the bear go back to the first kings, or did the Stormcloak line add it when they took power in Eastmarch? One thing was certain – whoever sat on that throne would feel the weight of the ages on his shoulders. It was hard to remember that Ulfric was only a jarl and not a king – not yet.
Long wooden tables stood in the center of the hall. Servants hurried to and fro, readying them for a feast that would no doubt follow the jarl’s speech. Over the bustle, I heard voices coming from a room just off the hall at the far end. I was sure they sounded familiar. They were having some sort of debate.
“Wait here,” I said to Lydia, and I walked casually down the long hall, pretending to admire the intricate stonework and the banners as I went, in case a servant or a guard should question my presence there. When I drew near enough to hear the voices, I slipped into the shadows of a deep archway where I could listen without being noticed.
“I need to go out there and give the people one last rallying cry before we begin.” That was Ulfric speaking, of course. “But they need to know who we’re fighting. And to decide that, I need to know where Balgruuf stands.”
“Balgruuf won’t give us a straight answer,” came the reply. I had heard this voice as well. It was the voice of an older man than Ulfric, gruff and hoarse, with little hint of submission to the jarl. Then I realized – it was Galmar Stone-Fist, Ulfric’s hirth-marshal. I had last seen him in Helgen.
“He’s a true Nord,” said Ulfric. “He’ll come around. That was brave, throwing the Thalmor out of his city. Why would he do such a thing if he doesn’t mean to join us? I still say we should move against Falkreath first. It’s on the main road from Cyrodiil.”
“You know Whiterun is central to our plans,” said Galmar. “And I wouldn’t be so sure about Balgruuf. We’ve intercepted couriers from Solitude. The Imperials are putting immense pressure on Whiterun to let the Thalmor return, to station an Imperial garrison there. And Balgruuf’s steward is Cyrodiili. Which way do you think he’s pushing the jarl?”
“Then what would you have me do?”
“If Balgruuf’s not with us, he’s against us.”
“He knows that. They all know that. You think I need to send him a stronger message?”
“If by ‘message’ you mean shoving a sword through his gullet. I still say you should take them all out, Balgruuf and any other jarl who dares disloyalty, the same way you did Deadking Torygg.”
So this is how the Stormcloaks operated! I had seen and heard enough. Suddenly I was moving from my hiding place. I didn’t stop to think of the wisdom of my actions, or if there was a better way to protect Balgruuf. I knew only that Galmar had just threatened my jarl, who had shown me only kindness.
Drawing a dagger that the door guard had overlooked, I stepped into Ulfric’s war-chamber. Ulfric and Galmar stood on the other side of a large table with a map of Skyrim spread across it. They looked up in surprise as I entered.
I hadn’t counted on the third soldier to the right of the door. He reacted quickly, grasping my wrist and twisting. I was no match for him in strength, and he soon had my own dagger at my throat.
Now Ulfric glared at me from across the table, weighing whether I should live or die.
“You!” the Stormcloak leader exclaimed, his eyes wide. “I told Ralof we couldn’t trust you after your speech at Helgen, and here you are, dagger in hand! Tell me why I shouldn’t have Hans finish you now.”
“Do with me as you will, but I cannot stand by while you talk of shoving a sword in my liege lord’s gullet,” I said. I looked at Galmar. “I seem to remember sparing you a similar fate, Galmar, though I think that torturer would have made it slow and painful.”
Galmar eyed me uncertainly for a moment, then relaxed. He now wore a head-dress and cowl made from the head and pelt of a bear. “The lass speaks true. I owe her my life. And if she hadn’t saved us, we would never have gotten you out of Helgen, my jarl.”
“Yes, yes, the Assassin of Helgen, as you call her. And Ralof says she’s a good fighter and hoped she would join us. But now here she is, bent on killing again.” He looked at me for a long moment while I pondered whether I could wriggle free of Hans’ grip before he opened my throat. Finally Ulfric nodded at the soldier, who let me go but kept the dagger. “You were silly to think you could get anywhere armed only with a dagger, Deirdre … what was your name again?”
“My name is Deirdre Morningsong, Jarl Ulfric. In Whiterun they call me Deirdre Death-Dealer, after I helped slay the dragon Mirmulnir. For that, I was named Thane of Whiterun. They also name me Deirdre Thu’um-Wielder. The Greybeards named me Dovahkiin, after I absorbed Mirmulnir’s soul.”
Ulfric was speechless for a moment, his eyes having grown wider with each bit of news. “You? You’re the Dragonborn? We’d heard of the events in Whiterun, and the Greybeards summoning the Dragonborn to High Hrothgar. But this cannot be. You’re not even a full-blooded Nord!”
“No,” I said icily, “that seems not to be a requirement.”
“But how can I trust what you say is true? What proof do we have that you’re the Dragonborn?”
“The Greybeards don’t give out badges. Do you want me to demonstrate my Thu’um?”
“You can’t tell me you’ve already learned a shout?” Ulfric said.
“Yes, that’s how it works when you’re the Dragonborn.” I thought he would have known that, having had so much training in the Voice. “Should I test my Voice on you?”
“Yes, I would like to feel what you can do, if you really are Dragonborn.” He still sounded skeptical.
Hans stepped forward. “No, Jarl Ulfric, it might be some kind of trick.”
“It’s all right, Hans,” Ulfric said. “Her Thu’um cannot possibly match my own.” Then he turned back to me. “Just one word, are we agreed? That will be enough to demonstrate your power.”
“As you wish,” I said. “Are you ready?” He went over to stand in an empty part of the room across from us and braced himself. “Fus!” I shouted.
The shout staggered him, and he took a step back. He was breathing hard as he straightened his fur cloak – the same one he had worn at Helgen – and returned to us. I could see he was trying not to appear shaken.
“That was strong, for just one word of the full shout. How long did it take you to learn that?”
“A day, maybe less,” I replied. “It just takes learning the word of power, then killing a dragon and absorbing its soul.”
“Oh, is that all!” mocked Hans.
“It took me years to learn that one word of power,” Ulfric said, shaking his head. “You must know dozens of shouts by now.”
“No, just two, although I am on my way to High Hrothgar to learn more, as soon as I retrieve … an object here in Windhelm. But the Greybeards won’t teach me more quickly. They say I shouldn’t get ahead of myself, that I should develop my wisdom along with my power.”
“Yes, that sounds like the Greybeards. That’s why I grew impatient and left their halls. But listen, with that kind of power…”
Just then Ralof came running in, with Lydia and several guards following behind. “Deirdre!” Ralof exclaimed. “I knew you’d come sooner or later, though I hoped it would be sooner!” He came up to me and grasped me by the shoulders, looking happily into my eyes. “Are you here to join us? And what was that shout I heard?” He looked around questioningly at the others in the room, then noticed Ulfric. “Oh, begging your pardon, my jarl!”
“No, I was just asking Deirdre the same thing. Are you here to join us? We could use a power like yours.”
I looked at Ralof. He seemed older somehow. He looked confused by Ulfric’s mention of my power. I only wished we could meet now under different circumstances. “I’m sorry, my friend,” I said to him. I think I had known what my decision would be all along, from that first day when he had described the glories of the Stormcloaks to me.
Then I turned back to the jarl. “I had my doubts about you from the beginning, Jarl Ulfric, though your cause is just. In honor of my father, who was a worshipper of Talos, I would support that cause. But now I come to your city and see how you treat the Dunmer and the Argonians, and I see that the justice you seek does not extend to any beyond the Nords. And you would even murder your Nord brothers and sisters to achieve your aims. So I ask you, why are you fighting this war? Is it for justice, or your own ambition to be high king?”
“Damn the kingship,” Ulfric snarled. “We have been ruled by these puppets of the Empire for too long. Now we will choose our own high king, a true Nord chosen by true Nords. Whether that’s me, or someone else, I care not. But whoever it is, he will need the support of my armies, and of the people. So I will tell you why I fight, why we all fight, as I am about to go out and tell the people of Windhelm one last time before we start this war in earnest.”
He took a moment to collect himself, as if rehearsing his speech in his mind, pacing back and forth behind the war table. Then he thought of something and came over and looked down at me. I was surprised to see gentleness in his eyes. I held his gaze.
“You told us about your parents in that speech you gave at Helgen,” he said. “And Ralof told me more about how you lost your parents when he arrived back here. So you know the pain of losing those closest to you.” I nodded. “But have you ever seen anyone die, up close, seen the light go out of their eyes?” I nodded again. I couldn’t help thinking of Olaf Brittle-Spear. “And have you ever had to confront their loved ones, try somehow to comfort them when no comfort is enough?” Again I nodded. Of course I was thinking of Olaf’s wife, and of Huldi and Harry.
“Good,” he went on. “Then you will understand why I fight.”
Now he began pacing back and forth again, his voice rising higher and higher, as if delivering his speech to the crowd. “I fight for the men and women I’ve held in my arms as they died on foreign soil. I fight for their husbands and wives and children, to whom I had to deliver grievous news. I fight for we few who did come home, only to find our country full of strangers wearing familiar faces. And what did we gain from our sacrifice? Slavery to the Thalmor! That is why I fight – so that all the fighting I’ve already done won’t be for nothing. Now I say again, in honor of your father, will you join us?”
I admit, I was moved. “Your words sound heartfelt, Jarl Ulfric,” I said, “and I only wish you had similar compassion for all the peoples of Skyrim. For I too fight for those who have died in my arms. But my fight is with the dragons. They’re returning to Skyrim, if you haven’t noticed. And not just dragons, but the master of all dragons, Alduin, who would destroy all Mundus. You must realize this is a bigger threat than the Imperials or the Thalmor.”
The room was silent then, as the Stormcloaks absorbed this news. I looked over at Ralof, who looked as incredulous as the rest. “Is it really true, Deirdre?” he asked. “You must fight the dragons? But how…?” He had missed the part about me being the Dragonborn, but it was too late to fill him in now.
“So the best I can say to you, Ulfric, is that you must let me fight my battle while you fight yours. As well, it would behoove you to make some preparation in case a dragon attacks here. And as Thane of Whiterun I tell you that Balgruuf does mean to stay neutral in this war. His hirth is loyal and well trained, and you will waste many lives fighting for Whiterun. It is a distraction you need not undertake. But if you carry through with this talk of assassinating my jarl, or attack his city, you must face my wrath.”
“And mine!” shouted Lydia, reaching for her axe, only to remember she had left it at the door of the hall.
Ulfric sighed. “I thought that might be your answer. Yet I can’t take the risk of letting a power such as yours fall into the hands of the Empire, or worse, the Thalmor.” He nodded to the guards. “Take them,” he said.
The guards moved in and Lydia made to fight. I shook my head at her, and for once she relented. “We will not fight you, but you will regret this,” I said.
Meanwhile, Ralof was pleading with Ulfric. “My jarl, Deirdre would never fight for the Empire, not after what we saw in Helgen.”
“It’s what they might force her to do that’s the problem,” said Galmar. “You saw their methods, Ralof. Besides, you’ve always had a soft spot for the lass.”
“Galmar’s right, Ralof,” Ulfric said. “Now get out of our way. I’ve got a speech to make, and then we have a war to fight.”
We walked out of the war-room together, Ulfric and his lieutenants heading to the large front doors of the hall, and the guards leading Lydia and me to the dungeon, whose door was near the front of the hall. I don’t know why Ulfric didn’t think to have me gagged – maybe he was preoccupied with the speech to come, or with Ralof, who was walking beside him, continuing to plead my case.
As the massive palace door opened I saw a clear path out to the courtyard beyond. A crowd had gathered for the speech.
“Wuld!” I shouted. The burst of speed pulled me from the grasp of the guards, and I hurtled through the door and halfway down the length of the courtyard beyond. The crowd gasped as I appeared in their midst, and the guards nearby were too surprised to do anything. I had only one chance for freedom, and it was to get the people on my side.
I broke into a run down the remaining length of the courtyard, the guards who had been with Ulfric giving chase and shouting for the others to stop me. It was full dark now and our torch-cast shadows leapt wildly after us. I arrived at the speaker’s platform and climbed its steps before any could prevent it. Beyond the platform and down the steps toward Candlehearth Hall, more of Windhelm’s residents had gathered to hear their jarl.
I raised my hands for quiet, though I didn’t need to. I had already gotten their attention. “People of Windhelm,” I said, “I am Deirdre Morningsong, and I am here to save you from the dragons, when Ulfric will not!”
They were silent for a moment, not sure what to make of me. Finally one voice rang out, “Someone’s got to do it!”
“Seize her!” I heard Ulfric call from behind me. “Gag her!”
“Ulfric and his guard mean to stop me. Will you hear me speak?”
“Let her speak!” a few people shouted.
Two guards were climbing the steps toward me. I turned on them, hoping the power of my Thu’um had replenished itself by now.
“Fus-Ro!” The shout knocked them falling backward off the platform in a clatter of mail. The crowd gasped again.
“Your jarl is not the only one with the Power of the Voice,” I said. “The Greybeards name me Dovahkiin.” Surely, news of that event had reached the people here, if it had reached Ulfric. It was my only hope. “You have seen what I can do. It is my destiny to defeat the dragons. I pledge to you that I will do all in my power to prevent them from attacking here.”
“The song has come true!” someone called out. “The Dragonborn is here to save us!”
“People of Windhelm,” I asked, “has Ulfric done anything to protect you?”
“No! Nothing!” came the shouts. “Save us! Slay the dragons!” called others.
Halfway down the courtyard, Ulfric stood surrounded by his lieutenants and his guards, watching with a scowl as he lost the crowd. Nearby stood Lydia, still in the grip of two guards, though they seemed unsure what to do. Ralof was there too, a stricken expression on his face.
I raised my hands for silence once again. “Ulfric would detain me here because I will not join his war. But what say you, people of Windhelm? Should your jarl let me leave here and carry the fight to the dragons?”
“Yes,” came the cries. “Save us! Slay the dragons!”
Then a familiar figure ascended the steps of the speaker’s platform. It was Malukah, and she had her lute. “You really aren’t very good at staying under cover, are you, Dragonborn?” she asked. I shook my head. She gave me a wink, and then broke into “The Dragonborn Comes.” For once, I was glad to hear it. In moments the whole crowd was singing the tune.
I descended the steps and approached Ulfric. “It seems I upstaged your speech,” I said.
“Yes,” he growled. “I doubt they’ll want to hear about the war now.”
“You hear them, Jarl Ulfric. Will you let us go?”
He nodded to his guards to let Lydia free. “Just get out of my city before I change my mind,” he snarled.
There was an awkward moment then as the guards retrieved our weapons from inside the hall and brought them to us. Ralof looked as if he would speak to me, but didn’t know what he could say in front of his jarl. Galmar seemed ready to cleave my skull with his axe. Lydia stood next to me, glowering at him.
“And remember my warning about Balgruuf, Jarl Ulfric,” I said. “Moving against Whiterun would be a mistake in more ways than one.”
Then we were moving toward the city gate, the crowd’s song ringing in our ears. We passed over the speaker’s platform and down its steps. The crowd beyond parted for us, and now they were chanting “Dovahkiin! Dovahkiin!” over and over.
The massive doors opened for us and we came out onto the walled bridge over the White River. Only then did I realize Ralof had followed us. As the doors closed behind us and the sound of the crowd died out, he came up to me, but stood a pace or two apart, confusion written across his face.
“Long have I looked for your coming,” he began, “but I didn’t expect … I didn’t know…”
“No, how could you, or anyone?” I said. “But come, is this any kind of greeting for old friends?” I opened my arms and we hugged. “Much has happened since we last met,” I went on. “Too much to explain now.” Then I realized Lydia was standing there patiently. “This is Lydia, my friend and housecarl. Lydia, this is Ralof.”
“Well met,” she said, with a tip of her head. “I’ve heard much about you.” There was just the barest trace of a smile on her lips as she looked from Ralof to me.
Ralof was still full of questions. “I thought you were at the college. But now Balgruuf has made you a thane? And you’re the…”
“My thane is full of surprises,” Lydia interrupted. “For instance, I had no idea she could make a speech like that. Where did you learn it?”
I shrugged. I really had no idea. “Books, I suppose. I remember reading about the speeches of Bero.”
“I’m not surprised,” said Ralof. “I heard her give a speech once before, in Helgen. But I can’t believe what you did back there. And you’re the Dragonborn! How can that be? And you have to fight these dragons? And Alduin himself?” His voice was full of awe, and worry.
“It’s true,” I said. “A great task has been laid upon me.” I didn’t know what else to say. The Nine knew I was full of doubts, but I dare not express them, and anything else I could say would sound arrogant. I had already boasted enough in front of Ulfric.
Lydia rescued me. “Yes, Ralof, the fate of the world rests with our friend Deirdre. It takes some getting used to, doesn’t it?”
We stood there looking at one another for a moment, none of us sure what to say or do next.
“Look,” said Lydia, always practical. “In the rush we left our things at the Blade and Dragon. Why don’t I get them? I’m sure the guard won’t let you back in the city, my thane, not after the jarl ordered you out. I’ll meet you at the stables.”
The guard at the gate gave her some trouble about re-entering, but Ralof vouched for her. Then we began walking across the bridge.
“Deirdre,” Ralof said, “you don’t need to leave like this.”
“You heard Ulfric. If I go back he’ll throw me in the dungeon. I have a task before me, and I will be delayed no longer.” Only then did I remember that we hadn’t achieved our purpose in coming to Windhelm – to retrieve that blasted horn. How was I to proceed in my training without it? I paused, wondering what to do.
Ralof took this as indecision. “I could disguise you, sneak you back into the city. Ulfric will forget his displeasure in a day or two.”
“No, my friend,” I said. “I wish I had more time to spend with you, but it’s not to be. Unless you want to come with us? The last time I killed a dragon, I needed the help of a squad of guards. Lydia and I would be glad to have you by our side.”
Ralof considered the offer for a moment, but then set his jaw. “No, my place is here with Ulfric and my fellow Stormcloaks. I can’t leave just when the war is about to begin.”
“Come then, help me with the horses while you tell me how you have fared since last I saw you. And that reminds me, Gerdur sends her love.”
“You’ve seen her?”
“Yes, a fortnight ago, on my way to Bleak Falls Barrow. She’s worried about you, of course.”
“Bleak Falls Barrow! Why on Nirn did you go in there?”
“Farengar had something that needed retrieving. Seems people are always asking me to get things for them.”
“You didn’t go in there by yourself, did you? And were there … draugr?” He shivered a bit when he said it.
“Only a few. They’re not bad if you can manage not to wake them. And one wight lord. He nearly did me in, but I squeaked through.”
“I knew you were a good fighter, but you must have learned much at the college. And this Dragonborn business – how did you come about that?”
“It’s incredible, I have to admit,” I said. “I doubt you’ll believe the half of it.” We had arrived at the stables, and Ralof began helping me with our horses while I told him of the word wall in the barrow and the fight with the dragon.
“So you absorbed its soul! How that must have felt!”
“I can’t describe it,” I said. “But come, tell me how you have been. How go the war plans?”
“Ach, training and waiting, waiting and training. I’m glad this war is finally going to begin. Every day we hear of a new outrage of the Thalmor against our people.”
“But you haven’t seen any fighting?”
“There have been a few skirmishes between our advance camps and the Imperials, but nothing serious. It’s taken time to amass our force. So many war-bands, coming from all over Eastmarch, Winterhold, Riften, and the Pale. And volunteers from the western holds. Many of the recruits are farmers, and they had to get their harvests in before they would join our fight. Too, I think Galmar wanted to wait until winter, thinking the colder weather would give us the advantage.”
I cinched the last strap tight on my horse’s saddle. “I’m glad I found you here, my friend,” I said, turning to him.
“And I’m glad you came. You’ve put on weight since last I saw you. It becomes you well.” He reached out and put a hand on my cheek. Then a bell rang in the city, and he pulled away. “Deirdre, that’s my watch being called. I wish we had more time together.”
“Maybe next time we will.” I didn’t tell him I thought that wouldn’t be until the dragons were dead and the war was over – if either of us survived those calamities. We hugged, and he headed back over the bridge.
Lydia returned shortly after Ralof left. “Your friend looked downcast as I passed him,” she said. “You’re breaking hearts wherever you go, my thane.”
“Is this any time for idle chit-chat?” a voice asked from behind us.
I turned to see a woman in a hood and cloak step round the corner of the stable. She was leading a horse of her own.
“Who are you?” I asked. Lydia had already drawn her axe. “What do you want with us?”
“That was foolish, what you did back in the city. The Thalmor have their spies, even here.”
“If so, then they know I mean not to join Ulfric’s cause against them. But again I say, who are you?”
“My name is Delphine,” she said. As she reached into her cloak, a coat of mail beneath caught a glint of torchlight. She withdrew a large white horn and held it out to me. “I believe you are looking for this.”
The horn was as plain as could be – just a ram’s horn like many I had come across on my rambles in the mountains. I looked for runes, secret writing, hidden mechanisms, enchantments, but found nothing. It hadn’t even been fashioned for use as a trumpet.
“This is the Horn of Jurgen Windcaller?” I asked the woman who called herself Delphine.
“Not much to look at, is it?” she replied. Her face was still hidden by her hood, but something about her voice seemed familiar. “I believe this is the Greybeards’ idea of a joke, and you are the brunt of it. You’ll have to get used to that, if you continue as their student.”
“Wait,” I said. “So you’re the one who left the note in Ustengrav? Why would you take the horn?”
“The Greybeards are nothing if not predictable. When I heard that they had called the Dragonborn to High Hrothgar, I knew they would send you to Ustengrav. It’s one of their favorite tests for their initiates, not just the Dragonborn. Most fail it abysmally. And as to why I took it, I had to contact you. I thought taking the horn would get your attention.”
“Well, now you have it,” I said. “But how did you manage to get into Ustengrav?”
“Most of the challenges you faced are meant only for the initiate. To anyone else, the place merely appears haunted. Cracking that chest was a bit of a challenge, but I am not without my own resources. I am the last survivor of the Blades. I wouldn’t have escaped the Thalmor all these years if I lacked skills.”
“The Blades!” exclaimed Lydia. “I read about them in The Oblivion Crisis. They used to be the emperor’s private guard. But I thought you were replaced by the Penitus Oculatus and then the Thalmor wiped you out?”
I shuddered at the mention of the Penitus. They had a garrison in Dragon Bridge, yet they hadn’t lifted a finger to help my parents when the Nords put our house to the torch.
“The Thalmor nearly did finish us, but I have survived on the run since the Great War. As far as I know I am the last of my kind. We were sworn protectors not just of the emperor, but of the Dragonborn. That is why I set out to find you, Deirdre.”
“Then why didn’t you meet us at the Blade and Dragon? You could have saved us much trouble. Or you could have found me at High Hrothgar.”
“The Greybeards are no friends of the Blades. We are too active in the affairs of the world, while they content themselves with contemplating the sky, no matter what befalls Tamriel. No, they would not have let me near you. And as for meeting you here – I was delayed. It could not be helped. If I had known you would make such a spectacle of yourself, I would never have risked leaving the city.”
“Why, what were you doing that kept you?”
“Investigating dragon mounds. The serpents were not vanquished in the Dragon Wars, you see. The dragon cult interred their remains, hoping they would one day rise again. And now the dragons are returning, coming to life from the ancient burial mounds where they have slept for thousands of years. “
“How do you know that?”
“I have visited several of the mounds and found them broken and empty.”
“And how did you find them?”
“I have a map.” She withdrew a scroll from within her cloak and unrolled it. The torchlight was too dim for reading, so I cast magelight at the wall of the stable. The scroll was a map of Skyrim. Here and there were black Xs that I assumed represented the mounds. Some were circled in red with numbers next to them.
“This map looks familiar,” I said.
“It should,” said Delphine. “You’re the one who brought it to me – or the version of it etched on a stone tablet.”
I looked up from the map. Now that I could see her in the better light, I did recognize her. She drew her hood back and I saw that she was a Breton. The furrows in her brow were deeply etched with years of care. She wore her blonde hair pulled back severely in a single plait.
“You were in Farengar’s chamber the day Mirmulnir attacked the Western Watchtower!”
“Yes, and had I known that the Dragonborn stood before me on that day, I never would have left Whiterun. But I knew I had to start tracking down these mounds before more dragons came to life. As you can see, I found five of them empty. The mounds seem to open in succession, moving from the southeast. If we’re in luck we can stop the next rebirth tonight.”
“What? Where? How?” Lydia and I asked all at once.
“Here,” she said, pointing at a spot south of Windhelm. “Near Kynesgrove. If the pattern holds, that’s where the next dragon will be reborn. I don’t know how to stop it, but if we’re in time, maybe we’ll think of something.” She went to her horse. “Are you coming?”
I nearly ran to my own mount. More than a fortnight had passed since we killed Mirmulnir. That had been difficult enough; and now to learn there were five more! I was tired of studying and being sent on foolish errantry. I was ready to kill a dragon, or even better, stop one from being reborn.
“Wait,” said Lydia. “How do we know we can trust her? How do we know that really is the Horn of Jurgen Windcaller? And even if it is, maybe she stole it just to lead us into a trap.”
“Your caution is commendable,” said Delphine. “I only wish you had exercised it before drawing so much attention to yourselves. At any rate, I will make for Kynesgrove whether you’re coming or not. Although I would dearly love the opportunity to see you absorb a dragon’s soul. That would be the final proof I need that you are the Dragonborn.”
With that she wheeled her horse and rode off into the darkness. I mounted my own horse. “Come, Lydia. Whether we can trust her or no, I cannot pass up a chance to confront a dragon. And you’re always looking for glory. What better opportunity?”
“As you will, my thane,” she said, and I could tell she was eager to finally see some action, despite her reservations.
We followed after Delphine and soon caught up to her. “Good!” she said as we drew abreast. “I knew you couldn’t pass up this chance. Maybe you really are the Dragonborn, and not just a foolish girl who learned some parlor tricks with the Voice.”
I let the insult pass. I was more interested in finding out what this woman wanted with me. “Why have you been looking for the Dragonborn?” I asked.
“As I said, my order has protected the Dragonborn since … well, for time out of mind. But more than that, we remember what most do not – that the Dragonborn is the ultimate dragonslayer, the only one who can kill a dragon permanently by devouring its soul. Can you do it?”
“Yes, that’s how I learned to shout,” I said.
“Good. Then together we will take care of these dragons. The Blades have been without a purpose since the death of Martin Septim. And if we can frustrate the Thalmor’s plans at the same time, all the better.”
“The Thalmor? What do they have to do with the dragons?”
“Who else could be behind their return? Anything that creates chaos for the Empire plays to their advantage.”
“Maybe so,” I said, though I knew better.
“You seem doubtful,” she said. “Do you have any other ideas?”
“Nothing for certain,” I said. “Just an old prophecy. But I won’t speak of it until I know for certain.”
“If only Esbern were here,” she said, “he would help us interpret your prophecy, whatever it is. But I’m sure the Thalmor must have gotten to him long ago.”
“The Blades’ loremaster. He knew all the old prophecies and legends about the dragons. Fairly skilled in the dragon tongue as well. But he was getting on in years, and I doubt he could stay ahead of the Thalmor, skilled fighter though he was.”
A mass of clouds was moving in from the north and covering the stars as we approached Kynesgrove. Fortunately, the moons still shone in the south to light our way. We found the hamlet in an uproar – if such a tiny place was capable of creating an uproar. A lone woman ran out of the inn as we were tying our horses at the stable.
“A dragon!” she screamed. “A dragon is attacking!”
“Where’s the dragon?” Delphine asked. “I don’t see one.”
“Well, it flew over a while ago,” the woman admitted. “It was headed toward the old dragon mound up the hill.” She pointed to the east.
“Where are the guards?” Lydia asked.
“They headed up there right after the dragon flew by,” she said. “They haven’t been back since.”
As we climbed the steep road out of the village, snow began to fall and the wind from the north picked up. The moonlight illuminated the snowflakes in brilliant swirls, but it was hard to see anything ahead. I thought I heard a familiar roaring above the groaning of the wind.
Then a shadow crossed our path and I looked up to see a huge, winged shape silhouetted against Masser. Even through the blowing snow, I could make out the dragon’s long, double-curved horns and the intricate spines running down its back to its tail. It had to be Alduin. The dragon soared past us in a great arc and headed back up the hill.
“Gods, would you look at that monster!” Delphine exclaimed. I wondered if this was the first dragon she had seen.
When we came near to the dragon mound we found the body of a village guard lying in the road. The mound itself, a low dome of stone work and packed earth, sat in a large clearing. I had seen these here and there in Skyrim and never thought too much about them. Ancient ruins dotted the land, their original purposes long forgotten. I always thought the name “dragon mound” was just a bit of fanciful folklore.
I was about to learn how wrong I was. The dragon hovered above the mound, its giant wings beating the air to keep aloft, swirling the snow in great eddies.
Delphine stood gaping for a moment. “I never imagined…” she said quietly, her voice trailing off. If possible, her face looked even more pale.
But not even a dragon could daunt Lydia. She drew her bow and made ready to attack. “You never should have come here, dragon!” she shouted. The beast paid her no heed.
“Delphine, now’s our chance,” I said. “Let’s spread out and attack it from range.”
Lydia’s shout had awakened Delphine from her stupor. “No, get down, you fools!” She took cover behind a rock, and gestured for us to follow. “We need to see what this dragon is doing. If it is going to revive another dragon from within that mound, we need to see how it’s done.”
I thought we had come here to stop the rebirth of a dragon, but I had to admit, the opportunity to see a dragon reborn was intriguing. Lydia and I joined Delphine in her hiding place.
Now the dragon addressed the mound: “Sahloknir, ziil gro dovah ulse!” I caught the words dragon and spirit, no more. My Dovah was still none too good. Then the dragon shouted. “Slen-Tiid-Vo!” Something about flesh and time.
The dragon mound burst apart in an explosion of stone and flame. Out of the rubble rose the skeletal shape of a dragon, smaller than the one hovering above, but powerful nonetheless.
Delphine gasped. “This is worse than I imagined,” she said. Lydia stood on my other side, equally wide-eyed.
I would have been just as aghast as my companions, had the scene not seemed so familiar. Now flame was swirling about the dragon, and dark shapes formed within the flame. It looked very like the swirl of energy that had engulfed Mirmulnir when I devoured his soul, only in reverse. When the swirling fire ended, the new-born dragon stood replete with flesh and scales. It was lighter in color than the dragon hovering above, with fewer spines and a triangular tail.
So we had learned the dragons were being resurrected. It seemed slim knowledge to gain at the price of now having to face two dragons at once.
Then this new dragon spoke and my worst fears were confirmed. “Alduin, Thuri!” “Alduin, Master!” it had said. Then it went on in words I couldn’t understand.
I looked at Delphine. She looked yet more pale. “No, this cannot be!” she exclaimed. Even she had Alduin’s name.
Lydia had notched an arrow to her bow. “Come on!” she shouted. “What are we waiting for? This is the dragon we’re meant to stop!”
“Wait!” Delphine hissed. “You’ll get us all killed! And perhaps there is more to learn.” Reluctantly Lydia lowered her bow. I could see how Delphine had survived all these years, if she constantly shrank from battle.
Alduin was speaking again. “Geh, Sahloknir, kaali mir.” Then the great dragon’s massive head turned toward us. “Ful, losei Dovahkiin? Zu’u koraav nid nol dov do hi.”
How had he recognized me? I thought I was well hidden, though my companions had been none too quiet. I didn’t know what he had said, other than to address me. Then he spoke in the Common Tongue, a language I didn’t even know dragons could speak.
“You don’t even know our tongue, do you? Such arrogance, to take for yourself the name of Dovah.“
All my training at High Hrothgar was forgotten, as well as Delphine’s warnings to stay hidden. This was the dragon that had killed Huldi and Harry’s parents, the one that had somehow forced me to witness its marauding. “I’ll show you arrogance,” I muttered as I stood out from behind the rock.
“Deirdre, no!” Delphine shouted, but it was too late.
“Fus-Ro!” I shouted – it was all I knew of the Unrelenting Force shout. At the same time, Lydia fired her bow, only to see the arrow glance harmlessly off Alduin’s thick scales.
Alduin just laughed, a deep, guttural chuckle of amusement. “So, you think you can shout? Your Thu’um is weak.” He turned back to the reborn dragon. “Sahloknir, krii daar joorre.”
I understood enough Dovah to know that Alduin had just ordered Sahloknir to kill us. Then the master dragon soared off into the sky. Sahloknir took flight as well, but not before Lydia hit him in the belly with an arrow. I was glad to see it sink up to the feathers.
Sahloknir took a wide turn around the clearing, perhaps feeling his newly resurrected power before joining the battle. I took this time to give my companions quick instructions, being the only one who had fought a dragon. “We need to spread out. Lydia, for Talos’ sake, have that shield ready – you don’t want to take a hit from its fire breath. Delphine, that studded armor isn’t going to do you any good. Try to stay out of its line of fire and let Lydia and me take its breaths.”
“I’ve never run from an opponent in my life,” she said, but there was no time to argue. The dragon had turned at the end of the clearing and was now flying straight for us.
“Scatter!” I shouted. Lydia and Delphine ran to either side. I knew it was futile to run from an onrushing dragon, so I ran toward it. It swooped down at me and released a breath of frost rather than fire – “Fo-Krah-Diin!” I dove and rolled beneath the dragon, missing the worst of the blast, concentrating on the words of the shout.
The dragon spoke as it rose back into the air and turned for another pass. Like Alduin, he used the Common Tongue. “My master Alduin requires your deaths. I am happy to oblige him.”
I could hear the twang of Lydia’s and Delphine’s bows off to the sides. “Slay the dragon!” Lydia called.
“Remember, friends, those breaths are just words,” I called to my comrades. “Fo-Krah-Diin. Frost-Cold-Freeze. Words cannot hurt you! Keep concentrating on that.” I hoped Lydia’s studies with Master Arngeir had helped.
Sahloknir swooped toward Lydia now. She fired one last arrow then quickly crouched behind her massive shield. The dragon’s breath still hadn’t recovered so it tried snapping at her as it flew past. Its jaws glanced off the strong iron of the shield, nearly knocking her over.
The beast circled again, and this time I summoned my flame atronach. We would fight ice with fire. Now the dragon hovered in the air in front of me. “Fus-Ro!” I shouted at it before it could get out a frost breath. Then I rolled to one side as the icy blast missed me by inches. When I came back to my feet I saw arrows and fireballs flying at the dragon from all sides. It looked this way and that, wondering which one of us to attack next. I drew my own bow and fired at its belly, drawing a gush of steaming blood.
“Ah, so it is to be a true battle,” Sahloknir said. “Good!” He still sounded full of arrogance, but his wings beat with less energy as he flew off to make another circle.
We got several more arrows and firebolts into the dragon, then he came crashing down in the clearing, gouging a great furrow in the ground. He was too weak to fly, yet dangerous. Lydia happened to be nearest to him. She advanced toward his snapping jaws, axe in one hand, shield in the other.
“No, Lydia, watch out!” I called. I could see that he was drawing breath for another blast of frost. She was just getting her shield into place when the icy cloud enveloped her. Through the blowing snow and the frost of the dragon’s breath, I couldn’t see what was happening. The dragon took a step in her direction, snapping here and there.
Someone had to distract the dragon. If it felt my arrows stinging its sides, it gave no hint. I had lost Delphine in the confusion of the dragon’s circling and landing. My flame spell was the only thing I had left that could get its attention. But for that, I needed to be closer. “Wuld!” I shouted, and the burst of speed took me to within a pace of the beast. I began blasting it with fire. The plan worked: it turned on me with snapping jaws. Once it snapped, and I jumped out of the way. I hit it with the flame again, but its jaws opened wide once more and thrust toward me. Its fangs were longer than my hand.
Then I saw a glint of steel from behind the dragon’s head and heard a cry: “Oh, no you don’t, dragon!” Lydia’s axe plunged down, nearly severing the dragon’s head from its body. Sahloknir slumped to the ground and lay there, lifeless.
Lydia smiled triumphantly and sheathed her axe. Her hair and arms were coated in ice and her shield, which she had cast aside to wield her axe with two hands, had a foot-high cornice of frost along its upper edge.
Before I could move to thank her for saving my life or cast a healing spell on her, the soul-devouring began. Delphine, who had been exulting over our defeat of the dragon, now took a step back. “Wait, something’s happening!” she exclaimed. Lydia backed up a pace as well. The dragon’s flesh dissolved in streamers of smoke and flame, and I felt power entering my being. I also found I had a new, deep understanding of “Iiz,” or ice, that word of power I had learned so long ago.
Would I really need to slay one dragon for each word of power I learned? How long would it take to develop my power sufficiently to meet Alduin? The enormity of my task weighed on me.
When it was over, Delphine came up to me. “So it’s true, you really are Dragonborn!”
“Of course she’s Dragonborn,” said Lydia. “Didn’t she tell you she was?” Then she looked at the now fleshless dragon skeleton. “Although, I didn’t quite believe it myself until I saw that. It’s a wonder!” There was something new in her eyes when she looked at me. Wonder? Fear? Awe? I could not tell.
“Here, you must be frozen,” I said to her. “Let me heal that.”
As the glow of the spell enveloped her, she winked and said, “A healing spell! Are you a priest?”
This had been our little joke, ever since that first time I healed her after the fight with the frost troll on the Seven Thousand Steps. She asked me the same thing then, having never heard of a mage outside the priesthood who specialized in Restoration. She would repeat the question every time I healed her, poking fun at herself. Usually I would come up with some half-witty reply, “No, but I do accept tithes,” or some such. Today I could think of nothing.
“Aren’t you happy with our victory, my thane?” Lydia asked.
I didn’t know what I was feeling. Shouldn’t I exult at the victory over another dragon? But I couldn’t. The task before us just seemed too daunting. At least five resurrected dragons still lived. And if Alduin could resurrect a dragon as quickly as we had just witnessed, how would we ever keep up?
Delphine still stared at me. Then she bowed. “As a Blade, it is my sworn duty to protect and guide you, as we hunt these dragons.”
“I already have an able protector here, as you have seen. And isn’t it the Greybeards’ job to guide me? They were the first to hint that Alduin was behind the return of the dragons.”
“But what will they have you do about it? Sit at High Hrothgar and contemplate the sky? Go on useless quests for worthless relics? I’m guessing they told you the World Eater plays a vital role in the cosmic scheme of things, am I right?”
I couldn’t admit that she was, so I held my tongue.
“I see,” said Delphine. “Meanwhile, I have led you to one dragon, and I can lead you to more. Let us work together and put an end to these monsters.”
The offer was tempting, I had to admit. Glad as I was at slaying the dragon, flush with the feeling of power that came from absorbing its soul, I would eagerly repeat that victory again and again. Yet who knew how many dragons there were? Delphine’s map showed more than twenty burial sites. And could there be more dragons beyond the ones in the mounds? We didn’t know. How much destruction would they cause while we hunted each one?
“Can you tell me how we can stop Alduin?” I asked. “For that seems the only way we can put a stop to the dragons’ return.”
That put the Blade at a loss. “No,” she admitted. “As you saw, Alduin seems impervious even to your attacks, and he’s willing to let his dragon allies do his fighting. But if anyone knows about Alduin’s return, my guess is it’s the Thalmor.”
“You still think the Thalmor have anything to do with this?” I asked, incredulous. “What control could they have over the World Eater?”
“I don’t know,” she admitted, “but do you have any better guesses?”
I shook my head.
“Well then, it can’t hurt to find out what the Thalmor know, can it?”
“I suppose not,” I said. “How do you propose to do it?”
“I’m not sure yet,” she said. “It bears some thinking. Meanwhile, we can study the Dragonstone map for more clues. If the pattern holds and the resurrections continue spreading north and west, the next one should happen west of Windhelm within the week.”
I shook my head again. “I cannot go with you. I must return to High Hrothgar, whether or not the Horn of Jurgen Windcaller is important. Perhaps the Greybeards have some knowledge about Alduin they have yet to impart. And I need to develop my own power further, if I ever hope to defeat him.”
Delphine sighed. “Always it has been thus, the Greybeards holding the Dragonborn back from his true destiny. If they had their way, Tiber Septim never would have united Tamriel. But I see that you are set in this, and I will not delay you.”
Before parting we agreed that we would try to meet Delphine at the dragon mound near Anga’s Mill, west of Windhelm. Failing that, we would send messages via the Blade and Dragon, which served as Delphine’s base. With that, we made ready to depart, Delphine to Windhelm, Lydia and I to High Hrothgar with the mysterious Horn of Jurgen Windcaller.
After we had reclaimed our horses and were mounted for the journey, Delphine left us with a parting thought. “Be on the lookout for likely recruits for the Blades. I mean to fight every dragon that is resurrected, and to do that, it will take an army.”
“The Blades!” exclaimed Master Arngeir. “Always meddling where they should not; always seeking to turn the Dragonborn aside from the path of wisdom. Tell me, how did you get caught up with them?”
We had just arrived at High Hrothgar and found the old master in the refectory. I had never seen him so disturbed. His brows knit together the tiniest bit as he stared at me. He didn’t even seem to notice the Horn of Jurgen Windcaller, which I was holding out to him.
“Only one Blade remains, Master Arngeir,” I said. “And I got ‘caught up’ with her when she stole the horn from Ustengrav. We had to travel to Windhelm to retrieve it.”
He was even angrier with this news – I could see just the slightest flicker in the otherwise calm pools of his eyes. “And what did she want in exchange? To enter your service as your protector and guide? To go off and fight the Thalmor together? Did she fill you with dreams of one day becoming emperor like Talos before you?”
“No,” I said, with a vigorous shake of my head. Then I told him about Delphine guiding us to Alduin himself and helping us put an end to Sahloknir.
“Ah, so you met your nemesis once more,” he said. “And did you confront him?”
“My shout did not touch him,” I said. “He told me I was unworthy of the name Dovah.“
“As well he might. You are just coming into your power as Dragonborn. You do not yet know the full Unrelenting Force shout.”
“There is a reason for that,” I reminded him.