Through Smoke and Flame
I laid my aching body down on the cot. The pain of my hurts faded from an all-consuming torment to a mere persistent stinging. How long had it been since I last slept? Yet I couldn’t sleep, my mind was so abuzz with what I’d just heard from the thief. Esbern lived! Delphine thought the Blades’ old loremaster might know something about Alduin. Maybe he even held the key to finding and defeating the World Eater. I had to reach him somehow.
It was time to get out of this dungeon – far past time. Now the scattered state of my mind was replaced with a slow-burning anger at the Thalmor’s treatment of me, and even more, of Lydia. They had not violated me in the worst way, yet the pain and humiliation had been enough. Almost as humiliating, it seemed that everyone would use me as a pawn – Ulfric, Tullius, Elenwen, even Alduin. I had let events push me about like a boat blown hither and yon on a storm-tossed sea. But no more! I was the Dragonborn. From now on, I would be the mistress of my own fate.
First, I would need to get us out of here. I don’t know how long I lay there, pondering how this might be done. Finally it seemed I had but one desperate chance, and for that I would need to prepare myself.
I sat upright on the bed with my back to the wall, lest I fall asleep. I began breathing in, deep and slow, and slowly breathing out, meditating on the sky. My rage against the Thalmor for our mistreatment – it was dangerous, liable to trip me up, push me into foolish action. Yet if ever I needed the power of my dragon soul, it was now. That dragon’s rage was a burning fire within me. I knew I must control it somehow, use it. I meditated on that fire, and on the sky, breathing in, breathing out, until the sky was still empty, but white-hot. It was the sky above some other world than Nirn, for nothing could live beneath that blazing emptiness. I let that burning sky fill me with its emptiness as I breathed.
After some time, I rose and paced back and forth the length of my cell. It wouldn’t do for the guards to find me stiff from too much sitting. My body must be prepared for what was to come. Yet my limbs wouldn’t quite cooperate, not after their mistreatment. The hurts came back as I moved, and at first I could barely limp about the room, each step sending bolts of agony through my legs. Yet it must be done. Slowly the aches receded and I was able to move more freely.
When the guards came into my cell the next morning – for I assumed it was morning, though I had no way of knowing – they found me sitting quietly on the edge of my cot.
“Up, Breton,” the guard was saying as he unlocked my cell, “Naris and the Am…” He stopped short when he saw me. I know not how I looked, if my eyes were blazing, or my visage fierce, or what he saw that halted him. Maybe he was just surprised not to find me crumpled on the cot, after yesterday’s treatment. “You’re wanted,” he stammered finally.
Two other guards came in and pulled me to my feet, one on each arm. Then they led me from my cell. All the while I continued to breathe deeply, in, out. As we passed Lydia’s cell, I saw that she still sat on the floor at the back, her wrists manacled to the wall above her. They hadn’t thought to place a guard on her. Perhaps they deemed it unnecessary, since I would be in binds or manacled to the wall. That was good. Yet the commotion of the guards hadn’t awakened her. That was less good.
We entered the main dungeon chamber and I saw Elenwen at the top of the stairs to the right. A wizard and an archer stood in readiness on the gallery near her. The gallery at the back of the room was empty. Naris stood at the table in the center of the chamber, his box of knives open. I also noticed my arch-mage’s robes and other clothing, still lying in the corner where the guard had thrown them yesterday. Sloppy of them, I thought.
The guards on either side of me noticed my breathing now. “What are you doing?” one said, stopping in the middle of the room. I looked up at him calmly and continued to breathe. Silence was my power.
“Never mind what she’s doing,” Elenwen called from above. “Just chain her and let’s get on with this.” So they would question me and not make me do something awful to Lydia. Better and better.
The guards brought me up before the gauntree where the manacles hung. “Are you ready?” asked the guard behind us. The two on either side clasped me tightly by the forearms and nodded. Then the third guard undid the cords about my wrists.
If they were expecting a struggle, they didn’t get it. I simply opened and closed my hands to work the feeling back into them as the guards stretched my arms out to either side.
We were still facing the wall, so the guards had to do a little dance to turn me to face the room. As we spun slowly about, I looked up at Elenwen, the she-elf whom I had come to loathe with all the malice of which my dragon soul was capable. Yet I had control of that hatred. I would use it, at the time of my choosing. And that time was now.
Jurgen Windcaller had chosen silence, and I would do the same. I shouted a soundless shout. Fus, force, was the word I chose. I had meditated on that word all through the night, letting its deep meaning fill my being, along with the emptiness of that white-hot sky. Now it burst out of me silently in all directions, like the ripple a stone makes when dropped on a quiet lake.
The searing wave of force blasted the guards away from me. They took most of the blast’s heat, but scorch marks made a ring around the chamber’s walls at eye level. Little tongues of flame were already catching here and there.
I heard a shout of surprise from Elenwen, then the command, “Get her!” I dashed toward the nearest column, tugging the gag from my mouth as I went. Now I used the column and the barrel standing next to it as shields from the arrows and lightning bolts the justiciars were dealing from above. An arrow glanced off the corner of the column, sending a shower of slivers down on me. Yet the justiciars seemed reluctant to descend the stairs to face me. I stayed crouched, waiting for my Thu’um to restore itself.
Elenwen and her justiciars could have had me then, if only they had thought to rush me together, yet still they hesitated to descend the stairs. Perhaps they were afraid of my Thu’um, not realizing how much power I had spent on that shout. Even I had no idea how long it would be before I could use it again.
The fire was spreading, licking up the walls of the dungeon, filling the room with smoke. Even the column where I hid was smoldering. The thief began calling for help from his cell at the end of the hall. “Somebody! You’ve got to unchain me. Don’t let me die down here!” Yet all was silent from Lydia’s cell.
The fire had one benefit: the smoke billowing up to the ceiling now shielded me from the view of the Thalmor up on the gallery. I poked my head out from behind the column and could see only shadowy figures through the haze. I had to hope they couldn’t see me, and that the smoke would drive them from the chamber.
I got down on all fours to stay beneath the smoke, then scrambled toward the corner where my robes lay. One of the guards had landed on top of them, so I had to roll his body away, pulling the robes from beneath him. There was no time to put them on or to collect my boots and other things. I fumbled for the side pocket where I had put the broken lock pick. I had to get the magicka collar off – it was our only chance.
Finally I found the pick and began fiddling it into the lock at my neck. It only took a moment of twisting and turning the pick before I felt the simple lock click open. Such a silly flaw in such a powerful device, I thought. Then I tore the collar from my neck, but made the mistake of casting it hastily aside. It clattered to the floor, and in the next instant a bolt of lightning illuminated the smoke above my head, striking the wall.
I snatched up my robes and crawled along the wall to my left. The chest I had noticed earlier was nearby. If I had any luck, it would contain a magicka potion or two. Pausing to check it was a risk, but it would be some time before my own magicka reserves restored themselves. I was still virtually defenseless against the Thalmor.
The chest was unlocked. I suppose the gaolers left it that way because they expected any prisoners either to be bound or chained to the walls. I couldn’t see into it very well, the light in the room had grown so dim. Groping through its contents, I discovered a book and several phials and larger bottles. Trusting to hope, I pulled one bottle from the chest; I couldn’t believe my luck when I saw it was just the potion I wanted.
I was pulling the stopper from it when Elenwen called out, her voice choking on smoke. “Naris, where are you? Seize the Breton!”
Naris! I had forgotten him in the commotion. Had he survived the blast? Where was he?
I had my answer when an arm went around my mouth from behind, dragging me to my feet. Another brought a knife up to my throat. “I am here, Ambassador,” he said, his voice close in my ear. “And I have…”
But Naris was a torturer, not a fighter, too used to his victims remaining bound or chained to the wall. I smashed the potion bottle into his face, feeling a satisfying crunch of breaking glass. With a cry he relaxed his grip. That was the only opening I needed. I grasped his knife hand and pulled down hard on it, throwing my hip into his body at the same time, flipping him forward and landing him halfway across the open chest. Then I brought the lid down hard on his head, knocking him senseless. It was less pain than he deserved, but it would have to do.
“Naris, what’s happening?” Elenwen shouted.
I ducked back down beneath the smoke, trying to suppress a cough, just as a lightning bolt struck the wall nearby. I had to keep moving, but I needed some way to fight off the Thalmor, if it came to it. I spotted the knife the torturer had dropped at my feet and took it up. Then I threw the robes on, not bothering to cinch the belt at their waist. I needed the extra magical power they would give me. And there were still potions in that chest. I rolled the unconscious torturer off of it and began pulling out vials and bottles one by one as quietly as I could. Many were useless – potions of water breathing and true shot and sound sleep. I found no more magicka potions, but there were two potions of fire resistance and one draught of healing. I tucked those into my robes.
I heard Elenwen’s voice from the gallery once more. “Tilmo, get down there and put your sword to the Nord’s throat. That will stop the Breton.”
“Yes, Ambassador,” I heard a male elf say, then the sound of boots descending the stairs.
I crawled beneath the desk that was pushed up against Lydia’s cell, then along the wall. I peeked around the corner just in time to see a flash of gilded armor disappearing into the cell. From the gallery above, I could see nothing, but heard coughing. Would the smoke force them down here with me, or would they leave by the door that led to Elenwen’s solar? I could not let them surround me. My magicka had restored itself somewhat by now, and I used a portion of it to force their decision, sending a firebolt toward the top of the stairs. I saw flames leap up through the smoke, then turned to follow the justiciar into Lydia’s cell.
He had nearly reached her when I threw myself onto his back, pulling his head around and drawing the blade across his throat. I remembered the last time I had slit a man’s throat, but there was no gloating this time. I felt no particular rage at this soldier. It was just something I had to do, knowing that he would have done the same, or worse, if given the opportunity. I pushed the elf aside so he could contemplate his last moments in peace, then went to Lydia.
The smoke was getting bad, even down near the floor where she sat slumped against the wall. She coughed fitfully, yet seemed hardly awake. She looked gaunt, her cheeks sunken, as if they had given her neither food nor water in the past days. And how many days was it now? I had lost count.
I slapped her lightly on the face and chafed her wrists. The bandage on her left hand was soaked through, and there was a little pool of blood on the floor.
“Lydia, wake up, we must go!” I said. She hardly opened her eyes. I risked casting a healing spell. Her eyes fluttered open, then she recognized me and grinned. “Are you a…” she gasped, but then her chin slumped back onto her chest. I gave a sob. I couldn’t get her out of a burning dungeon in this state.
First things first, I thought. I had to get her out of those manacles. These locks were trickier, but at last I freed her. I let her down gently until she was lying on the floor where the air was freshest, then chafed her wrists again. Her eyelids barely fluttered. I tried another healing spell, dual-casting this time, nearly depleting my magicka. She opened her eyes, and seemed awake enough to drink. I gave her the draught of healing, and that seemed to revive her further. Then I made her drink a potion of fire resistance. If I had to drag her through flames, she would need it. Yet it would do no good against the smoke, which was slowly choking us.
“Can you crawl?” I asked.
“I think so,” she croaked.
We began crawling through the smoke out into the hallway, where we found it was much worse. The stairway to the gallery was fully engulfed. Now it came crashing down, and with it, a portion of the balcony. I saw no sign of Elenwen or her remaining justiciar.
We had to get out of here quickly, and there seemed only one way now – the trap door in the storeroom opposite us. But it shared a wall with the burning stairwell, and it too was ablaze. I wondered if this was how my parents had felt, with their house burning all around them, suffocating on smoke. Try as I might to push such thoughts from my mind, I knew we were about to die in a trap of my own making – if I didn’t do something.
I had just enough magicka for one more spell. I hit the flaming wall with a blast of frost, sending up a sizzling cloud of steam and smoke. The cold didn’t extinguish the flames entirely, but maybe I had bought us enough time to get through that trap door. We crawled into the storeroom. It was only when we arrived at the trap door that I saw it was locked. And not with a simple padlock, but with a stout, circular lock set into the face of the door. I tried the shard of the lock pick on it, but it was far too short. A key! There must be a key, but who would have it? I could only hope it would be Naris, the master of this chamber of torment, and not Elenwen.
The smoke wasn’t so bad in this storeroom. I left Lydia lying next to the trap door. I twisted the hood of my robes about to partially cover my nose and mouth and went back into the hallway between the storeroom and the cells.
So far, I had ignored the thief screaming to be freed, but now his choking pleas for help caught my attention once more. Could I leave him here to die? His cell was to my left, Naris’ body to my right. The fire didn’t threaten the thief’s cell as yet, so I turned right. The smoke had now filled the two-story room from floor to ceiling, so crawling offered no advantage. Then I remembered the barrel of water. I groped my way to it and found the bucket sitting next to it. I dipped a bucketful of water and poured it over my head with a splash, hoping that the wet cloth of my robes would protect me from the smoke.
An instant later a lightning bolt seared into my right shoulder. That was bad enough, but it seemed a hundred times worse than any lightning spell I had encountered in the past. The pains from my wounds had until now receded to just a dull stinging sensation, no doubt muted by the mixture of fear and excitement that had come over me since attacking the guards. Now that pain returned, every welt on my body throbbing and vibrating with that jolt of lightning.
I looked up at the gallery behind the torturer’s gauntree. I could see nothing through the smoke. Whoever was up there, they must have hit me just by luck, firing wildly toward the sound I had made. Then I saw the light of a ward spell flicker into being and aimed a firebolt at it. The spell hit the railing and the gallery exploded in fire. I heard the sound of boots running and a door slamming shut.
I was left alone in a world of smoke and flame. I have to get back to Lydia was all I could think, but I was choking on smoke. The wall in front of me was ablaze, and flames were creeping across the floor now. I pulled the damp cloth of my hood around to cover my face, and that seemed to help me breathe better.
I crawled the rest of the way to Naris and began searching his body for a key. Just when I had begun to give up hope, I found it in the last of his pockets. Now I just had to hope it fit the trap door. With my hood still partially covering my face, I ran back toward the storeroom, only to find that the wall separating it from the stairwell was engulfed in flame once more. Lydia was on the other side of that wall. I hit it with as many frost spells as I could muster, until only a few tongues of flame flicked here and there, and a pool of soot-blackened meltwater spread across the floor.
I was making my way to the storeroom when the thief cried out again. “Help!” he screamed. “Is anyone still out there? You can’t leave me here to die all alone!”
I looked into the storeroom. Lydia was on all fours near the doorway. It looked as if she had tried to make her way out to aid me, but then was overcome with pain or smoke. She looked up at me apologetically as I came to the doorway. “My thane,” she choked, “are you all right? I’m sorry…”
I helped Lydia back to the trap door. To my relief, the key fit in the lock and turned. It seemed years since I had felt such joy. I heaved on the door, and Lydia helped me push it open. I could see the top rung of a ladder but only darkness below.
“Down you go, Lydia, I am going back for the thief,” I said.
Lydia stared at me in surprise. “No, my thane…” she choked. “I cannot help you, but I cannot leave you…” Then she sat back down at the edge of the opening.
I groaned in frustration, but I knew I couldn’t convince her, nor could I leave the thief. I would hear his screams in my nightmares to my dying day, if I didn’t do something to help him.
I went back out into the hallway, not bothering with crawling this time. I found Etienne inside the last cell, chained to the back wall. Fortunately, the cell door stood open.
“Thank Nocturnal you’ve come!” he cried. “Now get me out of these manacles!”
The locks on the manacles opened more easily than Lydia’s had. The instant they were off, the thief got up and ran past me into the hall. He stopped there, not sure where to go in the billowing smoke.
“How do we get out of here?” he screamed. “Oh gods, we’re going to die in this fire!” He turned back to look at me as I caught up to him, his eyes wild. “What have you done?”
In the short time since I had left the store room the fire in the main dungeon chamber had grown far worse. It had burned all the way across the room and now blocked our way back to the storeroom.
I took the last potion of fire resistance from my robes and drank half of it, handing the rest to Etienne. “Drink this if you want to make it through that fire.” I said. He did as I told him. “Now follow me, and keep your head down.”
I closed my eyes and ran into the fire, my hood pulled over my face with one hand. There was no moisture left in that cloth; the heat had dried it and it was beginning to smolder. The potion protected me for the moment, yet I couldn’t see where I was going.
“Deirdre, this way,” Lydia called in answer to my cry. I followed the sound of her voice and felt the heat lessen as I entered the storeroom. I dropped to all fours and saw her crouched next to the opening in the floor.
Etienne saw the opening too. Pushing past both of us, he climbed down the ladder more quickly than I would have thought possible.
I made to help Lydia into the hole but she drew back. “After you, my thane,” she said weakly.
I had no energy left for arguing. I got myself into position to climb down, one foot on the second rung, then gave Lydia a last look. Her face was bathed in the flickering light of the fire that grew ever closer. Then I began climbing down into the dark.
I was so tired, I nearly slipped once or twice. After eight or ten rungs, my bare feet felt cold, wet rock. “It’s all right,” I called up. “Come down!”
And she did, more quickly than either of us might have liked. I saw her silhouetted in the trap door opening against the flickering light, then heard her give a cry as she slid more than climbed down the ladder. I tried to stop her fall with outstretched hands but we fell to the floor of the cave in a tangle of limbs.
Fortunately, the spot where we fell was covered in damp moss, cushioning our landing. We lay there for a moment, too exhausted, stunned, and sore to move. Yet we seemed safe here. It was damp and cool, which felt wonderful on my overheated skin. My robes even sizzled at first, where they rested against the wet. We seemed in little danger from the fire. Though badly hurt and weakened, we were both alive. I could hardly believe it. And I had my arms around my Lydia. I could almost go to sleep right here, I thought. As my eyes adjusted to the dim light, I saw that she was drifting in and out of consciousness.
Then a flaming piece of wreckage from the room above fell through the opening and landed next to us, jolting us from our torpor. We quickly untangled ourselves and began crawling away from the opening, deeper into this cave or tunnel or whatever it was, making our way toward a dim light ahead. There was no sign of the thief.
“Lydia, can you stand?” I asked.
“I think so,” she said. I helped her up, but I still had to support her under one arm as we walked.
We could see now that we were in a tunnel, the light coming from an opening far above. Snow had fallen through that opening as well, and the floor was lined with snow and ice. At least the tunnel seemed to tilt upwards, a good sign. From behind us we heard the crash of more debris falling into the tunnel.
I was just beginning to think we would escape the place alive when I noticed the first of the bones – a human hand. Soon we came across more of them, and blood spattering the floor and walls. A foul stench filled the place, and that could mean only one thing.
We heard a roar from up ahead. Then Etienne came running around a bend in the tunnel, looking even more frightened than he had in the burning building. Behind him there appeared the thing I had feared once I saw the bones and the blood: a frost troll.
The troll stopped when it spotted Lydia and me, its three eyes moving back and forth between us. The thief used this opportunity to run past us, cowering in the tunnel behind us. The troll began gesturing in that bellicose way they do before charging, flinging its long, fur-covered arms into the air and then pounding its fists on the ground.
I couldn’t help myself. I began to laugh. Lydia looked at me as if I had lost my mind, and perhaps I had. “My thane, that is no joke, that’s a frost troll. One swipe of its paw and… And I have no weapon … too weak…”
“Lydia,” I replied, “where’s your sense of humor? Twin dragons, imprisonment, torture, starvation, near death by fire and smoke, and now – a frost troll! It’s just too much!” I went on laughing.
The troll was done with its gesturing and began to charge.
“You must stand on your own,” I said. “I need to dual-cast.”
The troll was closing on us fast. I let go of Lydia’s arm and she braced herself against the wall. My calming spell hit the beast when it was ten feet away. It brought up short, looking around with a puzzled expression. Then it ambled past us, its hairy knuckles dragging the ground, to investigate the noises coming from farther down the tunnel. Etienne huddled against the wall, whimpering, as the troll passed him.
I looked over at Lydia.
“It’s good to see you again, my thane,” she said.
I almost sobbed then. “And it’s good to see you, my Lydia.” I reached out and stroked her cheek. Then I propped her up by the arm once more, and we made our way up the tunnel and out into a frozen Skyrim morning.