To Love The Dragonborn
by Zanda Myrande
Half way down the first flight of steps, Lydia hesitated. Something odd had just happened. She had a sense of something skittering away, just out of reach, maybe a lot of somethings. Like rats, or worse, skeevers.
She shook her head. She was on a mission, and it couldn't wait. Irileth would not be at home to excuses, any more than at any other time. She rapidly descended to the Wind District, where Heimskr was as usual engaged on his endless rant to anyone who would listen, and down again to the Plains. It was a pleasant morning, and everyone was out shopping or just passing the time of day--though in the case of Olfrid Battle-Born and his son, confronting Fralia Grey-Mane beside her stall, it was not so much passing as hurling with great force. Lydia edged past them--their quarrel was none of her business--and nearly collided with someone just coming out of the Bannered Mare.
"Oh," she exclaimed, stepping back a pace or two.
"Sorry." The stranger was female, drably dressed, and apart from her unusual height could have been anyone, though a hint of pale skin under the hood suggested Nord. Something about the voice, though...
Abstracted, Lydia had failed to notice that she was still blocking the stranger's path, and for a few moments they engaged in a sort of folk dance on the steps, till a bounty hunter intent on scanning the notice board simply barged past them both. The stranger, muttering to herself, hurried on her way, and Lydia, glaring at the churl but mindful of her mission, mounted the steps and entered the inn. Hulda was behind the bar as usual, and Lydia greeted her courteously and ordered a mead (she was allowed one and no more on these excursions; not that this bothered her).
"Yes," Hulda said before she could ask, "'Master Furblag' was in here again last night."
Lydia sighed. Where the jarl had got hold of the notion that in a town this size he could get away with putting on ordinary (if preternaturally clean) clothes and pretending to be somebody else, she couldn't guess, and as to why he should want to do it...
"What did he say?" she asked wearily.
"Ah, the beauteous Lydia," said a familiar voice, and Lydia stiffened, sighing.
"Mikael," she said, "how are you at playing the lute with your teeth?"
The bard looked startled. "I have never tried," he confessed.
"Then you should take better care of your hands," Lydia said, removing the offending one from the place whereto it had wandered. "We wouldn't want any...accidents."
"I love it when you pretend to reject me," Mikael said. "It sweetens the thrill of the hunt."
Cursing inwardly, Lydia turned to confront the idiot. Her mission was accomplished. She could just get up and walk away. She ought to just get up and walk away.
"Mikael," she said, "you're a keen observer of life in all its aspects."
"As all bards must be." Mikael absorbed this monstrous flattery without hesitation, as she had known he would.
"Someone was in here last night," she said. "Tall lass, Nord. Looks as if a strong wind would blow her over. Quiet."
Mikael brightened. "I knew it," he said. "That's why you are blind to my obvious charms. You prefer the company of women. Of course, it's so clear to me now."
"Answer the question, Mikael," Lydia said through her teeth.
"Yes, I noticed her," Mikael said, looking disapproving. "Very drunk. A mumbler. Spent her last septim on the upstairs room."
"What did she mumble?" It was a legitimate question. These were troubled times. Strangers in town could be anyone at all, and with Jarl Balgruuf determinedly maintaining his neutral position, either side could be sending spies or provocateurs. Lydia was perfectly within her rights and her duty to be asking about this strange woman. She was quite sure of that.
Fortunately one of Mikael's few virtues was a good memory, and he loved to show it off. "I only caught snatches, but it seemed the wench had lately fallen from high estate. Let me see. It went somewhat after this wise." He cleared his throat and assumed the tones of an inebriated woman. "I've done it all. Been everything. Listened, I can listen. Good listener, me. Harbinged, I can harbinge with the best of 'em. Arch-Mage...I can be as bloody arch as anyone, ducky, what, I should say so. I beat thingy, I beat wassisface, I was boss of all of it. Nearly married to Edifice, no, Exodus, wassername. I was just getting to the good bit." Mikael hiccupped with startling verisimilitude, and his assumed voice turned lachrymose. "Just getting to the bit where I could relax, and She has to...has to...annow I gotta start all over again from the bloody beginning. I ask you, izzat fair? Izzat just?" He mimed somebody falling face first into a table. "And that was that."
Lydia could make nothing of this, and was abruptly impatient with herself for being interested. The woman had been just another drunk with a hard-luck story, and she would almost certainly be back at the Mare tonight to repeat the performance. "Thank you, Mikael," she said formally, as if the inquiry had been official. "You've been most helpful."
"I could be even more so." Mikael's hand was back where it did not belong. "I could help you with your sad affliction. One night with me--"
"Mikael," Lydia said sweetly, "do you by any chance know the song 'Ragnar the Red'?"
He brightened. "Of course I do." Of course he did. It was the one song any bard in Skyrim could be relied on to know.
Lydia leaned close. "How would you like to take part," she said, "in a live re-enactment?"
A week passed, and then another, and the encounter faded into the back of Lydia's memory, jostled aside by more urgent concerns. Hrongar, the jarl's brother, was pushing harder and harder to bring Balgruuf round to entering the war on the side of the Stormcloaks; Lydia, who personally favoured neither side, privately suspected him of having spent too long listening to Heimskr. Fortunately, Avenicci the steward was Imperial to his bony fingertips, and his "special relationship" with Balgruuf was so far equal to the task of balancing out a brother's influence and keeping Whiterun firmly on the fence.
When she had first learned of it, Lydia, a simple and traditional woman, had been scandalised by the idea of that kind of relationship between two men, but long use had dulled the edge of her outrage. The world was larger than she knew, after all, and there was room for all sorts of strangeness. You only had to listen to some of Irileth's stories in the mess late at night to learn that. And at least Balgruuf and Avenicci kept it discreet. Probably mostly Avenicci, she thought.
Apart from that, the business of the town went on as usual, and Lydia was kept too occupied for much indulgence in introspection. Some fool had apparently bought the huge, ramshackle estate that a speculative builder named Gibson had thrown up the year before last just opposite the Honningbrew meadery (and hadn't old Sabjorn been livid about that, spoiling his view?) and then found no takers for it. Lydia wished them joy of it, whoever they were, as long as they kept the peace. Someone had torched a cart at the corner just a bit further down the road; they never got to the bottom of that one. Valerius, in Riverwood, was kicking up a fuss about a minor theft from his shop. Someone would be sent to ask the usual routine questions, and that would be that.
Closer to home, there was the usual simmering discontent between the Grey-Manes and the Battle-Borns, between the Companions in Jorrvaskr and the priests of Kynareth, between Nazeem and just about everybody. Lydia, serving her turns as a guard in the hot and uncomfortable pot-helm that Irileth insisted she wear (the elf preferred male subordinates, but could not ignore the fact that Lydia could beat most of them into next Tirdas with one hand tied behind her back) wished people could just learn to get along.
And then, one morning, a runner, dropping with exhaustion, arrived at the gatehouse and spoke urgently to the guard captain, and then to Irileth. Lydia couldn't tell what it was about, apart from the word "Helgen," but the effect was immediate; the gates were locked, the guards were doubled, and Irileth returned to Dragonsreach.
"What's going on?" Lydia demanded of everyone within sight, and got a selection of bizarre answers: the consensus appeared to be that General Tullius had captured Ulfric Stormcloak and cut off his head, but that Ulfric had leapt up laughing from the block (laughing with what, Lydia wondered) and flown away on the back of a huge black dragon.
Lydia shuddered. Dragon. Why should that word work so oddly on her imagination? Dragons were a myth from the olden time. Maybe they had existed long ago--there was the huge old yoke mechanism up on the Great Porch, for one thing, testifying to the reason for the palace's name--but not in this day and age.
She shrugged, and went out to stand a watch on the gate.
Her mind in a turmoil, Lydia followed the strange woman, so suddenly and shockingly elevated to high rank, down the steps of Dragonsreach.
The jarl had just given her away. As casually as he would hand over a sword or a shield from his personal armoury. Lydia found it hard not to resent that a little. Not, she added hastily to herself, that the woman--her Thane, she amended--didn't deserve the honour given her. Lydia had, after all, been there. Against orders, she had squeezed herself into the guard's gear and the damned pot-helm and tacked herself on to the squad sent out to the watchtower.
And she had seen it.
A small, unworthy part of her was still whimpering and trying to hide behind itself. That great bulk, gliding and wheeling through the air with such impossible ease...the sick, acrid smell of its flaming breath...the gut-churning, mind-scarring roar, in which there sounded, horribly, the shape of syllables... mere words couldn't encompass the experience. In the end, you just said "dragon" and left it at that.
The woman--her Thane, damn it--hadn't brought it down all on her own. It had been a team effort, and everyone had got in a blow or a shot. A couple--Svipnar and Gurnir--hadn't lived to see the result. But it had been she, Lethiel Lightfoot, who had delivered the coup de grace, and the dragon had definitely come out with a recognisable word in that last moment, a word Lydia had heard again, resounding from the sky, while bolting back to the keep to change into her own armour.
There were songs about the person that belonged to that word, old songs. Somehow they didn't fit the tall, willowy woman with the startling red hair, currently armed and armoured in the style technically known as What The Other Guy Was Wearing (Lydia took a dim view of trusting yourself to weapons and armour that had last been worn by a bunch of losers), whom she had first met two weeks ago stumbling down the steps of the Bannered Mare. You expected the Dragonborn to be some brawny, barrel-chested, battle-scarred veteran. You expected big and ugly.
They were heading out of the city now, and Lydia wondered where this Dragonborn lived. It must be someplace near. She forced herself to some sort of clarity. She was a personal housecarl now, by her jarl's order, and that meant she stood to Lethiel as Irileth did to Balgruuf. She literally was her sword and her shield. And she was, she admitted to her secret self, a pretty damned worthy gift. It was kind of a promotion.
Somehow she felt no surprise as they crossed the bridge that led to Gibson's stupid white mammoth of an estate. Of course it would be the Dragonborn who had bought it. Where she had got the money, when two weeks ago she had been a penniless drunk, Lydia decided was none of her business. Adventuring, she had heard, was like that; you stole it, you spent it, you went out for more when you needed to.
There was a dagger stuck in the door, a note transfixed by it. Lethiel tore it down, glanced at it, shrugged and stuck it in her belt pouch.
"I hate cold callers," she remarked, pulling the dagger from the door and thrusting it into her belt. "Shall we?"
"Oh look," Lethiel said. "We're about to be held up."
Lydia gratefully slipped off the horse; riding, while something she had had to learn in the jarl's household, was not something she would ever do for pleasure. Lethiel seemed to expect it of her, though.
Nor was that all Lethiel seemed to expect. Lydia was fairly sure that, were she to live to be as old as the Greybeards, she would never have a more embarrassing conversation than the one she had had with her new Thane the previous night. Lethiel had dropped the subject, and Lydia was trying to file it away as no more than an unfortunate misunderstanding, but she had a feeling she had begun her housecarlship badly, had let herself and even the jarl down in some way.
Well, she could do no other. She simply wasn't wired that way, she told herself. She had hastily erected a tissue of fabrications about having been saved from sin by the love of Lady Mara, but she felt sure Lethiel hadn't bought it.
And then, this morning, they had gone to see Adrianne Avenicci at Warmaidens, ostensibly to buy Lydia some better armour (as if she were the one in need of it, Lydia thought sourly) and the woman had brazenly started romancing the blacksmith, right there in front of her. At that moment, Lydia had been seriously considering making her excuses and returning to Dragonsreach. This was not the kind of world she was used to. She didn't want to know about Adrianne's marital difficulties, or anything else of that kind. If this Dragonborn was going to be stravaiging across Skyrim adding lovers to her score willy-nilly, and female ones at that, Lydia had more important work to do, thank you very much.
Adrianne hadn't helped. She had more or less said straight out that Lydia's duties as housecarl included performing in...that way...whenever her Thane demanded it. To her credit, Lethiel had seemed as unenchanted by that view of the matter as Lydia herself...but it had started a tiny worm of doubt in Lydia's mind. If what the smith said was true...if her father served Balgruuf in that way purely as a matter of duty...then wasn't it her duty also? And should it matter if her Thane had other lovers as well?
Lydia had been saving herself for marriage, true, but when she thought about it, she really wasn't sure why. Nobody else seemed to think that way about...about sex. Look at Mikael. Or rather, she amended hastily, don't. The bard was just an indiscriminate lech.
Anyway, Lethiel had not pursued that matter, and now they were riding to Darkwater Crossing to fetch some corundum ore for Adrianne. This, of course, entailed going all the way around the Throat of the World, the huge mountain that pinned Skyrim at its centre to the sky from which the Nords had come. Lethiel had not been pleased about that--she seemed to have an instinctive preference for moving towards her goal in a straight line no matter what was in the way--but the only way up the mountain was the Seven Thousand Steps, and they started from Ivarstead, which was already most of the way to Darkwater Crossing in any case.
All things considered, any diversion that would allow both women to blow off some steam was very welcome about now. And here was a bandit, swaggering forward demanding a toll for using the road. Lydia eased her sword in its sheath, and cast a glance at her Thane.
And looked away again, hastily. It didn't do to let your enemy see you blushing.
After disposing, in fairly short order, of what Lethiel persisted in referring to as the Gyppy Tummy Gang (the healing potion in the privy was a bit of a sad giveaway, Lydia thought) and sharing out everything of value they had accumulated, thus making Lydia richer than she had ever been in her life, the rest of the journey passed uneventfully, till, with night coming on, they rode into Ivarstead. Then Lydia had decided it was time to make her move.
"The jarl ordered you," she said again, "to go to High Hrothgar immediately. The Greybeards summoned you. You don't just ignore that."
"I'm not ignoring it." Lethiel was all sweet reason. "I'm just postponing it. It's a question of priorities."
"You're a Thane of Whiterun now. The jarl's commands take priority, or they should. You owe fealty--"
"I don't remember swearing any oath. Or, come to that, asking to be enthaned. Besides, we're kind of outside his jurisdiction now."
Lydia tried sweet reason herself. "Look, this shipment of ore will still be there when we come back down."
"If it comes to that, I expect High Hrothgar will still be there when we get back from Darkwater Crossing. It's been there a wee while already, or so I gather. It can wait a bit longer."
"And when you've picked up the ore, you'll want to take it straight back to Adrianne so she can make this armour, and then we'll have to slog all the way back here. It makes more sense to go up the Steps first."
"And suppose these Greymanes--"
"Grey*beards*," Lydia broke in, shuddering.
"Suppose these Greybeards give me something else to do, and tell me that's got to be done right away or they'll curse me or something?" Lethiel was firm. "No, we'll get the ore in the morning, and then come back here and go up and see them, and *then* head back to Whiterun. I'm definitely not climbing a damn mountain in the dark, anyway."
Lydia could see this was the best she was going to get. "All right," she said grudgingly. "I'll hold you to it, though."
"Promise?" Lethiel's grin was wicked. "Done and done," she said, as Lydia went red again. "All right, let's get in and find a bed for the night, or two if you insist. I'm starved."
"Two beds," Lydia said. "I do insist."
They entered the Vilemyr Inn, where a tall, statuesque woman was complaining to anyone who would listen about bears. Lethiel paused by the door to have a brief conversation with a depressed-looking Dunmer man who was nursing a mead. Lydia saw money change hands, and wondered what that was about, but Lethiel said nothing and walked up to the bar. The innkeeper looked her up and down, and evidently came to a decision.
"If I were you," he said carefully, "I'd stay away from the barrow on the east side of town...it's haunted."
Lethiel's ears positively pricked up, and Lydia's heart sank.
Much to Lydia's relief, Wilhelm the innkeeper's blatant fishing expedition was only partly successful. Lethiel did walk out, the following morning, to inspect the barrow and mark it on her map, but did not go in. She also paused, on their way out of town, to do the same to a big, burned-out building just over the bridge. Lydia did not ask.
Two wolves and a bear attempted unsuccessfully to dispute their right of passage on the way to Darkwater Crossing. Between them they killed all three, and Lethiel dressed and stripped the carcasses of anything remotely useful, including meat. Lydia had never eaten bear or wolf, but Lethiel seemed content with her haul, and again, Lydia did not ask. She was busy with her thoughts.
Darkwater Crossing was even smaller than Ivarstead, no more than one house, a huddle of tents and the corundum mine, on the edge of an area of hot pools and bare rock. Lydia looked around while Lethiel engaged Annekke Crag-Jumper in conversation. The blonde, blue-eyed miner--why did Skyrim suddenly seem to be full of attractive women?--seemed more concerned with preaching the worship of Dibella than with handing over the ore shipment. Lydia realised with a start that this was an effective counter to her Mara ploy, and wondered, not for the first time, if Adrianne Avenicci had planned this whole trip as a way of--
A sudden and horrifyingly familiar noise scattered her thoughts, and a blast of acrid flame seared the crops in a nearby garden and sent people scurrying for shelter, mostly into the mine. Lydia quickly drew her bow and notched an arrow, but Lethiel had already got off a shot at the huge, hovering shape above the house. It staggered in mid-air, recovered itself and launched another gout of flame before landing, earth-shakingly, directly in front of Lydia. She looked into eyes as old as time and as malevolent, down a maw as huge as death itself, saw the flame roiling and swelling towards her, and knew that this was the end.
A touch on her shoulder, as light as a breeze, and Lethiel had leapt fully over her to land on the dragon's head, clamping its jaw shut on its own flame. She held on grimly to one bony brow ridge, drawing her greatsword with the other hand, and then jumped in the air and drove the blade straight through the beast's skull. This time there were no dying words; the dragon simply writhed, throwing Lethiel off, and collapsed, inert, upon the ground.
Lydia, stunned and shaken, managed to gesture to the people already emerging from cover. As they watched, the body of the dragon was suffused with a strange glow, and then currents of eldritch force flowed from it into the slight frame of the woman now painfully picking herself up. Lethiel's body tensed, and she arched her back and threw back her head, absorbing the power of the dead dragon into herself. This was what had happened out by the watchtower; this was what being a Dragonborn was apparently all about. It was going to take a lot of getting used to, Lydia thought numbly.
Even as she thought this, though, her body was moving forward, moving in on her Thane. Somehow she had come to a decision without realising it. As her arms enfolded Lethiel, and her lips met another woman's for the first time in her life, she knew that Adrianne Avenicci had been right, and wrong; it was not simply a matter of duty, or gratitude, or any such dry and empty transaction. Mara and Dibella demand passion from us, she thought, and who was she to baulk at the will of two Divines, no less?
When Lethiel and Lydia rode away from Darkwater Crossing the next day, back up over the slopes towards Ivarstead, their saddlebags were heavy not only with Adrianne's ore, but with the loot from the dragon's lair high atop Bonestrewn Crest, not to mention from the dragon's gut, and Lethiel's bags also contained bones, scales, organs and a great deal of raw dragon meat. They would eat well, she said, when they got home.
The saddlebags were heavy; but Lydia's heart was light.
"So what was with that wall?" Lydia asked, as they rode along.
"Wall?" Lethiel echoed absently.
"On Bonestrewn Crest. Big wall covered with marks. You stared at it for like a minute and then just turned away."
"You didn't see--" Lethiel broke off. "There was one like it in Bleak Falls Barrow. One of the words sort of drew me to it. Same with this one. I think it's got something to do with the Shouting, but I don't know. It's just an...an odd feeling. Maybe the Greyfeet can explain."
"Grey *beards*," Lydia said.
"Them too." Lethiel seemed unsettled. Lydia suddenly saw that the Dragonborn was...not scared, exactly, but a little awed by the prospect of answering the Greybeards' summons, and was dissembling this with flippancy.
"I'll be with you," she said bracingly. "I've never climbed the Steps myself. It'll be an adventure."
"The trouble with adventures," Lethiel said, "is that people get hurt."
"Not if you can help it, though, right?"
Lethiel shook herself, causing Onyx the horse to snort, and grinned back at her. "Right," she said.
Back in Ivarstead, they left the horses tethered outside the inn and walked down to the bridge, where an elf and a burly man were in conversation. Lydia watched while Lethiel introduced herself, spoke briefly to the man and accepted a bulky bag which she hoisted over one shoulder. Another distraction, Lydia thought glumly, but it turned out that the bag was to be delivered to High Hrothgar itself; food supplies for the Greybeards. Lydia supposed that it must be hard to grow things on the top of a mountain. Except beards, of course.
The man wished them well and walked away, limping slightly, and Lethiel and Lydia crossed the bridge and started up the slope that led to the Seven Thousand Steps.
It was a silent Dragonborn and housecarl who picked their way back down the Seven Thousand Steps, some hours later. Lydia had firmly vetoed Lethiel's suggestion of going down "the quick way" ("Look, I can see Whiterun from here, it's just a step...") by pointing out, rather brilliantly she thought, that the horses and all their gear would be left in Ivarstead where anyone could make off with them. Lethiel had agreed, but had not been happy about it.
As for Lydia, she was wrestling with feelings to which she was distinctly unaccustomed. The Greybeards had been kindness itself, and presented the appearance of harmless and rather dotty old men, and yet something about them had rather got to Lydia where she lived. This was probably why the embarrassing thing had happened.
"Child," Master Arngeir had said gently, "you are staring."
"Please, sir, I'm sorry," Lydia had blurted, "but I've never met a Greyface before."
Lethiel's malicious hiss of "Grey*beard*" had not helped one bit.
In a way, Arngeir was the scariest of all of them. The others had not spoken except when Shouting, and this was apparently because, except for Arngeir who was the youngest of them, they could no longer tune their voices to a normal conversational tone. The scary thing about Arngeir was that, even when he was speaking in that soft, mellifluous voice of his, you could see and hear the sheer effort he was having to put into merely reining it in.
Lydia wondered if Lethiel would go like that, as she advanced along the Way of the Voice. Possibly not; as Dragonborn, she did not have to put as much effort into learning to Shout as the Greybeards had had to. She wondered what would happen if a Greybeard sneezed; the place was thick with dust, after all, a typical male-only habitat. Did "AH HAH SHU" mean anything in dragon language?
The question of the walls had been answered, at any rate. They bore inscriptions in the dragon tongue, and one or more of the words in each of those inscriptions were the Words of Power used in Shouts. Lethiel would have to find and read those words, and then use the power she gained from absorbing the souls of dragons to unlock the words in her mind.
Oh, and Lethiel had been right again; there had been a job to do. They were tasked (or Lethiel was, anyway) to retrieve a horn from an old tomb, somewhere north of Morthal. Lethiel had accepted this amicably enough; she was heading up that way anyway, she said, to investigate some mine or other.
They passed the body of the frost troll that had ambushed them, and Lydia ventured to speak.
"Are you...you know, okay?" she said.
Lethiel looked back, startled. "Of course," she said. "I don't know what I was expecting, but on the whole I don't think I did too badly. What do you think?"
"I think it'll be a cold day in Sovngarde before I come back here again," Lydia said, surprising herself a little. "Once was quite enough."
"I know what you mean," Lethiel said, smiling. "They're a bit terrifying, for all they look harmless. I bet most of the pilgrims never go in. Still, I'll have to come back a few times if I want to learn this stuff."
"I'll wait with the horses," Lydia said. "If you don't mind."
"Course not, love," Lethiel said, dropping back to squeeze Lydia familiarly round the waist. "So what do you think? Go straight back to Whiterun, investigate this barrow the guy was banging on about, or just get ratted and go to bed?"
Lydia looked up at the sky. The sun was declining, but not yet setting.
"Go home," she said. "Give Adrianne her ore, get me some better armour--" She looked ruefully down at her cuirass; the frost troll's claws had not been kind to it. "And then go look for this horn. If you want me along, that is."
"Oh, definitely," Lethiel said. "Home it is, then. We should be--" She stopped and looked comically dismayed. "I don't believe it."
"What?" Lydia said.
Lethiel unslung the bag from her shoulder. "Klimmek's supplies," she said. "I've got to go back. What an idiot." She looked at Lydia. "You want to wait here, or go on ahead?"
"Double idiot," Lydia said. "I'll come with you, of course."
"I'm quite sure," Lethiel said with affected primness, "that's not how a housecarl should address her Thane."
"I don't remember asking to be your housecarl," Lydia said. "Come on, light's a-wasting. And I don't want to be climbing *down* a damn mountain in the dark either."
They turned and started back up.
"Thif if..." Lydia swallowed hastily. "...amazing. How did you learn to cook it?"
The delivery of Klimmek's supplies and the final descent to Ivarstead had been achieved without incident, and what incidents there had been on the ride home had been easily enough handled. Now, Lydia and Lethiel were sitting at ease in front of the big living room fire, nursing bowls in their laps which Lethiel had filled with a sort of stew made from some of the dragon meat. The flavour was...utterly unique, the texture tender beyond compare. It wasn't something Lydia would want to eat every day, because it would spoil her for other foods, but it was definitely a dish fit for the gods.
The firelight shed warm lights on Lethiel's pale skin as she lowered her eyelashes. "Oh, you pick things up," she murmured.
"Where from?" Lydia persisted. "There haven't been dragons around since the time of Jurgen Windcaller. Are you going to tell me you found a recipe in a centuries-old tomb?"
"Would that be enough?" Lethiel raised her eyes again and looked at Lydia directly.
"If it was the truth," Lydia said.
"Oh, truth, truth," Lethiel sighed. "Look, I'm really tired. Can we talk about it another time, love? I promise I'll tell you, and you won't believe me and you'll think I'm crazy, just like you always--" Her lips clamped shut. "Like people always do," she amended lamely, "when someone says something that sounds crazy. Leave it for tonight, Lydia. Please?"
Lydia could not gainsay the plea in those brown eyes. This was clearly something of great significance to her Thane, and she'd given Lydia no reason not to trust her. "You'll tell me...when you're ready?" she said.
"Soon," Lethiel said. "I promise."
"Then that's good enough for me," Lydia said, and moved in for a kiss.
The next morning, they delivered the ore to Adrianne, who at once divined that something in their relationship had shifted, and almost managed to hide her smug smile. She then presented Lydia with a suit of ebony armour she had, she said, been making for the jarl. Lydia eyed the prominent pectoral protuberances on the cuirass, of which Balgruuf could stand in no need whatever, but said nothing. The armour was a rich gift, and excessively generous as a reward for a simple fetch-and-carry job, but of course there was more to this than just that.
They travelled by carriage to Morthal, in deference to Lydia's aching limbs, and forayed forth on foot in the general direction of the tomb of Jurgen Windcaller at Ustengrav, and also of Windstad Mine. It appeared that that burned-out cart Lydia had heard about--it seemed weeks ago now--had contained a clue to a bandit lair there. Lethiel wanted to clear it out, for some reason--Lydia was sure there were bandits closer to home, if she was bored, but she was learning to cope with her Thane's whims and quirks.
The swamps were full of noises, and once the biggest mudcrab Lydia had ever seen charged towards them, claws snapping. It soon found reason to regret this rash action. The necromancer who was hanging around the entrance to Ustengrav had no such leisure; he and his bandit servants never knew who or what had hit them.
"Well," Lethiel said, as they quickly looted the bodies of what little wealth they had owned, "here we go."
"Something wrong?" Lydia said. "You sound, I don't know, not so keen suddenly."
"Nothing, nothing at all," Lethiel said. "Only..." She hesitated. "No, I'll tell you when we're through this," she said. "And then you'll understand." She took Lydia's hands. "This is where it really starts to bite down," she said. "I'll need you."
"You've got me," Lydia said.
"Well, that's that done," Lethiel said briskly, climbing the steps from Ustengrav's stone dome. "Now let's have a look at this mine."
"Wait a second," Lydia said. "I've been doing some thinking."
"Uh-huh?" Lethiel said. In her hand, she held the note they had found where the horn should have been, tightly crumpled into a ball.
"You went through that place like a hot sword through snow," Lydia said. "You knew everything that was coming." She indicated Lethiel's clenched fist. "Including that. You knew the horn wasn't going to be there."
"Busted," Lethiel said with a rueful smile. "So what do you deduce from that?"
"Either a really fierce case of déjà vu," Lydia said, "or...you've done this before. All of this." She hesitated. "Including...me."
Lethiel looked at her for a long moment, saying nothing.
"Am I close?" Lydia said.
"You're right on it," Lethiel said. She sighed, and in that sigh was the weariness of a much older woman. "I've lived this life before. It's not always the same. In some ways it's always different, and always new. But the broad strokes...the main path...that's always the same. I see a dragon attack Helgen, I come to Whiterun via Riverwood, I kill the dragon at the watchtower, I get to meet you." She smiled. "That's one of the parts that always feels new."
Lydia stared at her. If this was a delusion, it was like nothing she had heard of in her admittedly circumscribed life. If it was real, it raised questions she really didn't want answered.
"So what happens next?" she said.
"On the main path? I go to Riverwood and rent the attic room at the inn."
"The Sleeping Giant doesn't have an attic room," Lydia pointed out.
"I know. I've seen it. There I will, assuming everything goes as it always has, get the Horn, if you'll pardon the expression, and get dragged off somewhere to kill another dragon. After that, it gets complicated."
"Why do you keep doing it?" Lydia demanded. "Over and over again...if it's always the same, what's the point?"
"The point?" Lethiel echoed. "The point is that the world needs saving, and I'm the girl who has to do it, and if it needs doing again, then it needs doing again. No, that's not the point at all, though it's *a* point. *The* point is that I hope that one day I'll get to do it right, so right that I can go on living in a post-being-saved world and just be me. Raise crops, pound bandits, collect books, learn magic, deal a little dope, sing some rock and roll, and..." She took a deep breath, and caught Lydia's hands in hers. "And be with you. Because you, my dear, are the point. A world with you in it is the world I want to live in, and if I have to save it first, it's cheap at the price."
"Me," Lydia said, smiling back at her. "And Adrianne, and Annekke, and anyone else who happens along. I've seen you ogling that courier girl who took over from the guy with the odd face."
"Oh yes," Lethiel said. "But you first, foremost and always. You in my heart." She let go of Lydia's hands. "Now, let's clear out the lowlifes from this mine."
"Why this mine?" Lydia was glad of the distraction. Either her Thane was mad, which would be a problem, or the world was organised on lines of which Lydia could hardly approve. Either way, the situation would bear watching. And thinking about. "What's so special about this one?"
The answer came back in a whisper, as Lethiel faded into the foreground in that way she had. Lydia had never seen it done better. "I'm going to buy it and get it working again.”
Three weeks later, two weary, work-stained figures stumbled into the Moorside Inn in Morthal and plonked themselves down, with an air of finality, on two adjacent barstools. Jonna, the innkeeper, a handsome Redguard woman, sized them up expertly, deposited two large tankards of mead in front of them, and followed them with two hot, sizzling venison chops and a dish of vegetables.
"On the house, honey," she said, when one of the figures made a move towards a belt pouch. "Looks like Tovis finally found himself a sucker. That's worth a couple meals."
"Tovis?" Lydia said, emerging from her tankard. "Tovis Horansen? Wasn't he the guy you hired to--"
"Manage the mine, yes," Lethiel said. "And he's also the guy I bought it from." She raised bleary eyes to Jonna. "I'm guessing you know more about this than we do?"
Jonna beamed and settled herself to tell the tale. "Well, young Tovis, he inherited that old mine from his auntie, who had it from his uncle. Neither of them cared a button about it while they were alive, but one thing and another, by the time the old lady came to dyin', wasn't much else left to leave. Well, sir, old Auntie didn't have much time for Tovis, thought he was just idlin' his time away, so she put a condition on that bequest. He had to have that mine up and runnin' within a year, or the property would revert to the jarl."
"Seems reasonable," Lydia said. Lethiel was looking thoughtful.
"So," Jonna continued, warming to her story, "young Tovis treks up there to view his inheritance, and gets chased off by a bunch of bandits, just moved in and took over. So back he comes to Morthal and spends the next ten months hangin' round the jarl's court, mopin' and carryin' on. Then, last month, he was in here, drunk as a daedra, allowin' as how he had it aaaall figured out." Jonna paused for effect. "He was goin' to plant a burned-out cart somewheres down south, and way he figured, he could get some adventurer to go to the mine, clear out the bandits, buy the deed from him, spruce the place up, hire miners and guards and all, and then hire *him* to sit in an office all day and run the place." She paused again, and refilled the tankards. "Seems young Tovis don't have too high an opinion of adventurers, when it come to brains, if you know what I mean."
Lydia, despite her aches and pains, was fighting the urge to laugh. Lethiel was now looking acutely embarrassed.
"Good mine, though," Jonna continued. "Imperial Geologist took a look at it while Tovis's uncle was still alive, said there was pretty near everything down there if a body cared to dig it out. If you own it, and you got it all workin', you won't be the loser."
"Financially, no," Lethiel said. "As long as Tovis runs it honestly and competently, it should bring in quite a bit."
"He'd damned well better," Lydia growled.
"Still," Jonna said, "hurts to get played, don't it?"
"Only for a while," Lethiel said, "and it could have been worse." She looked at Lydia. "I'm sorry I let you in for all that work, love."
"Hey, I could have left you to it at any time," Lydia said. "Besides, it kind of feels good to build something instead of just killing things. There's a sense of achievement, you know?" Her grin turned wicked. "But I won't forget how the mighty Dragonborn got taken in by a smooth-talking guy with a deed to a mine."
Lethiel put out her tongue, and then turned back to Jonna.
"So," she said, "is there a story behind that burned-down house?”
Lethiel, despite her philosophical line in the inn, was obviously still upset about it days later. She and Lydia had spent some time in Morthal clearing out a vampire lair, and it seemed to Lydia that her Thane had dealt with the enemy more viciously than usual. Her cry, as she skewered the master vampire, of "Take that you backstabbing plausible mine-owning bastard!" had been a subtle clue, not simply to all the other vampires in the cave, but to Lydia as well.
"It happens," Lydia said now, as they rode out of town. "People are not always honest. My brother once told me about a sure-fire way to get chosen for the jarl's personal guard. It involved...doing certain things with a broom handle, in front of the jarl. So in I marched, right up to the throne in Dragonsreach, and I took my broom handle and did just what he had told me. Everyone laughed at me for days."
"How old were you?"
"Eight," Lydia admitted, "but the point stands. And to be fair, when I was old enough Irileth did choose me, and she told me that was why. I had nerve, and I could follow orders, and I..." She broke off.
"I didn't know you had a brother," Lethiel said.
"He died," Lydia said shortly. "Accidentally." She blinked, and nudged her horse to come up level with Onyx. "How can there be anything about me you don't know? I mean, if you're right about this reliving thing? You must have known me inside out long ago." She shivered. "It puts me at kind of a disadvantage."
Lethiel reined Onyx in. He stretched his neck for the nearest clump of grass, failed to reach it, and adjusted his position slightly to bring the snack within range. Lydia halted her horse, still unnamed, and waited while Lethiel considered.
"I don't know everything about you," she said at last. "Not everything comes across from life to life, and I always start out with a huge bender to try to forget as much as possible of the rest. It's not fun, running in a set path and knowing it. But you're right. It isn't fair, me knowing about you and you not knowing about me. The thing is, I can't help that. I can't change it."
"I know," Lydia said, and slashed viciously at a frostbite spider which had been creeping up silently from the trees beside the road. "I'm not asking you to. It's just...something to be aware of."
"Believe me," Lethiel said, dispatching a bear which had reared up from behind a bush, "I am. Shall we postpone this till we get home? The traffic's a bit intrusive here."
"Sure," Lydia said easily.
The subject did not in fact come up again when they got home. There was loot to be stowed, food to be made, and a long hot bath to be shared, and by a sort of unspoken mutual agreement neither Lydia nor Lethiel raised it again.
After all, Lydia thought as she soaped her Thane's back, what Lethiel had said was unavoidably true. There was nothing to be done about it. It came down to the age-old question, go or stay, and Lydia had already chosen in her heart.
That didn't mean she had to let her off the hook altogether, though.
"I saw you, you know," she said. "Making time with the jarl's daughter."
"What? Oh, Idgrod." Lethiel half turned. "I wasn't making time. I was just trying to help a troubled young woman."
"Ah, of course." Lydia nodded sagely. "Well, good. Maybe she's got a mine she can sell you."
The next few minutes were crowded, and at the end of them most of the water was outside the bath, and Lethiel and Lydia were both too breathless with laughter to continue the discussion.
But when, the following morning, Lethiel set out for Riverwood, Lydia elected to stay behind.
Time hung heavy on Lydia's hands, as a day turned into two, and then three. She wandered about the house, read a little, practiced sword moves on one of the mannequins that lined the walls of the basement, cooked food, read some more. The estate ran to three staff, two men and a woman, but they were taciturn and always busy doing something, and Lydia, for the first time since her childhood, was at a loose end.
So it was a relief when, at about noon of the third day, there was a knock on the front door.
Lydia ran down the stairs to open it, and was surprised to discover Mila Valentia on the doorstep, looking scared.
"You're not the Dragonborn," Mila said. Then, slightly less definitely, "Are you?"
"No, I'm not, but I'm her friend," Lydia said. "Would you like to come in?" It was raining quite hard, and the child was soaked.
"No thank you. I have to get back or my mother worries. Please would you ask the Dragonborn to come to town and speak to me when she gets back?"
"I'll be sure to do that," Lydia said. "What's it about? Maybe I can help." She knew the basic story; father had been a shiftless layabout, always looking for a get-rich-quick scheme, and had sloped off one day, presumably in the belief that he had found it. Since then, Carlotta Valentia had brought Mila up on her own, fiercely determined to be independent and to do without a man. Or a woman, Lydia thought, from her somewhat broadened perspective. That would be one heart Lethiel Lightfoot would not be stealing.
"I'd rather talk to the Dragonborn first, if you don't mind." Mila was polite, but resolute. "Thank you very much for seeing me, miss." And before Lydia could say more, she was running back down the drive and across the bridge, her slight form disappearing into the grey curtain of the rain.
It was about ten minutes later that the door opened again to admit a dripping, exhausted Lethiel. Lydia brought her towels and dry clothes, made canis root tea, and listened to her account of the trip.
"This Delphine...I've seen her around," she said, when Lethiel had finished. "Liked to think she was playing the role of the mousy little innkeeper who wouldn't hurt a fly, but you could tell by the walk that was skeever crap. Besides, every other innkeeper I've known has been badass, they have to be. So, she's a Blade."
"Apparently," Lethiel said. She was starting to warm through and her colour was coming back.
"And the big black dragon is bringing the other dragons back to life...with a Shout," Lydia mused. "And Delphine thinks the Thalmor are behind it."
"She thinks the Thalmor are behind everything, probably up to and including this rain," Lethiel said wryly. "And no, before you ask, I don't know. That's one of the things I mercifully forget, I think because it comes later and I don't always make it that far. Even if I did know, I'd have to have proof to convince Delphine."
"So, you've got to get into the Thalmor Embassy," Lydia said.
"And that's going to be another solo job, I'm afraid," Lethiel said. "Who was the kid?"
"How did you know--" Lydia's eyes narrowed.
"Wet footprints on the mat, too small for me or you," Lethiel explained, and Lydia recounted Mila Valentia's visit and something of her circumstances.
"Okay," Lethiel said. "Assuming this flood ever stops, we can trundle up there tomorrow and see if I can help. In the meantime, I'm going to make myself some better gear, I think."
"Why not go to Adrianne?" Lydia said.
"She doesn't work with the kind of materials I'm planning to use," Lethiel said, rising and stretching. "I might do a set for you as well, if you ever get tired of ebony."
"I'd like to see how good you are first. Adrianne's a professional."
"Maybe I am too," Lethiel said. "Come and have a look when it's done."
"How will I know?"
"I won't be hammering any more." And Lethiel disappeared down the stairs to the basement.
The new armour was...interesting.
"Spiky," Lydia said.
"Yes, I'll have to remember not to look down," Lethiel said. "Still, it's a significant improvement over what I was wearing."
"And it's made of..."
"Dragon scales. You can make a slightly heftier version out of dragon bones, but it makes you look like an atronach. I do have some vanity." Lethiel preened outrageously.
"So, shall we go talk to this kid?"
"Sure. I want to see what this feels like to ride in. At the moment it's...really comfy. Feels like a second skin."
"Well, you are Dragonborn," Lydia said. "It would."
"Graar," Lethiel said, making claw hands, and they laughed.
Later, after their meeting with Mila Valentia and her mother, they set off for the place named in her husband Flavius's note. "Shearpoint," Lethiel said. "Is it far?"
"Oh no," Lydia said. "I'm not venturing an opinion, not after Darkwater Crossing. It's halfway to Dawnstar."
"What's at Dawnstar?"
"I've never been." Lydia shrugged. "People. Boats probably. The jarl apparently doesn't like giants."
"Short, is he?"
They rode in silence for a while.
"You know..." Lydia began. "I've been thinking about what Master Arngeir said. About language being intrinsic to dragon nature, and a fight actually being a verbal debate?"
"Well, I've heard debates. Farengar used to have mage gatherings and they would talk about all kinds of high-flown stuff, quoting authorities and constructing complex arguments. What do dragons do? They Shout. It's not a debate, it's literally a Shouting match."
Lethiel nodded. "On the level of 'yeah, sez you?' and 'suck my--'"
"Exactly," Lydia said quickly. "So, the way I see it, dragons may have language in their bones, but they don't necessarily have to be that bright, do they?"
"I don't think many of them are. I mean, when you've got that much power, you don't need to be. I could be wrong, though. I've never actually had a long conversation with one." Lethiel frowned. "Not that I can remember."
Lydia steered the conversation away from that area, and soon they were making up Shouts for people.
"Brenuin," Lydia said. "GIVE. ME. MEAD."
"Nazeem," Lethiel said. "I'M. SO. RICH."
"You know those two are cousins, right? And Brenuin used to be the owner of Chillfurrow Farm?"
"No, I didn't."
"He was all set to marry Ahlam too, only Nazeem came to stay from Cyrodiil for a few weeks, and by the end of that time Brenuin was a hopeless drunk and Nazeem had finessed the farm and the woman out from under him. Not that Brenuin didn't get drunk before that," Lydia went on, "but he had sober spells. Not so good at running a farm though."
"That's shameful," Lethiel said. "Why didn't the jarl do something?"
"I'm guessing," Lydia said. "The jarl doesn't include me in his counsels. But I'd say he took a long look and decided that the city needed the farm run by the best person for the job, and Brenuin by that time couldn't find his feet, let alone his brain. You're right, it was shameful, and the jarl tries to help him out when he can, but there isn't much even he can do."
"Well, I'll do something," Lethiel said. "I'll--" Lydia laid a quick hand on her arm and pointed. Just up over the rise they could see the distinctive shape of a word wall, with a scaly form draped over it.
Lethiel drew her bow, and Lydia did likewise, and they crept closer.
Lethiel's first arrow, by luck or judgment, went home squarely in the dragon's side, and the beast leapt for the air, but couldn't make it and crashed to the ground. Lydia ran forward, sword out, and got in a couple of good blows before it could turn, and Lethiel finished it off with an arrow down its gullet. It writhed and collapsed, and the glow began to gather, and Lethiel just had time to remark that she would never get that one back before the rush of power hit her and she stiffened galvanically, fighting to retain control over her limbs.
Almost before the power had released her, though, there was a sudden cracking noise, and from a coffin neither of them had noticed rose a skeletal, eerie shape.
"What the hell is that?" Lydia screamed.
"No idea!" Lethiel shouted back, frantically notching an arrow. It was humanoid, but as dehydrated and colourless as a draugr. Only draugr didn't commonly float about. Lethiel shot arrow after arrow, but the thing was too quick, skidding sideways in the air as if it were on ice, and shooting bolts of flame from a staff it held aloft like a banner.
Lydia concentrated on being invisible. She was nowhere near as good as Lethiel at it, but she tried, and hoped Lethiel would get the idea. The Dragonborn did, and circled round, outflanking the creature and driving it back towards the word wall. She got a couple of shots in, and the thing faltered in mid-float, and fired more flame at her. The new armour seemed to be helping. Well, dragon scales, of course it would, Lydia thought dizzily.
And then the thing was within reach, its back to her, fully focussed on Lethiel. Lydia rose up, her sword held high, and plunged it into the thing's back, just as another arrow from Lethiel sped fast and true to its target. The creature screeched, and a jolt of power ran up Lydia's sword and jerked it from her hand, sending her to her knees; and then it shredded into black fragments and grey ash, and the armour and cloak it was wearing, along with its grotesquely impassive mask, thudded to the snow.
Lydia picked herself up and shook herself. Lethiel hurried over. "Are you okay? Your hair--"
Lydia could feel it, standing out from her head. "I'm fine," she said shortly. "What was that thing?"
"I don't know," Lethiel said, gathering up the mask, the cloak and the staff. "It was a bit like a sort of super-draugr. Must be linked to the dragons somehow. I'll find out."
"Better gut this beastie first," Lydia said. "I've decided. Ebony's fine, but I want some armour like yours. You just shrugged off those fire bolts." She picked up a blackened, twisted thing from the remains. "And a new sword, please."
"Wall first," Lethiel said, "then chest. Then beastie. Then see if we can find any trace of this--" The wall had caught her eye, and her voice trailed off as she gazed at it. "Whoa. Head rush. Three words at once," she said, a minute later. "I'm going to need to kill some more dragons."
Lydia had wandered a little way off. "This looks promising," she said, holding up a frost-encrusted object. "It's Flavius' journal. He was here, but he left. For--" She checked. "For Forelhost. I think that's somewhere way over past Riften."
"That would be far, then," Lethiel said, with a grin. "I'd better check in with Delphine first. And maybe ask that Farengar if he knows anything about these whatever they ares. I hope they only come singly. Two at once would have killed us for certain."
Lydia could believe it. The thing had been practically impossible to hit. They had been lucky.
"And ask about this mask," Lethiel said, weighing it in her hand. "I can feel something. I think it might be magical." She made as if to put it to her face, and Lydia caught her arm and lowered it.
"It might turn you into one of those things," she said. "I wouldn't."
Lethiel shivered. "Good point."
Lydia sorted through the chest that stood nearby, while Lethiel stripped the body of the dragon, and then they returned to the horses and made their way back through the gathering dusk toward the road to Whiterun, and home.
Lydia found herself staring at Farengar's chin, and forced herself to look away. There was just so much of it. He had to have some elf in his family somewhere.
"Ah, yes," he said, turning the mask over and over in his hands. "Fascinating. This is the mask of Krosis. He was a very powerful Dragon Priest."
"They had priests?" Lydia said.
"Many people served them willingly, in return for rewards of various sorts. You encounter them even today, in tombs and such places. We call them draugr."
"And they demand respect," Lethiel said.
"I beg your pardon?" The wizard was disconcerted.
"Well, when they see you the first thing they say is 'Bow!'"
Farengar stared for a moment, then obviously decided to ignore the comment. "The Dragon Priests--there were only a few--were granted greater powers, encapsulated in these masks. This one...I would have to run tests, but I imagine it fortifies certain skills." He stared at it fixedly through a coloured lens for a moment. "Yes. I can't be sure which ones though."
"And it doesn't turn you into a Dragon Priest?" Lethiel said, with every appearance of earnestness.
"Ah, ha, ha," Farengar said, returning the mask with some reluctance. "No, none of the masks will do that. It would be a great boon to my studies if you could find some more. Thank you for bringing this one to my attention. You have significantly advanced the cause of dragon lore." He brandished the notes he had been making.
"So," Lydia said, as they once again descended into Whiterun, "I guess Flavius was at Shearpoint before there was a dragon there, if he got away alive."
"Must have been." Lethiel was absent. "Riverwood or Forelhost, Riverwood or Forelhost. I'm torn."
"We could split up," Lydia suggested. "I do one and you do the other."
"Delphine wouldn't accept you as a substitute," Lethiel pointed out. "She's completely paranoid. She'd think you were a Thalmor spy."
"Then let me go to Forelhost," Lydia said. "I've never even been as far as Riften."
"And suppose there's a dragon? Or another of those priest things? I don't want to risk you on your own, darling."
"You think I'm not up to it?" Lydia felt herself beginning to bristle, though in honesty she could see the point.
"No, of course I don't." Lethiel sighed. "Okay. You go to Forelhost. Take my map, if there's a word wall I'll want to see it. I'll get you a ride to Riften tomorrow and you can take it from there. And I'll sort you out some gear first. I have an idea I can substantially improve on that sword."
"I need all the help I can get," Lydia admitted.
"And we'll go to Riverwood now and see Delphine, so you'll know what I'm going to be doing." Lethiel hugged Lydia close. "Don't get killed. Stick to the mission. Find out what happened to Flavius and get back to me, okay?"
"Okay," Lydia agreed.
Delphine, though suspicious of Lydia, explained her plan succinctly, and Lydia suppressed a pang of jealousy; she had never been to Solitude either. Well, there would be time, and she could not imagine herself pretending to be a guest at a swanky party. Lethiel could carry it off much better. The idea of her Thane having to entrust all her gear to someone else and go in effectively naked and unarmed was more worrying, but Lethiel agreed to it.
Back home, the sound of hammering once again made the evening hideous, and Lethiel presented Lydia with her own dragon scale armour, and a sword and bow made from dragon bones. Lydia doubted even Eorlund Grey-Mane could have done better. The armour fitted like a second skin, as Lethiel had said, and weighed practically nothing. Of course it doesn't, Lydia thought. They fly. The sword was well balanced, light, and remarkably sharp.
"Where did you learn to work this stuff?" she asked, and then shook her head. "Never mind. Thank you."
"I'd hug you, but the spikes..." Lethiel grinned.
"Well, that's easily fixed," Lydia said, and began to remove the armour.
The following morning, Bjorlam accepted Lydia as a passenger on his carriage, and Lethiel set off on Onyx for Solitude and the mysterious Malborn, who was to smuggle her stuff into the Embassy. Mid-afternoon saw Lydia outside Riften, where a guard tried to shake her down for "visitor's tax." She advised him where he could stick it, and set off around the curve of the city walls; Farengar had marked roughly where he thought Forelhost would be on Lethiel's map.
Half an hour later, she was completely lost.
Lydia stood, breathing hard, over the remains of Rahgot, the Dragon Priest.
Never again, she thought. Never again. Not on my own.
There had been ghosts. There had been draugr. There had been traps, and runes, and that horrible room where she had only just rolled off the floor in the second before it mashed her into the spiked ceiling. The draugr attacking her hadn't been so lucky. She had had to swallow so many healing potions just to keep herself moving that...well...she was going to have to get some of this armour off very soon.
And right at the end there had been yet more draugr, and this. Rahgot. She knew the name from Captain Valmir, the Stormcloak officer who had accosted her as she dragged herself, wearily and finally, up the slope and into Forelhost. She had thought she had been tired then, after hours of wandering all over the Rift, fending off spiders and bears and wolves and gods knew what.
And here, now, there was a big chest, and a charred body, and a toy. Mila's "great gift." Her father's last gesture of affection to the daughter he couldn't simply stay home and get a proper job for. Lydia thought the kid deserved rather more than that. She would talk to Lethiel. Assuming, of course, that there wasn't anything more waiting for her beyond that big door. Like a dragon, or something. Right now Lydia didn't feel she could fight her way out of a cloud of dust.
She loaded herself up with everything she could carry from the chest--there seemed to be no reason, she thought, to increase one's collection of iron warhammers and kite shields--and pocketed the toy and Flavius's last scribbled apologies. As an afterthought she collared Rahgot's mask, cloak and staff. I am ser-worn to carry your burdens, she thought wryly, as she turned Rahgot's key in the ancient lock and shouldered open the door.
There was a word wall, off in the distance, but no dragon. She could hear voices, and one of them sounded familiar. She crept closer to the edge of the balcony on which she stood, and peered over. There was Captain Valmir, in earnest conversation with an Imperial soldier. Also in the uniform of an Imperial officer.
Well, well. Well, well, well.
Lydia dropped down silently on to the snow, and readied her sword. Suddenly her weariness was gone, and the idea of fighting seemed very appealing indeed.
...and that's when you killed him," Lethiel said, toasting Lydia with her mug of tea.
Lydia nodded. "I still don't know why the other guy attacked me. I mean, he'd just realised Valmir was an impostor, so he should have been on my side, you'd have thought."
"Men are strange in the brain," Lethiel commented wisely. "So there is a word wall. Good. And we can get to it without having to go all the way back through the place."
"It might be a bit of a climb," Lydia said.
"We'll manage. So, do you want to hear about my adventures?"
"I thought you were just having drinkies with the great and the good and sneaking off for a little spying on the side," Lydia said.
"Well, that's what I thought, but it appears these Thalmor can tell the difference between a High Elf and a Nord woman even when they're wearing the same kind of clothes. No idea what gave me away. So I ended up having to kill rather a lot of people. Managed to get Malborn out alive though, not to mention a rather nice young man called Etienne. And after all that, the Thalmor don't know any more about the dragons than we do. They're looking for an old chap named Esbern who they think does."
"So you told Delphine about this," Lydia said.
"And she was flummoxed. Apparently this Esbern is an old friend of hers, and a Blade as well. So now I've got to get him out of Riften and deliver him to Delphine."
"Why can't she do it herself?"
"No reason that I can see. Any elf I can kill she can kill just as quickly, I'd say. I guess she just likes having someone she can delegate these menial tasks to." Lethiel grinned, and stretched her bare feet towards the fire. "Ah, but it's good to be home."
"It certainly is." Lydia sipped her own tea. "So what do you think about Mila's dad's 'great gift'?"
"Well, it's the thought that counts, or so they say, but I know what you mean. I hardly think he had to go and get killed by a Dragon Priest to find her a stuffed bunny."
"I'll have a think," Lethiel said.
In the event, Mila Valentia was overjoyed with her bunny toy, proving as it did that her father had not forgotten her even at the end, and almost as thrilled with the perfect replica of Lethiel's own dragon scale armour that Lethiel said was a gift from her and Lydia "along of being good." It was accompanied by a wooden copy of the dragon bone greatsword Lethiel had made for herself, and they watched the girl run away to find her friends, waving the weapon jubilantly in one hand, with smiles on their faces.
Lydia was still smiling a little later, as she watched Lethiel follow Carlotta Valentia into her house and close the door quietly behind her. The single mother's heart had not been proof against the Dragonborn after all. She wanted to show her gratitude, and it was in Lethiel's nature to prefer payment in kind, as it were, when an attractive woman was involved.
Lydia supposed she would get used to it. It wasn't, after all, as if Lethiel loved her any less for loving other people, or indeed vice versa.
Mila ran past, waving her wooden dragon bone sword and pursuing Braith, who shrieked in delight. Lydia's smile deepened. Harsh as life could be in Skyrim, someone with the will and the power to make even one child happy was good to find, and worth holding on to.
"Ohhh my goodness," Lethiel said.
The two of them were taking a day to unwind after their solo trips. Delphine had apparently been anxious that Esbern should be found as soon as possible, but from what Lethiel had gathered, the Thalmor were no closer to finding him than they were, and she was adamant that she needed some downtime. Lydia had been only too keen to agree.
"What is it?" Lydia said, looking up from her book.
Lethiel held up a battered thing she had evidently just extracted from the bottom of her backpack. "Only the Horn of Jurgen Windbreaker," she said. "I completely forgot to take it up to High Hrothgar. I was so busy with the mine and everything."
"Tsk tsk," Lydia said. "Naughty Dragonborn. No sweetroll for you."
"I'd better do it on the way to Riften," Lethiel said. "What an idiot."
"Want me to write you a note?" Lydia said. "'Dear Greybeards, please excuse Lethiel's tardiness, the dog ran off with the Horn and buried it thinking it was a bone, and she has only just managed to find it again--'"
Lethiel considered throwing the ancient artefact, thought better of it, and blew a raspberry instead. "Funny though," she said. "Arngeir told me I was the only Dragonborn to come to them in this age, didn't he? And yet Delphine knew that if they had a candidate for Dragonborn they'd send them after the Horn. That's why she pinched it first. How did she know that?"
"Who knows?" Lydia shrugged. "Maybe it's in some old book somewhere that they did that with Tiber Septim. You should ask her."
"Maybe," Lethiel said. "It's still not much of a basis for a prediction."
"Maybe she's like you," Lydia suggested. "Maybe she remembers going through all this before."
"Gods, I hope not." Lethiel studied the Horn with distaste, put it to her lips and blew. Nothing happened.
"In a few minutes," Lydia prophesied, "every dragon in Skyrim will be converging on this house, drawn by a call too high-pitched for human ears."
"No they won't. It's stuffed up with gods know what, and I'm going to leave it that way." Lethiel replaced the thing in her backpack. "Don't let me forget it again, please."
"I promise I won't. And I'm still going to wait with the horses."
The following day, fully refreshed and relaxed, they set out for Ivarstead, and reached it somewhat earlier this time. After a quick lunch at the inn, Lethiel set off up the Steps once more, and Lydia watched her figure dwindle till it rounded a corner and disappeared from sight. Then she settled down to wait.
After half an hour she was bored. Ivarstead was a quiet village, the only sounds Temba Wide-Arm's constant railing against the ursine scourge, and some girl arguing with her parents. Lydia looked about her, and found herself looking over at the haunted barrow.
She could deal with a ghost or two on her own, surely. She had done so already.
She wandered up to the structure, peered in, and then went inside.
Lydia looked at the claw Wilhelm had handed her, when she had returned from Shroud Hearth Barrow, after a remarkably short exploration, with the late occupant's journal. She looked at Wilhelm, who looked back steadily.
"You're putting me on, right?" she said.
"Beg your pardon, miss?" Wilhelm said.
"You and I both know that this is going to unlock the big door I found down there, so I can clear out the rest of the place."
"Wouldn't know about that, miss." Wilhelm was gazing stolidly over Lydia's head. Since she was a moderately tall lass, this involved some craning, but he managed it. "It's just an ornament I happened to have hanging around. If you don't want it--" He reached out, but Lydia kept hold of the claw.
"I didn't say that," she said. The man's deadpan act was perfect, and that in itself was suspicious. Lydia was about to pursue the matter, though to be honest she wasn't sure how, when the door of the inn opened and Lethiel walked in.
"Hi," Lydia said. "How did it go?"
"Pardon?" Lethiel's voice was oddly loud.
"How did it go?"
Lethiel shook her head. "Can't hear you."
"HOW DID IT GO?" Lydia bellowed, causing everyone in the inn to stare.
"Oh," Lethiel said. "I thought you were going to ask me how it went. Mead, please, Wilhelm." She sat down on the stool next to Lydia. "I can't hear a thing. They all Shouted at me at once, it was a sort of ceremony. Apparently I'm now formally recognised as Dragonborn. There are various things I have to do, and there's a place they call the Library which only has two books in it...ah, thanks, Wilhelm. What's that?"
"It's a pickle fork," Lydia said.
"Really? Looks like a pickle fork to me," Lethiel said.
"You can hear perfectly well," Lydia said accusingly.
"Well, mostly," Lethiel admitted, "but it was a bit eerie coming down the mountain for the first hour or so, and I am still a bit fuzzy. So, you went into the barrow, eh?"
Lydia explained. Lethiel whistled. "Neat scam. If it hadn't driven him doolally. So there's more to this place?"
Lydia nodded. "I was going to wait for you. I've no idea what could be down there. Oh, and just to prove you're not the only one who puts things in her pack and forgets about them..." She drew out another claw, this one fashioned of glass. "This was from Forelhost."
"Maybe we should give them all to Lucan Valerius. To put with his golden one."
"He'd run out of counter space."
"This is true. Well," Lethiel drained her tankard, "much as I'd love to go straight in and clear it out, it'll have to wait till we've been to Riften. One thing at a time. I'm sure the draugr won't mind waiting."
"That okay with you, Wilhelm?" Lydia asked pointedly.
"I'm sure it's none of my concern, miss," Wilhelm said woodenly. "As long as there won't be no more spirits bothering my customers, I'm happy."
"I think you can be sure of that." Lethiel rose, and Lydia followed suit. "Come on, housecarl."
"Watch your back in Riften," Wilhelm said unexpectedly. "What with the Thieves Guild and the Black-Briars, it's a chancy place to venture into."
"Isn't everywhere?" Lydia threw this back over her shoulder as she followed Lethiel out.
The guard, cringing visibly, hurried to unlock the gate, and Lethiel and Lydia walked into Riften.
"Visitor's tax indeed." Lethiel snorted.
"He tried that on me," Lydia said.
"I bet he says it to all the girls."
A burly, black-bearded man blocked their path.
"I don't know you," he began.
"That sounds like a fine arrangement to me," Lethiel said, and walked around him. Lydia followed, a little nervously.
"Delphine said I should talk to Brynjolf," Lethiel said. "Do you think that was Brynjolf? He didn't look like someone I want to talk to."
"Hey!" the man shouted from behind them. Lethiel turned back, looked at him for a moment and pressed a septim into his hand.
"Don't spend it on drink," she said, and turned away.
The man grabbed her shoulder. There was a moment of confusion, and then he was up against a pillar with Lethiel's hand around his neck.
"I'm sure you don't want to make me angry," she said. "So tell me the quickest way to the Ratway, and maybe I'll let you off this once."
"Down the steps," the man said, with some difficulty, "cross the bridge, round to the right, gate."
"Thank you," Lethiel said sweetly. "And if you touch me again I'll rip off your--" She mouthed a silent word. "Pull it over your head and make you wear it as a highly appropriate hat. Report me to whomever you work for, same result. I'm just passing through, and I don't want any trouble, but I have plenty to dish out if you find yourself running short. Are we clear?"
"Gllk," the man agreed.
"Good." Lethiel released the man's neck and they walked on.
"I'm betting that's Brynjolf," Lydia said, indicating with her chin a man walking with elaborate unconcern towards them.
"Then I definitely don't want to talk to him," Lethiel said, "at least not yet. We have a job to do, and he looks like someone who'll want me to do something else. Down here."
They descended the steps, crossed a narrow plank bridge, and walked, quite fast, along a catwalk that led around to the right. They could hear the man pause at the top of the steps, then turn away. Lydia looked back.
"Khajiit," she said. "Following us."
"Could be nothing," Lethiel said. "Let's keep going." They rounded the corner, found the gate the man had indicated, passed through it and the door beyond, and found themselves in a rat-infested tunnel. Lethiel signed for silence, and in a moment, to all appearances, the tunnel was utterly empty.
"Uh...excuse me, ladies."
Lethiel did a majestic slow turn. Lydia and Esbern paused. The burly, black-bearded man hesitated, twiddling his fingers in front of him. "I, uh, I think we got off on kind of the wrong foot earlier," he said. "I sometimes, uh, come on a bit strong."
"No, really?" Lethiel said, wide-eyed. "I hadn't noticed."
"Anyways, uh, I hope there's no hard feelings," the man said. "My name's Maul. I work for Maven Black-Briar. Uh. She wanted me to, uh, give you a message."
"That's the whole of the message?"
"Tell her 'I'll be back,'" Lethiel said.
"She, uh, she won't like that," Maul said nervously.
"I don't imagine there's much she does like," Lethiel said, "so it'll fit right in. Come along, my dears, we have a long way to go."
They set off, with Esbern riding behind Lethiel on Onyx.
"That was some pretty good fighting back there," Lydia remarked. "How come you were hiding away in that cellar waiting for us? You could have fought your way out any time."
Esbern huffed. "Well, in the first place, young lady, I wasn't waiting for you. I had no idea you were coming. And yes, I could have fought my way out. I could have spent my every waking moment fighting, and running, and fighting again, all the way across Tamriel. When a man gets to my age, though, he finds better things to do."
"Easier things, anyway," Lethiel said.
"In some ways," Esbern admitted. "Remember also that till you turned up, I had given up the idea of there being any point to doing anything. I thought the world was about to end. I still think it might."
"So it might," Lethiel agreed cheerfully. "No guarantees, right?"
"Still," Lydia said, "a mage with as much power as you--"
"I'm not a mage," Esbern broke in with dignity. "I am an archivist. I have been compelled to learn a few defensive cantrips, merely to ensure my survival, but my vocation is the conservation and classification of knowledge, and for that I require absolute peace and quiet. In the Ratway, I found that, at least for a time."
"Well," Lethiel said, as Lydia subsided in chagrin, "maybe you and Delphine can find somewhere else peaceful."
Esbern laughed. "Oh, I shouldn't think so. Peace is hardly Delphine's natural habitat. She's a warrior to her core. And this is what the Blades have come to. One warrior, one old scholar."
"And one Dragonborn," Lydia put in.
"True," Esbern said; but Lydia could see his expression, and it was doubtful.
"Yes, of course, Delphine," Lethiel said furiously as they rode out of Riverwood. "It's three o'clock in the morning, we've just cleaned out a major sewer and rescued an old man from at least two bands of Thalmor, there's nothing I'd like better than to set off straight away for somewhere halfway across Skyrim which is probably infested with nasties I'll have to kill, would you like grilled leeks with that?"
"Delphine said they'd wait for us," Lydia said soothingly.
"Well, they're going to have to. I want food, I need sleep, I desperately need cuddle time and comfy as this armour is, I want out of it. I'm not an emergency service. At least not on my own I'm not. And neither are you." She took a deep breath and tried to calm down. "I need some more peeps."
"Some more what?" Lydia said.
"Some backup," Lethiel amplified. "People I can delegate stuff to. Otherwise I'm going to run myself into the ground here. Everyone wants everything done now now now. It's the curse of the modern age, I tell you. Hustle, bustle, no time to stop and smell the deathbell. I've already got jobs backed up all over the map. Honestly..."
Lydia let the rant wash over her. It was therapeutic, she thought. She wondered if Tiber Septim had felt the need to blow off steam like this.
"Well," she said, when Lethiel paused for breath, "you could do worse than check out the Drunken Huntsman."
"Who's he when he's at home?"
"It's an inn," Lydia explained. "Well, sort of an inn. Sort of a combined inn and hunting supplies shop, in Whiterun. Adventurers tend to gather there when they've got nothing to do."
Lethiel snorted. "Lucky them. You mean I might find some...some followers there? Henchmen, sort of? Someone to hench for me?"
"At very least a mercenary or two," Lydia said. "Which I'd say you can probably afford."
"Sounds good." Lethiel considered, and nodded. "We'll check it out. After I've had some downtime. That comes first. I'd say Delphine and Esbern can very well take care of themselves for a while. Maybe they'll find this temple or whatever without me."
Lydia nodded, as they rounded the corner where Tovis Horansen's ingenious decoy cart had now been removed by person or persons unknown. "Whatever Esbern says, he's a damn good battlemage. And I'd say Delphine can hold her own in a fight. Though..." She frowned. "If they're up against Forsworn..."
"Who or what are Forsworn?"
"I've only heard bits and pieces," Lydia said, "but I gather they're ferocious savages who hate Nords, elves, the Empire and just about everyone else. They used to rule the Reach before the Nords came, or so the story goes. Karthspire's in the Reach."
"Then Delphine and Esbern will have the sense to lie low and wait for me," Lethiel said decisively. "Home at last." She dismounted and helped Lydia down. "Have you decided what to call him yet?"
"The horse? No." Lydia had not needed help dismounting, but it was welcome nonetheless; she was bone tired. The younger of the two male servants, Drake, was standing by to rub the horses down and feed them.
"You'll think of something," Lethiel said, and yawned. "Soon be dawn. Time for bed."
"And then we'll be awake all night," Lydia said.
"Well, I'm sure we can find some way to pass the time." Lethiel grinned wickedly.
"What just happened?" Lethiel said, a little faintly, as the small man bustled away.
"I think you got another job," Lydia said.
They had only just stepped into the Drunken Huntsman--and Lydia had just had time to notice that almost the entire clientele was (a) of the adventurer persuasion, (b) female and (c) attractive--when the little man had come up to Lethiel, talking nineteen to the dozen, handed her a letter and some money, and told her to go and see his master in Falkreath.
"Marcus Jannus," Lethiel said. "Imperial, from the name. Well, he can join the queue." She swept her gaze around the room. "I can see you were right. This is an ideal place to look for henchmen. Henchpersons."
"Henchwenches," Lydia muttered. One young woman was attired in a scandalously scanty robe. The others wore variations on the well-known theme of barbarian armour, concealing or revealing according to how many holes had been punched in it before they had looted it. One was a tall High Elf, taller even than Lethiel, with altogether too much blonde hair.
"And we've got acres of spare beds in the basement," Lethiel continued, and then caught Lydia's eye. "You don't approve?"
"It's not my place to approve, Thane," Lydia said neutrally. Then she relented. "It's only that I would like to think I could have you to myself some of the time."
Lethiel looked at her, and Lydia saw her eyes fill with sudden tears. "I'll never hurt you," she whispered. "Say the word and we'll go."
"You need more help," Lydia said, trying not to give way to tears herself, "and these women look...very capable. Just..."
Lethiel took her in her arms and kissed her. A couple of the women whooped and applauded. "Do you mind?" she said over her shoulder. "I promise," she said. "Hands off. I'm yours."
"We'll see," Lydia said. "I know you, remember. Okay, okay, go hire them."
"Let's give them a trial run first," Lethiel said. "Take them to Karthspire, see how they shake down. Hello?" This was to a well-dressed man sitting in a corner, flanked by two heavies in steel plate armour.
"Good day," the man said. "My name is Selibrio Atius. I just wondered if you were aware of this." He passed Lethiel a flyer.
"I see," she said, scanning it quickly. "And this farm, would it by any chance be full of bandits?"
"Not full," Selibrio Atius said quickly. "I can't rule out the odd one."
"And I would not be about to find, after spending my all on rebuilding it, that I'd hired you to run it?"
"Absolutely not," the man declared. "I'm not staying in this godsforsaken province any longer than it takes me to sell the thing. But the land's good and fertile, and it could be a regular source of income if handled well."
"All right," Lethiel said. "My mother always said..." She frowned. "I forget. It would have been something sensible, anyway. I'll take it."
Selibrio Atius pocketed the gold. "You and me," he said, "we're the only people around who aren't complete fools."
"That's what they all say," Lethiel sighed.
"It's been four days," Delphine fretted. "I knew it. She's sold us out. She's a Thalmor spy."
"Delphine," Esbern said, "you have no reason to believe that."
"Damn it, she knows how important this is. We have to get to that temple. There could be weapons in there, secrets, anything. Why didn't she come with us?"
"Perhaps because she was exhausted already from fetching me out? How did you spend that day, Delphine?"
"Two hours weapons practice, then--" Delphine slumped. "All right, I get it. She still should be here. We need her. That's the truth."
"That's good to know," Lydia said, straightening up from concealment, watching Delphine's hand go straight to her sword and Esbern readying a spell, "because we're here."
As if in response to her words, what seemed like a screaming, yelling horde of female warriors appeared from nowhere and charged down the slope towards the Forsworn camp.
"Excuse me," Lydia added, and went to join them.
"They have a Hagraven," Esbern called.
"We killed her first!" Lydia called back.
The Forsworn were indeed savage, and vicious, but they were no match for Lethiel's army, all in dragon scale and wielding dragon bone weapons. Amarie, the elf, stood head and shoulders above the battle, dealing out healing spells to friends and sword strokes to foes by turns. Erin and Sienna, the dark and the light, held back, as did Rowan, the red-headed mage, using bows and spells to deadly effect. Anja and Sigrid waded into the fray with swords flying.
Lethiel was in the lead, and had come to a halt, confronting four Forsworn warriors. Lydia caught sight of her, standing with lowered weapon and drawing a deep breath, and was about to charge past her to engage the oncoming enemy, and it was well for her that she did not make it.
The titanic Voice filled the sky from horizon to horizon, and rolled with the thunder of the gods themselves. The four warriors were picked up as if by the hand of Shor and flung all the way across the river to strike the rocks with crushing force and land, broken dolls, half in and half out of the water, where curious mudcrabs came to inspect them.
Ooo-kay, thought Lydia, shaking her head to stop her ears ringing. Good rule of thumb: stay *behind* the nice Dragonborn. She had never heard Lethiel Shout in combat before; only in practice, up in High Hrothgar. Now she knew why. That Shout could obliterate friend and foe alike. Would, if the friend were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Well, that friend was not going to be Lydia.
As quickly as it had begun, the battle was over. The camp was littered with bodies. Delphine and Esbern were just arriving on the scene, and Lethiel turned and went to meet them.
"What kept you?" Delphine said. "Never mind," she added, "let's keep moving. Sky Haven Temple must be around here somewhere."
"I was thinking maybe over there," Lethiel said, indicating the large torch-flanked cave entrance at the top of a broad flight of stone steps.
"Good call," Lydia said, wiping her sword. The other women were gathering around. Delphine looked a question at Lethiel.
"My troops," Lethiel said shortly. "And yes, I trust them. If that's not good enough for you we can have an argument about it, or we can get on. I have other work to do."
"I'm sure they're fine," Esbern said. "I agree with the Dragonborn. I need to find this temple."
Delphine grudgingly acquiesced, and the small army set off, stepping over the piled bodies, across the wooden bridges towards the Karthspire.
Lydia would never have described herself as a connoisseuse of great art, mainly because she didn't know the word, but she had to admit she found Alduin's Wall a bit of a disappointment.
While Esbern raved on about the complex symbology and the early Akaviri's masterly stonework, all she could see was a sort of cartoon. "Alduin used to rule the world, we beat him, but he's coming back and we hope someone will beat him again." This, she thought, we knew already.
Delphine seemed upset at the idea of using a Shout to defeat the enemy. It emerged that this was because she didn't like the Greybeards. Lydia could see how that would be entirely mutual. Lethiel agreed readily enough to go back to High Hrothgar and ask Arngeir about a Shout that could defeat a dragon, and she and Delphine parted on reasonably friendly terms, while Esbern continued to cluck and fuss over his wall.
"Okay," Lethiel said, once they were outside in the daylight again. "So I need to do this. What do you all want to do?"
"I'll take them home and get them settled in," Lydia volunteered. "I take it they're all hired?"
"Oh yes," Lethiel said at once, and several of the women looked pleased. "Full bed and board and a share of whatever loot we find, is that okay?"
"Then..." Lydia considered. "What can we do that doesn't necessarily need you there?"
"Good question. If there's a word wall I want to be there. There's rebuilding my new farm, of course, but that's a bit menial."
"Whereabouts is it, anyway?"
"Just on the borders of the Pale, past the Loreius farm." It was Sigrid, the red-haired sworder, who spoke. "I asked the guy about it, but it was out of my price range. There's a giant camp nearby, but they generally keep themselves to themselves unless you go poking about."
"Would you care to go with Lydia and sort that out for me?"
"Sure. I'm not afraid of hard work." Sigrid smiled. "And I like eating. I grew up on a farm."
"A woman after my own heart." Lethiel delved into a pouch and handed over several bags of coin. "If you need more, Lydia, check out the safe in my room, but that should cover any expenses. I'll meet you up there when I've finished. Hopefully, this Shout won't be too hard to learn."
Lydia kept her misgivings to herself.
In the event, they rode all together as far as the estate, and Lydia was as good as her word, assigning beds and making sure everyone was fed. She still had an ambition to learn how to cook turnips, and the fact that they didn't seem to grow in Skyrim had not deterred her, but in the meantime her apple cabbage stew met with universal approval. Lethiel kissed her, and rode off into the dusk.
The following day, Lydia and Sigrid set off along the northward road. Talk was desultory; the redhead was shy, Lydia guessed, and set herself to draw Sigrid out. By the time they came upon the disabled wagon with the huge box on it, they were firm friends.
"Maybe we should stop and help," Sigrid suggested.
What would Lethiel do, Lydia thought. Of course she would stop and help. Even if it is...a creepy-looking woman with pink eyes dressed as a jester. Ooo-kay.
"Problem?" she said, dismounting.
It took some doing--neither Lydia nor Sigrid had Lethiel's silver tongue--but eventually Vantus Loreius agreed shamefacedly to help the creepy-eyed merryperson with her wagon wheel, and Cicero (that being her name) pressed some money into Lydia's hand. Not very much money, in point of fact, but Lydia imagined jesting could hardly be a lucrative trade.
"I don't know," Sigrid said when she mentioned it. "People like a laugh in troubled times."
"Have you ever laughed at a jester?" Lydia countered.
The dilapidated farm did indeed boast one bandit, cooking a mess of something over a sad little fire. He tried to get up and drag out his sword, but they didn't give him the chance.
Sigrid picked up the spoon he had been using and watched the grey glop drip back into the pan. "Yuk. Death was probably a relief."
They set to work, clearing the debris and overgrown weeds, and when Lilly the courier arrived with the jarl's ratification of Lethiel's deed (which she eventually agreed to hand over to Lydia as Lethiel's representative) they took the opportunity to send back to Whiterun for some materials and supplementary labour. Lydia had vivid muscular memories of rebuilding Windstad Mine, and while this was at least in the open air, she had no desire to do the whole thing herself.
What arrived, in due course, was a cart laden down with wood, stone and iron, driven by Adrianne Avenicci, with two men and a young woman perched on top.
"Heard you needed some help," the smith said, jumping down and eyeing Lydia's armour. "I see you upgraded already. My work not good enough?" Her tone was light, but Lydia was not deceived.
"Too good," she said, diplomatically yet honestly as well. "I'm keeping it for best."
"What is that?" Adrianne fingered the material curiously.
"Oooh." Adrianne's eyes positively lit up. "Do you think the Thane would sell me some? I'd give a pretty to have a try at working that."
"I think she would," Lydia said, smiling, "and I think she would probably be happy to promise not to sell any to Eorlund Grey-Mane."
Adrianne's laugh was wicked. "You tempt me, lovely one. But that can wait. Let's get this done." She clapped her hands, and her assistants leapt down and began unloading materials and tools.
The work proceeded swiftly, and once the farmhouse was habitable, they all went inside and ate. Adrianne had brought food to share, and introduced her helpers; Roggvold, Strovar and Sigja.
"These two are interested in running the farm when it's finished," she said, "assuming the Dragonborn isn't ready to retire into pastoral tranquility just yet. And Strovar tells me there used to be a meadery in the basement, and he wants to try rebuilding that."
"They know this place?" Lydia was startled.
"Heljarchen Farm?" Strovar said. "Sure. Heljarchen Mead used to be near as popular as Honningbrew. This was back in my granddaddy's time, but my daddy had a few bottles left and a note of the recipes they used. Farm got pillaged eighty years back, and the family all but wiped out. They say it was bandits, but..." He spat meaningfully. "Mead business has always been cut-throat. Look at the damn Black-Briars."
"And you think you can revive the brand?" Lydia said.
"I'll sure give it a try." Strovar squared his jaw and looked around belligerently, as if daring anyone to doubt his resolve.
"We'll need some guards as well," Roggvold said doubtfully, rubbing his chin. "Out here we're pretty well cut off from civilisation. Bandits, wolves...Sigja and I are pretty handy, but some help would be welcome."
"My Thane will cover whatever is needed," Lydia said confidently.
They spent the afternoon resurrecting the fields, the windmill and the greenhouse. With six of them it went swiftly, but even so it was full dark before they had finished. A lone wolf came to investigate, and Sigrid and Strovar chased it down and dispatched it without undue effort.
"I ought to take the cart back," Adrianne said. "Ulfberth frets if I'm not there, and I have work tomorrow. Want a ride?"
"We'll stay, thanks," Lydia said. "We're meeting Lethiel here. She's gone back to High Hrothgar."
"Can't keep away, huh?" Adrianne nodded. "They must have some wild parties up there. Give her my love and tell her to stop by soon. I miss her."
They watched the cart dwindle down the road towards Whiterun, and then went back into the farmhouse.
"You have the bed," Lydia said. There was only one available. "I'll be okay in a chair."
"Don't be silly," Sigrid said. "You'll freeze if the fire goes out. There's plenty of room in here for both of us."
And it turned out that there was.
Lydia blinked awake to find herself wrapped round a sleeping Sigrid, and Lethiel Lightfoot staring down at them and grinning broadly.
"I turn my back for five minutes," Lethiel began.
Lydia, feeling herself blushing all over, tried to disengage herself, somewhat handicapped by the fact that she was between Sigrid and the wall. "I, er, she, no, we didn't, um, the fire, body heat--" she said.
"I'm shocked," Lethiel said. "Shocked, I say, to discover that you prefer being warm to being cold. Oh, don't be so silly. I'd have done the same, and for the same reasons."
"How long have you been...back?" Lydia recovered a little of her composure, and eased her hair out from under Sigrid's head.
"Long enough to notice," Lethiel said, "that you've done an amazing job. This is perfect. Good morning, sleepyhead." This was to Sigrid, roused by the voices to semi-wakefulness. "I met the farmers you hired, and they told me about Adrianne's helping. I must pop down and thank her properly."
Lydia explained about the dragon scales.
"Bones, scales, anything she wants," Lethiel proclaimed expansively. "I can't possibly use it all. Now, is there any food in this place?"
After they had eaten, Lydia broached the question in her mind.
"How did it go?"
"Well, not well at all, at first. Arngeir doesn't like the Blades any more than Delphine likes the Greybeards. I nearly got chucked out on my ear, till one of the others broke his vow of silence and reminded Arngeir who was Dragonborn around here. So then I went up to the top of the mountain--"
"There's more of it!?"
"Quite a bit more--and spoke to their leader. Who, it turns out, is a dragon."
Lydia stared, speechless.
"But a good one," Lethiel continued. "Rather an old poppet, in a draconic sort of way. Lives on his own up there and misses the chance to chat with people. Anyway, the long and the short of it is that I have to find an Elder Scroll."
"That's what I said. Apparently they're these really old, er, scrolls. It's a long story, I'll tell you when we get home. But the consensus seems to be that I have to go to the College at Winterhold." Lethiel laughed briefly. "You see life in this racket, don't you?"
The three of them rode home in the afternoon, after putting the finishing touches to the farm and planting the seeds that Sigrid had thoughtfully brought with her. In Skyrim's climate they would be bearing fruit--and vegetables--in no time. On the way, Lethiel stopped at a guard outpost and spoke briefly to the officer on duty.
"He knows a couple of freelancers who can use the work guarding the farm," she said by way of explanation. "I've told him to send them on up."
"So does this College have an Elder Scroll?" Lydia said.
"I don't know. They may just know where I can find one." Lethiel sighed, and the weariness was back in her voice. "It's just one damn thing after another. I just want to find this Alduin, pound him into the ground and dance on his bones, and be done with it, but nooo, it's got to be this rigmarole."
"That's life," Sigrid said unexpectedly. "It's never going to be simple. If it was, it wouldn't be fun."
"And when you think about it," Lydia added, "Alduin's a bit special, isn't he? I mean, First Born of Akatosh and all. He's not going to be as easy as your ordinary kind of dragon."
The road in front of them abruptly vanished in a sheet of flame.
"Like that one," Lydia added, hastily dismounting and readying her bow.
"That one" proved to be quite hard to kill, in the end. Even when Lethiel and Lydia had both got good shots in on it, it remained aloft for quite some time, leaving Sigrid dancing frustratedly around and yelling at it to come down and fight like a man, dragon, whatever. Eventually, though, it landed on the road, and then it was only a matter of time.
"You have a strange definition of the word 'easy,'" Sigrid said to Lydia, as they rode on.
"Well, I meant relatively," Lydia said.
"It's a shame we can't all Shout like the Dragonborn."
Lydia saw once again those four Forsworn, lifted up helplessly and dashed against stone.
"No, I don't think so," she said.
"I've had a thought," Lethiel said, as they dismounted on the drive. "The main problem with me delegating jobs is not knowing whether there's going to be a Word of Power I need to learn, right?"
"One of the main problems," Lydia agreed. Or a dragon, or a Dragon Priest, or some other kind of nasty we haven't even met yet, she thought.
"Well," Lethiel said, "dragon Shouting isn't magic. It's inherent in the language, the Word itself calling out to the dragon part of me, if Arngeir is to be believed. So the power isn't actually in the wall, it's in the Word."
"Oh, I get you," Sigrid said.
Lydia looked blank, and felt stupid. Then she got it too. "So if one of us finds a word wall, and we make a drawing of the Word, that should work as well as you actually seeing the Word on the wall." An objection occurred to her. "I can't draw."
"You could make a rubbing," Sigrid said. "Some paper and some charcoal's all you need. Put the paper over the Word--"
"But it's usually only one Word, on a wall full of them," Lethiel said. "You'd need an awful lot of paper and charcoal, and most of it would be wasted. The drawing idea's worth a try though."
"And if it doesn't work, the wall's still there, and the way to it should be clear," Lydia said, hoisting her saddlebags.
"We can try it out easily enough. There's a wall I haven't seen yet, in Forelhost, and it's in the open air. if you wouldn't mind going back, love..."
"Sure," Lydia said, "But I think we should find out which of all of us are best at copying dragon symbols, and sort ourselves out in pairs, one good copier and one less so."
Lethiel looked pleased. "This could work."
The exercise had to be deferred, though. Anja and Sienna were absent.
"They went up to Whiterun," Drake said, "to fetch some of their stuff from the Huntsman. They haven't got back yet."
"They're perfectly capable of taking care of themselves," said Amarie the elf. "Possibly they had other business."
"Or possibly they're going to come reeling in drunk as newts," Lethiel said sourly. "Never mind, we'll wait for them. Who's hungry?"
In fact it was nearly midnight before the two truants returned, and they were not only sober, but extremely angry.
"We heard this old lady," Sienna began, "arguing with these two guys about her son."
Lydia guiltily recalled the argument she had overheard, weeks ago now. The participants weren't hard to identify. "The Grey-Manes and the Battle-Borns," she said. "Thorold Grey-Mane's been missing for some time, and Olfrid Battle-Born just loves taunting his mother about it."
"So See went and talked to her," Anja said, "and it turned out these two Bottle-Brains did know something."
"How did you find that out?" Amarie asked.
"I sneaked into their house and looked through their private papers," Anja said simply.
"You weren't seen?" Lethiel broke in.
"I'm a hunter." Anja was scornful.
"Aren't we all, dearie," Sigrid said under her breath.
"No, I wasn't seen. And it turns out this Thorold is being held in a Thalmor prison somewhere up north. Why these Brittle-Bones should merit being told about it I don't know."
"What did you do?" Lydia said wearily. She knew already.
"We took the information back to the Grey-Manes," Sienna said, "and this one guy, Avulstein, was all for charging in there and trying to fight his way in and out with his brother."
"Suicidal," Rowan said. "The Thalmor are utterly ruthless. No offence," she added to Amarie.
"None taken," the elf said. "I'm not Thalmor."
"So we told them the Dragonborn would take care of it," Anja said.
"Oh, you did, did you?" Lydia said.
"Isn't that what you do?" Sienna countered. "Help people?"
"What I *do* is kill dragons," Lethiel said. "But, yes, okay, I see your point. In future if you could maybe run these things past me before making any promises..."
"Absolutely," Anja said, too quickly. "Sorry."
"But since you're so keen, why don't you two handle that little job for me?" Lethiel went on. "I've got to go gallivanting off to Winterhold to find an Elder Scroll, and Lydia and one of you has another job to do, so it all works out rather well."
"Lydia and me," Sigrid said. "I was there when we thought of it." She put her hands possessively around Lydia's arm. Lydia was startled, but made no reaction.
"Okay," Lethiel said, "but we do the art test when everyone gets back, all right? I want to organise these things on a slightly more considered basis than that, if we're going to do it at all. And now, I need some sleep. I hardly got any last night, unlike some I could name."
Lydia squirmed uncomfortably. Sigrid still had her arm.
The following morning, they all went their separate ways: Lethiel to Winterhold, Anja and Sienna to hunt for a place called Northwatch Keep, which Anja said was on the far northern coast west of Solitude, and Lydia and Sigrid to Forelhost, armed with paper and charcoal. Amarie, Erin and Rowan remained behind to hold the fort.
"And don't take any jobs on till I come back," were Lethiel's parting words to them.
"Are you sure this is easier and quicker than just going through the place?" Sigrid asked, from above.
"Trust me," Lydia grunted, trying to shift one of Sigrid's boots out of her ear, "it is."
If there were steps up to the balcony with the word wall, they had not succeeded in finding them. In addition, neither of them had thought to bring rope, pitons, or any other climbing equipment. Lethiel, Lydia knew, would simply have charged at it and forced her way up with sheer bloody-mindedness, but neither of them were up to that. Maybe it was a Dragonborn thing.
Eventually, however, persistence paid off, and they lay on the snow that mantled the balcony, panting.
"Why did you want to come with me on this trip anyway?" Lydia said, when she had recovered her breath.
"I know you," Sigrid said simply. "I don't know any of the others that well. We just met up in the Huntsman. And I know I can trust you to snuggle when it's cold." She grinned engagingly, and her nose wrinkled. "Besides, like I said, I was there when we thought of the idea. I feel, you know, proprietorial about it."
It seemed to Lydia that there was more to this than she was seeing, but she put the thought aside for later. "Okay," she said, scrambling up. "Let's get this done while the light's still there."
"Ah, I did think of that," Sigrid said, delving into her bag and bringing out a bundle of torches.
"Great," Lydia said. "Got anything to light them with?"
Sigrid's face fell.
They each made rapid sketches of the deeply incised claw marks in the stone, and compared the two. Lydia's was actually rather better.
"It would help if we knew what it all means," Sigrid said. "Maybe a word would leap out at us as the kind of word a Word of Power would be."
"Well, we don't," Lydia said.
"We could try guessing." The woman was irrepressible, Lydia thought glumly. "I'd say...that one." She pointed at Lydia's sketch. "That looks powerful to me."
It looked like oversized chicken marks to Lydia.
"We'll let the Dragonborn decide," she said firmly.
After an uncomfortable night among the remains of Captain Valmir's campsite, in which Lydia was once again too tired to do more than sleep (and in which Sigrid once again insisted on "sharing body heat" as she put it), they set off for home, the precious drawings stowed safely in one of the saddlebags. They passed the permanently closed southern gate of Riften, and rode in leisurely fashion along the southern edge of whichever lake it was. Lydia was a stranger round here.
Thus, when Sigrid said "This way," and turned her horse, named Dabs for no fathomable reason, to the right, Lydia was in no position to argue.
(The question of finding a name for her own horse, in fact, was rapidly assuming in Lydia's mind the stature of a conundrum of unimaginable complexity. You couldn't, after all, just call a horse whatever nonsense word came into your head. Names were important. A name should partake of the nature of the thing or person it indicated, should express its identity as completely yet as succinctly as possible. She wasn't actually having nightmares about the thing rearing up over her and whinnying out a dread demand for a name, but it could only be a matter of time.)
The road seemed to have led them into a ruined village. All around were burned-out, shattered cottages, and Lydia saw with a sinking sensation the tell-tale signs of dragon attack. One building remained viable, at the far end of the place, and to this she directed her innominate steed.
"Excuse me," she said to the careworn woman sweeping the step, "are we still on the road for Whiterun?"
"Will be," the woman said, "once you pass through here. Al the roads join up again."
"What is this place?" Sigrid asked from behind Lydia.
"This used to be Blackthorn," the woman said, casting a weary glance around the ruins. "Nice little place, till that thing came. Everyone's gone off to Riften or Ivarstead now, 'cept Winston and me. Wouldn't take much to rebuild it, now, but it's surely beyond the two of us."
It hung in the air, between the three of them, and before Lydia could utter a warning, Sigrid took the bait whole. "We might know someone who could help," she said.
"Really?" The woman did not sound much impressed by the likelihood of this. "Well, if you'd send 'em this way, we'd take it as a kindness. Not easy running a store like this with no customers."
"What part of 'don't take any more jobs on' did you not get?" Lydia hissed as they rode away.
"That was to the others." Sigrid was airy. "And in any case, doesn't this look just like the kind of thing she'd relish? Bringing a whole village back from the dead, making a real difference to the area...anyway, I can't just not tell her, now we've raised that lady's hopes and all."
"What do you mean 'we'?" Lydia muttered, knowing it was futile. She could see Sigrid's point; rebuilding on this kind of scale was just the sort of challenge that would appeal to Lethiel's soft streak. The mine and the farm had just been trial runs; this would be the real test. A whole village, owing its existence to her...and of course, there might be money in it. Another regular income stream, to supplement the farm, the mine, and the adventuring. That would certainly be a selling point.
Lydia took a certain amount of mean satisfaction, when they passed through Ivarstead and Sigrid remarked on the barrow, in pointing out that they would need the sapphire claw to get any further into it and she didn't happen to have it with her. She knew it was mean, and she felt bad about it, and she knew why she was doing it, and she felt bad about that too. It wasn't Sigrid's fault Lydia had what was starting to seem like an uncommon and distinctly weird foible about not having sex with just any old body to whom one felt attracted. It wasn't her fault Lydia was feeling, if she was honest with herself, more than slightly attracted to Sigrid.
But Lethiel would never, ever, let her hear the end of it. And Lydia could not face that. So she snapped, and snarled, and they rode on in silence around the base of the Throat of the World.
"Are we the first back?" Lydia asked as she stepped across the threshold.
"That's hardly surprising," Amarie said coolly. "You knew where you were going."
"'West of Solitude' covers a fair amount of ground," Rowan added.
"And who knows what they're making the Dragonborn do up at that College," Erin said.
"I expect she's had to enrol as an apprentice," Rowan said. "Just to get in the door. There's a certain amount of tension between the College and Winterhold, and they don't like casual visitors."
"That hardly seems appropriate," Sigrid said.
"How skilled is she at magic?" Rowan said.
"I've never seen her do any," Lydia answered. "She's got quite a few books on the various subjects, but I think that's just because she likes books."
"Apprentice," the mage said. "They'll put her through a few hoops, and then maybe she'll get some answers. How did it go at Forelhost?"
Lydia produced the drawings, and they all pored over them for a few minutes, but this was purely for the sake of form; none of them could read dragon.
"Anything happen here while we were gone?"
"A Thalmor bigwig and two soldiers called at the door asking for Lethiel Lightfoot," Amarie said. "I told them no-one of that name lived here. They were inclined to come in and search the place, but I managed to dissuade them."
"You should have seen her," Rowan said. "All Elf dignity and poise. I think that was what convinced them more than anything else."
"They won't have given up though," Amarie went on. "They'll be waiting somewhere nearby to see who comes and goes. We'll need to be wary."
"She must really have upset them," Lydia said thoughtfully.
"Well, the bigwig mentioned a major disruption at the Embassy, several guards dead and some highly classified papers stolen," Amarie said. "That would probably do it."
"There'll be patrols out on the roads looking for her as well," Erin said. "It's never wise to antagonise the Thalmor. No offence."
"None taken," Amarie said, with deceptive lightness.
"Well, we've probably made it worse, then," said a voice from the doorway. Anja and Sienna, travel- and bloodstained, stood there.
"Where's what's his name?" Sigrid said.
"He took off," Sienna said, advancing into the room. "Gave us a message for his mother, gardening tips I think, and said his brother ought to get out as well. Heading off to join the Stormcloaks."
"And the Thalmor?" Lydia said.
"All dead." Anja laughed shortly. "We tried it the peaceful way, but they just weren't interested in being co-operative."
"This is exactly why," Lydia said, addressing them all, "we have to be careful what jobs we take on. The next mission of mercy or whatever might involve busting someone out of Dragonsreach, or the Blue Palace. We need friends, and we can't afford to lose any. As of right now, my Thane is top of the Thalmor's list of enemies."
"She managed that all on her own," Rowan pointed out. "And let's face it, they don't like anybody much."
"It's mutual," Anja said.
"Yes, but," Lydia began.
"We get it, mother," Sigrid said, and leaned in to kiss Lydia's cheek. "We'll be careful."
And with that, as the company broke up and prepared for bed, Lydia had to be content. Soon she was drifting into sleep, alone in Lethiel's big bed, and not sure whether she was happy or sad about that.
"Come back soon, my Thane," she whispered into her pillow. "I can't do this on my own."
It was two days before Lethiel returned home.
"I can't stop," she told Lydia breathlessly. "Wouldn't you know it, I've got caught up in something up there. Some sort of big find. I've been given leave to go and find some books that relate to it, but I wasn't going to waste the chance to see you. How's it been?"
Lydia recounted the events of the last few days.
"Yes, I met the Thalmor contingent," Lethiel said. "They won't be taking any further interest in the proceedings. I'm glad Thorald got out all right. Did Anja and See deliver the message?"
Lydia nodded. "Fralia was overjoyed, apparently," she said. "Gave them a weapon each from Eorlund's forge."
"Well earned," Lethiel said, "and you're right, I do like the sound of this Blackthorn village. If I can get myself untangled from this thing in Winterhold, I'll make a point of going down there. How are you getting on with Sigrid?"
Lydia was ready with her answer. "Our professional relationship is very, uh, professional," she said, and cursed under her breath.
Lethiel laughed, and hugged her. "Gods, it's good to be back, even if only for a moment. No more new jobs?"
"No, ma'am," Lydia said promptly. "I gave them a bit of a hard time about the Grey-Mane affair."
"So," Lethiel said slowly, "if I were to say 'come with me to Fellglow Keep'..."
"Yes," Lydia said at once. "Oh, yes."
"Good," Lethiel said. "And that means I've got time for a cup of tea and a bit of a sit down, because obviously you can't just leap up and zoom out on a mission, there has to be planning and organisation and all that stuff."
"We weren't very well organised at Forelhost," Lydia said, busying herself with the kettle.
"You learn on the job in this game. And that reminds me, Forelhost. Drawings. Did you do drawings?"
"We did drawings," Lydia said, and brought them out. Lethiel spread them side by side on the table and stared down at them.
"Ah, no," she said at last, shaking her head. "Nothing. Damn and blast. I was so sure it would work."
"Maybe we got something wrong," Lydia suggested.
"I'm quite sure you didn't. No, it must be some other reason. Maybe it's the size, or something." Lethiel looked up. "I'm sorry, love."
"No, I am," Lydia said. "That's the water." She returned to the kitchen, her heart singing to drown out the singing of the kettle.
"You didn't have to kill her," Lethiel said as they rode away from Fellglow Keep.
"She was going for a spell," Lydia maintained. "Anyway, we killed everyone else. Why leave just her? Necromancers are halfway dead already, if you ask me."
"I was thinking leaving just her would be poetic."
"Sure, and then she goes around raising up everyone we just killed, and then they start back in business again. No, clean out the whole nest." Lydia was emphatic.
"I have to go this way," Lethiel said sadly. "These need to go back to Winterhold. Will you go straight home?"
"I have a couple errands to run first," Lydia said.
"Don't do anything I wouldn't do."
Lydia watched till she could no longer distinguish Onyx and his rider from the landscape. Then she turned her horse, but not towards Whiterun and home.
Well, look at that, she thought. It's a cold day in Sovngarde.
"Welcome, child," Master Arngeir said. "Of course I remember you. You are a friend of the Dragonborn, and hence a friend to the Greybeards."
"I would like to think so, Master," Lydia said.
"And now you hope to learn to do what the Dragonborn does," Arngeir continued. "To Shout."
"No, Master," Lydia said. "Not to Shout." She explained, as best she could, the situation. Arngeir frowned.
"The ability to absorb a Word of Power into oneself in this way is unique to the Dragonborn," he said gravely. "It cannot be taught, or farmed out to others. In this, I fear, there are no short cuts."
Lydia bowed her head.
"I feared as much," the old man went on. "This Dragonborn is hasty, impetuous. She wants victory all at once, without effort. Such is not the Way of the Voice. The Blades have turned her mind that way. You should try to persuade her away from it."
"With respect, Master," Lydia said, "it's not my place to persuade her of anything."
Arngeir smiled ruefully. "True," he said. "That was my task, and I failed in it. Whether my failure is a blessing or a curse, only time will tell. Child, we could teach you to unlock your own Thu'um, but it would take many years of practice and study here in High Hrothgar, and I suspect you would find that...uncongenial."
"How did Ulfric Stormcloak learn?" Lydia said. "From you?"
"Initially." Arngeir looked troubled. "He grew impatient with the Way of the Voice, and abandoned his studies prematurely. He learned just enough to be dangerous, and not enough to be safe. We resolved not to make that mistake again." His voice had hardened, and just for a second Lydia heard the thunder behind it.
"Well," she said, "what could you teach me--hastily--about the dragon language? Could I learn to read it?"
Arngeir nodded, surprising her. "It is a simple language in many ways, almost one might say brutal. There is very little grammar, and even after studying it for all our lives, my brothers and I know only a few hundred words. But its very simplicity adds to its power."
"Leth--the Dragonborn and I were talking about that," Lydia said. "They don't go in much for complex concepts."
"That is indeed true. I perhaps overstated the case when I spoke of debating. Most dragons are not deep or complex thinkers--indeed, I know of only two. But then," and Arngeir's kindly eyes pierced Lydia's, "the same could be said of most men and most mer, could it not?"
"Not my place to say, Master," Lydia muttered.
"Perhaps not, perhaps not. Well. To learn to read the inscriptions on the word walls is not difficult. First one must learn the shapes of the draconic letters, and then the meanings of the words themselves. Excuse me one moment." Arngeir moved away into the shadows of High Hrothgar, and Lydia waited. Another Greybeard emerged from a passage, gave her a curious look, and passed on his way.
Eventually Arngeir returned with two very small books, which he handed over with due ceremony. "One is a guide to the letters, the other is a list of all the words of the dragon language we have learned to this day. I hope you will find them useful. Unfortunately, though, the Dovahkiin will have to be reconciled to going to the word walls and looking for herself. There is no other way."
Lydia bowed, and Arngeir responded in kind. "Sky guard you," he said.
"I don't believe it," Anja declared stoutly. "They're just protecting their secrets, enhancing their mystique. Like any old wizard." She glared at Rowan, who looked back calmly.
"No, I believe him," Lydia said, "or at least I believe that that's what he believes."
"That could be just the power of his voice," Erin said. "I mean, Lethiel's really persuasive, isn't she? Maybe that's a side benefit. Being able to fool people into believing you."
"Or maybe I'm just really gullible?" Lydia's own voice held an edge. Erin looked away. "Either way," Lydia went on, holding up the two little books, "we've got something to work with."
"Play toys," Anja said. "DIstractions. You don't even know if they're accurate."
"And for all I know you could be a Dwemer in disguise," Lydia snapped. "We work with what we've got, and we do the best we can. Now, first of all, I think we should make a chart of these letters, and practice deciphering the inscriptions we drew at Forelhost. There's paper, pens and ink in the desk upstairs, Sigrid, will you go and get them?"
"Right away," Sigrid said, grinning and saluting.
"This is pointless busywork," Anja said. "I'm going for a walk. Who's with me?" Nobody spoke. "Fine," she snapped, and the door banged behind her.
Sienna caught Lydia's eye. "Can't read," she mouthed silently.
"She'll learn," Lydia said, "if she wants to stay here."
"I can't imagine not being able to read," Sigrid said, returning with her arms full. "My mama taught me when I was still only a baby. She said anyone who couldn't read was wide open to deceit."
"That's true enough," Rowan said. "I guess Anja's mama taught her differently." Lydia had laid one of the books open on the table, and the mage was carefully drawing out a grid of squares on a sheet of paper.
"She was probably more interested in getting work out of her kids than putting ideas into their heads," Erin said. "Mine was the same. I learned to read on my own, in secret."
"Farengar taught me," Lydia said. "He's the court wizard up at Dragonsreach. I grew up in the jarl's service."
"Oh, the chin that goes on for ever?" Sienna laughed. "I wonder he doesn't grow a beard."
Lydia knew why not, but it wasn't her place to tell these women. She respected Farengar, though she somehow couldn't actually like him, and his troubles had not been of his own making.
"Okay, here's a grid," Rowan said. "Now, who's going to do the copying?"
"Why not you?" Lydia said.
Rowan sighed. "Okay."
The others fidgeted uneasily while Rowan worked. Erin wandered into the kitchen in search of food, Sienna fiddled with the ornaments on the shelves, and Sigrid came and stood too close to Lydia. Only Amarie seemed content to wait silently and motionless.
"All done," Rowan said at last. "I had to use two sheets in the end, because I started too big. And I can see one word already in the inscription there." She pointed. "'Sovngarde.'"
"I guess that proves the letters are accurate enough," Lydia said. "Now we need to turn the rest of it into letters we can read, and see if we can work out what it means."
"Why?" It was Sienna who asked.
"The more we know, the more useful we are," Lydia explained, as if it were obvious.
"I don't see how." But Sienna shrugged and joined the rest of them clustered around the drawing.
"How long a walk was Anja going to take?"
It was Erin who put this question. They had transliterated the inscription, puzzled it out using the second book as a dictionary, and tentatively identified a couple of words as possibly being the Word of Power intended to be conveyed. They had also decided, after some discussion, that this inscription had been carved by Nords. Dragons would have no reason to commend a Nordic hero to Sovngarde.
"She has been gone a while," Rowan said.
"She can look after herself," Lydia said, but doubt was already gnawing at her. "I'll go see if I can see her."
She went through the hall and stepped out into the evening air. A couple of guards were walking on the road, across the stream; otherwise the entire place was deserted, not even Nazeem on his habitual sentry-go. Something white lay on the bridge, occasionally shifting a bit as the light breeze caught it. Lydia went to retrieve it, brought it back inside and spread it out in the light.
Come to White River Watch, it read. Come alone. I need your help. It was signed Lethiel Lightfoot.
"Well, now we know what happened," Amarie said bleakly.
"That's not even Lethiel's handwriting," Sigrid said. Lydia wondered how she knew. She could read perfectly well, but somehow everyone's handwriting looked the same to her.
"And how would Anja know that?" Sienna pointed out.
"An elf wrote that," Amarie said definitely. "The penmanship is Thalmor."
"And here comes the next stage," Sienna said, as someone knocked at the door.
It was Lilly, the courier. Lydia waited while she went through her little prepared speech, took the letter from her, and went back inside.
"'If you want to see your companion alive again,'" she read aloud, "'you will deliver the woman Lethiel Lightfoot to my agents at White River Watch before midnight. You will tell no-one of this, you will come unarmed, and the woman will be gagged. If you disobey, your friend will die in considerable discomfort.' It's not signed."
"Elenwen," Amarie said, and her normally impassive face twisted into an expression of pure hatred.
"Who else?" Rowan said. "All right, let's gear up and go get Anja. Where is this White River Watch anyway?"
"Across the river east," Lydia said. "It's a cave complex that leads up to an overlook. Bandits use it a lot."
"Why doesn't somebody clear them out?"
"Because it's not that easy," Lydia snapped.
"And because the jarl doesn't mind a few bandits outside the city," Sigrid guessed. "That way people stay at home and are glad of the guards and the walls."
At another time, Lydia might have taken issue with this cynical pronouncement, but she pushed it aside. "They can see us coming from the overlook, and as soon as they do they'll kill Anja," she said. "I guess they've already killed the bandits."
"Well, we can't give them Lethiel," Erin said. "Even if we would, we don't have her."
"And we can't just sit here and do nothing," Rowan said, hitting the table with the flat of her hand.
"I know!" Lydia said, more sharply than she had intended. "I've got some ideas," she said, "and I'm going to need you all. Now this is what we're going to do..."
A little while later, a party of three on horseback could be observed crossing the bridge to the road and turning eastward. The lead rider, a tall elf, was leading the second horse, a procedure necessitated by the fact that its cloaked and hooded rider's hands were bound in front of her. She rode with head bowed.
The party crossed the bridge over the waterfall, turned left and rode for a little way, before turning aside and climbing a steep slope that wound round to the left. There, in front of a cave entrance, two grinning elves in armour were waiting, armed with swords and bows. The two unbound riders dismounted and were swiftly searched for weapons; then the elves dragged the bound woman from her mount and marched her into the cave.
"You will wait here," one of them threw contemptuously over his shoulder.
The path through the cave was tortuous, and lined with Thalmor soldiers, with here and there the body of a bandit. The woman noticed, lying beside one elderly corpse, a book which had fallen open, revealing only blank pages. At length she was bundled out on to the overlook, a broad ledge giving on the valley below. There stood an imposingly built elf in the robes of a Thalmor Justiciar. Behind him, trussed and gagged, lay Anja, glaring furiously over her gag at all and sundry.
"My name is Lorcalin," he said, "and you are guilty of crimes against the Aldmeri Dominion. As such, your life is forfeit, as--" He smirked unpleasingly. "As is that of your companion here."
The woman made an inarticulate sound of rage behind her own gag. Lorcalin's smirk widened, and he stepped forward and twitched the rag away from her mouth.
"You said you would spare her life--"
"Did I?" Lorcalin affected puzzlement. "I'm quite sure I didn't. I merely said that you would see her alive again. You have now done so. As for your other companions, they will have a brief opportunity to do so, before she lands. I regret, though, that there will hardly be time for an extended conversation."
He stepped back towards Anja, and made as if to tip her over the edge of the overlook with the toe of his boot. At this point, Sienna, Erin and Rowan dropped down from above and quickly dispatched the two startled soldiers guarding Lydia. With a curse, Lorcalin started forward, drawing his own weapon.
"Don't you see?" he snarled. "Elven supremacy is the only truth!"
"I think you'll find that's gravity," Lydia said, and took a deep breath. "Oh, by the way...FUS RO DAH!!!"
It was not a Shout, could not have been, but its effect was sufficient. Lorcalin stepped back again, hands upraised as if to ward off a blow, and by that time Lydia was charging forward, head lowered. She caught him in the pit of the stomach, he staggered back two more paces, and Anja's outstretched legs did the rest. With a shrill scream, he went over the edge.
Amarie and Sigrid appeared. "We got them all," Sigrid reported. "After the first two it was easy." She brushed away the blood that was seeping from a cut above one eye. "Easy-ish," she amended.
Lydia removed Anja's gag and helped her to her feet. "Are you okay?" she asked.
"Sure," Anja said. "Thanks."
"No problem. Oh, and look, a chest."
In a little while, the horses laden down with bandit loot and elven gear, they made their way back home.
"I was stupid," Anja said. "I'm sorry. I just followed the guy like a fool. They got me with some sort of spell as soon as I stepped inside, and the next thing I knew I was tied up and this guy was gloating over me."
"They have one weakness," Amarie said. "They always expect people to give in to them, as the superior race. It always startles them when people fight back." She grinned. "Especially when they're sneaky."
"Good plan, General," Sigrid said to Lydia. "If we ever lose the Dragonborn, it's good to know we have someone who can take over."
"Bite your tongue," Lydia snapped. "We are not going to lose her."
Later, as Lydia was preparing for bed, Anja appeared in the doorway.
"Thanks," she said. "For not saying it."
Lydia was not sure how to respond to this.
"I never learned," Anja said. "I tried to, but the letter things never stayed still and I couldn't make sense of them. So I learned to fake it instead. See usually helps me out. It means I can't be any use to you with the Word of Power thing."
"There are lots of other ways you can be useful," Lydia said, going to her. "And even if you weren't, we'd still have come for you. You know that, right?" She turned away for a moment, and picked something up from the bed. "I saved you something extra from the loot," she said, handing it over. Anja opened the book curiously and stared at the blank pages.
"Hey, it's a start, right?" Lydia said. "Now even if you can't read, you can look as if you're reading."
Anja met her eyes, laughed and nodded.
"Thanks," she said, and turned away.
A letter arrived early the following day, and Lydia opened it with some trepidation.
"It's from Lethiel," she proclaimed to the breakfast table at large, and read it aloud.
"'My dears, all hell has broken loose here. We found some sort of orb thing in a ruin named Saarthal and it got brought back to the College. Well, it turns out it's some horribly overpowered magical artefact and could destroy the world in the wrong hands, which is just about anybody's. Ho hum. There's a particularly slimy Thalmor here called Ancano who's got designs on this thing, I'm sure of it. Anyway, long story short, I have to go to some place called Mzulft and find people called the Synod, and I need some help. Could two or three of you meet me there? Love and kisses, Lethiel Lightfoot.'"
"Hey, a job," Sigrid said. "Count me in."
"Wait a minute," Erin said. "We missed out on the last one. Not counting rescuing Anja, I mean."
"Mzulft sounds Dwemer," Rowan said. "Count me out. I lost a friend in one of those places."
"If Lydia's going, I'm going," Sigrid said, sticking out her chin.
"Lydia is definitely going," Lydia said, "and she's taking, hmm, Erin and Sienna."
Sigrid put on a pathetic face.
"Sigrid and Amarie," Lydia went on, "take as much cash as you think you'll need and head back to Blackthorn. You made a promise, remember?" she said to Sigrid, who sighed and nodded.
"We'll do our best," she said.
"Anja and Rowan, mind the store. Okay, let's get ready."
Half an hour later, the two expeditions were provided with everything that Lydia could imagine they might need. For a wonder, the horses could still move.
"What should I expect in a Dwemer ruin?" she asked Rowan.
"Death," the mage said sombrely. "Their old machines still work, and they don't like intruders. And if you go far enough down you find Falmer, and they're worse."
"Do arrows work on them?"
"Yes, and so do swords, but they're unbelievably quick, they use poison, and even though they're blind they can hear where you are in a heartbeat. And if you survive all that, there's the chance of going the way my friend went...in an earthquake." Rowan looked away and scrubbed fiercely at her eyes. "I've never been near a Dwemer place since."
"We'll be careful," Lydia said.
"You better." Rowan caressed Lydia's cheek briefly, then turned and strode away.
The journey was long, but Lydia was, rather to her surprise, getting used to riding and even found it enjoyable at odd times. They had tents and bedrolls with them, enough for all three to sleep separately, and at noon on the second day they found themselves looking up a long flight of steps that ran beneath a succession of ornate stone arches, at a tiny figure waving frantically at them.
"Welcome, welcome," Lethiel said, hugging Lydia first, long and hard, and then the other two in quick succession. "Hmm. Interesting choices," she added, glancing quickly at Lydia. "Well, I've scouted round a bit and found a building over there full of all kinds of interesting stuff just lying there. I've been inside and spoken to a fellow who is sadly now deceased, who told me to find an apparatus in the Oculory. And he seems to have lost his crystal, whatever that may be. He had a key on him which should get us further in."
"Any news on the Elder Scroll?" Lydia asked.
Lethiel looked blank for a second. "No, I never seem to get time to ask. This junket is to look for something called the Staff of Magnus, which is the only way to control something called the Eye of Magnus, which is the orb we found in Saarthal. You did get my letter? Good. Once I have the Staff and we've taken care of the Eye, I hope to be able to find out about the Elder Scroll, though I must admit my hope dwindles daily. It's just--"
"One damn thing after another," Lydia finished in unison with her, and they laughed. "Well," Lydia said, "the sooner we finish this one thing the sooner the other can present itself, right?"
The four of them nodded, and Lethiel led them into Mzulft.
They left the mad magician standing disconsolately in front of his projection, and quitted the Oculory chamber. There was a short delay while Lethiel appeared to be having some sort of vision, or possibly a brain seizure, and then she led them decisively down a short corridor, through a locked door, and out into the open air.
"So," Lydia said. "Labyrinthian. And I actually know where that is."
"Great," Lethiel said. "Only I don't think I can go straight there."
"Nor me," Sienna said. "I agree with Rowan. Dwemer ruins are bad news." She had had her arm broken by a particularly vicious blow from a mechanical opponent; a healing potion had dealt with the break, but healing potions, as Lydia knew from experience, seldom did anything to relieve the actual pain.
"You three head home," Lethiel said. "I'll join you there when I've reported back to the Arch-Mage."
"Not one chance," Lydia said. "We're sticking with you. I'm not happy about letting you go off alone."
Erin and Sienna nodded. Lethiel looked from one face to another and shrugged. "Okay," she said simply.
This was all new territory to Lydia, so she followed Lethiel, and the others followed her. As they rode north, the wind grew colder and snow began to fall around them. Winterhold the village was permanently blanketed in it. Villagers tramped morosely about, occasionally casting glances of dull resentment at the College, the newcomers, and each other.
"Cheery place," Erin commented.
"This used to be the capital of Skyrim," Sienna said. "Then someone at the College did something, and most of it fell into the sea. What's left kind of holds a grudge."
"You'd best wait here," Lethiel said, at the foot of the bridge that led out across vacancy to the College. "They don't like outsiders barging in. I'll be as quick as I can."
She turned and ran swiftly up the slope of the bridge. Lydia, Erin and Sienna looked at each other.
"Outsiders," Sienna remarked, cocking an eyebrow.
"She didn't mean it like that," Lydia protested.
"Sure she didn't," Sienna said.
Before Lydia could utter the response on her lips, a soundless burst of white light erupted from the College and the ground shook. Lydia and Sienna covered their eyes, and Erin fell to her knees, and then the air was full of angry, buzzing balls of light and blasts of unbelievable cold.
"What the Nine--" Sienna began.
Lydia already had her sword out and was slashing at the nearest of the things. It exploded with a shock of cold that travelled up her arm, and there on the ground at her feet was a pulsing crystal, a soul gem. She snatched it up and went for another of the entities. Sienna and Erin caught on quickly, and followed suit. By the time Lethiel and two mages had pounded down from the College, the crisis was all but over.
"What happened?" Lydia said, fighting for breath.
"I don't know. Something. The Arch-Mage is dead, the Eye is out of control, Ancano the damn Thalmor's responsible *of course*..." Lethiel glanced back at the College. "And I'm going to have to go straight on to Labyrinthian. We need this Staff as soon as I can bloody well get it. I'm not asking you to come with me..."
"You don't have to," Sienna said, before Lydia could. "We may not be able to save the world by Shouting or learning Words of Power, but we can help save it by keeping you alive. And you're going to need us. You're dead on your feet."
"So are you."
"Half-dead," Erin corrected. "And if she's half-dead and I'm half-dead, that makes one fully alive helper. Are we going straight away?"
"No, I have to go back and report to Mirabelle on the state of things down here," Lethiel said. "Go to the inn and stock up on food, we have no idea how long this will take." She took their hands in hers in turn. "Thank you. Back in a moment." She was gone again.
"So where is this Labyrinthian?" Erin asked.
"It's a huge place on the border of Whiterun and Hjaalmarch. The road actually runs through it, if you go that way. Most don't. Trolls live there." Lydia spoke absently, casting her gaze around, alert for any further eruptions of whatever those things had been.
"Sounds peachy," Sienna commented. "And I guess we won't be stopping overnight?"
"I don't think we'll have time," Lydia said.
Who are these dead idiots?" Erin whispered, as the ghosts once more faded on the air.
"Well," Lethiel said, "one of those dead idiots was till quite recently the Arch-Mage of the College. As for the others, I don't know, but I have a bad feeling about them. I think this was a youthful escapade gone badly wrong."
"Very badly," Lydia agreed. "I take it the former Arch-Mage is the one who keeps encouraging them to go on?"
Lethiel nodded. "And to stick together, yes."
"Well, we must do the same," Sienna said, "if we're going to get at this Staff. Beyond that door, the ghost said."
Lethiel opened the door and they stared out.
"Is that..." Lydia said.
"A Dragon Priest," Lethiel said. "And it seems to be being contained by those two figures up there. Who will probably turn out to be Arch-Mage Aren's two remaining companions."
There was a short silence.
"So much for sticking together," Sienna said scathingly. " I note his loyalty didn't quite extend that far."
"He probably had a library book he needed to return," Erin said.
"I've met the librarian," Lethiel said. "I could believe it. But no," she went on slowly, "this is not a joking matter. Nor is it a coincidence that this has happened now. I thought this was just a pointless distraction from the business I'm supposed to be engaged on, but it's all part of the same thing. I think."
"How is this connected to Alduin and the dragons?" Lydia demanded.
"I'm not entirely sure," Lethiel said, "but there's a connection, either to something I'm going to have to do, or not to do. Something about guilt, and atonement, and whether or not it's possible." She gathered herself. "But in the meantime, we have to release these poor lost souls, kill that thing, and retrieve the Staff clutched in its bony hand, because that, my children, as sure as eggs is eggs, is the Staff we're looking for."
She lifted her bow, sighted, lowered it again. "We need a better angle. Erin, you take the mage nearest to us, Sienna, the further one. Lydia, you're with me, either side of Nimshai there. On my command, you two kill the mages, and when the containment field vanishes, we will hopefully have a chance to gut the thing before it knows what's going on."
"Suppose they attack us?" Erin said.
"They've been doing this for hundreds of years. Their physical bodies have probably turned completely to dust. I'd guess they're a bit focussed right now. You might be able to get their attention with a fanfare of trumpets, but I doubt it." Lethiel made shooing gestures. "Come on, let's do this."
The operation went like clockwork. The mages faded into nothingness, as did the shimmering dome they had been sustaining, and before the Dragon Priest could do more than begin to turn, Lydia and Lethiel had slashed it to pieces. Lethiel collected up the Staff and other items, including another grotesque mask, and the group reassembled and made their way out of the dungeon, brushing past the ghost of Savos Aren uttering his pathetic platitudes.
"Coward," Sienna flung back at him.
The Thalmor who accosted them as they entered the burial chamber beyond the barred door had just time to say "So, you made--" before three swords and an arrow had driven the life from his body. The group hardly broke stride.
"Back to the College?" Lydia said.
"Yes." Lethiel's eyes were too bright, her teeth clenched. She was running on adrenaline and rage now. "This ends.”
Lydia had an eerie feeling of déjà vu.
"What?" Lethiel said, as Tolfdir bustled away. "Wait, what?"
"Congratulations," Sienna said, "Arch-Mage."
"I can't be an Arch-Mage," Lethiel said. "I'm not even a mage. I don't do magic. I never have."
*I can be as bloody arch as anyone, ducky, what, I should say so.* The words drifted through Lydia's memory from somewhere she could not place.
"I expect it's mostly an administrative position," Erin said. "Signing papers, holding meetings, that kind of thing."
"But Mirabelle did all that." Lethiel was obviously trying valiantly to get to grips with the situation. "And she's dead."
"And you had a relationship together." Sienna quoted Lethiel's own words back to her mockingly. "Isn't that special."
The woman's insatiable, Lydia thought. And: when did she find the time?
"Well, she, I, um--" Lethiel's knees abruptly gave way under her and she slumped bonelessly to the floor. Concern overrode whatever else Lydia might have been feeling right then, and she knelt down and felt her Thane's pulse, lifted one eyelid, listened to her chest.
"Out cold," she reported. "We'd better get her home."
"What about this place?" Erin said. "She has quarters here now."
"I haven't seen them," Lydia said, "and I don't trust them. She needs her own bed. That old guy can run things for a while. He's probably going to have to anyway, because if you remember, our Thane here has a job to do already. Living in is not going to be an option."
"And this is nothing at all to do with--" Sienna began.
"Nothing." The word came out like a bear trap closing, and Sienna fell silent. "Help me lift her," Lydia said. "We'll hire a carriage. I saw a sign as we rode in."
They crossed the courtyard, supporting the insensible Dragonborn, without encountering anyone, and made it down into Winterhold village and to the Nordic Carriage Company stop.
By the time the carriage delivered them to Whiterun stables, it was clear that Lethiel was running a fever. Her head rolled from side to side as she lay on the bench seat, her brow was hot enough, as Sienna put it, to boil a kettle on, her skin elsewhere was clammy, and she muttered odd fragments of words, sometimes phrases, that made no sense to the listeners.
"What do we do?" Erin asked.
"Take her to Arcadia's Cauldron," Sienna suggested. "She'll have a potion that will calm this."
Lydia was worried about something else. "Suppose she Shouts?"
"Why would Arcadia shout?" Erin said. "Oh wait. I get it."
"Shouting takes concentration," Sienna said. "You can't Shout if you can't think."
"We don't know that. We don't know what a fever like this will do to someone with dragon blood."
"You mean, she might explode or something?" Erin inquired, and got a quelling look from Sienna for her pains.
"We'll send to Arcadia to come down and look at her," Lydia said, ignoring this. "In the meantime, we'll put her to bed and keep watch over her. If she looks like getting ready to Shout, we'll..." Her invention abruptly deserted her, and she sagged. "Do what we can," she said. "This is just overwork, I think. It should break naturally, but just in case, we'll get Arcadia to come and look."
She was talking to comfort herself, and she knew it, and so did the others. They hoisted Lethiel between them, and carried her back to her house in silence.
Arcadia shook her head. "Potions and spells won't help with this," she said, gathering her tools and bottles and replacing them in her bag.
"Why not?" Lydia demanded, fear clutching at her heart.
"Because there's nothing wrong with her," the other woman said tartly. "This is just her body's natural response to being pushed beyond its limits. It's enforcing what it needs, which is total inactivity. There is a danger of secondary infection--which is to say that she's vulnerable right now to any other disease that may happen along, so be careful around her--but if nothing else goes wrong, then she should ride this out in a week or so, as long as she rests. And that includes when she starts to feel better and thinks it's over and she can get back to work. That will be your job, and I don't envy you. In the meantime, make sure she drinks a lot of water, and make sure she stays in bed, and she probably won't die."
"Probably," Arcadia said flatly. "Now if you'll excuse me, I have people who actually need me waiting back in town. I'll see myself out."
"Well," Rowan said when the door had closed behind the alchemist, "she was rude."
Lydia nodded. "But she knows what she's talking about, I guess. And I'd rather be told that than charged gods know how much for treatments that don't work."
A bed had been brought up from the basement to the inner room, and Lethiel now lay on it. She had not regained any sort of consciousness, but continued to mutter and fret in her delirium. From time to time, Lydia or one of the others would persuade her to drink some water, but she seemed to find swallowing difficult.
"When you think about it," Amarie said, "that's actually about the best you can say for any of us, at any time."
"What?" Lydia looked up.
"That we probably won't die."
Lydia stared at Amarie for a long moment.
"Thank you," she said, "for that."
"Just trying to add some perspective," the elf said serenely. "Someone's at the door."
At the same moment, the someone knocked. Lydia got up to answer it.
"Mila," she said blankly.
Mila Valentia looked up at her. She was wearing the dragon scale armour Lethiel had given her, and clutching a bunch of flowers.
"Mother told me the dragon lady was sick," she said. "So I brought these. They always make me feel better when I'm sick."
Lydia took the bouquet solemnly. "Thank you," she said. "I'll put them in some water."
"May we see the dragon lady?" Mila asked, and Lydia became belatedly aware that there was another young girl behind Mila. Lucia, she realised, the one you sometimes saw begging in the Wind District.
"I don't think that would be a very good idea yet," she temporised. "When she's feeling better you can come and see her, as long as you promise not to do anything to excite her."
The children looked crestfallen, but accepted the verdict with grace. "Thank you," Mila said, and Lucia mumbled something. They turned away, and Lydia closed the door, or tried to; in an instant the two girls had slipped through and past her, and Mila was kneeling on top of Lethiel, pounding her chest with two tiny fists.
"You have to get better!" she yelled. "You don't get to run out on us like my father did! My mommy needs you! Don't you dare die! If you do, I'll...I'll set Braith on you!"
Torn between outrage, concern and an absurd impulse to laugh, Lydia plucked the child off the bed, held her struggling form aloft for a moment and then set her on her feet.
"I promise you," she said, "if she can possibly avoid it, the Dragonborn will not die. I know she cares about your mother very much, and about you, and she doesn't want to die."
Mila, once more all self-possession and control, nodded.
"I know that too," she said. "I just get scared sometimes."
"We all do," Lydia said. "Even the Dragonborn. But that won't stop her coming back to the people he loves."
"Thank you, miss," Mila said, and led Lucia peaceably out of the house. Lydia shut the door and leaned against it for a moment.
Then she moved back to the bed, bent over and placed her lips next to the supine figure's ear.
"I'm with her," she whispered. "Don't you dare die.”
Lethiel's condition remained the same for two more days, neither improving nor worsening. Various people came to the door to inquire about her and offer good wishes. None of them were Thalmor.
Lilly brought a letter from Tolfdir, expressing regret at the Arch-Mage's temporary indisposition and hoping that she would soon be fully recovered and able to take up her duties. Lydia almost flung the thing into the fire, then changed her mind and marched over to the table to compose a stinging reply, effectively telling the old man where he could stick his duties, his regrets, his whimsical idea of how to reward someone for saving the universe and, if possible, his College, floating bridge and all; to which she intended to couple a pious hope that it would hurt.
She had hardly set pen to paper, though, when the air thickened around her and everything turned shades of grey. She experimentally tried dipping her pen in the inkwell. The nib bent on what was now an impenetrably solid surface.
"Do not be alarmed," said a voice from behind her, and she whirled round to confront the yellow-robed individual who had manifested in the room. At the moment the robes looked grey, like everything else, but she somehow knew they were yellow.
"I'm not alarmed," she said. "Furious, yes, but not alarmed. You were one of the people who took away the orb."
"The Eye, yes. My name is Tandil, and I am a priest of the Psijic Order. Please listen carefully, as--"
"I'm not in the mood to listen to anyone," Lydia said, getting up. "My Thane is gravely ill and may die, and as I see it it's partly your fault. How dare you--"
"As this conversation," Tandil continued firmly, "is very difficult for me to sustain."
"Trouble talking down to our level, hmm?"
"Not at all," the priest said testily. "Please listen. Everything is happening as it should. Your Thane has restored the balance of forces. She has proved to possess the intuitive understanding of such things--"
"She just went where she was told and did what she had to!" Lydia yelled, closing in on the Psijic and forcing him to step back. "She's not remotely qualified to be Arch-Mage, and she's got far too much else to do already!"
"Aren," Tandil said simply, "was highly qualified, and had nothing else to do. And look what happened."
This gave Lydia pause.
"Under his...leadership," Tandil went on, "relations between the College and the town deteriorated, important volumes and artefacts were stolen from the College, at least one student was translated on to a mystical plane for which they were not adequately prepared, and apprentices have been incinerated or otherwise killed in magical accidents so often that the event is hardly treated as exceptional any more. A member of the despicable Thalmor was not only tolerated within the precincts of the College, but allowed to assume a position of high authority which he then proceeded to abuse with impunity. We have seen what happens when a highly qualified mage is set to run this College. It is time to see what happens when it is run by an individual whose aptitudes lie not within the sphere of magic, but that of practical politics."
Lydia didn't know what that last bit meant, but she wasn't letting Tandil off the hook that easily. "She has too much to do as it is," she repeated doggedly.
"Good," Tandil said at once. He was obviously realisiing that delivering a prepared speech and then melting away was not going to be an option here. "That means she will not be there very often. Since she has no official deputy, as Aren did, that means that any important decisions will have to be shelved till she has time to pop in, as it were, and look at them. And that means that things at the College will stay the same, unless she is there to make them better. We could not hope for a better outcome. That is why her appointment must stand, and why you must not write that letter. Now, please, this conversation is draining my--"
"You want her to be an absentee Arch-Mage?" Lydia was not letting the Psijic off the hook that easily. "Why her, then? Why not me, or anyone else, why not some random adventurer? Why her?"
Tandil was now looking actively exasperated. "Do you not think that any such person would ask the same question? That you would, if we had chosen you? Everyone is busy, Lydia. Everyone has their own life which is as full as they can make it, sometimes more full than they want it to be. Aren's life was full of unresolved guilt for his cowardice in abandoning his friends. Your life is full of emotional tension as you embark upon a complex net of relationships you have not even begun to fathom yet. And Lethiel Lightfoot's life is full of her destiny as Dragonborn, which I agree is a heavy burden for any soul to bear."
Lydia was silent.
"But, as she takes up that burden, it will be of benefit to her to have the resources of the College of Winterhold at her back, to draw on when needed. It will ground her in a field of knowledge in which she is at the moment singularly lacking, and it will give her a way of dealing with magic-related problems as and when they arise. Do you not see that?"
Lydia had only seen it as more work for the Dragonborn to do, but refrained from saying so again.
Tandil was about to speak further, but was interrupted by a furious pounding from somewhere in the void behind him, as of someone beating their fist on wooden panels, and an impatient voice.
"Tandil! Are you going to be in there all day? There are people waiting, you know!"
"Yes," another voice chimed in, "some of us have work to do."
"What was that about a draining conversation?" Lydia inquired sweetly.
Tandil gave her a look of agonised pleading. "Do not write that letter," he said. "Things will turn out for the best. Trust me." Things around Lydia returned to their natural colours, and the form of the Psijic melted out of existence, to the accompaniment of a faint sound as of running water.
Rowan wandered in. "I felt something strange just then," she remarked. "Did anything happen?"
Lydia looked at her pen. "I bent my nib," she said.
"I'm pretty sure it wasn't that," Rowan said.
"What do you know about the Psijic Order?"
"Yet another bunch of elves who think they have more right to run things than anyone else," Rowan said dismissively, looked around for Amarie to say "no offence" to, didn't see her and carried on. "They disappeared years ago. Probably running things somewhere more interesting than here. Who were you writing to?"
Lydia covered up Tolfdir's letter with her blank sheet. "Nobody," she said. "It was a silly idea anyway.”
Late on the third night, Lethiel's fever broke, and she lapsed into natural-seeming sleep. The relief threatened to overwhelm Lydia, but she kept it together. She had replied to Tolfdir, but in rather more moderate terms than she had originally intended, thanking him for his concern, and advising him that the Arch-Mage would make a brief visit to the College as soon as her health and other work permitted. Now, having seen that Lethiel was breathing normally and her temperature returning to comfortable levels, she climbed the stairs and collapsed into bed herself.
When she came down next morning, she found the Dragonborn sitting up in bed and casting about for clothes.
"Oh no no no," she said, hurrying over. "You are to stay in bed for at least another three days. Alchemist's orders."
"And good morning to you," Lethiel said, smiling. "Don't be silly, love, I'm perfectly all right now."
"You may feel better," Lydia said, "but Arcadia told us to keep you in bed for a week and that is what I am going to do."
Lethiel's smile vanished. "That's quite out of the question. I've got too much to do--"
"And that is exactly what made you sick in the first place. No," Lydia added, as Lethiel made to get out of the bed. "Unless you need to pee, in which case I'll take you and then bring you back, here is where you stay."
"This is ridiculous," Lethiel grumbled. "I'm Dragonborn, I can throw these things off more quickly than--"
"I don't recall Arngeir mentioning anything about that. You can Shout, but I don't think you can Shout yourself well. As far as everything else is concerned you're still human and you could still die, and I am not going to allow that, so you. Stay. In. Bed."
Lethiel looked long and hard into Lydia's green eyes, and then lowered her own brown ones. "All right," she said, relaxing, "but I'll go doolally cooped up here. You'll have to keep a constant watch on me in case I start gibbering and laying about me with a battleaxe."
"That," Lydia said, "will not be a problem. There's no shortage of volunteers."
"I only want you," Lethiel whispered.
"And you'll have me," Lydia said, "for as long as I can manage, but someone has to keep this place running, and I seem to have got landed with the job."
"Talking of being landed with jobs, am I really the Arch-Mage of Winterhold?" Lethiel, having capitulated, made herself more comfortable, and Lydia went to fetch her some water from the kitchen, keeping her in sight the whole time. Just in case.
"So it seems," she replied over her shoulder. "The Psijics say they want an Arch-Mage who's hardly ever there and knows nothing about magic. They think that will work better."
"Hm," Lethiel said. "Better for them maybe. And you can bet the Thalmor will be sending along another Ancano as soon as they can. I really ought to be there."
"Well, you aren't. You're here. Getting well. Tolfdir can deal with anything that comes up. You should have given him the job."
"No, he's another like Aren. Cares more about magic than about what's going on in the world, and thinks that's okay." Lethiel accepted a goblet of water and drank thirstily. "Oh, that feels good going down. How long have I been away?"
"A couple of days. And, as I said, you're not back yet. Rest, lots of water and--"
"I get it, I get it, the horse is dead. It is an ex-horse. It has ceased to be." Lethiel frowned. "Why did I say that? Doesn't matter. So what's everyone else doing?"
"Sigrid and Amarie are off building Blackthorn. I know you wanted to be involved, but they were climbing the walls and I needed to give them something to do. Erin and Anja have gone hunting, whether for deer or bandits I wasn't quite sure. Rowan's--I'm not sure where she or Sienna are." Lydia went to the window and peered out. "Their horses are gone too. Damn it, they should have told me where they were going. How am I supposed to keep them all safe if they keep wandering off?"
Lethiel was smiling again. "I'm sure they'll be fine as long as they stay together. So, no new jobs. Good."
"Definitely no new jobs. I was thinking of putting up a CLOSED sign." Lydia took Lethiel's hand. "Everything important will wait for you. I promise."
There was a knock at the door. Lethiel flinched slightly, and Lydia tutted. "Probably some well-wishers. You're very popular round here. I'll get it."
She opened the door, and looked into three grotesque wooden masks. Behind them a flame atronach twirled lazily in mid-air.
"Good morning," said a voice from behind one of the masks. "Have you heard the good news about our lord and saviour Miraak?”
Before Lydia could do more than begin to form the phrase "Not today, thank you," one of the robed and masked figures stiffened, gurgled and collapsed with an arrow in its back, and almost immediately the atronach shuddered, stiffened in its turn and, all grace gone, fell like a plank to the ground. Lydia just managed to get the door shut before it exploded.
When she opened it again, it was to see that the decking and the door were extensively scorched, as was the body of another of the peculiar visitors who hadn't moved fast enough. The remaining masked figure was a little way off, sending spell after spell at Anja and Erin, who were on the drive and responding with arrows.
"What's going on?" Lethiel called fretfully from within.
"Old trouble," Lydia called back. "Cold callers."
"Tell them I've already got one," was the response.
The final masked figure fell, pierced by at least five arrows that Lydia could see. Anja must have been learning from Erin. The two hunters went to examine the body, then turned and loped up the drive towards the house.
"Hi," Anja said. "We saw this bunch heading towards the house and we followed them a little way and listened. Apparently they worship this person Miraak, who they believe is the true Dragonborn, and who sent them to kill ours. We thought we had better express our disagreement."
"Could you have done it before they turned up on the doorstep?" Lydia demanded.
"I couldn't get a clear shot," Anja confessed sullenly.
"And I couldn't get her to stop trying and let me take care of it," Erin said. Anja glared at her.
"So where is this Miraak person?" Lydia said.
"Solstheim," Erin said. "It's an island off east somewhere, more like Morrowind than Skyrim. Lots of Dunmer, lots of ash, weird place, by all accounts."
"Fantastic," Lydia muttered. "Something else to chase."
"I swear," came from the inner room, "if somebody does not come in here in thirty seconds and tell me exactly what's been happening--"
Lydia, who had been expecting Lethiel to charge out and join the battle at any second, hurried through, followed by the others, and brought the Dragonborn up to date.
"Odd," Lethiel mused. "I was almost...expecting something like that...but I don't know why. Never mind. I expect it will take them a while to get another squad together, so I can complete my convalescence in relative peace. How did the hunting go?"
"Quite a lot of venison and some loot as well," Erin said. "It's all still on the horses, but we'll bring them in and unload them right away."
"I don't suppose Rowan and Sienna mentioned to you where they were going before they took off?" Lydia said casually.
"Oh, yes," Erin said, snapping her fingers. "I was supposed to tell you, but I forgot. They went off to Winterhold to ask about an Elder Scroll."
Nobody spoke for a moment.
"Everything important will wait for me, eh?" Lethiel said to Lydia.
And what do they plan to do with it when they get it? If they get it?" Lethiel went on.
"Bring it back here," Erin said promptly.
"They won't even get into the College," Lydia said. "It's a stupid waste of time. I'll rip them apart when they get back."
"No, don't do that," Lethiel said. "It was a helpful thought, and Rowan might well get in, being a mage. And hopefully, not being me, she might even get out again without getting lumbered with saving the damn world."
"Well," Lydia said, in a summing-up sort of way, "there's no sense worrying about it now, and especially not you worrying. Are you hungry? I am."
"Yes, yes," Lethiel said, waving this aside, "but this all just shows that I can't afford to frowst in bed like some invalid. I have Words to find and learn, and I can't delegate that to you be...cause..." Her words tailed off, and Lydia saw that Erin was holding up a piece of paper on which she had copied out a word in the dragon language. A strange hope burgeoned in her heart.
"You did it," she breathed.
"How did you do it?" Lethiel said. "I got that one. Clear as a bell."
"I may not be very focussed all the time," Erin said, "but I don't stop thinking about something till I find an answer, and this one was simple. You just have to understand what you're writing when you write it."
"Uh?" said Lethiel and Lydia in unison.
"You can't just copy the shapes, the way you and Sigrid did the first time. If it was just a matter of the shapes, you could learn a dragon word from the accidental formation of a...a snowberry bush or a line of trees or something. Know what you're writing, write it with the intent to communicate, and it's not just a row of shapes, it's a Word. And thanks to Master Arngeir's books, we can now copy down Words and know what we're doing."
"But how did you know which word was the Word?" Lydia said, aware that this sentence lacked something in clarity.
"Ah, that was a lucky guess," Erin said, "but we did narrow it down to two if you remember. I just picked the right one."
Lethiel leaned forward, grabbed Erin's hand and planted a kiss in the palm. "You're amazing," she said. "You're all amazing. And now I can relax."
"Because you're going to be sending us all out to scour Skyrim for word walls?" Lydia said.
"Not all of you, or at least not all at the same time," Lethiel said. "And not till those two truants get back from Winterhold. But yes, soon. We have so much to do.”
was Sigrid and Amarie who returned first, though, looking tired but triumphant.
"We did you a bang-up job," Sigrid said. "You'd be proud."
"You didn't have to rebuild the whole village on your own, did you?" Lethiel asked anxiously.
"Not for a moment," Sigrid said. "As soon as word got round, people came flooding back, and everyone pitched in and helped. Blackthorn has everything. A farm, a mine, even a bookshop."
"A bookshop?" Lethiel perked up at once.
"And the manor house is just waiting for you to move in."
"Move in?" Lethiel frowned. "I don't need anywhere else to live. I'm happy here."
"Okay, but try this scenario," Sigrid said. "You're over there, checking out maybe that interesting-looking Nordic ruin we spotted on the way back, and you just can't tear yourself away, so by the time you get out it's way after midnight. Now, would you rather ride all the way back here, or--"
Lethiel threw up her hands, laughing. "Sold," she said. "I suppose it would help to have a pied-à-terre on the other side of the mountain. It's not standing empty, is it?"
"No," Amarie said, "there's a very nice lady named Belle looking after it for you. And every business in town has promised you a share of its profits in perpetuity, so that's more money you don't have to loot out of tombs."
"Well done, both of you," Lethiel said. "And we've got news as well." She explained about Erin's discovery regarding the Words of Power. "So that's a load off my mind."
"Are you feeling better?" Sigrid asked.
"Much better, but Lady Kynareth here insists I stay in bed for another day or two, and I think she's probably right, damn it. And Rowan and Sienna have gone off to try to find this Elder Scroll that I apparently need, without telling me or Lydia, and I don't want to embark on anything else till we're all back together. So we're all on enforced downtime."
"Thank the Nine for that," Sigrid said. "I may not have had to do all the work, but I'm still pooped. And hungry."
"See what's in the kitchen," Lydia said. "We're running low on veggies, but there's plenty of venison thanks to Anja and Erin. I was thinking of going up to the farm," she added to Lethiel. "I should be able to get there and back before it gets dark."
"Sounds like a plan to me. I promise not to move unless the house is on fire, which since it stood up to a flame atronach exploding on the doorstep seems unlikely."
"A what?" Amarie said, and Lethiel began on an account (at second-hand, necessarily) of the visit of the masked cultists and what it might portend. Lydia busied herself getting ready for the journey. She didn't like leaving Lethiel, but on the other hand her Thane was not alone, and she trusted the other four to keep her safe.
As she passed the derelict cider house, she wondered if that too might represent a useful source of money. Lethiel seemed to have plenty already, but Lydia knew how quickly that could change. She spotted a sabre cat lurking among the apple trees, and spared the time to dispatch and strip the carcass. It might have gone on to terrorising the Battle-Borns' cows, not that they would think to say thank you even if they knew. In a warm glow of unsung virtue, Lydia cantered on.
Roggvold welcomed her to the farm and loaded up the Horse With No Name (as Lethiel had taken to calling it) with fruit and vegetables, milk and eggs and flour, and Strovar insisted on pressing a glass of mead on her from his first brewing. It was, naturally, a little young, but very flavourful and deceptively strong, and one glass was quite enough. The glow that suffused Lydia as she rode back up the road was of a different kind.
When the figure leapt out from behind a bush and attacked her, she was suddenly cold sober. It wore unusual form-fitting armour and wielded two swords with deadly skill, but Lydia had the advantage of height, being on horseback, and her dragon scale boots deflected the sword strokes easily. A few moments later it was over, and the would-be assassin lay dead on the verge.
Lydia dismounted, and searched the body efficiently. The note she found tucked into a pocket of the armour (which seemed not to be removable by any means she could find) made her stare blankly for nearly half a minute, while the horse snorted and stamped nervously nearby. Then she mounted and rode at speed for home.
Just one more damn thing, she thought.
"They thought you were me?" Lethiel said.
"That one did." Lydia flung herself into a chair beside the bed. "He obviously saw me ride out from here and just waited for me to come back. It's your name on the contract."
"Assassins," Lethiel said. "Why?"
"Again, it has to be the Thalmor," Lydia said, "though I didn't think they had any dealings with the Dark Brotherhood. Who else would want you dead, though? Everyone loves you."
"Relatives of someone I've killed? I won't be flavour of the month with them." Lethiel brooded for a moment. "Thank gods for dragon scale."
"Yes, well, I didn't get away completely unaffected." Lydia held up a slashed saddle bag. "All our potatoes are now strewn over the road. I didn't have anything else to put them in."
"We can manage without potatoes for a while. I couldn't manage without you." Lethiel held out her arms, and Lydia came to be hugged.
"Hello the house!" came a voice from the front door, closely followed by Rowan and Sienna.
"Hello, absconders," Lethiel called. "How did it go? Do you have the Scroll?"
"No," Sienna said disgustedly. "But we know where it is."
"Urag directed us to this batty old mage who lives in a cave out in the ice fields. He's got an old Dwemer artefact he wants to try to open, and he thinks the Scroll will help him." Rowan snorted derisively.
"I'm seeing a trend here, aren't you?" Lethiel said, glancing up sidelong at Lydia. "Mage encounters Dwemer stuff, mage goes off his chump. It happened in Mzulft, and again here."
"And that's where we came to a juddering halt," Sienna said, "because the Scroll is in an underground realm only accessible through a Dwemer ruin."
"And almost certainly heaving with Falmer," Rowan added. "And like I said, I do not do the Dwemer."
"Afraid of going nutters?" Sigrid crossed her eyes, stuck her tongue out and made "woo-woo" noises.
"You didn't see the guy." Rowan's seriousness abashed the other redhead. "He was Urag's friend, and one of the finest minds at the College. Now..." She shrugged. "Nothing left. It's kind of horrible."
"Well, something left," Lethiel suggested. "He presumably has a plan for getting to the Scroll."
"He gave us a sort of key to get us down to Blackreach--that's the name of the underground place--and what he called a lexicon, which will read the Scroll and store what it reads in a form he can use." Rowan looked up. "You do know reading an Elder Scroll will almost certainly send you blind?"
"I didn't, no," Lethiel said. "But since there isn't any other way to find this Shout, I've got to risk it. When," she added hastily as Lydia roused herself, "I'm all better."
"Well, here's some reading matter from Urag." Rowan reached into a pouch and produced two books which she laid on the bed. "The one on the bottom is by this guy we saw. If you can make sense of it, good luck to you, I can't. The other tells you what you can expect if you try to read the thing."
"Gosh, thanks," Lethiel said. "Good motivation there."
"I try." Rowan grinned.
"Well, we're all back," Lethiel said. "We should throw a party."
"A very quiet party," Lydia said.
"And tomorrow we plan.”
Two days later, Lydia pronounced Lethiel fit enough to leave her bed, much to everyone's relief, and as soon as possible thereafter two parties took to the road. Lethiel, Lydia and Erin were bound for Winterhold, and then for Alftand, the Dwemer settlement that would lead them to Blackreach and, hopefully, the Elder Scroll. Anja, Sienna and Rowan headed for Ivarstead and the barrow, armed with the sapphire dragon claw and the books furnished by Arngeir, in case there turned out to be a word wall down there. Sigrid and Amarie reluctantly stayed behind to "mind the store."
Lethiel made the opportunity, not long after they had set out, for a quiet word with Lydia.
"Why didn't you want Sigrid on this trip?" she said bluntly.
"I beg your pardon?" Lydia said, blushing furiously.
"Oh come on. You were practically jumping up and down and waving a placard, and when I settled on Erin the relief came off you in waves. Sigrid's not stupid, you know, she'll have picked up on it too. What are you trying to do?"
Lydia considered trying to bluff it out, but this was her Thane and she deserved the truth.
"I'm...attracted to her," she said, as if the words were being hauled up from her lowest depths on rusty chains. "I think she likes me as well."
"So far, so completely cuckoo," Lethiel commented drily. "You like her and she likes you, so you run a mile from the sight of her."
"I'm yours, my Thane," Lydia tried to explain. "I can't be for anyone else. I'm a simple and traditional woman."
"You keep saying that," Lethiel said, "but we both know you're far from simple. And what's tradition? Just what people do because they've always done it. We're not married, love. You don't have to be faithful if you don't want to be, and whether you want to want to be or not, if you see what I mean, you clearly want to be with Sigrid some of the time. And your fighting yourself over this is messing up my group dynamics."
"I'm sorry, Thane," Lydia mumbled.
"Never mind sorry. Sorry butters no parsnips. Sort it out. As soon as we get back from this junket, talk to the girl, arrive at whatever accommodation makes you both happy, and try not to get knotted up like this again, orright?"
Lydia couldn't repress a chuckle at Lethiel's assumed brusqueness. "Orright," she echoed.
"That's my girl," Lethiel said, and pulled her in for a kiss.
The journey to Winterhold was enlivened by the usual bears, wolves and occasional giant spiders, but no further assassin attacks. Lydia came to the conclusion that, failure not being an option with the Brotherhood, it would probably throw them into confusion when it happened, and they would need a while to recover.
Tolfdir, having been apprised of their imminent arrival, hurried to meet them at the gate of the College.
"Thank goodness you're here, Arch-Mage!" he said. "We have a situation."
"And a very charming one too," Lethiel said. "Sea views, handy for the shops...access a little tricky possibly, but..." Tolfdir was looking nonplussed. Lethiel relented. "What is it?"
"I'd best show you," Tolfdir said, and hurried away. Lethiel, Lydia and Erin followed.
"Greetings," said the tall, black-clad elf standing in the centre of the Arch-Mage's carpet, as soon as they entered. "My name is Girandor, and I shall be assuming the post of advisor to the Ark-Mage for the Aldmeri Dominion, following the recent regrettable accident to my predecessor."
"Oh, really?" Lethiel murmured.
"Furthermore," Girandor continued smoothly, "since I understand from my sources that the Ark-Mage's duties frequently demand her absence from the College, and since the previous Ark-Mage's deputy sadly perished in the same unfortunate accident, I have been authorised by my government to offer my services in the latter role and to lift from your shoulders the administrative burden of the day-to-day running of the College. I feel personally that this will result in a more streamlined and efficient service, and transform this moribund and decadent institution into a centre of excellence for the thaumaturgic arts."
"I just bet you do," Lydia said softly.
"I have," the elf went on, producing some papers from within his black robes, "carried out a preliminary survey of the College's assets with a view to a long-term programme of rationalisation and cost-cutting. I'm sure the Ark-Mage will concur that our primary duty is to provide a competitive service informed by--"
"I think that's enough of all that," Lethiel said sharply, and Girandor, startled, fell silent. "Now it's my turn. While I appreciate the generosity of the Aldmeri Dominion in finding a surplus idiot to unload on us, I have to inform you that the post of Thalmor Spy has been abolished, or shall we say rationalised, and that your services will therefore not be required, nor will your preliminary survey. As for my deputy...Mirabelle?"
There was a flash of purple light, and a petite, compactly built woman appeared from nowhere, slightly insubstantial and glowing. "Can I help you, Arch-Mage?"
"How did you die, Mirabelle?"
"I was murdered by the Thalmor Ancano, in his attempt to seize control of the artefact known as the Eye of Magnus."
"Necromancy," Girandor hissed. "May I remind you that under the terms of the White-Gold Concordat--"
"The White-Gold Concordat says nothing about necromancy one way or the other," Mirabelle Ervine said calmly. "And in any case, this is nothing of the kind."
"Ancano," Lethiel said, walking up to Girandor and overtopping him by half a head, "was a murdering, filthy, evil-hearted swine. You aren't even good enough to be that. Go. Home. Oh, and by the way," she leaned into his face, "it's Ar*ch*-Mage. Ch. Ch. Ch. Ch." She grinned. "Changes. Get used to them. Tolfdir, call some guards and get this rubbish off the premises." She leaned in even closer and kissed Girandor on the nose. "Before I feel the urge to raise my Voice."
"You have not heard the last of this," Girandor promised, as he swept towards the stairs. "My government will be communicating with the Emperor. You will be removed from--" The closing door cut off his words.
Tolfdir was looking troubled. "I must say I admire your courage, Arch-Mage, but this action might have unfortunate consequences. The Thalmor--"
"If the Thalmor want to start up the war again," Lethiel said, "then making any kind of overtly offensive move against this College would be an excellent way to start. But I don't think they do. I think the end of the war came just in time for them as it did for the Empire, and they were as glad of the White-Gold Piece of Paper as we were. And that's why they're creeping around now, covertly stirring up trouble and undermining things. I didn't tell you," she went on, turning to Lydia, "everything I found in the Thalmor Embassy, and I don't have it with me, but there's some information in my possession that could blow the lid off this whole civil war and bring the Empire and the Stormcloaks together against the true common enemy." She jerked a thumb in the direction of the departed elf. "Only I can't do anything with it till I'm in a better position. The Thalmor won't be back here, Tolfdir, at least not wearing their own clothes. We'll need to be vigilant about any new arrivals from now on."
"Of course, Arch-Mage," the old wizard said.
"Thank you, Mirabelle," Lethiel said, turning to the ghost.
"My pleasure, my dear," Mirabelle said. "I only wish I could do more." She blew Lethiel a kiss and faded out.
Erin was wandering around, admiring the place. "Swanky," she commented, reaching for a glowing purple orb on a desk. "What does this do?"
"I don't know yet." Lethiel dived and caught her arm before she could touch it. "I haven't been here before, remember? Not as proprietor anyway." She took a deep breath and ran her hands through her hair. "Tolfdir, we'd better have a long talk about what needs doing around here. We'll stay tonight and then head for Alftand in the morning. I know it's not your job, but could you organise some food? Lydia, Erin, find some way to amuse yourselves, but don't touch anything that looks magical till I've figured out what it is."
"Alftand?" Tolfdir said, sounding concerned.
"Long story," Lethiel said. "Why, is there something I should know?"
"Only that an archaeological expedition was lost there a little while ago. They went in, but didn't come out. Dwemer ruins are dangerous places, Arch-Mage. If I were you I would be disinclined to risk--"
"Risk is my business," Lethiel said easily. "Don't worry, my friend. It's just something I have to do."
Tolfdir nodded, but his brow was furrowed as he left them.
At a loose end, Lydia and Erin descended to the library, or Arcanaeum as it apparently called itself, where Urag the librarian, a fearsome-looking old orc, was trying not to be in an argument with a shrill middle-aged woman who manifestly felt herself hard done by in ways that did not clearly emerge from her discourse. Lydia stooped to pick up a book that was lying on the floor, and immediately felt eyes boring into her back from behind the big desk. She replaced the book in its exact former position, and the two of them went down two further flights of stairs and out into the courtyard.
"This armour is amazing," Erin said, wriggling comfortably within it. "In my old gear I used to feel the cold like all the time." It was a clear day, and the sun was shining, striking cold fire from the drifted snow, but the wind was bitter from the north.
"You get used to it." Privately, Lydia could believe what Erin had said, considering the amount of bare skin her former attire had left uncovered. It was true, though, that in the dragon scale one could be as warm as toast no matter how chilly the weather outside.
They walked round the outside of the courtyard, then out on to the improbably floating bridge, and gazed out over the landscape.
"I heard some of what you and the Dragonborn were talking about," Erin said unexpectedly.
"Sigrid's a lovely woman." Erin looked artlessly down at her feet.
"So are you," Lydia said, and meant it.
"Do you think so?" Erin's sudden glance was wary but tinged with a feeling Lydia didn't want to identify. She had never before had this kind of problem. Growing up in the jarl's court, conversations had just been...talk. You chatted, you laughed, you swapped insults, it was easy. Now, every conversation she had seemed to be about people's feelings, and it was a field of tall grass strewn with bear traps.
"You're very attractive," she said, "but it really isn't my place to say so."
"I..." Erin's voice trailed away, and they stood in silence, gazing out over the landscape. "Have you ever seen the Shrine of Azura?" she went on, inconsequently.
"I never went out of Whiterun hold till I met the Dragonborn," Lydia confessed. "I've heard about it though. That's it over there, isn't it?"
"Mm-hm." The colossal figure, arms outstretched, was plainly visible through the clear air. Nobody, Lydia thought, had ever built anything that size for Talos.
"Do you think the Dragonborn likes me?" Erin asked, in a rush.
Lydia stared at her. "Of course she does," she said at last.
"No, I mean...'likes me' likes me?"
"Look, Erin," Lydia said wearily, "it's really not my place to say."
"I know you two have a thing--" Erin began, but Lydia overrode her.
"If you like someone, and you want to know if that person likes you, that's between you and them. It's nothing to do with me, and to be honest, I'd much rather not know. I'm--" Lydia caught herself before saying it yet again. "I'm not judging anybody. I do...I do love Lethiel, and I believe she loves me, but she's her own woman and she does seem to be open to having other relationships. Ask her. The worst she can say is 'no.' Just be sure," she added, "that you really want to risk changing things before you speak to her. It's all about--" Lethiel's phrase recurred to her, and she seized on it gratefully. "It's all about group dynamics. We're a good team right now, and I'd hate for that to be spoiled."
Erin considered this long speech for a full minute, and Lydia waited on tenterhooks. Then she sighed and nodded.
"You're right of course. I don't want to ruin anything."
Lydia breathed out.
"I'll pass it on to Sigrid," Erin added. "I'm sure she'll appreciate your advice.”
I hate these things," Erin panted as they pushed open a door and ran down a ramp.
"Watch it, tripwire," Lethiel warned. They skirted the trap.
"The Falmer, the machines, or what?" Lydia asked.
"All of it," Erin said, "but mainly the Falmer. They're just so...so..."
"Pathetic?" Lethiel said.
"That, and horrible at the same time. You feel sorry for them and you have to kill them."
"If you were better at keeping quiet," Lydia began, and then stopped herself. "No, sorry, that's not fair."
"Yeah, it is. I'm okay for hunting, but these things can pick up the air moving around you. I need more practice."
"I'll teach you. When we get home." Lethiel peered round the corner, brought up her sword and took off the head of a Falmer as it crept round the corner. "I wonder why they always have money?" she mused, looting the body. "You don't often see them in shops. And it can't be because it's shiny."
"Maybe they like the clink," Lydia suggested.
"Maybe. Okay, absolute quiet now." Lethiel eased open the door that lay beyond the trap, and they looked out into a large open space.
Lethiel and Erin took out the two Falmer with an arrow apiece, and Lydia spotted and shot the spider lurking in the shadow of the steps ahead of them, which were blocked off by a row of spears.
"There must be a way through that. Look for a lever, something like that." Lethiel went to explore the three Falmer dwellings and loot the bodies, and Lydia and Erin did as bid.
"About Sigrid," Lydia began.
"Maybe later?" Erin said. "This isn't really the time."
Lydia subsided, and almost at once they found the lever and operated it, and the spears sank into the ground with a silken sound.
Of the two gleaming automata at the top of the first flight of stairs, one was already lying inert half out of its frame. The other ground into life as they approached, emitting dense clouds of steam. Lethiel had got an arrow ready, and Lydia and Erin did likewise; they all fired simultaneously, and the huge mechanism crashed to the ground.
"You'd think after all this time they'd boil dry," Lethiel said.
"Two dead bodies up here," Erin called from the top of the second flight, "and a thing."
"What kind of thing?" Lethiel called.
"A machine kind of thing."
"Very informative," Lydia grumbled.
Looting the area took some time, as did finding the lift that would take them back to the surface, but at last it was done, and Lethiel took the sphere that Rowan had given her and inserted it into the machine kind of thing. The floor around it dropped away in stages, revealing steps that led downwards.
"This way to Blackreach," said Lethiel wryly. "Shall we?”
The three figures standing on the stone walkway, regarding what could only be the Tower of Mzark as it ascended into and joined with the stone ceiling of Blackreach, might have been thought by an observer to be somewhat subdued, given the lengths to which they had gone to get here. This was, in part, due to the fact that they were, all three, liberally covered in a pungent-smelling, corrosive green slime.
"I hate those things worse than Falmer," Erin said.
"I'm with you," Lydia said, trying unsuccessfully to wipe her slimy face with a slimy hand.
Lethiel, who had tried to wash the stuff off in the water of Blackreach, and found that it wouldn't, said nothing for a moment. Then, with a deep breath--
"Let's get this over with," she said, and they advanced on the tower.
It was with a sense almost of anticlimax that they emerged, still green and slimy, on to the surface, with the Elder Scroll clutched in Erin's arms.
"I don't suppose for a moment," Lethiel said, "that we are now anywhere near Alftand and our horses?"
"I don't know," Lydia said. Experimentally she whistled, and seemed to hear an answering whinny from somewhere afar off.
"I don't want to get on my horse till I've got this stuff off me," Erin said. "It's itching me badly enough, what it would do to the poor horse I don't want to think."
"Good point." Lethiel thought for a moment, looking around. "Damn it, we could be anywhere in Skyrim."
Lydia gazed around her, turned in a complete circle, and laughed. "We could, but I know exactly where we are."
"I thought you'd never been out of Whiterun hold," Erin said.
"But this is Whiterun hold, or very nearly," Lydia said, still laughing. "Over there is Stonehill Bluff, over there are the Weynon Stones, and I think just over there--" She pointed. "Is the farm we built."
"Which means home's just a hop, skip and a jump away. Well done, Lydia. And here come the horses." As Lethiel spoke, Lydia's horse appeared round an outcrop of rock, leading the other two sedately behind him. "We'll walk them home," Lethiel said, taking Onyx's rein.
And so, by slow degrees, they returned to the estate, where Drake and Zeus stripped their armour from them and took it to be cleaned, and Lethiel, Lydia and Erin shared a hot and thoroughly satisfying bath and cleaned the filth from their skin and hair. And that night, Lethiel slept in her own bed, and Lydia with her, and for the first time in a long while, all was well with the world.
Next morning, the three of them set off to rendezvous with Rowan, Sienna and Anja in Ivarstead. Lethiel, the Elder Scroll on her back, was oddly subdued, almost taciturn, and Lydia felt a sharp pang of concern. Had the recovery been too quick? Had Arcadia been wrong? She firmly repressed such thoughts.
Once more they rounded the huge skirts of the mountain and took the precipitous path over its knees to the village where the Seven Thousand Steps began, and there they met their companions, lounging against the wall of the inn.
"How did it go?" Lydia called.
"Great," Rowan responded. "No dragons, no priests, but we did get you a word. KAAN. It means Kyne, apparently." She held out the piece of paper in her hand, and Lethiel took it and regarded it steadily for a long time.
"This is working," she said. "Well done you." Then she turned. "You can come out now," she called, and to general surprise Sigrid emerged from cover on the other side of the bridge and came towards them.
"I'm sorry," she said, not sounding sorry at all, "but you don't need two of us to mind the store, and I was not going to be left behind twice in a row."
"If I'd wanted you to stay behind," Lethiel said, "I would have sent you home when I first spotted you. I'm glad you're here. I'm glad you're all here."
"Why?" Again a chill gripped Lydia's heart.
Lethiel looked down, spoke very quietly. "Well, it's just that...I've got to go up there and read this thing, in this special place, and I...I really don't know what's going to happen. I know," she glanced up at Lydia, "I know, in my head, I've done it before, but by now I can't remember any of that any more. Sometimes I don't even believe it. And this...this is kind of scaring me just a little." Her voice had got very small. "I don't want to go blind, or go mad, or anything. And in case I do...I want you all there. As many of you as I can get." She swallowed. "So you can do what's necessary."
Sigrid gasped. "You mean--"
"No way," Anja said harshly, but Lydia silenced them all with a chopping gesture.
"We'll do whatever needs doing," she said, "and we'll be with you all the way. Won't we?" Her glance raked the group, and one by one they lowered their heads and mumbled assent.
"Thank you," Lethiel's eyes were bright, as she hugged them each in turn, saving Lydia for last. Then she sniffed, wiped her nose on her glove, took a deep breath and summoned up a smile. "Here we go, then," she said. "Top of the world.”
--DREM YOL LOK, Paarthurnax said. Greetings.
Lydia stared up at the huge muzzle pointing straight at her, remembering the last time she had been in this position, expecting to die the next moment. Part of her mind was thinking, Peace Fire Sky? What kind of a greeting is that?
"I have the Elder Scroll," Lethiel said.
--And you have brought a lahvu, an army, to my home. Why is this?
"To bear witness, and to watch over me," Lethiel said steadily. "They are my fahdonne. Friends."
The old dragon made a peculiar sound, which Lydia only after a moment interpreted as laughter. Lydia had never heard a voice so deep. Even an orc couldn't manage that level of rumble.
--I know what the word means, he said. You do not have to mimic my bad habits. But there is no time for this. You must read the Elder Scroll at the Time-Wound, quickly.
Lethiel nodded, and moved to a position halfway between the broken word wall and the rock on which Paarthurnax was perching. She closed her eyes for a moment, then unlimbered the Scroll from her back, brought it up before her eyes, and pulled it open.
A moment later it fell from her hands as they opened convulsively, and she stood in the middle of a sort of eddy in space, the snow swirling about her in a way that did not match the surroundings. Her eyes rolled up in her head till only the whites were showing, and her mouth opened in a silent scream.
Rowan scrambled forward and gathered up the Scroll, rolling it up without looking at it. Lydia started towards Lethiel.
--Saraan, Parthurnax said. Wait. Let it run its course. You will be needed soon.
Time seemed to stretch out, there on the mountain top, as they watched the Dragonborn's agony. The wind seemed to carry to Lydia's ears the echoing shouts of long dead voices, the sounds of a battle long buried in the past. The ancient dragon watched, his breath coming hard, moving his entire body.
Then Lethiel gasped, and fell forward, and the moment was gone. Lydia caught her and steadied her, and her eyes returned to normal.
"Can you still see?" Lydia demanded.
Lethiel nodded. "I'm obviously too dim for the Scroll to affect me."
--Hi lost ni tiid, Paarthurnax said. You must prepare! Alduin bo!
Lydia looked up, saw a black shape blotting out the sun, heard another impossibly deep voice mouthing words in the dragon language. She felt rather than heard Lethiel drawing a deep breath and had just enough presence of mind to throw herself clear.
"JOOR ZAH FRUL!”
For a very long time, after Alduin had flapped away eastward, the small group of figures disposed around the mountain top stood, knelt, sagged or lay where they were without moving. Paarthurnax, having seen off his brother, returned to his habitual perch atop the word wall and regarded them solemnly.
Eventually, one of them drew a ragged breath and addressed him, in a voice made raw by tears and effort.
"Could you...perhaps....have mentioned...beforehand...that we would be wasting....our bloody time?"
A growl of assent from the others greeted Lethiel's words. Lydia, on hands and knees, could not even manage that.
--Krosis, Paarthurnax said. No. I did not know. I hoped this time you might succeed. But this time was not folaas sovaan, wasted.
He went on talking, but Lydia was too weary to listen. Seven of us, she thought. Seven of us, pounding on him with everything we had. Even by dragon standards he should have died at least three times. If he can't be killed, what chance have we? What point is there to any of this?
She pulled herself to her feet, picked up her sword where it had fallen, and went to see to the others. Erin, badly burned in the first attack, was fumbling for a healing potion that wasn't there; Lydia found one and put it into her hands. Anja was beating at the rock of the mountain with her fists, sobbing softly to herself. No-one was in any better state, and that, Lydia thought, included her Thane, even though she was putting up a good show.
A word caught her ear. "Wait, what?" she said.
Lethiel turned to her. "Apparently it's exactly as Esbern said. When he's not here, or caught up in the time-winds, Alduin goes off to Sovngarde and eats the souls of the dead. Now he's free again, that's probably where he's gone, to recover from the wounds we apparently inflicted on him."
The souls of the dead. The words rang through Lydia's head with a terrible brazen clangour. Even Sovngarde was no refuge from this enemy.
"But he can be killed there?" She had to look to see who had spoken. It was Anja, standing upright, fists clenched.
"So Paarthurnax says," Lethiel said.
"Well, then, the answer's simple," Anja said. "Kill me."
"What?" Lethiel said.
"Kill me," Anja repeated, chin thrust forward. "I'm a good Nord warrior. I serve the Nine. Kill me in battle, and Shor will take me to Sovngarde, and I can kill Alduin there. It's the only way."
"Quite apart from anything else, Anja," Lethiel said, "why you?"
"I'm the weak link in this group." The dark girl was fighting with tears as fiercely as she had fought with the black dragon minutes ago. "I'm no good at magic, or reading, or thinking about things. You can do without me. But I can kill things, and if Alduin can be killed in Sovngarde I can kill him. Please." Anja's whole body was rigid. "My mother and father are there, and their mothers and fathers, all my family. I have to save them. Kill me." Her sword was in her hands. "Are you scared?"
Lethiel put up her hands, and walked forward. "Anja," she said. "Darling. Think about this. Do you really think, in Sovngarde, they're short of brave Nord warriors?"
--Your courage is strong, Paarthurnax said, but without the Dragonrend Shout you would be sahlo, powerless. Alduin cannot be killed when in the air. Only when he must touch the Golt, ground, is he vulnerable. You saw that today.
"He didn't look very vulnerable to me," Sienna muttered.
Lethiel had taken Anja in her arms, and both were weeping. Lydia turned to the dragon. "So what can we do? I can tell you right now nobody is killing the Dragonborn."
--There is no need. Alduin goes to Sovngarde nahl, living. Therefore the Dovahkiin can do the same.
"Do you know the way?"
--No. Krosis. Alduin has not confided in me. But one of the dov who support him might.
Lydia turned and saw that it was Sigrid who had spoken. She had been badly injured, but healing potions had done their magic, as it were, and now she was on her feet, bracing herself against the edge of the word wall. Lydia went to her as Lethiel and Paarthurnax talked on.
"What is it?" she said. "How can I help?"
Sigrid seized her by one of the spikes on her armour and pulled her in close. "Right now," she said, voice low and rough with pain and need, "you can kiss me. And when we get home, you can share my bed. I could have died today without ever knowing you and I am not going to let my shyness and your--I don't know, your pride or whatever it is--get in the way any longer. I love you, Lydia, and I know you love me, and this is happening right now, okay?"
Lydia had barely time to utter the first syllable of "okay" before Sigrid was kissing her.
They rode home slowly, each apparently lost in their own thoughts. To an outside observer they would have seemed perfectly hale if weary, but to Lydia, glancing from rider to rider as she brought up the rear, the wounds that might never truly heal were as glaringly obvious as if they had been spouting fresh blood. A dragon, given time, could shrug off the effect of the Dragonrend Shout and be as he had been. Mortals, for whom deathlessness was merely an illusion of youth, had no such luxury. Every one of them had known, today, what it was to be up against an enemy that could not be defeated. Every one of them now knew mortality, and it would change them, one way or another.
Lethiel dropped back to ride alongside her.
"Do you think they'll ever forgive me?" she said quietly.
"What?" Lydia was startled out of her own dark thoughts.
"I could have done it on my own," Lethiel said. "I could have gone up there alone and done just as much good, or as little. But I was weak and scared, and I dragged you all along with me and put you through...that. Will they forgive me? Can *you* forgive me?" Her eyes met Lydia's, and there was anxiety and dismay in them.
"My Thane," Lydia said firmly, "there's nothing to forgive. You are the Dragonborn. We're your poops."
Lethiel looked startled for a moment, then a chuckle broke through her concern. "Peeps," she said, "or troops. Not both."
Lydia, having achieved the desired effect, went on. "Whatever the foe, whatever the field, together we stand to triumph or fall. That's just how it is. You heard Anja. There isn't one of us who wouldn't take this burden from you if we could, and since we can't, we'll take it very unkindly if you don't let us share as much of it as we can."
Lethiel was laughing now as well as crying. "Yes, but that's because you're an amazingly, gobsmackingly wonderful bunch of lunatics and dearer to me than gold," she said. She reached out for Lydia, and nearly overbalanced; Onyx made a disapproving noise. "Ah," Lethiel went on. "Never try to hug when riding two separate horses."
"Good rule of thumb," Lydia agreed soberly.
They reached the estate in darkness, and Amarie was waiting at the door.
"We heard the dragon cries all across the valley," she said. "What happened? And what happened to you?" she added pointedly to Sigrid.
They took it in turns to bring the elf up to speed, while they unloaded the gear and loot and tended to the horses. Then they went inside, and there was firelight and food and mead, and gradually the tension eased out of those who had fought at the Throat of the World.
And when it came to be time for bed, Lethiel led Lydia and Sigrid to her own room, gestured at the big luxurious bed, and quietly left the room, closing the door behind her.
The sun rose the next morning on a house full of young women all moving like octogenarian cripples. Amarie, the only exception, brightly suggested a brisk workout to relieve the stiffened muscles, a suggestion received with much grumbling but reluctant acquiescence; and indeed this treatment, carried out in the large basement room where the forge and other smithing equipment lay, was more or less efficacious in all cases.
After lunch, Lethiel gathered them all together in the inner room on the ground floor.
"First of all," she said, "there aren't enough thanks in the world for what you did for me up there on the mountain. It was truly above and beyond anything I should have asked of you. Thank you.
"Now, I know that some of you are concerned about what Alduin is apparently doing in Sovngarde, and feel, quite understandably, that we need to stop him as soon as possible. Which makes what I'm about to say very difficult for me, and probably just as difficult for you to hear, but it's this.
"I'm not strong enough yet to take him on.
"Even in Sovngarde, where he's supposedly vulnerable, and even with Dragonrend, I don't think I can take him on my own. And I have a strong feeling that I'm going to have to...that I'm not going to be able to take any of you with me."
She waited for the brief murmur of conversation to subside.
"I have been doing some thinking, and some reading, and while we don't have much reliable information about Sovngarde, the consensus seems to be that there's no actual time there, just an unending day--or night--under a changeless sky. I think it's very possible then that when I finally destroy Alduin--which I will--the souls he has eaten will be released, exactly as they were. I hope that's true anyway, because I am, I'm afraid, going to hold off on going to Sovngarde till I have gained considerably more experience and ability. There's no point in my going if I'm just going to lose, after all."
A thoughtful silence greeted this speech. Lethiel looked from one face to the other, in growing anxiety.
Anja spoke up. "How will you know when you're strong enough? Seems to me you can't. You could put the thing off forever if you wanted to--not that I think you do," she added hastily, "just that you'll never be able to be certain till you go and try it."
"Suppose you die before you get strong enough?" Rowan said. "What will we do then?"
"You do a thing when it needs doing," Anja said, "and when it needs doing is always now. Okay, so maybe when you kill Alduin the souls he's eaten will be set free...but what's happening to them in the meantime? I don't like this. I think we should go ahead now and risk it."
"Risk it?" Erin said. "Risk the Dragonborn going to Sovngarde and getting killed for no reason? How is that different from her dying before she's strong enough? I'm with her, and before you ask, I've got family in Sovngarde as well." She spoke to Lethiel. "Take all the time you need, Dragonborn. We'll back you up."
"This is just giving Alduin time to get even stronger," Sienna protested. "It's a race you can't win. The stronger you get, the stronger he gets, and you'll never catch up."
"Not necessarily." Amarie joined in. "If the Dragonborn is right and there's no time in this Sovngarde place, assuming it even exists--"
"Assuming it exists!" Anja exploded. "Damn your elf arrogance!"
"I'm merely saying--"
"Let the elf speak," Rowan said loudly.
"Why?" Sienna retorted.
"QUIET!!!" Lydia roared.
Lydia turned to her Thane. "Go on," she said.
"I'd finished," Lethiel said in a small voice.
"Then it's my turn," Lydia said, and addressed the company as a whole. "The Dragonborn has just told you what she intends to do. It's her decision, not yours, and if you don't believe she is fully aware of the urgency of the situation, then you can't have been paying much attention. Many of us have got family in Sovngarde, but think about this; it's not simply Sovngarde that's in danger. Alduin's ultimate intention is to destroy this entire world. Go to Sky Haven Temple and talk to Esbern if you don't believe me. If she's going to take on a being capable of doing that, then I say the Dragonborn has to be the best she can be, and whatever that takes, however long it takes, it's our job and our duty--and it should be our privilege--to support her in every possible way. Am I right?"
"You're right," Erin and Sigrid said in unison, and one by one the others nodded or muttered assent.
"Good," Lydia said. "Over to you, Thane."
Lethiel nodded, swallowed and carried on. "Now, the first step in getting me there is going to be to catch a dragon and interrogate it, and for that I'm going to need the help of Jarl Balgruuf, whose castle is a dragon trap. This is not going to be easy to get, and he might well throw me out on my ear, Thane or not. So my first plan is going to be to acquire some more political clout in Skyrim, while avoiding taking any side in this stupid civil war. At the same time I'll be learning as many more Shouts as I can and trying to increase my ability to use them, so I'll also be spending more time in High Hrothgar and up on the Throat meditating with Paarthurnax, who says I can increase the power of my Shouts that way. Okay?"
More muttered agreement.
"I know some of you aren't happy," Lethiel went on, "and I'm sorry about that, but I promise you that I will know when I'm strong enough to do this and that at that point I will go straight away and do it. In the meantime, if any of you feel unable to carry on supporting me, I understand. You can leave, or stay, and nobody will judge you in any way, least of all me."
Lydia deliberately looked away, and there was a pause.
Then Anja spoke. "Hell, what do I know. All right, I'm in."
"Me too," said Rowan, and Sienna nodded. One by one they all assented, and somehow it turned into a pledge of loyalty, with hands on hands and Lydia's hand on top.
Lethiel gulped again and took a breath. "I've already said thank you," she said, "but thank you again. I won't let you down."
"We know that," Erin said. "And neither will we.”
It was time, Lethiel proclaimed, to get organised. There were eight of them in all, which worked out nicely as four teams of two. One team would always be left at home, while two teams went out looking for Words of Power or other necessary things. The fourth team, consisting of Lethiel herself and Lydia, were to embark on what Lethiel inexplicably called a "whistle-stop" tour of all the nine holds of Skyrim, establishing the Dragonborn's presence, gathering political and popular support, and if possible doing a bit of good in the process.
The tour would begin in Solitude. This was to some extent at Lydia's insistence, since she had never seen that far-off and glamorous city. Lethiel had visited briefly, during the affair of the party at the Thalmor Embassy, but had seen very little of the place, beyond a rather distressing public execution that had coincided with her arrival. Anja and Erin were directed to investigate the Nordic ruin Sigrid had found near Blackthorn, and Sigrid herself and Amarie volunteered to look into a couple of bandit camps near Whiterun which Anja and Erin had spotted on the day of the cultists' visit, but had not had time to investigate in full. Sienna and Rowan were thus elected to stay at home till one of the other groups returned. If Sigrid was displeased at thus being parted so soon from Lydia, she did not show it.
The Dragonborn and her housecarl, therefore, rode in style to Solitude in Bjorlam's carriage, which was fortunate as it was a day of heavy rain and the carriage was a covered one. Conversation was difficult, what with the rain drumming ceaselessly on the canvas, and the two sat in companionable silence for most of the journey. At a place called (so Bjorlam said) Robber's Gorge, there was an attempt to stop the carriage, and Lethiel and Lydia took the opportunity for a little exercise which resulted in their re-entering the conveyance somewhat more heavily laden than they had been on leaving it. They did, however, take the trouble to move the bodies out of Bjorlam's path before boarding.
"They ought to call it something different," Lethiel said.
"Law-Abiding Citizen's Gorge," Lydia suggested.
Bjorlam, hearing the shrieks of laughter from behind him, shook his head, shrugged and urged the horse onward.
The ride terminated at the foot of a daunting slope up which the road ran straight to the gate of the town. Houses and shops lined each side of it, and intermediary gates ensured that no attacking force could approach unobserved by guards. Lethiel and Lydia slogged up the hill, ignored the guard who seemed to regard them as potential new recruits, and entered Solitude.
They walked the crowded streets, staring about with unabashed interest. A richly-dressed Altmer, carrying, incongruously, a pile of logs, audibly sniffed and drew aside from them; Lydia, showing perhaps a regrettable deterioration in her manners resulting from association with her Thane, stuck out her tongue at the elf's retreating back.
"You should see me when you get bored, stranger," hissed an Argonian lounging against a wall.
"Why?" Lethiel said. "Do you do something interesting?"
"The important thing," Lydia said, as they passed the Hall of the Dead, "is to stay focussed. We're here for a specific reason, to get a specific job done, and that's what we're going to do. Now, I'm sure there'll be lots of people like that Argonian, wanting you to do this job or that, but those are side issues, and we can come back to them another time if you want to. There's no obligation on you to help every single body who comes to you with some hard-luck story. You see them everywhere, everyone wants the Dragonborn to find their lost sword or rescue a cat from a tree or deliver something to somebody, and it always ends up getting complicated and taking time. I know you're into this personal development thing at the moment, and I respect that, but at the same time we have to consider--"
Lydia broke off. She had, while speaking, passed through a set of double doors and climbed a curving staircase, and she was now being looked at by, from left to right, a traditional-looking Nord in steel plate armour, a ravishingly beautiful woman in regal garb, a robed and hooded mage, a big man with a full red beard, an unprepossessing man in a fur-trimmed tunic and a sharp-featured woman likewise dressed. Further investigation revealed that she was short one Thane.
"Uh--um--excuse me," she babbled, and hurtled down the stairs again and out of the doors.
"Where's the woman who was with me?" she demanded of the pot-helmed guard outside.
"Wasn't no-one with you," the guard stated impassively.
"Then who did you think I was talking to?" Lydia yelled.
"Ain't none of my business," the guard retorted. "Lots of mad folk come here. Some of 'em live here too. Me, I just guard the door."
About to tear the guard's head off and drop-kick it over the wall of the Blue Palace, Lydia relaxed at the sound of running feet, and turned round as her Thane rejoined her.
"I've enrolled in the Bards' College," Lethiel said happily. "What are you doing still out here?”
After some negotiation, it was agreed that for the Dragonborn to enter the presence of the Jarl of Solitude being dragged by one ear would not perhaps set quite the right tone for the meeting, and Lydia contented herself with staying just behind her Thane where she could keep her in sight. There remained some small matters to be thrashed out, however, and the negotiations continued in furious undertones till they had almost reached the top of the stairs, where Thane and housecarl halted at gaze.
An unassuming little man whom Lydia had not previously noticed was standing before the throne, delivering himself of a lengthy and droning complaint about strange lights and noises coming from some cave. Lydia took the opportunity, while not taking her eyes off Lethiel, to question a guard standing nearby, and thus found out some names. The Nord in the plate was Bolgeir, the jarl's housecarl; Falk Firebeard, the steward, was the big man with the beard; the mage was Sybille Stentor, and the other two were Thanes Erikur and Bryling. Jarl Elisif herself was obvious. She looked very small and helpless sitting there, letting Falk run the court for her, and Lydia expressed some concern about her.
"Assassins may find the woman easy prey," she said.
"Oh, I don't believe those rumours, my friend," the guard said. "Besides, who would ever want to harm such beauty?"
The little man eventually wound down, and Lydia watched as Falk deftly and deferentially modified Elisif's initial disproportionate response to his complaint to a more reasonable compromise. The matter of the cave itself he brushed casually aside.
"That looks like our cue," Lethiel whispered.
"Are you sure, Thane?" Lydia said, trying to emulate Falk. "It seems quite a minor matter."
"They always do at first," Lethiel said maddeningly, and went over to talk to Falk.
Lydia decided that she had better take the initiative herself, and cautiously approached the woman sitting on the throne. Jarl Elisif the Fair looked up as she drew near, and Lydia's heart lurched; she cursed inwardly. Running around with the Dragonborn was making her absurdly over-sensitive to feminine pulchritude.
The substance of the conversation that followed completely escaped her, but by the end of it she had found herself agreeing to do the Jarl a very personal favour. She hoped that she could somehow engineer this so that it redounded to the credit of the Dragonborn. That was, after all, why they were there.
Lethiel rejoined her, and they tendered their respects to the court and descended the stairs once again.
"Okay," Lethiel said, "I've got the job." She handed Lydia a piece of paper. "I'm sure you can handle it."
"Me!" Lydia said. "What are you going to be doing?"
"I've got to go to Dead Man's Respite and recover King Olaf's Verse for Viarmo."
"The head of the Bards' College, of course."
"Lethiel--" Lydia's indignation threatened to boil over, but Lethiel's expression was deadly serious.
"Lydia, becoming a bard is part of who I am, it's--it's part of my destiny, if you like. I always do it. It helps me stay sane amid all this suffering and cruelty and death. Please don't stand in the way of that. I promise I'll be right back on the job as soon as I've done this." Lethiel looked pathetically appealing. Lydia could almost see the eyes expanding.
"Oh, all right," she said. "I'll take care of--" She glanced down at the paper. "Wolfskull Cave--and you do this Bard thing, and we meet back here when it's done, okay?"
"Thank you!" Lethiel hugged her. "You won't regret it, I promise!"
How do you know that? Lydia wondered silently; but she held her peace.
Necromancers, Lydia decided, were not that much more difficult than draugr, if you were sensible. Kill one, and instead of coming and looking for you, at least half the time they concentrated on raising the one you had just killed, which gave you a clear shot at them; and when you got them, the one they had raised collapsed into ash. Just like that one there.
As the magical energies dissipated, she picked up the book from the big altar thingy, looted the bodies (and the ash piles) and found the lever that lowered the bridge.
*I will not be bound*, whispered a fading voice on the air. Lydia, who had not paid much attention during history lessons, knew very little about Potema; a very funny book she had once read (1E 113 And All That, now sadly out of print) had described her as a Bad Queen who thought that dead people were more important than living ones because there were so many more of them. Even on this scanty basis, it seemed like a good idea not to allow anyone to bring her back from the dead, let alone to "bind" her.
She almost barked her shin on the big chest, which was fortunate because otherwise she might have missed it. Lydia risked attracting any remaining adversaries by lighting a torch, and quickly went through the chest. The loot she was carrying already forced her to be selective, but she made sure to grab a couple of books that Lethiel would like to check out, and anything else that seemed seriously valuable.
She was almost sure, she thought, that it should have been Lethiel doing this job. The Dragonborn had been right; this was the important job, the one that would get her favour at the court of Solitude. And yet she was off tracking down some mouldy old poem for a bard. The girl had a serious problem with priorities.
Out in the open air, Lydia was surprised to discover how little time had passed. She stood amid the remains of the skeletons which had greeted her on her arrival, and pondered. Did she have time to do that other little favour for Jarl Elisif? She knew of precisely one Shrine of Talos (apart from the big statue in the Wind District of Whiterun, and she wasn't going to dump Torygg's horn there; for one thing, it would disrupt the political balance Balgruuf was trying so hard to maintain, and for another, it would give Heimskr even more to rave about). Could she get there and back and still not keep Lethiel waiting?
Well, if Lethiel had to wait, she thought, then she would have to wait. It might teach her a lesson about not letting herself get sidetracked by personal considerations. She mounted her horse (one of the weird but welcome things about going around with the Dragonborn was how, no matter where you went or by what means, your horse was somehow always within call) and, gauging her direction by the sun, set off down the southward road.
When she returned to Solitude, however, she found Lethiel just arriving, in company with a skinny, spiky-haired Altmer man whom Lethiel introduced as Master Viarmo. They had time for a brief hug and a few whispered words before Viarmo cleared his throat and suggested that he and Lethiel were expected. Lydia, who understandably didn't have an appointment, followed them up.
She didn't think much of the poem. It seemed to her to combine a rudimentary approach to the alliterative tradition of the earliest Nordic bards with a crude admixture of the later rhymed modes imported from Colovia. Jarl Balgruuf's court would have been rather more exacting in its tastes, she thought. Still, Viarmo declaimed it well, if in a somewhat dry and academic manner; and Lethiel's interpolated "um-diddle-iddle-iddle-um-diddle-aye"'s gave it some much-needed energy, while her "OI!" at the end set the whole performance off quite well.
Jarl Elisif was certainly impressed, and the purse of gold Falk handed over (and the amount Viarmo counted out into Lethiel's hands) was considerable. Lydia overheard him telling her that she would be inducted as a bard at the festival that night. Presumably then they could get back to business. It wouldn't be too much of a delay after all.
Lydia moved forward to report her success to Falk and Elisif.
Five minutes later, a white-faced Lydia joined Lethiel outside.
"She wants to make me a Thane!" Lydia said in a strangled squeak.
"Congratulations," Lethiel said warmly.
"Yes, but she can't!"
"Who's Jarl?" Lethiel inquired.
"I mean I can't be a Thane! You're a Thane! I'm not a Thane, I'm a housecarl! A housecarl can't be a Thane! I mean, if you were a Thane, and I was a Thane--"
"That would be inthane," Lethiel finished with a smile. "Don't be so silly, love. It doesn't really matter which of us gets the honour, as long as it's one of us."
"Yes it does!" The strangled squeak was in danger of straying into whistle mode. "You're the Dragonborn!"
"Yes," Lethiel said gently, "but did you happen to notice the part where I haven't mentioned that to them yet?”
Later, snuggled side by side in a comfortable bed in the Winking Skeever (which Lethiel had procured by the simple expedient of singing a song or two), the Dragonborn elaborated on her earlier thought.
"It's perfectly simple," she said. "Simple and brilliant. I don't know why I didn't think of it before. From now on, as far as the rest of the world is concerned, *we* are the Dragonborn." She laughed softly in the darkness. "I just happen to be the one of the Dragonborn that can Shout."
"It won't work," Lydia said. "It can't work. People will find out."
"What if they do? I wasn't going to make any secret of it. I'm the Dragonborn who can Shout, but it didn't have to be me. It doesn't make me special."
"Yes it does," Lydia persisted. "It makes you a child of Akatosh."
"Aren't we all?" Lethiel countered. "Look, we can all kill dragons, except for Alduin. A couple of well-placed arrows will bring down a dragon just as well as Dragonrend. We can all fight, pretty much as well as each other."
"And suppose we kill a dragon and you're not around to absorb its soul?"
"Oh my gracious, a wasted dragon," Lethiel said. "There's not going to be a shortage, and I only need souls to unlock Words. When I have all the Words, I won't need the souls any more. In any case," she said, squeezing Lydia softly, "it's already done. You are the Dragonborn as far as Solitude is concerned. You cleared out the cave, you delivered the horn, you're going to be a Thane. You may as well accept it."
"I have to buy a piece of property in the city," Lydia said. "I can't do that. And help the people of Solitude. How?"
"You'll find ways. That woman at the festival selling the spiced wine looked as though she needed a favour. And as for the property, why not? We have a reasonable nest egg back home. I just have to send for some of it. I expect the prices round here will be silly, but we can cope."
"I can't own property. I'm a housecarl." Lydia set her jaw in the darkness.
"You have the right to own property in Solitude, because the jarl has said so. I don't know of anyone who can contradict her."
"My Thane," Lydia said, "it's not...proper. I can't do it."
"Oh," Lethiel said. "Well. Not a very good start to the tour, but I expect we'll manage without Haafingar."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, obviously I've blown it. If I'm the only one allowed to do the quests and get the influence, then it's too late. We'll just have to give up and move on." Lethiel sighed. "Of course, it's my fault. I should have done it all myself."
Lydia ground her teeth. "All right," she said. "All right. I'll accept it. But if she gives me a housecarl, she's *your* housecarl, all right? Not mine. A housecarl definitely can't have a housecarl. I mean, where would it end?"
"Housecarls all the way down," Lethiel said. "Let's say *our* housecarl. And if you truly think a Thane can't be a housecarl, then that's fine with me. I release you from my service." Horror struck through Lydia like a sword, till Lethiel added, "I'd much rather have you as a friend, a lover, a companion and an equal anyway, and don't you bloody dare tell me you don't deserve it, because so help me I'll give you such a ding--"
Lydia could find no words. She simply held more tightly on to Lethiel, trying hard not to cry.
"Can I still call you my Thane?" she whispered at last.
"Only if I can call you it back," came the warm voice from the darkness.