In fact the celebrations to mark the end of the civil war in Skyrim lasted a full week. Wizards in towns provided fireworks till everyone was sick of the sight of them. Taverners supplied mead in staggering quantities, and in the Bannered Mare in Whiterun Brenuin the beggar announced one night that he had had enough, which caused several customers to faint. There was singing and dancing in the streets, and a new song by an unknown bard, "Elenwen's Ears," bid fair to become as popular as "Ragnar the Red." And, of course, the celebration of peace would not have been complete, this being Skyrim, without a great deal of fighting, but nobody, for a wonder, was seriously hurt.
Lydia, for her part, stayed at the Blue Palace with Elisif. They talked, they made love, they explored the hidden gardens at the back of the Blue Palace, which overhung the sea and to which only the jarl and her intimates were allowed access. Lydia ventured into the sealed Pelagius Wing, and returned wearing a ridiculous hat and carrying a curiously carved staff which she concealed from everyone but Elisif. She also took full part in the talks between Elisif, General Tullius, and Ulfric Stormcloak, in which the details of the peace were hammered out, and the plan for Skyrim's independence from the Empire began to take shape.
And at the end of the week, Lilly the courier brought a letter from Lethiel. It said simply, "It's happening. Come as soon as you can. I'll wait for you."
Lydia bade Elisif a loving farewell, walked down to the stables, mounted her horse, and set off for Whiterun.
All the Company were waiting for her at home, and there was more celebration that night, of a more personal kind; but many of them had duties which required their swift return to their holds, and it was Lethiel and Lydia alone who went to Dragonsreach on the following morning.
A pang of homesickness assailed Lydia as they crossed the wooden bridge to the big doors. It was strange to walk into the vast hall again, stranger still to see Irileth standing at her Jarl's side, strangest of all that the Dark Elf greeted her respectfully and called her "Thane." Respect was something Irileth had never shown Lydia before, and Lydia wasn't sure she liked it.
Balgruuf led them up to the Great Porch, where they inspected, as best they could, the mechanism, half-hidden in the shadows of the roof and looking for all the world like part of it. The huge baulks of timber, Lydia guessed, could only have come from one of the living trees of Valenwood about which she had read as a child. Presumably, in the days of King Olaf, kings could do that kind of thing.
"It's not very portable, is it?" she said.
"Funny you should mention that," Lethiel said. "As you know, the meeting on High Hrothgar broke up in some disorder, and Esbern completely forgot to tell me what he had come there to tell me."
"How to get a dragon to come here," Jarl Balgruuf said. "I was wondering that too."
"Well, I went and spoke to him at Sky Haven Temple, and he told me." Lethiel looked embarrassed. "There was rather a painful interview with Delphine as well, on the general topic of Paarthurnax and why was he still alive. I had to be quite short with her. Anyway, the gist of Esbern's remarks was that any dragon's name is a Shout, and so calling the name of a living dragon, using the Voice of course, will bring them running, or flying, to find out who's taking their name in vain."
"How many dragons' names do you know?" Lydia asked.
"Damn few, and they're all dead," Lethiel replied with a grin. "However, Esbern has given me the name of one whom he's almost sure I haven't killed yet, and Paarthurnax tells me that many dragons, including this one, have been rather cooling off on the whole 'Alduin eats the world' idea, since we had our little conversation with him on the mountain. Possibly it's occurred to them that once he's eaten everything else he's going to start looking sideways at them, and maybe being eaten by him is not that much better than being chopped to bits by me. Anyway," Lethiel took a breath and continued, "to make a long story short--"
"Too late," said Lydia and Balgruuf together.
"--I know how to call a dragon here. It's then up to us to lure him far enough on to the Porch so that when I Dragonrend him, Ogdred the guard up there can trigger the trap. After that, it's just a matter of talking to him, the dragon I mean not Ogdred, finding out how Alduin gets from here to Sovngarde, and then going that way myself."
"Had you considered," Balgruuf said, "that maybe the way can only be travelled by a dragon?"
"Then I'll have to rely on my dragon bits, won't I?" Lethiel was undeterred. "Are we ready? I hate waiting."
"We're ready if you are," the Jarl said.
"Right then. Lydia," Lethiel said seriously, "I wanted you here because, well, I want you here, but I don't want you putting your life at risk. Help me lure the dragon, but for Talos' sake stay back after that. This is my bit, okay? This is the bit I have to do on my own. I need you to come back to."
"I understand, my Thane," Lydia said.
"Okay. Here goes nothing then." Lethiel hugged and kissed her, shook hands with Balgruuf and then hugged him too, and walked away from them, to the very edge of the Great Porch where it looked out over the landscape. She looked so terribly small, Lydia thought, standing there; but the Voice, when she loosed it, seemed to fill the whole sky.
Lydia blinked. Something in her eye? A long line suddenly dividing the sky, just near where Lethiel was standing. Then two, three, more. And down them now, grotesque figures sliding, sliding, she realised, down from the roof of the palace.
She jerked herself into motion, running forward, but she was already too late. Three of the masked figures had grabbed Lethiel, stuffed something into her mouth, and leapt over the edge of the Porch. Their ropes went taut. Now there were five left, standing there with spells ready.
"Guards!" Lydia yelled, but Balgruuf and Irileth were already wading into the attackers. She joined them, sword out and singing as she whirled it over her head and brought it down, cleaving a staring wooden face in two. Three, she was thinking. Surely Lethiel could beat three?
There was not a moment to spare to look. The cultists seemed to be coming out of nowhere, out of the air. Where there had been five, there were now at least nine; and from up above came an ominous creaking and groaning.
"Thus we refute the deceiver!" one masked figure cackled, doing a little mocking dance as he cast flame spells this way and that. Practically all the guards in the place were converging on them now. "Thus we shoe forth the light of the True Dragonborn!"
"Show forth," growled another, fending off a sword thrust from a guard.
"I beg your pardon." The first speaker dodged nimbly. "It's spelt S H E W in the text, and in my book that's pronounced 'shoe.' Like brew, you know? Aaaugh," he added, as Lydia's sword finally found its goal in his heart.
Another noise from above, louder and more ominous this time, and more masked and robed figures dropped into view, this time without the aid of ropes, and accompanied by a large mass of wood and iron.
"The trap!" Balgruuf shouted.
"For Miraak!" the cultists yelled, more or less in unison, and as one they all ran for the lip of the Porch and leapt over.
The sudden silence was deafening. Clouds of dust hung in the air, and bodies of guards and cultists were strewn across the floor. Some were under the fallen piece of trap. Lydia ran to the lip and peered over. There was nothing to be seen. No bodies, no trace of Lethiel, nothing moving.
"Somebody," Jarl Balgruuf said, breathing heavily, "had better tell me what in the nine hells is going on here." He paused. "Now would be nice."
"The Dragonborn's been kidnapped," Lydia said.
"That part I got. By whom?"
"We've only met them a couple of times before. They worship someone called Miraak, who they believe is the true Dragonborn. Lethiel thought they came from Solstheim."
"And is this Miraak now going to come and talk to the dragon that our Dragonborn just summoned?"
"I doubt it. Get your men back. All the way back."
"Lydia, what are you going to do?"
Lydia eyed the monstrous shape cruising through the air towards them. "I have absolutely no idea.”
"Odahviing!" Lydia shouted with all the volume she could command. The thought suddenly flitted through her head that maybe dragons were naturally deaf, so that all they could hear were Shouts. That would explain... She banished the idiotic thought. The dragon was hovering in mid-air just beyond the Porch, in exactly the position, she realised, from which they tended to loose off their deadliest forms of the Thu'um.
Then the dragon spoke.
"You called?" it rumbled, and Lydia detected a sardonic note in the impossibly deep voice.
"The Dragonborn called you," she shouted back.
"And where is this Dragonborn now? I would greet her in the way of my kind. Or should I treat you so, as her emissary?"
"The Dragonborn has been taken." Lydia had no thought in her mind except somehow to keep the dragon talking. "By agents of Miraak."
"Miraak?" Anger rolled through the single word. "That is a name I have not heard in long and long. Miraak, the traitor. Miraak, the killer. And she is back?"*
"So it seems," Lydia said.
"Then she must be destroyed. Whatever power she has gained from her evil master, she must be prevented from regaining her ascendancy. Even more than Alduin, she is a threat to dragonkind. Where can I find her?"
"We believe," Lydia shouted, aware that her throat was giving out, "that she has been taken to Solstheim."
"Ah, the old lair. Hmm." Odahviing seemed to be able to hover indefinitely there. "It occurs to me that if your Dragonborn were to be freed from her clutches, she might be able to defeat Miraak, whereas now we might find ourselves unequal to the task. We are not as many as we once were, and her power must have grown for her influence once more to have reached this realm."
"If you take me to Solstheim," Lydia bellowed, "I will free the Dragonborn and we will defeat Miraak." Getting there by dragon was certainly quicker than riding to Windhelm and trying to find a ship, she thought.
"You, alone?" The dragon was amused. "You surely possess the Dovah Vur. The valour of a dragon. But I will do this. If I may land unmolested on this perch, you may ride me and experience the Lok as a dov does."
Lydia, with no voice left for shouting, nodded and beckoned, with the other hand gesturing frantically for the jarl and guards to stay back. The wind of his wings buffeted her as Odahviing descended ponderously and turned to face outward once more.
"And on the way," he said, "you can explain to me why the Dragonborn saw fit to summon me." The great head bent close to her, and the great voice lowered to a soft rumble. "You do not have to shout. I can hear your lightest whisper." A pause. "We usually simply do not bother to listen."
Lydia, not being able to think of a suitable reply, climbed up the creature's scaly flank and positioned herself astride its back.
Then Odahviing launched himself into the air, and she had no breath even to whisper.
To the Dragonborn Company, care of Skyfall Estate, Whiterun hold.
The Dragonborn has been kidnapped while in the act of summoning a dragon. The kidnappers are believed to be agents of one Miraak, based on Solstheim. In the process, they wrecked our dragon trap, and my steward estimates that it will take at least three months to repair.
The cultists evidently gained access to Dragonsreach by suborning two of my guards, using some spell with which neither I nor my wizard Farengar are familiar. They are now in the care of the priests of Kynareth, having apparently lost their minds completely. The only word they can utter is "Miraak."
Meanwhile, Lydia, whom I am sure Irileth trained to have more sense, has gone flying off to Solstheim on the back of the dragon which answered the summons, with the intention of freeing the Dragonborn from captivity. I have no idea whether she has any kind of plan for doing so, but I feel sure she will find it easier if she has some help.
Therefore, I am hereby requesting (since I am sure I can not command) that as many of the Dragonborn Company as possible make their way to Solstheim as swiftly as they can to join her in her endeavour. Once the Dragonborn is freed, I suggest that you do whatever seems necessary to destroy the power of this cult and, if possible, its leader. From what the dragon said, I believe this Miraak to have powerful magical backing, so be wary.
Should you succeed (for preference before Alduin devours the world), you will be appropriately rewarded. This undertaking, I should say, supersedes all other tasks and obligations, and I will communicate with your jarls (the lady Anja excepted) to inform them of this.
I wish you every success, in the knowledge that you are well aware of how much depends on the Dragonborn's safe return.
Balgruuf the Greater, Jarl of Whiterun.
Lydia, to her shame, had been sick, twice. Fortunately, at the speed Odahviing had been travelling, it had not stayed around, but she burned inside when she remembered his laughter.
"This is as close as I dare go," he said now, setting her down on a small island just off the coast of Solstheim. "Miraak, even in the old days, had the power to bend the dov to her will, and I will not risk slavery. If you free your Dragonborn, tell her that I will take her to Alduin's portal to Sovngarde. There will be no need to employ that barbarous device. Simply call me, and I will come."
Lydia bowed. "Thank you," she said, trying not to fall over. "And I'll tell her what you told me about Miraak."
"That would be wise. She will not be an easy foe to overcome. Sky guard you both, Tuzahrkspaan."
"Wait, what?" Lydia shouted as the winds sent her staggering and the great wings beat. "What did you just call me?" It was too late. Odahviing was already winging strongly away in the direction of Skyrim, presumably.
And now she would have to swim for it. She scanned the coastline of Solstheim. It looked uninviting. Grey ash covered every flat surface, and strange hexagonal pillars of rock jutted out of the water, possibly natural formations of some kind.
A strange clicking noise from behind her caused her to turn sharply. Bone-white, insect creatures about the size of Dwarven Spiders were emerging from the ash that covered the tiny island, and they did not look friendly.
Lydia sighed and drew her sword.
By dint of following the shoreline around to the left, that being as good a direction as any, she eventually arrived at the wall that surrounded Raven Rock, and by following that inland, she came to the gate.
"You're not from around here," said a guard, the voice curiously resonating through the strange bone helmets that seemed to be part of the uniform here.
"No," Lydia said. "I'm from Skyrim."
"How did you get here? Maiden hasn't been back for two weeks. Second Councillor Arano's fit to chew ash."
"A dragon brought me."
She could somehow tell that the guard was scowling. "Very funny. All right, you can go on in. Just keep your nose clean."
"Where will I find Miraak?" Lydia asked, on an impulse.
"Miraak?" The guard sounded startled. "I...I don't think I know the name. Though it sounds familiar...no, sorry. Can't help you."
"Thanks anyway," Lydia said, and went on in.
The strange architecture of Morrowind, the carapace-like buildings, was something she had only ever seen in pictures. She tried to resist the temptation to gawk around her like a tourist. Most of the people she could see were Dunmer, but there were a few human faces here and there. She had an odd feeling, which she didn't like in herself, that the human faces were people she could talk to. No, she told herself, they are all people you can talk to. You know better than that.
She stopped outside what appeared to be an alchemist's shop. The Dunmer woman at the stand looked up inquiringly. Next door, a male elf was selling odd, stunted-looking vegetables. Ash yams she recognised, but not some of the others.
"Excuse me," Lydia said politely, "but could you direct me to the inn?"
"It's behind you, sera." The woman pointed, and Lydia turned and cursed inwardly. Of course it was. It even had a notice board outside it, just like the taverns in Skyrim.
"Thank you." Lydia briefly scanned the board, hoping vaguely for something along the lines of "Lost: creepy bone insect thing. Answers to Mr Clicky. If found, please return to Miraak," with an address. No such luck. She pushed open the door and went inside.
"That they have forgotten."
Moving the stones. She was moving the stones. Move the stones and say the words, that was what she had to do.
Lydia looked around. Her eyes had been open, she was sure, but...by the Eight, she was tired. Around her, people moved like zombies, muttering cryptic phrases, building some sort of framework around a stone in a pool.
The last thing she remembered, she had gone to bed in her room at the Retching Netch (charming name), vowing that sujamma would never pass her lips again. It might be nice to Dunmer, but it wasn't her cup of mead. She had fallen asleep, and now here she was...where?
Ah. That was Raven Rock, over there. She must have sleepwalked or something. And there was a Dunmer in mage's robes eyeing her with a curiously penetrating glance. Lydia did not want to be...that was, she did not want anyone asking her questions till she had some decent answers. She turned and walked rapidly back towards the town.
But she was so tired. Her steps slowed. She couldn't think. Her head was full of fuzz. Her eyes began to drift closed. Maybe if...
"Here in his shrine."
Maybe if she moved some more stones it would come clearer. Maybe...
Strong arms gripped her shoulders and shook her awake. Lydia realised that she had turned round and was walking back towards the damned stone.
"You look done in," the man who had awoken her was saying. He was big, Breton by his looks, a smith by his clothes. "You got to watch out when you go to sleep. Doesn't get everybody every time, but you never know."
"What is it? Who's doing it?" Lydia managed to ask. "is it that mage over there by the stone?"
The man looked blank. "No idea. I don't think it's him. He just comes and watches. Neloth, his name is, from over Tel Mithryn way. Big time wizard. I'm Glover Mallory, by the way." A thought occurred to him. "Hey, you in from Skyrim?"
"Lydia. I mean, yes, I am, my name is Lydia."
"I heard the war's over. That right?"
"So, that Ulfric finally showed those damned Imperials what for, eh? About damned time. I'm no Talos worshipper, but it don't do for governments to go telling folk what to believe. And nobody wants to be bossed around by a bunch of damned elves." He glanced around nervously. "High elves, I meant."
Lydia decided not to go into the details. This was not the time.
Towards the centre of the island, the mage had said. Lydia wondered if she was heading in even remotely the right direction. Presumably she would find out when she got her feet wet.
She had managed to snatch a couple of catnaps during the previous day, and felt restored enough to tackle the mysterious Dunmer wizard Neloth. Unfortunately, for reasons she was unwilling to reveal even to herself, she had parted from him immediately on receiving this information, and had had to ask a guard which way the centre of the island was. The guard had told her east, and when she still looked perplexed, had taken her to a Captain Veleth, who had given her a map of Solstheim from a stack he obviously kept in his office for benighted visitors, and informed her somewhat pityingly (for the sky was veiled in thick grey clouds and the sun nowhere to be seen) that east was *that* way. Lydia had set out, feeling like a complete fool.
Lethiel would have known. She knew that. Lethiel always knew where she was. She still frequently got lost, a fact which seemed to afford her more of amusement than chagrin, but she always knew which way to go to get back on the right track. (Markarth always excepted, Lydia thought, with a reminiscent smile.) She herself, on the other hand, was putting up a remarkably poor showing so far as a substitute Dragonborn. Lethiel was somewhere on this pestilential island, enduring who knew what horrors, while she was thrashing around unable even to find north, let alone east...
The dragon skeleton she saw as she topped the rise was the first sign that she might be on the right track after all.
This Miraak had not been in good odour with the dragons, and this might well have been because she killed them. If she now thought she was a god, and demanded worship at a temple, this was just the sort of gruesome trophy she would want at her gates. And now, over the ever-present wind that blew the foul volcanic ash around, Lydia thought she could hear chanting.
She pressed on with renewed hope.
The Skaal girl, Frea, paused impatiently at the door that had lain behind the big draugr's sarcophagus. "What are you doing now?"
"This..." Lydia was fumbling for paper and charcoal. She had already found--and passionately kissed--her copies of Arngeir's books of dragon language. "This is a word wall," she explained carefully. "One of the words on it is a Word of Power, that the Dragonborn can use as part of a--"
"Yes, yes, yes, I know all that," Frea snapped. "Why are you writing it down?"
"Because--" Lydia stopped. In fact, she didn't know whether Lethiel had seen it or not. She didn't know where Lethiel was. Maybe her Thane had won free after all, and already acquired this Word, whichever one it was....and maybe she hadn't. "Just in case," Lydia said. "I'm not Dragonborn, I can't just learn it, but if I write it down Lethiel can learn it from that."
Frea sighed dramatically, but waited in ill-concealed impatience while Lydia copied down the symbols, worked out a translation, snorted at the fulsome flattery of Miraak, and put her papers away again. Then she beckoned in a needlessly peremptory fashion and set off at once into the chamber beyond. Lydia followed, aware that their relationship was not off to a flying start.
They continued in prickly silence down passages and stairs, through rooms and secret doors, and finally up the length of what must be the temple itself, thronged with draugr and skeletons, and beset with tripwires. More than once great boulders thundered past within inches of Lydia. The final adversary, anticlimactically, was just another draugr, albeit a strong one, and fell down just as satisfactorily when skewered on her sword.
"There can't be much more of this," Lydia observed, closing he now almost empty chest that stood behind the monstrous altar.
"Just through here, I think, should be the way out."
"Well, then, where's Miraak?" Lydia demanded.
Frea looked at her much the same way that Captain Veleth had on being asked where east was, and turned away abruptly to open the passageway in the wall.
They found Lethiel, still and silent and breathing only slowly and shallowly, in a small room full of flames that gave no heat. On the floor beside her was a large black book.
"What's wrong with her?" Lydia cried out.
"Perhaps my father would know," Frea said. "He is the shaman of my village. We will take her to him."
Lydia nodded absently. "Maybe this will give us a clue," she said, and opened the book.
Green, roiling mists, through which amorphous black shapes swam and cavorted. Black water from which black tentacles reached mutely for the green sky. Hovering horrors with tentacles for faces. And a voice, pettish, annoyed.
"And who the hell are you supposed to be? I don't know, I should just put in a revolving door and be done with it. Well, you're too late. I've done the big speech and I'm not reeling it all off again. Bring me the false Dragonborn, I told them, and now I suppose they're just shovelling up any old tat from the streets. What's your name, ducks?"
Lydia looked up at the black-haired woman standing over her. Between them lay, exactly as she had seen it in the Temple, Lethiel's body. Here, though, it was bound around with--there was no other way to put it--tentacles made of words. Lydia said nothing.
Miraak--if it was she--sniffed. "Oh, well, be like that then. It's not as if it matters, I was just trying to be friendly. The only one that might have mattered is her, and you know what? She's rubbish. She's completely missed the point of the whole thing. Oh," and the woman pointed at Lydia gleefully, "I've got you now. I've got your number. You're one of the little women she farms her work out to, aren't you? Give you a kick, does it, being ordered about by the mighty Dragonborn? Well, I'll tell you a secret, sweetie. She's hopeless. Couldn't last a second against me. And for why? I'll tell you for why. She missed the point. The point about being Dragonborn is, purely and simply, power. Power for yourself. You get the power, you use the power to get more power. Anything else is simply wasted time. She'll never see that, poor little chit. Thinks it's about doing good, saving the world. Doesn't see it. If you've got enough power, the world doesn't matter. I've been storing up power for a good many years now, and I'm--"
Miraak, who had been striding around and gesturing wildly, stopped, smiled unpleasantly and focussed on Lydia again. "I'm talking too much, is what I'm doing. It's 'cause I'm nervous. Now, after all this time, to be this close to--" She laughed, and turned away. "Send her back. In fact, send them both back. I'll only be tripping over them else. Ta-ta for now, ducks. Don't come after me again. You're really not up to it, and next time I might not be in this good a mood."
She turned and leapt on to the back of what could only be a dragon, even though it looked like no dragon Lydia had ever seen--and as she flew away, the tentacled horrors gathered round Lydia and Lethiel and began bombarding them with bolts of magical energy. Lydia's vision flickered, darkened, then returned. She was kneeling in the chamber in the Temple of Miraak, Frea was staring at her in blank consternation, and Lethiel still lay on the floor in front of her.
Storn Crag-Strider looked sadly down at Lethiel's body.
"I can do nothing," he said. "This is a Black Book."
"I see that," Lydia said impatiently.
"No, outlander, you do not. It is a Black Book, an instrument of the will of Miraak's master. Only when that power is broken will your friend be freed. The Stones must be cleansed."
Storn spoke abstractedly. Frea had explained that all his concentration had to go into maintaining the magical shield around the Skaal Village which was keeping the remaining few of them from going to join the chanting hordes.
"The Stones must be cleansed," Lydia repeated. "How do I do that?"
"I do not know that you can," Storn said. "You say you are not Dragonborn?"
"No," Lydia said. "She is."
"Then I do not see how it can be done," Storn said, his shoulders drooping.
"Why not?" Lydia demanded. "What do I have to do? Tell me!"
"There is a place," Storn said, "called Saering's Watch. There is a wall there, with words inscribed on it. One of those words is a Word of Power, which--"
"Yes, yes, yes, I know all that," Lydia said testily. "A Shout, you mean."
"Yes. Only that Shout may cleanse the Stones and free the people."
"But I can't Shout," Lydia said, feeling despair for the first time lapping at her ankles.
Storn bowed his head.
"How do you know?" Frea said suddenly. "Have you ever tried?"
"Well, er, no," Lydia stammered, "but I'm not Dragonborn."
"You do not have to be Dragonborn to Shout, is that not correct, father?"
"No," Lydia protested, "but it takes years of practice and meditation to learn--"
Frea made a disgusted noise. "Do you have anything better to do? You can write down the words. You know what they mean. Try. What do you have to lose? We have lost nearly everything."
"Let be, daughter," Storn said. "Lydia is right. It is impossible."
--That just means you haven't done it yet. Lethiel's voice was so clear in Lydia's ear, Lydia almost imagined the Dragonborn's warm breath on her cheek; but the body of her Thane lay still on the snow.
"I will try," Lydia said. "Where is this Saering's Watch?"
--You must take the meaning of the word into yourself, in order to use it in a Shout.
The draugr had been easy to pick off from cover. The dragon had required a more hands-on approach. And the sudden appearance of Miraak, after it was dead, to snap up its soul, had been unpleasant. Even though Lydia had no ability to absorb dragon souls herself, she hated the thought of her enemy benefiting from her efforts.
But this was the worst fight yet.
Lydia sat and stared balefully at the word carved into the wall. It was the only one in the inscription that could possibly be a Word of Power, she was sure. It hadn't been used before, as far as she knew. She wished Lethiel was there with her, alive and well, to do her staring thing and just get it done. Lydia wasn't up to this. She was a simple and traditional idiot. Her blood was just human. She wasn't good enough.
Anger blossomed like dragonfire in her belly, and she jumped to her feet and roared inarticulately at the wall. It looked back impassively, but...had there been a hint of thunder somewhere under her voice?
Humans, ordinary humans, could learn to Shout. You didn't have to be Dragonborn. You didn't have to be special. Human was good enough, damn it. It was just one word. That was all she wanted. But what the hell did it mean?
--It is “Earth” in your tongue.
Lydia frowned, and shook her head. She knew that "Gol" meant earth, she had read it in Arngeir's book. But why had she thought of it in just that way? Why "your" tongue?
--It can influence much more than simply the stones.
Lydia sat down again, gazing at the word, and tried to quieten her mind. Part of it, it seemed, was speaking to her, from she knew not where, perhaps from the depths of her need and her despair. If she could just quieten the rest of it, perhaps she could hear what that small, deep voice was saying.
Lydia's universe consisted of herself, mainly concentrated somewhere behind her eyes, and three dragon glyphs, somewhere out there in the darkness in front of her. There was also the voice, but she no longer knew whether that was in her, in the Word, or coming from somewhere outside the universe.
There was so much to a simple Word. She had never considered it before. The more simple the Word, the more its power ramified and spread out. To control earth, to shape it to your will, was to possess the power to shape...anything. Anybody. The voice was wise to speak of temptation. If one could somehow gain a full understanding of even one Word, power akin to that of a Divine was within one's grasp. Lydia wanted no such power. She simply, solely, implacably, wanted her Thane back.
--To use this thu’um requires that you know your own will with the utmost certainty.
She knew her own will. In this one single respect, she knew it. Miraak had ensnared the soul of the Dragonborn. To free it, this power was required. What happened after that was of no importance.
Somewhere out in the universe, her lips shaped the word.
--Your resolve must be absolute, all doubts Nahlot, silenced.
Her resolve was absolute. Doubts had long since fled. There was no question of "can" or "can not." She was utterly focussed along one single line.
Like an arrow, aimed and flying true.
--To become who you truly are is to master this thu’um.
In that one syllable was all that she truly was. She was earth. She was stone. She was all that was real. She knew this Word now, knew it utterly, for it was herself, and she was it. The wall, the glyphs, no longer mattered. Understanding this, Lydia stood up, or rather tried to.
Immediately her mind was besieged with sensation; pain, stiffness, vertigo, hunger, thirst, fatigue, awareness that time had passed. None of them mattered. They were just other words. Her mind was focussed. She was the Word, and she must utter herself; but not here, not now. In the right place, in the right time. To do this, her body must be moved in space. This involved legs, she remembered.
With infinite care, peeling off gossamer-thin layers of her mind around the dense hot core of the Word, she gave them to directing her limbs. She gained her feet, began to walk, letting another sliver of awareness direct her eyes to her path. She was full of the Word, pregnant with it, must move carefully lest it be dislodged. She had no spare thoughtspace for any other ideas.
As she walked, slowly and carefully, the sky paled around her, and light revealed her surroundings. She simply had to retrace her steps, follow the path she had taken, how long ago she neither knew nor cared. She was the Word, moving slowly along a rocky path toward the place of utterance, with the assurance of the moons in their courses. Nothing would stand in her way.
Time passed. The Word moved on the face of Tamriel. Around it, a fragile human body, a delicately balanced human mind.
The place was before her. The Stone, the pool, the entranced villagers toiling and mumbling. The Word that was Lydia moved into position with infinite care. The moment was almost here. One last sliver of consciousness directed the lungs to take breath, deep, deep breath. The universe hung poised on the point of a needle.
And with an almost audible crash, suddenly, Lydia was herself again. The Word, the Shout, dropped into place like a heavy stone ball falling into a bucket, and became simply something else she could do, like swinging a sword or loosing an arrow. Sensation crowded in upon her, and she staggered and almost fell, becoming truly aware of her surroundings for the first time in who knew how long, and aware too that energy had gone out of her with the breath of the Shout, left her depleted and weakened. Was this how it felt? Did Lethiel feel this every time she Shouted?
Well, there was no time for that now. The ground was shaking, the jerry-built framework around the stone collapsing, and something was rearing up out of the water, something monstrous and fishlike and quite obviously an enemy. Its back was to her. Lydia drew her sword and charged towards it. The Stone was vibrating with some kind of power, but the villagers were stepping back, dropping their tools, shaking their heads, coming to awareness of themselves only to be terrified by the ghastly apparition in the pool. Lydia slashed at its legs. It howled, turned, and spat something black and burning at her. She kept her footing, slashed again, and again, and the thing was down, and she lifted her sword and made sure by cleaving its head from its body. One of the villagers, not quick enough, was dead. The others were beginning to talk, to ask questions. She had no answers. Her mind was burning with weariness, her body crying out for food, drink, sleep. She no longer knew if she could summon the Word again, or even if she could speak at all. She shook her head dumbly whenever someone addressed her, and eventually, because there seemed to be nothing else to do, suffered herself to be led back to the Skaal Village.
Lydia opened her eyes. She was looking up at a ceiling. She was lying on furs. There was a face looking down at her, a face surrounded by fair hair and a fur-lined hood.
"Are you all right?" the face asked.
Lydia knew she had to say something. The trouble was, she could only think of one Word to say, and she was almost sure that wasn't right. She tried to make her lips and tongue form something that was not "Gol." She breathed in, and breathed out again. She didn't need so much. This was not a good time to Shout.
"G..." She tried again. "G...good. I'm...good."
Frea, that was her name, relaxed. "You did it. You cleansed the Wind Stone. My father is sleeping peacefully for the first time since this foulness began. Our village is safe. You are indeed an ally of the Skaal."
"G..." Lydia swallowed, and worked her lips, her tongue. "And my...my Thane?"
Frea looked troubled. "She still sleeps. A little more easily, perhaps, than before. But for her soul to be freed, my father thinks the other Stones must be cleansed. Miraak's power over the island must be weakened."
"Where...does his power come from?" Lydia struggled into a sitting position.
"From Herma-Mora," Frea said, looking as if she would like to spit. "You would know him as Hermaeus Mora. He is a great daedric lord, and the enemy of men. You killed one of his creatures down at the Stone."
"Well, that wasn't so bad," Lydia said.
"It was but one of the least of his servants," Frea said soberly. "The greatest...is Miraak."
Lethiel, indeed, slept on, on another pile of furs in Storn Crag-Strider's house. Her face bore a faint smile now, but that was just the way Lethiel's face was when resting. Lydia loved that smile. She traced its contours now with a forefinger, wishing that the nose would wrinkle, a hand come up to brush away the tiny irritation, that her Thane's eyes would open and see her. But Lethiel did not stir.
"So where are these other Stones?" she said, sounding more brusque than she had intended.
"There are six in all," Storn said. He looked happier and healthier than he had on their first meeting, and Lydia tried to be happy about that. "One is within Miraak's Temple, and you will not be able to cleanse that one yet. The others are scattered all over Solstheim. You will find them guarded as this one was. Cleansing them will weaken Miraak, and slow the progress of her evil work."
"That's not enough," Lydia protested. "We need to stop her. Destroy her."
"As to that," the old man said, "I do not know whether it is even possible. She has the support of old Herma-Mora, and he at least can not be destroyed. The elf mage Neloth might know. You should talk to him."
"My Thane will talk to him," Lydia said firmly. "If cleansing the Stones will free her, then I can do that. Anything more..." She shrugged helplessly. "I don't know."
"I think there is every chance that that is true," Storn said. "In any case, it will free the people of Solstheim. Is that not in itself worth doing?" The rebuke in his voice was clear, and Lydia felt ashamed.
"Of course it is," she said, getting out her map. "Can you show me where the other Stones are?”
Lydia didn't know what the little blue people were, but she wasn't sure she liked them. The masked cultist, on the other hand, presented no such ambiguity, and Lethiel shot him, or her, from cover before turning her attention to the Stone.
Could she do it again? Preferably without going through all that meditation and stuff this time?
She took a breath, marshalled her strength, now restored after two good meals and a peaceful night in the Skaal Village, and reached into her mind. The Word was still there. She picked it up, turned it over and over, balanced it--as it were--on her palm, felt its weight. Yes. She could do this.
She took a deep breath.
Again the ground shook, again the framework collapsed, and the two little blue items stood still, looking at each other. Again, Lydia felt strength go out of her, but this time she was ready for it, and for the monstrous fish-man. Before it could register her presence, she had two arrows in it, and the third brought it crashing down into the water.
The blue people looked at each other again, exchanged a word or two of what sounded to Lydia like gobbledegook, and trotted away without apparently noticing her presence at all. You're welcome, she thought drily.
Looting the fish-beastie was messy, but profitable. Where in the world did this thing get all this money, she wondered. There was jewellery as well. Did the workers have to hand in their valuables before they started work in the mornings? She thought it unlikely. Oh well. Loot was loot.
The next nearest Stone on her map was straight south of here, near a giant mushroom, if the map was to be believed, called Tel Mithryn. That, she knew, was where the mage Neloth lived. Lydia did not want to talk to him on her own. The next nearest, though, was the one at Raven Rock, and then she would have to come all the way back.
She set off, heading south.
The Stone was not too near the mushroom, which was undeniably real. There were people working around it, and as Lydia drew closer and made them out, she almost laughed. Bandits. Honest-to-gods, ordinary, straightforward Skyrim-style bandits. Just like mother used to make. No, that wasn't right. Still, she could have hugged them.
And, in fact, she was there to save them, not kill them. Lydia walked boldly up to the Stone, took a deep breath, focussed on what she was now starting to think of as her Thu'um, and Shouted. Shake, shake, crumble, crumble, hello fish-thing. It was almost becoming a routine, and she caught herself up on that. That was when fate showed you the knife in its boot.
The bandits joined in with a will on dispatching the fish-beast (she would have to find out what they were called), and showed no disposition to attack her afterwards. On the other hand, the commotion had attracted attention from what she now saw was a cluster of giant mushrooms, and a figure in red robes was hastening towards her across the ash, gesticulating urgently. Lydia pretended she hadn't seen, and set off at a brisk trot towards the west.
Two more to go, she thought.
he knife in the boot, Lydia thought. Every damn time.
Two of the fish-beasties had appeared this time, one in the pool, one down on the beach, and it had been all Lydia could do to get the confused townsfolk and guards out of the way while killing the first one, so that she had a clear field to get rid of the second. The last Stone would probably have three. They might be the least of Herma-Mora's servants, but they were distinctly tough to kill.
And, damn it, she had taken on another job on the way there. The sandy, glowing-eyed things attacking Captain Veleth had been another new one on Lydia, but he had been grateful enough for her help, and had suggested that she look for clues to where the things were coming from. And of course she'd found one. So now, when she had finished with the Stones, she was going to have to investigate Fort Frostmoth.
The hero business was no fun at all without her Thane.
The final Stone, when at last she managed to locate it, was being tended by a bunch of sailors, under the supervision of a cultist. The cultist went down without a murmur, and the fish-monster succumbed to a succession of arrows, but the Shout had not gone unnoticed. Lydia sighed and rolled her eyes as a familiar-sounding roar echoed across the sky.
The dragon, however, had barely poised itself to unleash its Shout before it suddenly sprouted two arrows in its throat, followed by two more in its belly. It came in for a crash landing, and two figures in white shirts and grey breeches emerged from the shadows of gathering evening and charged at it. Lydia stood and gaped helplessly as they delivered the coup de grace.
When they turned back to her, grinning, she found her voice.
"Sigrid? Erin? What--how--"
Sigrid strolled up to her, put her arms around Lydia's neck and planted a kiss on her lips. "Jarl Balgruuf hired us to keep you out of trouble," she said. "So, look at you, Shouting like a Dragonborn. What's the story, grim and gory?"
"Long and borey," Lydia said. "I'll tell you on the way." She kissed Sigrid back. "Anyone else coming?"
"Aren't we enough for you?" Erin said, pretending to pout. "Anja and Amarie can't get away at all--An's busy being a jarl, and the elf is still helping Ulfric to unwind his mind. See and Rowan will be here as soon as they can, but they're getting married--not to each other--"
"Sienna's marrying a Helgen girl confusingly called Cienna," Sigrid elucidated, "and Rowan's marrying her housecarl."
"Nobody mentioned any of this...gods, was it only last week?" Lydia said.
"Well, we had other things to talk about. And anyway, you can talk. When did you learn to use Voice?"
"Yesterday," Lydia said. "No, the day before. And it was hell. Now, can one of you tell me which way is east?”
When Lydia, Sigrid and Erin came to the Skaal Village and the shaman's house, Lethiel was sitting up, drinking soup. This was the only thing that prevented Lydia from flinging herself bodily at her Thane, and they both knew it.
"Hi," Lethiel said tiredly. "I gather you're after my job."
"Not for the world," Lydia said. "I've done all the Shouting I'm ever going to do. You don't get off the hook so easily."
"We'll see," Lethiel said, smiling. "So, details. What's been happening?"
"That's what we want to know," Sigrid said. "She's been tantalising us with hints all the way here."
So Lydia told the story; of the cultist attack, her conversation with Odahviing, the ride to Solstheim, the raid on the Temple of Miraak, the Black Book, and last of all, her ordeal at Saering's Watch. As she spoke, Lethiel's eyes kindled, and when she ended they were bright with tears.
"Oh, love," she said softly, "I wouldn't have had you go through that for...for anything. And you've done so well. We can still count on Odahviing to help us with Alduin when all this is over. Not to mention the trifling detail of saving my life."
"I couldn't speak to that mage Neloth," Lydia said. "I don't know, there's just something about him..."
"I'll handle him all right," Lethiel said. "But I can't even imagine learning a Word the hard way in, what was it, a day and a night? I bet Arngeir couldn't do that."
"I'm sure he could. But I think I had help. That voice I mentioned? It sounded an awful lot like Paarthurnax."
"How could it be?" Erin snorted. "He's miles away. Dragons can't throw their voices that far."
"Well, we won't rely on it, whatever it was. Obviously I need to learn this word too. Did you...oh, wonderful." Lydia had produced her drawings, the one she had made in the Temple and the one she had made at Saering's Watch. Lethiel contemplated them one after the other. "Perfect. I can do both those now."
"So what happened to you?" Lydia demanded.
"Well, nothing much. I was grabbed, gagged, drugged with something, and the next thing I knew I was here, or rather in the Temple, and someone was showing me a book. You know me, compulsive reader. Then, or so I'm told, I was in Apocrypha--Hermaeus Mora's place, you know--and this Miraak was crowing over me, about how pathetic I was and how she didn't even have to kill me, all this. She's not what you'd call a subtle thinker, is she?"
"Brute force type," Lydia said. "She said it to me. If you have enough power, she said, the world being destroyed doesn't matter. How her boss feels about that I don't know."
"I expect he thinks he can squash her like an ant any time he likes. Daedra aren't subtle thinkers either. I may have to revise my opinion of dragons though."
At this point Storn intervened. "I think you had better let the Dragonborn rest for a time now," he said. "She is still quite weak from her time in Miraak's power. She will be well soon."
Lydia reluctantly saw the sense of this. "As it happens, my Thane," she said, "I've taken on a job for the captain of the guard at Raven Rock. Will you be all right if we go and take care of that?"
"Who's this we?" SIgrid said, but her grin made it clear she was joking.
"Sure," Lethiel said. "Give me another day or so and I'll be fine. Stay safe.”
"Weird," Erin commented, as they quitted Fort Frostmoth. An ash spawn surfaced on a tower a little way off and loosed a flame bolt at them. Lydia responded with a well-aimed arrow, and the creature threw up its arms and dissolved into the ash from which it had come.
"What are heart stones anyway?" Sigrid asked.
"No idea," Lydia said.
The voice came from somewhere off to the left, and as the three looked round, a Dunmer man in red robes came toiling over the ash dunes and approached them.
"You," he pronounced, "have led me quite a dance, young lady."
"That wasn't my doing," Lydia said. "You didn't have to chase after me."
"But indeed I do," Master Neloth countered. "You are a person of interest, and it behoves any scholar of discernment to seek out such people and put them to use where appropriate. I happened to observe your arrival. Most singular. I must have your impressions, rudimentary as they may be, of the mechanics of dragon flight. It contradicts, you know, the basic principles of aerodynamics, and I am personally convinced that magic of some kind is involved. And then there is the matter of your criminal disruption of my studies."
"My what?" Lydia was abruptly angry. "I did no such thing!"
"On the contrary. I was engaged in a fascinating study of the behaviour of individuals under magical coercion, which you promptly invalidated by breaking the field of influence. My conclusions must perforce therefore be fragmentary and imprecise, and subsequent publication consequently of little value, practical or pecuniary. You owe me, young lady." This last in a tone of great outrage.
"I freed people from slavery," Lydia said, her own tones sub-glacial. "If that disrupted your studies, then I'm sorry, but it seemed to me that freeing them took a higher priority. In fact it still does. And now if you will excuse us, we have an appointment with Captain Veleth at Raven Rock. You may if you wish complain to him about my breaking Miraak's hold over the people, but I doubt if he will--"
"So it is Miraak," Neloth interrupted. "Most interesting. A unique instance of survival. I must know more. Where are you staying?"
"At the Skaal Village, for now," Lydia said, "but--"
"Oh, I never have dealings with the Skaal. Dull, clodhopping oafs for the most part, unconcerned with anything beyond the mere survival of their primitive way of life. I had hopes of their shaman, but his outlook is limited, limited. Well, I must think of some inducement for you to visit me. Hmm. I perceive you have read a Black Book?"
Lydia started. "How did you know--"
"Oh, the signs are unmistakable. And presumably you will wish to know more. Everyone always does. Now, I happen to have made something of a study of these particular instruments, and I know of the location of one which may add considerably to our meagre store of knowledge on the subject. There are a number of, ah, complications in the area of actually getting hold of the thing, for which someone of your sort might be admirably well suited. Heavy lifting, a certain amount of combat, that kind of thing. Go and have your confabulation with the pedestrian Captain Veleth by all means, but meet me in Tel Mithryn when you are ready to make some recompense to me for the waste of time and effort you have occasioned me. I shall be waiting. It is not wise to keep a magician waiting unduly. I merely mention this for your better enlightenment. Good day to you."
Amid a stunned silence, Neloth turned and began to pick his way back over the ash.
"Well, of all the--" Lydia was lost for words.
"Exactly," Sigrid said.
"I have no desire to know any more about damn Black Books!"
"Don't try and tell him that," Erin advised. "He'll never understand you. I've seen that type before. For supposedly clever people, they're incredibly stupid when it comes to dealing with other people. They take it for granted everyone is like them, or would be if they were only clever enough."
"How do you deal with them then?"
"You don't. You just shut them in a laboratory and let them get on with it. With any luck they blow themselves up or something, and the world's a better place."
"Well," Lydia sighed, "we'd better tell Lethiel about this. Maybe she'll want to speak with him."
"Listen to him," Sigrid amended. "There won't be much speaking involved."
"Captain Veleth first," Erin ruled.
They returned to Raven Rock, and Veleth was greatly encouraged by their report, though saddened by the fate of the undead general. Some gold changed hands, in the right direction as far as Lydia was concerned, and the guard captain was about to turn away when something occurred to him.
"Oh, you might look up Second Councillor Arano," he said. "He has a matter that you might be able to help with. I would personally be very grateful."
"Well," Lydia began, but Erin cut in.
"We'll be happy to," she said, "as soon as we've taken care of some business of our own."
Veleth frowned, but nodded. "Don't take too long."
Lydia also frowned as the captain walked away. "We have to get back to--"
"I know," Erin said, "but this Second Councillor's a big wheel around these parts. It would help us to be in his good books."
"And not his black ones," Sigrid put in unnecessarily.
"And if you go back," Erin went on, "what are the odds you'll end up going with the boss to talk to Neloth?"
Lydia had to admit that the blonde had a point.
"So I'll go back and report to the Dragonborn," Erin said, "and you and Sigrid stay here and do this job for the Councillor. Division of labour, right?"
Lydia, not for the first time, had a feeling that the Divines, or somebody, were conspiring to keep herself and Lethiel apart. Still, it would only be for a little while, and she knew very well that if she were to set eyes on the smirking visage of Neloth again, the temptation to punch it through to the other side of his head would be well nigh unendurable.
"Right," she agreed glumly. "Okay.”
"I wonder if there's a reason why we spend so much time hanging around in tombs," Lydia whispered.
"A deeply morbid streak in our personalities," Sigrid suggested.
"Traumatised at a tender age," Lydia agreed. "That must be it. Ssh, here comes somebody."
"Tilisu Severin," Sigrid whispered. "Air and I met her not long after we arrived. She seemed friendly."
"Is she an Ulen?"
Sigrid shrugged. "Who knows? Dunmer family politics are complicated."
Lydia privately thought that all family politics were complicated, but didn't bother to say it. The woman seemed just to be standing there. Meditating, presumably.
"Well," Sigrid said, "at least we've got something to report."
"Is someone there?" Tilisu Severin was looking around.
"I'm sorry," Lydia said in a normal tone, straightening up. "We didn't mean to disturb you."
"I'm not disturbed," the woman said. "Curious, though, to see two such as you visiting a Dunmer tomb."
"Oh," Sigrid said suddenly, "but we just had to come in and have a peep. Your architecture is just so quaint. The way everything, you know, sort of curves. I guess that's 'cause you can't do straight lines? Anyway, we certainly didn't mean to break up your charming old funeral customs. We're just passing through, you know? So you just don't mind us and carry on like we're not even here, 'kay?"
Lydia was frozen in horror. Tilisu Severin's lips thinned.
"Thank you," she said icily, "but I think I have finished for tonight. So nice to have met you." She bowed, and withdrew. Lydia and Sigrid waited, smiling in a fixed and inane manner, till the outer door had closed behind her.
"What was *that* about?" Lydia demanded.
"Well, I had to think of something quick. I suck at the sneaky stuff." Sigrid seemed entirely unembarrassed. "Anyway, now we have something to tell Councillor Arano."
"Woman visits tomb," Lydia muttered. "Clap her in chains."
Adril Arano, indeed, seemed less than impressed by their discovery, when they reported to him on the following day. Something more conclusive was needed.
"So we're sneaking into Severin Manor--"
"*I'm* sneaking into Severin Manor," Lydia said firmly. "I have no idea what kind of explanation you'd come up with for that, and I don't want to find out. You wait for me in the Retching Netch or somewhere. I'll meet you there when I'm out safely."
"Okay," Sigrid said, then grinned. "See how I didn't make any fuss there about being left behind?"
"You're a saint," Lydia said drily. "So, what can we do to pass the time till it's dark?"
"We could always," Sigrid suggested casually, "have a look at the old ebony mine. Maybe there's someone there who could tell us about the history of the place."
Lydia shrugged. "Why not?”
A pod of netch, curious, drifted towards the shore, and the two limp figures sitting at the foot of the stone tower. The calf reached out a tentacle to poke one of them, but the betty gently pushed it aside with one of her own. After a moment, the netch drifted away again.
After another few minutes, one of the figures spoke.
"'Let's go and have a look at the old ebony mine,'" she said. "'Maybe there'll be someone there who can tell us about the history of the place. It'll be fun.'"
"I never said it would be fun," the other figure said. "And you can't say it was boring."
"A Dragon Priest," Lydia said. "An actual Dragon Priest. And a damned Black Book, which I am not going to open."
"A cool sword," Sigrid said. "That's something."
"I've got," Lydia said, "a sword. I like my sword. I don't need another one."
"Okay," Sigrid said, in her big-barrel-of-upside voice, "well, how about that we've redeemed the memory of Whatsisname's ancestor and made the mine viable again? That's not nothing."
"Do you have to be so positive all the time? I'm dying here."
"No you're not. We do need to top up our potion supply though. That was my last healer."
"And we haven't redeemed the thingy and made the mine viable again till we get back to town and tell someone, and right now, I can't move. Which is going to put a crimp in the plan for tonight."
"Sure you can move. Here, I'll help you." Sigrid moved one arm. It flopped on to the sand beside her. "Okay, maybe not quite yet."
"How long does it take to die of exposure?"
"I don't know, I've never tried." Sigrid's head lolled in Lydia's direction. "How's talking to Neloth looking now?"
"Damned attractive, since you ask." Lydia considered. "You know, I think I could have coped better if it hadn't been for the bandits at the end. They were just that eentsy bit too much."
"Reavers," Sigrid corrected. "They were very clear on that."
"Pfff," Lydia said. "A bandit's a bandit however you slice him, and I've sliced plenty."
"So here you are," Erin said, striding towards them. "Lazing around on the beach while some of us are working."
"We're shameless hedonists," Sigrid said. "Where's the boss?"
"Off with Neloth recovering a Black Book from a Dwemer ruin. I would have gone along, but I can't stand him either. I don't know how she copes."
"It's her particular skill," Lydia said. "Smiling at irritating people. Can you help us up? I think if I could just get on to my feet I could probably stay there."
"How about walking?" Sigrid said, as Erin grabbed and pulled.
"Don't rush me," Lydia said. "Okay. Whoa. No, I'm all right."
"Back to town?" Erin said.
"Definitely," Lydia said. "We have good news to bring. We'll tell you on the way, and then, my dear, we have a little job for you...”
The chairs in the Retching Netch, while strange, were almost as comfortable as the sands of the beach had been, and Lydia was beginning to think the taste of sujamma was growing on her. Erin had deposited her and Sigrid in the inn before embarking on her second-hand mission. Lydia hoped she wasn't going to mess it up.
They had made a small detour to inform Crescius Caerellius of the news. He had been overjoyed, and had rushed off to tell Councillor Morvayn, after pressing a small amount of gold into their hands. Well, Sigrid's hands, to be precise. Lydia's were still having trouble not shaking.
She had killed Dragon Priests before, and to be sure it was a lot easier when there was someone else for them to focus on...but the things still awakened atavistic fears in her. Possibly she had a buried race memory of the time of the Dragon Cult, or maybe she just didn't like draugr that floated. And somehow she had thought there wouldn't be any on Solstheim, which was obvious nonsense. Miraak had apparently been one, after all.
And Sigrid had almost died. She had been out there, taking the brunt of the thing's attacks, while Lydia had been creeping around behind it. Lydia took another sip of sujamma and tried not to think about it. Thank the Divines for healing potions. If only there was a Potion of Pain Removal as well.
Erin slipped into the unoccupied chair. "Okay," she began, "well, I know one thing. The old man's boinking his daughter."
Sigrid, whose eyes had been slowly closing, opened them wide. Lydia stared.
"The girl who's supposed to be his daughter, I should say," Erin went on. "They're fake. The whole family thing is a fraud. I heard the whole thing. They're here to do a job. What job, I couldn't tell you, but they've been planning it for years."
"We can guess," Lydia said heavily. "Did you get any proof?"
"Can't go making accusations like that without proof," Sigrid said sleepily. Lydia slapped her lightly on the wrist. "Awake. I'm awake," she said. "What time is it? Have you milked the chickens?"
Erin smugly withdrew a folded paper from her belt pouch. "I haven't looked inside, but it's labelled 'Ulen,' and that's not their name."
Lydia unfolded it and read quickly. "This is it," she said. "We've got them. We just need to take this to Councillor Arano."
"But you can't move, right?" Erin said sympathetically.
"The sujamma's helping," Lydia said, realising that it was true. "Sigrid, you stay here."
A snore was the only answer. Lydia could not repress a smile. "Okay," she said, heaving herself to her feet, "let's do this."
"The question is," Lydia said, as Erin half-carried her out of Ashfallow Citadel, "am I not feeling the pain because I've got some kind of heroic second wind, or am I not feeling the pain because I'm completely drunk?"
"You're not completely drunk," Erin said. "Though you were shooting a bit wild back there. I'd say right now I'm a slightly better shot than you, which is saying something."
"That would explain why they didn't fall over," Lydia said wisely. "Sorry about that."
"What is the Morag Tong anyway?"
"Ah." Lydia was able to enlighten her friend. "It's one of those things you find on shelves in Nordic ruins, only there's only one of it." She frowned. "I think I've probably had enough."
Erin studied Lydia's face in the darkness. "Yeah, I think so too. Let's get back to town. Arano said he'd wait up for us.”
It was getting to be a habit, Lydia thought, waking up in strange beds. Gods, she had been stupid, and drunk as well. Going off after a gang of professional assassins when she was already wiped out from killing a Dragon Priest and a bunch of bandits. Reavers. Whatever.
Luckily, the sujamma hangover was distracting her from the muscle aches, and vice versa. if she could keep that going she might just live.
Now. Where the hell was she?
Lydia winced, clutched at what she assumed was her head, and told herself that Lethiel was not actually using Voice. Those had not been Words of Power. Just Words of Painfully Excessive Volume. The thunder was all in her brain.
"Gurgh," she observed.
"Sorry," Lethiel said, modulating her tone to a whisper. "I brought water. It helps," she added, as Lydia handed back the first empty mug and reached for the second. "Would you like to hear the news?"
"As long as it's quiet," Lydia managed, around the third mug.
"Well, Neloth and I recovered a Black Book from Nchardak, which is a sunken Dwemer ruin over that way a bit--" Lydia's head involuntarily moved to follow Lethiel's pointing finger, and she winced and recovered it just before it fell off. "Sorry again. In the meantime, you three, between you, have foiled an assassination plot, revived the principal industry of Raven Rock, cleared out a nasty nest of beavers--sorry, I mean reavers, I always want to call them bandits--killed a Dragon Priest *and* found another Black Book. I'm feeling seriously inadequate here."
"There were three of us," Lydia said. She considered getting out of the strange bed as a problem in geometry, and decided it was too complex for her.
"And at least one of you was sober," Lethiel said. "Well, Councillor Morvayn was over the moon, and basically made all three of you full citizens of Raven Rock. And since you killed all the alleged Severin family, and their property is forfeit anyway, this house, Severin Manor, is now jointly yours."
"Ours," Lydia said.
"Yours," Lethiel said. "I'm just some stranger who's been hanging around with a dodgy elf wizard. I still have to earn my citizenship, if indeed I can. You've done it all, love. Freed the people, saved the Councillor, opened the mine...everyone's agog to see what you're going to do next."
Lydia considered. "No," she said, "they're probably not," and dashed for the privy.
By lunchtime, she was feeling much better, though still as though she had been trampled by a stampeding herd of mammoths. Sigrid did not help matters by advancing on her and peering into her face from a distance of two inches.
"Aha," she said. "I perceive that you have been imbibing of the sujamma. A most vulgar beverage, suitable only for apprentices and other such low folk, and highly deleterious to the ratiocinative faculty. I am engaged in a study of the tendency among habitual sujamma drinkers to go off and get themselves chopped to pieces by assassins, and I would be obliged if you would assist me--"
The imitation of Neloth's waspish tones was fair, but Lydia was somehow not amused.
"Pack it in, Sigrid," Lethiel said. "We need to talk."
Sigrid subsided at once, and the four of them sat down.
"As you know, I found a Black Book in Nchardak, and I read it," Lethiel said. "I've seen a bit more of Apocrypha now, and I do not like it one bit. This Hermaeus Mora is supposed to be the prince of knowledge, but he doesn't have the first idea about the storage and conservation of books. I don't think he knows anything, or cares. He's just a rather stupid miser where words are concerned. Anyway, that's a side issue.
"One thing he does know that he taught me is the second Word of the Bend Will Shout. He gave me that for nothing. Only I need the third Word as well, and he's put a price on that."
"What price?" Lydia asked.
"The secrets of the Skaal."
There was a short pause.
"That's cheap," Sigrid said. "I mean, what secrets could they have?"
"That's more or less what Neloth said," Lethiel remarked drily, "and I think you're both wrong. But you're not thinking it through. The Skaal are an isolated community, and they don't go in much for writing things down. What secrets they have are going to be in the head of their shaman. And he's not going to tell them to old Herma-Mora. Not willingly."
"So," Lydia said, "you're supposed to trade the old man's life for this Word."
"Exactly," Lethiel said. "And of course, I'm not going to.”
How else are you going to find this Word, then?" Erin said. "I mean, it may be on a wall somewhere, but who knows where?"
"Well, in theory, we've got it already." Lethiel held up Arngeir's books. "In here are all the Words Master Arngeir knows, and it's very likely that the one we want is among them. I mean, in theory--again--I should be able to just go through the Words in here and learn all the Shouts there are, but sadly I can't. I know because I've tried."
Of course you have, Lydia thought. It would be one of the first things you thought of.
"Is it possible," she said slowly, "that Arngeir did something to the Words in that book to prevent you doing that? I mean, from what you've told me, he warned you not to go too fast with your gift, to avoid Pahlok and all that."
Lethiel scowled. "Probably," she said, "but that doesn't help us with this problem. Damn it, there must be another way. I am not giving up the life of a friend in order to buy a Word. I mean, if I do that, what the hell am I fighting for?"
"What are the Words we've got so far?" Lydia could see the signs, and quickly tried to steer the Dragonborn's mind away from the downward path into which it was so liable to fall. "I know Gol--boy, do I ever--but what's the second?"
"Dov. It means dragon. Earth, and dragon. If only we had some inkling of the logic behind dragon thinking, we might be able to work it out. I'm full of respect for those old Tongues, managing to bolt together a workable Shout on their own."
Sigrid spoke up. "Well, the Shout is apparently about bending someone's or something's will, isn't it? And for the purposes of argument, stone is supposed to have a will, and so do dragons. What's needed is a word meaning something like will, isn't it?"
"That's Fen. Gol Dov Fen." Lethiel repeated the syllables a few times, trying them out. "No, doesn't feel right. It needs an open syllable, like Dah or Zah. It's the sound as much as the sense that matters in a Shout, I think." She frowned again, setting her teeth in concentration. "This is infuriating. It feels as though I've almost got it, but..."
"What's mind?" Erin asked.
Lethiel consulted the book again. "Hahdrim. Wouldn't fit."
"Well, how about Hah?"
"Gol Dov Hah." Again the mumbled repetition. "Sounds almost right, but it's not going in." Lethiel threw the book down on the table. "We don't even know that Hah is a Word."
"Yes," said an unpleasant voice, "you do."
"From now on," Lethiel said, without looking up, "can we put someone on the door, or at least lock it. Good day, Master Neloth. What can I do for you?"
"As it happens," said the mage, "I do have a task that requires your assistance, but I believe in this instance I can help you. The dragon that attacked us when we left Nchardak--"
"You didn't mention that," Lydia said accusingly.
"Went," Neloth went on, frowning ferociously at her, "according to my researches, by the appellation of Krosulhah. A euphonious name, signifying 'Sorcerer Day Mind,' and thus indicating perhaps that prior to its subjugation by Miraak, this particular dragon enjoyed a high degree of mental acuity."
"At least during the day," Lydia said innocently, and got another black look for her pains.
"The semantic distinction," Neloth said, dragging forward a chair and sitting down unbidden at the table, "between 'hah' and 'hahdrim' presents an interesting conundrum in draconic linguistics. One might speculate--at least, *I* might speculate--that 'hahdrim' refers to the individual mind as a thing in itself, whereas 'hah' may indicate the mere quality of having a mind, what one might call 'mindfulness.' However--"
"Thank you," Lethiel said, "Master Neloth. Now if you could please be quiet, I'm having a thought."
"I realise that it must be a very delicate process," Neloth remarked, and deliberately closed his mouth.
"He's cheated," Lethiel said after a moment.
"What do you mean?" Lydia said.
"He's given me the third Word. Dov is the third Word, that makes the Shout work on dragons. Hah must be the second Word. Gol Dov Hah would never have worked. He's got the Words into my mind in the wrong order, damn it. The order matters. That's why I couldn't just go through the book and learn all the Words. I don't know what to do now."
"So the Shout is actually Gol Hah Dov?" Erin said.
"Yes," Lethiel said, "but I can't learn it now. I can't ever learn the whole thing." She looked agonised. "I'm stuffed before I even start. Hermaeus Mora has won.”
I would hardly say that," Neloth said into the silence that followed. "Except, of course, in the general sense that, as a rule, it is the height of foolishness for a mortal to expect to be able to defeat a daedra. Even I would hesitate to take on such a contention. However, in this case, I believe I can offer a solution."
"You can?" Lethiel looked up, hope dawning.
Neloth nodded complacently. "I have been experimenting with preparations designed to remove inconvenient memories. Such expedients occasionally recommend themselves in the cases, for instance, of apprentices who for some bizarre reason take exception to the ancillary consequences of certain perfectly innocuous magical experiments. I am bound to say that certain problems persist, but I have enjoyed a certain measure of success, in a broad sense, and my most recent subject shows every sign of recovering the ability to feed herself--"
"No," Lydia said. She took a deep breath. "It's obvious what we have to do."
"It is?" Erin said.
"No," Lethiel said, but Lydia forged on.
"I've already learned one Word. It--it wasn't so hard, not really. I'm sure I can learn the other two."
"I will not have this!" Lethiel shouted. Her sudden anger shocked everyone, even Neloth.
"Why not?" Lydia countered, almost as loudly. "If the alternative is Miraak winning--and Hermaeus bloody Mora as well--then isn't it the obvious thing to do? Are you so jealous of your precious Dragonborn gift that--"
"It's not that at all!" Lethiel insisted. "And you know it!"
"If you're the only one who can use that Shout," Lethiel explained, her voice rough with desperation, "then that means that you have to be there when I take on Miraak, which is almost certainly going to be in bloody Apocrypha, and--"
"I've been to Apocrypha! I read that first damn Book too, remember? That was how I got you out!"
"And that just makes it all the more certain that Miraak will make a point of killing you first, just to show me she can. I can't watch you die! I just can't!"
"Maybe I'll kill her first! Had you thought of that?"
"And then Hermaeus Mora will kill you!"
"Then I'll die!" Lydia screamed. "If that's what happens! What's the alternative?"
"I--" Lethiel slumped. "I give in to Mora. I take his bargain. I give him Storn, and maybe he can rearrange the Words in my head, maybe he can--"
"And maybe he won't!" Lydia was not letting up. "So you kill this old man to save me, which is a lousy bargain in the first place, and then you swan off to Apocrypha all alone and without an essential weapon, and we have to sit here and wonder if we'll ever see you again? Hell with that! You know my way is the only possible way, and you just won't admit it because of some stupid s-sentimental reason that makes no s-sense..." Her eyes blurred, and she sat down, only realising then that she had stood up.
Sigrid put a hand on her shoulder. "Sentimental reasons are the only ones that do make sense, sweetie. Sentimental reasons are why we're in this bind in the first place. They're what keep us separate from the daedra and the Divines and people like Nelly here who've forgotten what it means to feel things. They're what's important about us. They matter."
Lydia, lost in misery, could find no words.
"But Lydia's right too," Sigrid went on. "Unless you want to try one of Nelly's potions and be reduced to a helpless infant as like as not, Lydia's way is the only way, and I think she's damned brave to offer it. She said it, riding home after we all took on Alduin. 'Whatever the foe, whatever the field, together we stand to triumph or fall.' Maybe we can't all go to Apocrypha and fight Miraak with you, but if you need help and you don't ask for it, don't accept it when it's offered, then it's on you if you fail. Are you ready to take on that burden?"
Lydia didn't open her eyes. Lethiel said nothing.
Neloth spoke, in a tone different from any she had ever heard him use before. "In my laboratory in Tel Mithryn, I have some notes on the taxonomy of the dragon language. If they would be of any use to you, I could bring--"
"Thank you, Master Neloth," Lydia said, with an effort, "but they wouldn't. I only need two Words to think about, and any more would just get in the way."
She felt movement, heard sounds, and then her Thane's arms were around her.
"I'm sorry, love," Lethiel whispered. "I'm a despicable swine with no more worth than a skeever's left--well. You're right. I hate it, but you're right. You're actually the hidden dagger up my sleeve, and I can't hope to win this without you. Mora thinks he's beaten me, thinks he can force me to do his dirty work, and the only thing that stands against that is the fact that--to my eternal and undeserved credit--I've got you."
Lydia turned and buried her face in Lethiel's chest. She still had no words.
Lethiel went on. "Someone please write out Hah and Dov, the same size we usually copy them from the walls. Lydia, I'm going to say this. Don't start on them now. We all need some downtime, and whether the world goes up in fire or not we're going to have it. Okay?"
Lydia, her head still pillowed, nodded.
"And next time I shout at you like that--or shout at you at all--just take your sword and knock me silly with the flat, okay?"
"I was thinking more of a gut stroke," Lydia whispered damply.
"Good choice. Master Neloth, thank you for your help, and I will be coming to see you about the job you mentioned earlier, but I'm sure you understand that we won't be taking on any commissions for at least the next two or three days."
"Of course." Neloth still sounded slightly chastened. Lydia, at last opening her eyes and wiping them, saw him rise from the table, to confront Sigrid. "'Nelly,'" he quoted in tones of deepest disgust, and seemed about to add something else; then he thought better of it, and passed from the room. They heard the front door close behind him.
Then Lethiel and Lydia were hugging properly, and Sigrid and Erin were hugging both of them, and Lydia knew that sometimes there are situations where a group hug is entirely appropriate and, indeed, de rigueur.
There followed three full days of blissful downtime. Raven Rock was coming back to life, and none of the inhabitants of the former Severin Manor were bored. Every day new workers filed into the revitalised mine, and came out at the end of the day to drink in the Netch. Captain Veleth stopped being morose about the inanition of the town, and started being morose about the threat of Reavers attracted by the town's new prosperity.
Lethiel, Lydia, Sigrid and Erin were lionised for one day, and then simply became favoured citizens and friends. A number of people came to them with small tasks they needed doing, and were happy to wait while the team recovered from their ordeals.
One possible complication arose on the second day, when Lydia went to Milore Ienth, the apothecary, for more healing potions. It was Milore whom she had asked about the location of the inn on first arriving in Raven Rock.
"Well," the Dunmer woman said, "I can sell you some, but I wouldn't buy them if I were you."
Milore sucked her teeth. "You won't hear this from most potion sellers--they want to sell potions--but there can be a problem with overuse. See, a healing potion works by forcing the pace of the body's natural processes, making it work faster. Like stretching a piece of elastic, or better, like compressing a spring into a smaller space. If you compress it too hard, too often, and for too long, it loses its springiness and stays that shape. You might find you stop healing altogether unless you use a potion."
"What's the solution?"
"Once it gets that far? Ooh, that's advanced magic. Priest of Kynareth might be able to help, or a College mage. But it's easy enough to prevent. You just have to spend a period of time without using them."
"Like, say, three days?" Lydia said, guiltily thinking of the swig of potion she had had the previous afternoon when she had cut her finger chopping ash yams.
Milore laughed. "More like three months." She looked Lydia up and down. "I wouldn't say you got a problem yet, but it's worth keeping in mind just in case."
Something else to worry about, Lydia thought, as she paid for the potions and thanked Milore Ienth for her help.
"Skeever crap," Sigrid declared robustly when Lydia reported back to the others. "It's an old wives' tale."
"Oh no," Erin said. "It happens with any potion. My uncle once bought a potion from a Khajiit trader to help him...uh...you know..." She blushed prettily. "And it was so effective he bought more, and soon he was using it regularly, till one day the time came when he found he couldn't do it at all without the potion."
"How old was he?" Lethiel asked.
"Ninety-three," Erin replied promptly, "but it makes you think, doesn't it?"
"Okay then," Lethiel said. "Something to keep an eye on but not necessarily to worry about. Good."
Side by side, on a shelf, lay the three Black Books they had gathered, the one from Miraak's Temple, the one from Nchardak, and the one from Bloodskal Barrow. Lydia found herself glancing nervously at them whenever she walked past, as if they might leap at her. She was particularly worried about the one that she had found, that nobody had read yet.
"Well, do you want to or shall I?" Lethiel said, when she mentioned it.
Lydia sternly squashed her first impulse. If she was going to be of any help to her Thane against Miraak, she couldn't be squeamish about going to Apocrypha. "I will if you like," she said stoutly.
Lethiel considered. "Let's try doing it together," she said. "If we find we can't, then that dishes our plan for Miraak completely."
They stood, as close as possible side by side, over the Book, and opened it together. Lydia had only a moment to register that there was text on the page, and then the world darkened around them.
"Gods, the smell." Lydia choked on her first breath of the greenish mist. Lethiel nodded grimly.
"Yes, I didn't notice it the first time either, but it's pungent, isn't it?" She sniffed. "And here comes our host."
Black eyeballs blossomed out of the sky, fringed with tentacles. From the largest of them issued a glutinous, syrupy voice. Lydia paid no attention to what it was saying; she wanted to get her bearings. Around them an infinite sea of black oil stretched to the horizon, pierced at intervals by waving tentacles. They stood on a fragile-seeming latticework surface, suspended above the sea by unknown means. Ahead, a path led towards some steps; the eyeballs blocked any further view.
Hermaeus Mora, for it was he, finished his speech of welcome. Lethiel ignored it completely. "Let's go," she said. "Obviously this is the way forward."
"What is this place anyway?" Lydia whispered, as they moved stealthily along the path. Lethiel had her bow out, and Lydia drew her sword.
"Well," Lethiel said, "what would you imagine the domain of a real semi-divine prince of knowledge to be like?"
Lydia thought. "A huge white palace," she said, "with books neatly arranged and lovingly cared for on shelves, and knowledgeable guides to help you find any particular piece of knowledge you wanted."
"Well," Lethiel said, "this is the exact opposite. Slime, tentacles and beasties that kill you if you try to ask a question." She poked at a pillar. Her finger sank in. "Books as building material." She scuffed up the floor with her feet. "Paper as carpet. Knowledge here is of no value at all. Once he's got it, he loses interest. If we gave him Storn, he'd suck the old man's brain dry and then forget all about him and his secrets."
"Do you think Hermaeus Mora is like Namira? I mean...the hidden face of a Divine?"
"I think he's the hidden face of something." A tentacled horror floated into view, its back to them. Lethiel notched an arrow and shot it before it could turn, and it collapsed into a pile of something dusty resembling the wings of a gigantic moth. Lydia poked among the remains, and retrieved four books and a scroll.
"I think," Lethiel went on, gathering a few sound if slime-coated books from among the rotting and ruined ones that littered a table, "he represents how your ordinary bloke in the field or the smithy thinks about Knowledge. He knows it's there, but he doesn't like it, doesn't trust it and doesn't see the use of it. People who actually collect it and are interested in it, he sees as exactly like this fellow, just misers hoarding rubbish. The stuff he himself knows, about farming or blacksmithing or hunting or whatever, that isn't Knowledge as such, that's just ordinary stuff. Knowledge is strange, and therefore at the same time both bad and irrelevant. And that's what it becomes when it arrives here."
"That's stupid." But Lydia was remembering odd remarks she had heard, growing up in Dragonsreach. The way people treated Farengar, with his innocent enthusiasm for all kinds of lore. The way they talked about the College in Winterhold. The farmer who had proudly told her that he had been brought up to work, not to read or write.
"It's people, love," Lethiel said gently. "Ah, this is fun. Watch." She went up to a sort of plant, from which hung a glowing ball, and tapped it gently. The ball fell into the heart of the plant, which closed up around it and sank into the floor, and a gate opened ahead of them. "Gods," Lethiel went on, "and daedra are only low-rent gods whatever anybody says, take their nature from the belief of their worshippers. Maybe old Haemorrhoids Morbid is the hidden face of Julianos, or somebody. I don't know. But he treats knowledge the way he does because that's the way a lot of people treat it, and there's no changing him."
By the time they had won through to the end of the path, killing two more of the floating things and one of the fish-monsters Lydia had grown used to defeating, they were both loaded down with books and scrolls.
"You've got most of these," Lydia said.
"I'm not just collecting them for myself," Lethiel said. "I'm rescuing them from him." A Black Book, possibly the same one through which they had entered Apocrypha, stood on a lectern nearby. "And this is where Hermetic Norah offers us a reward for being good little adventurers and killing all his servants," Lethiel added sardonically.
"I don't want his rewards," Lydia said.
"Well, one of these," Lethiel said as she perused the Book, "would seem to mean that I'm less likely to blow your head off with a Shout even if you're in front of me, so, given your tendency to *be* in front of me, I think I'll take that one." She grinned. "And now let's get our salvage home."
Side by side, they read the Book together.
On the morning of the fourth day, Lethiel announced that they were back on the clock.
"There's a bloke having trouble with an archaeological dig just outside town," she said. "I quite fancy giving him a hand with that."
Lydia braced herself. "You go," she said. "I'm going to have a try at learning Hah."
"Brave bunny," Lethiel said, and kissed her. "We'll get out and leave you a clear field."
Lydia got out the drawing of the Word, and sat down at the table.
"Don't shoot till you see the whites of its vowel," Erin said.
"And don't worry." Sigrid kissed the top of her head. "If your head explodes, it totally counts as dying bravely in battle. Entry to Sovngarde guaranteed."
"Gee, thanks," Lydia said.
When they were gone, she took several deep breaths and tried to concentrate. The glyphs hung there on the page in front of her. Just really big chicken scratches. Nothing.
She tried to recover the state of mind she had been in at Saering's Watch. Distractions pressed in on her, the sounds of town life outside, the lingering smell of breakfast. The harder she tried, the further away it seemed.
This was no good. Now she was feeling bad about not being able to concentrate, and she couldn't concentrate for feeling bad. In a moment she'd be feeling bad about that.
Look at the Word. Just the Word. Hah. There it was. She just had to...did dragons laugh? If they did, were they actually saying "mind mind mind mind" over and over again?
She shook herself irritably, got up, took a turn around the room, sat down again.
--Paarthurnax, whether you're actually there, or just an echo of you in my mind, I could really use some help here.
She visualised the old dragon, crouching there on his old wordless word wall, in the cold clear air of the mountain top, so far away from this muggy heat and ubiquitous ash. She felt homesick, but that slowly faded away as Skyrim recreated itself around her. She was there, on the Throat of the World, and the Word was there on the wall, and she could hear the slow, deep voice. What was it saying?
--It is "mind" in your tongue. Much that is unknown to the joorre is known to the dovah. Your kind choose to believe that only they possess mind, that only their minds are truly aware. But does not the very earth itself think, long, slow thoughts of Yol and Gol, of Su and Od?
Lydia did not try to answer the question. She merely listened, and embraced the syllable in front of her, taking it into herself.
--Mind is merely another word for change, and thought another word for action. Slow your own thoughts, empty your own mind, and feel the thoughts of the world around you. And when you do that, you may learn to shape the silent thoughts of the Denek, the green thoughts of the Reyththe, and even the fleeting and superficial thoughts of the joorre themselves.
It was coming. She had done it, slowed her thoughts and emptied her mind. She could feel the pulse of thought all around her, not her own, not yet the thoughts of people, but the bitter thoughts of the abused land beneath her, the dim angry presence of the Red Mountain in the distance, spewing its endless cloud that was also, in a way, thought.
--That is the meaning of "Hah." To recognise that all Lein, creation, is mindful, that all mind is one. Su'um ahrk morah. You will find that all minds will dance to your tune.
It was as it had been. She was the Word, and the Word was her. She could not utter it, though, not now. It had to be stored. This huge thing, this concept, round which her mind was so thinly stretched, must be put away, to be brought out at need. With infinite care, with infinite effort, she manoeuvred the thing to the place in her mind where its fellow was stored, and lowered it, gently, oh so desperately gently, to lie beside it.
And as she did so, as she at last dared to let go of the thing, she felt that part of her mind expand, effortlessly, to accommodate it, and tension left her body in a rush, left it clammy and limp and sweating. She felt for the Word in her mind, hardly daring to believe. She had it. She actually had it. She could do this.
It was dark outside. It hadn't taken her as long this time. She remembered thinking vaguely, after the first time, that she might get back to find that fifty years had passed, that all her friends were dead. Time meant nothing to her in the meditative state. But this was the night of the same day, she knew it. She was hungry, but not malnourished. She looked around. Lethiel was sitting in a chair opposite her, as quiet and still as a statue, watching.
"You got it, didn't you?" she said softly.
Lydia nodded. "Need a drink," she said, after making sure the Word was not going to spring out of her mouth unbidden.
"Here." Lethiel offered her a cup of water. "It'll probably get easier every time. I'm sorry you have to do it though."
"I'm not," Lydia said. "I'm glad I can help. And learning things is never bad."
"Hurts sometimes though," Lethiel said. "The others are asleep downstairs. The dig was nothing. The bloke just wanted some money to hire miners. So now I'm a partner." She grinned, and rose from her chair. "Come to bed?"
"Ohhh yes," Lydia said, getting to her feet. "Only since it's actually my bed, maybe I should be asking you?"
"I got in first," Lethiel said, and moved closer.
Oh, the poor thing," Lydia said, reaching out to stroke Dusty's flank from the wooden bridge.
"Ah, she's not doing so badly," Revus Sarvani said. "I keep her fed, and I talk to her from time to time. When her day comes, she'll go natural and peaceful-like. That's what she'd want, and it's what I want."
"And there are really no more left?" Lethiel said.
Sarvani shrugged. "Maybe a few on Morrowind. I wouldn't know. Volcano killed almost all of them. It's funny. Before that happened, people used to think nothing could faze a silt strider. Guess they were wrong." His voice sharpened a little. "Can I interest you in any purchases before you go?"
"That looks pretty," Lethiel said, fingering something in the small tray at Sarvani's side. "Would you call it a trinket, an odd or an end?"
"I'd call it four hundred septims," said the trader promptly. "To you, three seventy-five, 'cause you were nice to Dusty."
Lethiel paid over four hundred. "Thank you. If there's ever anything the Dragonborn Company can do for you, let us know. Lethiel Lightfoot's my name." Sarvani looked blank. Lethiel sighed. "And this is the lady Lydia."
Sarvani brightened at once. "Ah! The hero of Raven Rock! I've heard all about you." He gathered up Lethiel's money and inserted it swiftly into Lydia's belt pouch. "Your money's no good here, my lady, and neither is your friend's. Keep the bauble. Compliments of me and Dusty."
"I'll give it back to you later." Lydia told Lethiel.
"Don't be silly," Lethiel said. "It's nice to be a hanger-on. Hey, can I write it on my shield?" She made a frame with her hands. "'Lydia's Best Friend.'"
"You hardly ever use a shield," Lydia said. "Also, shut up."
They rejoined Sigrid, who was standing a little way off regarding the horizon with great interest.
"Nope. Sorry. Ew," she said in a taut voice as they drew level with her. "Looks like a big flea to me."
"Big ones don't bother me," Lethiel said. "Still, to each her own. Let's press on."
Lydia had to admit that Tel Mithryn was even more impressive from close up. The mushrooms in Blackreach had been big, but these were colossal, and the fact that they were under the open sky somehow magnified the effect.
The boy standing in front of the largest mushroom clutching a spell book in one hand and attempting sorcerous gestures with the other was not impressive at all. Nor was he communicative. The woman watching him, with the air of one prepared to be entertained in a simple way till the cows came home, was more helpful.
"What was that?" Lethiel said, as they trooped up the steps to the largest and most impressive mushroom.
"...I will not punch the wizard, I will not punch the wizard, I will not...oh, sorry," Lydia said. "Just thinking out loud."
"Shame on you. He tried to be helpful the other day."
"Yes, but he's probably feeling better now."
The door in the mushroom opened on a small circular room with a glowing blue floor. As soon as the door had closed behind them, a mysterious force took hold of them and wafted them upwards at a rapid rate. Lydia just had time to think that some warning would have been nice before it deposited them on a wooden platform fixed to an upper floor.
"Ah," Neloth said, looking up from his book. "I was wondering when you would deign to show up. Have you seen my steward?"
I will not punch the wizard, Lydia thought. Not even a little bit.
"The Dragonborn Company," Lydia said. "Come to us with all your domestic staff problems."
"Well, we found him a steward," Lethiel said. "Of sorts."
"That young man is going to go through hell," Sigrid observed.
"Well, but so is Neloth," Lethiel said. "That must be a sort of consolation."
"Not much of one," Lydia said.
They had returned to Severin Manor, after discovering the dead body of the mage's hapless steward, and finding him a not very suitable but willing replacement. The episode had left them with a feeling of anticlimax. Lydia had not punched the wizard, and was rather wishing she had.
"What do you think about this idea of his that he has enemies?" Lethiel said.
"I'd be very surprised if he hadn't," Sigrid said tartly.
"Well, true, but I mean real enemies. Kill your servants kind of enemies."
"Maybe. It was ash spawn killed Varona. Maybe there's a link there with Fort Frostmoth. Didn't we find a journal in there?"
"Yes. Some other mage, experimenting with these heart stone things. Magical rivalry? Could be." Lethiel hunted through the bookshelves and retrieved the slim volume. "Yes," she repeated, thumbing through the pages. "It mentions vengeance. And who do we know who might be a likely target for vengeance?"
"Well," said a new voice, "we might have some ideas."
Lethiel, Lydia, Sigrid and Erin turned to confront the newcomers.
"We might think," Sienna continued, smiling, "of the thoughtless idiot who drags two hard-working Thanes halfway across Tamriel to deal with an emergency that turns out, when they finally get there, to have been dealt with."
Lydia went red. "Oh, Divines," she said. "I should have let you know."
"It might have been useful," Rowan said, from behind Sienna.
Lydia was covered with shame. Lethiel came to the rescue. "Well, I'm glad to see you anyway," she said, putting down the journal and coming forward to hug the new arrivals. "Especially as there's a very real chance of none of us coming back to Skyrim alive. We're up against it, my darlings, and you don't know the half."
"You seem to be doing all right at the moment," Sienna said, looking around. "Swanky house, famous in the community--or at least Lydia seems to be--"
"You really ought to remember the little people now you're a big star," Rowan said.
"Oh, stop." Sigrid got up. "For your information, Lydia's had the worst time of all of us, and this is no more than she deserves. And I'm not surprised she forgot to write and let you know the boss was okay. I mean, so did I. We've been busy."
"Well, then," Sienna said, "tell us.”
So, wait," Sienna said, "let me get this right. Alduin is getting geared up to devour and destroy the entire world. This Miraak is gunning for the Dragonborn in order to conquer whatever's left. And you're all here kicking back and messing about with archaeology?" She stood up and slammed her hands down on the table. "What is wrong with you people?"
"Now hold on just a minute--" Lethiel began.
"No! Good gods, let's get some priorities straight here! Lydia needs to get that final word now, so that we can whack this nutcase and get back to the serious job!" Sienna was genuinely angry. She walked away a few paces, then swung round on them again. "Hell, we were just getting on with our jobs because we thought you were dealing with the real purpose behind all this, and you're just letting it slide!"
"It's not as easy as that," Sigrid protested.
"Nobody said it was easy! It's not supposed to be easy! It's still the single most important job there is, and you can not afford to be focussing on anything else!" Sienna turned to Rowan. "Back me up here, Ro. It looks as if we got here just in time. The boss has obviously lost sight of the big picture."
"You are out of line." Lethiel spoke coldly, flatly.
"Wait a sec, See," Rowan said. "You've never tried to learn a spell, have you?"
"Of course not! What's that got to do with--"
"It takes effort, See. It takes concentration. Sometimes it hurts. If learning a Word of Power, without being Dragonborn, is like that, then you can't rush it. And I imagine it's worse." Rowan looked at Lydia. "And there's your proof."
"What?" Sienna snapped.
Rowan stepped closer and lifted up a strand of Lydia's hair. "Look, see? Grey."
Lydia flinched. "Really?" She twisted, trying to see what Rowan was looking at.
"You've got a rather fetching grey streak, love," Sigrid said.
Sienna snorted. "Come back to me when she starts growing a beard. Don't any of you see? None of this matters! This is the literal end of the world we're talking about, and you're playing stupid games!"
Silence fell, and Lethiel waited for the echo of the thunder to die away.
"Sienna, if you want to leave the Company, just say so, and then get out of this house. You do not get to bully any of us. Not me, not Lydia, nobody. We are doing what we can. Lydia is doing what she can, and incidentally what nobody else here can, and she's doing it brilliantly, and you do not get to shout at her because she's not doing it fast enough for you."
Lethiel moderated her tone slightly. "I give you my word that as soon as Lydia has been able to learn the third Word of Bend Will, we will be seeking Miraak out and putting an end to her. And then we will come home, and I will take on Alduin. Alone, because that's the way it has to be. Do not ever flatter yourself with the notion that you have a clearer idea of the situation and its dangers than the rest of us. And if you want to get some perspective on what you're sounding off about--" She leaned forward, picked up a drawing of a Word of Power, and skimmed it through the air at Sienna. "Walk a mile in Lydia's shoes. Knock yourself out. Learn a Shout and use it, as she has. Then come to me and tell me we're goofing off on the job."
Sienna was silent for a long moment. Her face was pale.
"Sorry, boss," she said. "Sorry, Lydia."
"Actually, I don't think that's a bad idea," Lydia said. "If I can learn a Shout, then so can all of us. Not for Miraak, or even for Alduin, but just to spread the load a little. For the future. I mean," she forced a smile, "if we're still going to be together after we've done the main job."
"Well, that's certainly a question to think about." Lethiel spoke evenly, her eyes still on Sienna's. "And I have no objection, though I expect Master Arngeir will want you all to learn the Way of the Voice as well, just in case you might ever want to, you know, actually use a Shout."
"Yeah, right. Like you have." Lydia smiled up at her Thane.
"Touché." Lethiel looked back at Sienna. "Sorry to come the heavy Dragonborn on you."
"I earned it," Sienna said. "And as for walking a mile in Lydia's shoes--" She stooped to retrieve the Word Lethiel had thrown at her, and studied it curiously. "You know, I just might give it a try.”
Tomorrow," Lydia said. "I'm sorry, my Thane, but I think I need another day."
"That's fine," Lethiel said, with perhaps a little extra emphasis. "Let the second one bed in before you start on the third. And that works for me," she went on, "because friend Ralis has written to me asking for more help at the dig. Apparently they uncovered a nest of draugr and all the miners he hired with my cash are dead."
"Just draugr?" Sigrid said. "What kind of milk-drinking miners do they have around here?"
"Don't be rude," Lethiel said. "Draugr can be very nasty if you're not expecting them. Anyway, shall we go and sort them out? I could do with some exercise."
"I think we all could," Sigrid said. "See, when was the last time you actually had a fight?"
"Few weeks," Sienna said absently. She was staring at the Word Lethiel had thrown at her. Lethiel stepped forward and twitched it out of her hand.
"Good rule of thumb. Don't start with a second Word," she said. "If you're actually going to take me up on this challenge, then we'll do it properly. In the meantime, let's go hit things. I think we might all have some steam to blow off."
"I'll stay here and mind the house," Rowan said. "Retired, remember?"
The dig site, when they reached it, looked efficient and well-organised to Lydia's unschooled eye, if a little uninhabited. Ralis Sedarys, who was supposed to be in charge, looked unwell and unhappy.
"Where are these draugr, then?" Lethiel asked, in tones probably intended to be bracing. Ralis gestured despairingly at the dig.
There turned out to be six of them, "practically one each," as Sienna put it. The entire engagement took about a minute, and when it was done, it was Erin who, curiously picking up a skull, discovered a secret door to another blocked chamber, and an interesting pair of boots. Back on the surface, Lethiel paid over more money to hire more miners, and once again offered the services of herself and her friends. Ralis, however, demurred, saying that they doubtless had more important work to be doing, and suggesting that Lethiel might wish to drop by again in a few days. Nobody mentioned the boots.
"Something off about him," Sienna said.
"What?" Lydia said.
Sienna waved one hand. "Just a feeling," she said. "I can usually tell. Don't mind me."
"Well, that didn't take long," Lethiel said. "What shall we do now?"
"We could introduce our friend to Master Neloth," Sigrid suggested wickedly. "I'm sure they'd get on famously."
"Uh-uh," Sienna said. "You warned me about him already. I'll pass, thanks."
"Let's head up to the Skaal Village," Lydia suggested. "I'd like to speak to Storn again."
"So would I, actually," Lethiel said. "Everyone okay with that?"
"As long as we make a detour around the big flea," Sigrid said, "fine."
They set off at a brisk trot.
--Krosis, said Paarthurnax. No. I cannot teach you that Word.
"Why not?" Lydia said. They were sitting, she on the floor and he on his wall, on the Throat of the World, and the sky was paling with the coming of dawn. They had talked all night, Lydia giving the old dov all the tinvaak he could ever have wished for, but she was not tired.
--Of course there is a Word in our tongue for that concept, Paarthurnax said. However, it is not permitted to be spoken. Did you really think there was no more to the speech of dragons than the few Words the Greybeards know? There is an entire language that none but the dovah may hear or speak, on pain of death.
"But why?" Lydia asked.
--Faas. Fear. Language is power, and to understand the language of an enemy is to know that enemy, perhaps too well. We are solitary creatures, and speak little to one another, and this serves us well; for it is a paradox, is it not, that the most powerful creatures on the face of the world should also be among the most fearful?
Lydia could think of nothing to say to this; but considering it, she found it not at all unlikely.
--So we keep our Vonunne, our secrets, locked away from all others; and among them are all those words which might reveal our weaknesses to our hokoronne, our enemies.
"Who are your enemies?" Lydia said.
The old dragon's voice sank to near inaudibility as he replied.
--Pah. All. All are our enemies. Joorre, other dovahhe, Rahhe, Deyra. Even you, little joor, friend to the Dovahkiin. I am grown sahlo, weak, because I care for your kind, because I care for you. That I do so willingly, that I choose this miiraad, this path, shows only the depth of my weakness.
His voice gathered strength, and Lydia heard thunder behind it.
--But I will not give in so far as to break the unspoken laws of my kind. I will not reveal, not even to you, the most secret Word of the Dovahzul.
His great wings began to beat, with a sound as of rushing wind, and he half rose from his perch.
--I am still dov, he cried in a voice that was all thunder, and his old eyes flashed. I will not confess our greatest weakness. I will not tell you--
And Lydia woke up, with a start. She was lying on furs in the house of Storn Crag-Strider, and howling wind and thunder raged outside; and there was a woman standing over her, looking down at her with a curious expression on her sharp face.
"What did he tell you?" she said. "Tell me! I must know!"
"I--" Lydia blinked. The dream, whatever it had been, had shredded and blown away in the fury of the storm. "I don't know," she said lamely.
"You're lying," the woman snarled, and caught Lydia by the shoulders and began to shake her, and Lydia recognised her now. "I'll get it out of you," Miraak raged. "I'll rip it out of your living brain! Tell me! Tell me now!"
And then Lydia woke up, truly this time, and it was Lethiel shaking her, and there was no storm and no Miraak.
"What is it?" she managed, from a dry mouth.
"You were screaming," Lethiel said. "I don't know what you were dreaming about, but it must have been pretty bad. Are you okay, love?"
Lydia took a deep breath, rubbed her eyes and sat up.
"There's something--" she began, and stopped. "I don't know," she said. "It's probably nothing. It was just a dream."
"Tell me," Lethiel said.
"Well," Lydia began, but at that moment Erin came into the hut.
"See and Sigrid are back," she said. "They've found the smith, but he says the Thalmor have a map we have to get back from them. Something about this stalhrim stuff."
"Ooh, Thalmor," Lethiel said. "Bags I first go." She turned back to Lydia. "Tell me later?"
"Of course," Lydia said. "But it really isn't important.”
"It's interesting stuff all right," Lethiel said, juggling the piece of stalhrim in her hand. "I'm not used to metal that gives off vapour at room temperature."
"Well, Baldor says it's not metal, it's a form of ice," Sienna said. "Only it doesn't melt."
"Either way, it's weird," Lethiel said, handing the lump to Lydia, who, expecting it to be either hot or cold, almost dropped it, "and I think I'll stick with my own gear." She looked up. "And here comes Storn."
The old shaman approached, looking grave, and flanked by Frea and two fur-clad men. "I have talked long with my daughter and others of the Skaal," he said, "and we believe your resolve to resist Herma-Mora, while it shows your benevolence and your courage, is ill-advised."
"I will not willingly yield one life to that pathetic hoarder," Lethiel said steadily. "Please don't try to change my mind. Lydia will master the third word of the Shout, and we shall go together to Apocrypha to challenge Miraak."
"And will you not also be challenging Mora himself?" Storn said. "Can you face down both at once, in Mora's own domain?"
"We will try, if it comes to that," Lethiel said, "but I don't think it will."
"I do not share your opinion," Storn said. "I ask you to let me face Herma-Mora myself."
"For what purpose? We have all three words of the Shout. And I don't believe in appeasement."
"You are a true warrior," Storn said, "but my life is not yours to take or to spare."
"I thought you might do this," Lethiel said, "so I made a point of leaving the Black Book at home. Your life, Storn, is not your own entirely either. It belongs to your daughter, and your tribe, as well as to you, and no daedra has the right to take it, least of all this one. Leave Herma-Mora to me."
"You are as stubborn as Fanari Strong-Voice herself," grumbled the old man. "Well, you will do as you will. We will place our trust in you." He fixed Lethiel with a stern stare. "Succeed, Skaal-friend. Free this land from Miraak, and come home alive from Apocrypha, for I perceive you have yet more to do in this world before you return to the All-Maker. Else shall you bear my curse as a reckless, obstinate fool, who threw away a kingdom to pick up a seashell."
He turned and stalked away, followed by the others. Frea turned back and gave them an unreadable look, before following her father.
Lethiel laughed a little shakily. "No pressure, then," she said.
"Where did you get this lump anyway?" Lethiel made an effort to change the subject, and retrieved the piece of stalhrim from Lydia. "I thought you said your pickaxe couldn't dent it."
"It couldn't," Sienna said. "The Thalmor had this on his ship. I guess he must have had some to know what he was looking for."
"Ah," said Baldor the smith, taking the lump in turn from Lethiel. "My specimen. Thank you. Stalhrim can be mined, but only with a true Nordic pickaxe. I have a few in my house, if you would like to buy one."
"Well, as a pickaxe collector of long standing, how can I refuse?" Lethiel said, digging into her purse. "How much?"
As she and Baldor were concluding the transaction, Sigrid and Erin arrived, accompanied by a little bald man who was busily scribbling in a notebook.
"How did it go?" Lydia asked.
"Bloody Dragon Priest," Sigrid said sourly.
"You mean I've missed another one?" Lethiel looked comically chagrined.
"He almost didn't miss us," Erin said. "But, we come bearing gifts. Claw--no, it's okay, it's supposed to come to pieces--and three count them three word walls, duly transcribed and translated."
"Obviously he was proud of his own face," Sigrid said. "Or too cheap to spring for a mask."
"The magical bridges were the worst," Erin said.
"We took turns."
"Anyway," Erin said, "Tharstan over there was very pleased with our help, and has promised us all copies of his new book as soon as he gets it published."
"That's very handsome of him, I'm sure," Lethiel said. "Well, I think we've done about as much damage as we can around here. Let's get back to Raven Rock and then, Lydia, if you feel up to handling that last Word, I think it's time we brought this junket to a close."
"What about Ralis and the dig?" Sienna said.
"Oh, I'm sure he'll let me know whatever he..." Lethiel broke off. Lilly the courier, the fastest woman in Skyrim, was jogging into the village with a purposeful look on her face.
"Why do I have a bad feeling about this?" Lydia muttered.
"So, basically, what I've been doing," Lethiel said, "is paying for people to come out to a hole in the ground and get killed."
Ralis, who looked even more unwell than when Lydia had first seen him, now looked alarmed as well. "But we're so close!" he said. "I can...I can feel it. The Relics of Ahzidal are almost within our grasp. I'll...I'll hire some guards as well. That'll do it."
"Why don't you just let us do the digging and the guarding as well?" Lethiel said gently. "My girls are good at both."
Ralis looked hunted. He had quite the repertoire of looks. "That's not...no, that's not how it works. You have important work to do. Can't have you stuck out here doing menial jobs when..."
"When there are so many people around whom nobody would miss?" Lethiel's face hardened. "No. Not this time. No more cash, Ralis. No more dead innocents. Just us." She turned to Lydia. "Sienna, Sigrid and Erin and I can handle this, love. Why don't you head back home and get to work on that last Word?"
Lydia hesitated, then nodded. "Of course, my Thane." She took Lethiel in her arms and kissed her soundly. "Stay safe."
Lydia walked back to Raven Rock, let herself into the manor, made herself a meal and a drink, had both, and then sat down at the table. In front of her, against a stack of books, she propped the sheet of paper on which was written the Word. Dov. She knew what it meant, of course. It meant "dragon." But what did "dragon" mean?
That was the problem, of course. The Word had too much baggage in her head already. Lydia took several deep breaths, and focussed on the glyphs in front of her. She was getting the hang of sliding into the state of concentration now. Outside noises faded away. That just left the inside noises to deal with.
The inside noise. The noise that arose from some deep atavistic well of memory, that had always known dragons and feared them. Her ancestors had known them, and been ruled by them, and rebelled against them, and then turned them into stories and songs and wall carvings. She knew about dragons, down to her deepest core.
--But what you do not know, said a small deep voice inside her head, is what "dov" means to a dov. You must put aside all your own thoughts and feelings, and consider the word nimaar, itself, alone.
--To be a dov is to know paradox. To be the strongest creature on the face of the world, and yet to be the most fearful.
A gossamer strand of memory brushed across Lydia's mind. She ignored it.
--To be the most free, and yet inextricably Gro, bound, by our nature. To be the soul of language, and yet to live alone and shun tinvaak even with our own kind. To be the children of Akatosh, and yet to destroy his creation, as Alduin intends.
Lydia listened, focussing on the Word, absorbing its contradictions.
--And in this, we are not alone; and this is the greatest paradox of all. For you, the joorre, are like us in this. You too embody opposites, you too are engaged in Unslaad Krif, constant battle, with your own nature. Thus, to understand the nature of a dragon, you must first look inside yourself, and recognise the dov within. Then you will see that the will of a dov, while stronger than yours, may still be bent to your purpose.
This was hard. The noise kept intruding. Lydia strove for inner calm, to recognise the truths she had been given (or had she always known them?) and put them into their proper perspective, while still not losing sight of the Word.
--That is the meaning of "Dov," in this Shout. To recognise that it is our likeness, our Fron, that makes us vulnerable to each other, and also presents Tahrovin, danger, to ourselves. Su'um ahrk morah. You will find that the dov within yourself grows stronger with every soul you dominate.
The Word was there, filling up her whole self. She was Dov, and for a moment she felt it, the fierce pride, the power, the resistless ambition, and underneath it all, the fear, the weakness, and something else. Something else--no. The Word was all. No distractions, not now. Dov. She was Dov, and Dov was her. And now she must put it with the others, add it to her store. It was the most dangerous moment of the whole process, for once the Shout was complete, how could her frail mortal body keep it in?
She lowered the Word into its place, next to Gol and Hah, three words that together made much more than the sum of their parts. It slid into position, and once again Lydia had the vertiginous sensation of her mind opening up, not only to welcome the new word, but to make space for more. Suddenly, the Shout was no longer *the* Shout, but simply *a* Shout. She knew, instantly, that if she put her mind to it, she could learn other Shouts; that they would all fight her just as bitterly as this one, but that if she could win through, there would be space.
She relaxed, sagging back in her chair. Again, it was dark, but nobody was back yet. She wondered whether she should go out to the site and make sure they were all okay, and then told herself not to be silly.
It only occurred to her later to wonder where Rowan was.
How can you lose an entire mage?" Lethiel demanded.
"Well, she's not that big," Erin commented helpfully.
Lydia hung her head.
The group had returned, cock-a-hoop with victory. It transpired that Ralis had been haunted, and then possessed, by the spirit of Ahzidal, who turned out to be yet another Dragon Priest. Lethiel had his mask, along with several other items of great interest, and another Black Book. The luckless Ralis, whom they judged to have been an innocent catspaw, they had set free to find his own safety, and the tomb left to be covered once again by the ash. And they had come back, as Lethiel said, "to this."
"Did she leave a note?" Sienna demanded. "Did you even look?"
Lydia shook her head. "I was thinking about the Word," she said. "I just thought...no. I didn't think. I'm sorry, my Thane."
"Maybe she went home," Sigrid said.
"The Maiden's still in dock," Lethiel said. "I saw Captain Gjalund heading for the Netch when we arrived. Besides, she would have told us if she was thinking of anything like that. This is bad, very bad." She looked at Lydia's miserable face, and softened. "But not your fault, love. Let's see if there's a message."
There was indeed a message. It was written on the back of one of the Word drawings. It was not from Rowan.
Greetings (it ran). I have borrowed a member of your company, who turns out to have some small aptitude for the simpler magics, to assist me in my research. She will be returned to you in due course. Pray do not alarm yourselves, as the task to which I have set her is laughably simple, and only the pressure of time and my far more important work prevents me from devoting an afternoon to it myself. There may, incidentally, be some benefit to yourselves from this errand.
It was signed, simply, "Neloth."
"I'll kill him," Lethiel said. "I'll pull out his ears and knot them round his neck. I'll--"
"Well, this doesn't look so bad," Sienna said. "A small errand, laughably simple--"
"Ah, you don't know Neloth-speak," Sigrid said. "Allow me to translate." She picked up the paper, and assumed her Neloth voice. "'There's something I want, but the idea of getting it makes me soil my robes in terror, so knowing that there is a handy bunch of expendable idiots in town, I've grabbed the first one I could get my hands on and sent her. If she dies, I'll give you a spare staff or something.'"
"Well, then, let's go and make him tell us where she's gone," Sienna said. "You wouldn't let me kill that rat Ralis, and I've got some repressed anger to deal with."
"We'll go," Lethiel said, "but we'll be polite. We don't need Neloth as an enemy."
"How about as a trophy?" Sienna said. "I've got lots of space in my tower in Helgen."
"Not even as that," Lethiel said. "Polite. Okay?”
"White Ridge Barrow," Neloth said. "I sent her to White Ridge Barrow. Please put me down now."
Lethiel nodded, and Lydia and Erin set the mage on his feet again. He made something of a production of adjusting and dusting down his robes.
"I could have repelled your attack with ease, you know," he said nastily.
"Yes, but then there would have been brawling in your workroom, and your things would have got knocked over and broken, and who knows how many experiments disrupted?" Lethiel said. "I know you'd hate that. You made the wise choice. Congratulations. Now what's at White Ridge Barrow?"
Neloth cleared his throat. "A former...ah, associate of mine named Servos Rendas was investigating a possible new application of magic to some forms of local wildlife. I had heard nothing from him for some time, and I was...concerned."
Anxious to get your grubby hands on his work, Lydia thought, but did not say. "And the possible benefit to us?" she said instead.
"There were indications not only of a Black Book, but also of one of those word walls of which you are so fond," the mage said. "That last, in fact, was the inducement which at last impelled your colleague to take on the assignment."
"If she's dead..." Sienna said menacingly.
"You appear to have very little faith in your colleague's abilities," Neloth observed with a sneer. "I judged the mission to be well within her capacity. However, if you wish to go and make sure for yourselves, I will mark the location on your map."
"Thank you," Lethiel said. "Please do. And I reiterate what my friend here was about to say, Master Neloth. If she is dead, then I'm afraid there will be brawling in your workroom, and you will not leave it alive. And you know that we can do it. Don't you?"
The mage stared into her eyes for a long moment, then sighed and looked away.
"Indeed," he said, making a brief notation on Lydia's map and handing it back.
"So what are you going to do next time you need a dirty job done?" Lethiel said.
Neloth mumbled something.
"I didn't catch that."
"Ask you first."
"Good," Lethiel said, with a sunny smile. "Come on, people." She turned back to Neloth. "Oh, and if we do find anything that might be of interest to you, we'll consider passing it on. Depending on...circumstances."
"Very good of you. Thank you." Neloth sounded utterly defeated. As they descended to ground level, they heard him bawling for Talvas, for his steward, for canis root tea.
It was full night by the time they arrived at the barrow, but there was no need to go in. Rowan was sitting propped up against the stone wall. She looked up as they approached.
"Sorry, boss," she said, "I couldn't beat him. I only just managed to get out."
Rowan rolled her eyes in the direction of the barrow. "Dragon Priest," she said. "And there are spiders. Not the usual kind. Nasty little buggers that shoot fire."
Lethiel heard the sharp intake of breath from behind her. "Sigrid, you stay with Rowan, look after her. The rest of you, with me. Neloth will pay for this."
"What will you do?" Rowan looked alarmed.
"We'll give Argis his address," Lethiel said, with a fiendish grin, "and as much anti-magic gear as we can work up. Come on, girls. Let's do this.”
Sigrid whirled round, sword out, at the sound of approaching footsteps.
"Well done, that woman," Lethiel said, "but it's only us. We came out of that hut over there."
"You get that fetcher?" Rowan said.
"We got him. Mask, Book and Word, all complete. I'd almost forgotten what it felt like to learn a Word direct from the wall."
"And some notes on the spider thing for Neloth," Erin said. "If he's a good boy."
"Then we can go home?" Rowan got to her feet.
"Are you okay?" Lydia asked.
"All healed up. Still hurts like hell though. And I think, with your permission, boss, I'll be heading back to Markarth on the next boat. I only came 'cause I thought you were in trouble."
Sienna snorted. "When is she not?"
"How about you?" Lethiel asked her.
"I'll stay. I want to see you come back from this Miraak trip alive and preferably with her head."
"Lady's got a grudge," Sigrid remarked.
"Only because I want us to get to beating Alduin, and this Miraak is in the way." Sienna stuck out her chin challengingly.
"No more side trips. Promise." Lethiel put her hand on her heart. "As soon as Lydia's up for it, we'll go."
They made their way through the darkness down precipitous slopes to the plains of ash, and so, by degrees, to Raven Rock, and home.
Everyone slept late the following day, and Rowan, in fact, nearly missed the departure of the Northern Maiden. The rest of the Company went to see her off, waving goodbye from the pier as the ship moved sedately out into open water, lingering till the flame of her red hair was no longer distinguishable.
"Ready?" Lethiel asked Lydia as they walked back to the house.
"No," Lydia said, "but let's do it anyway."
They all went inside, and Sienna, Sigrid and Erin watched as Lethiel picked up the first Black Book any of them had encountered, in the depths of Bloodskal Barrow, or Raven Rock Mine, depending which end you came in from.
"Hate these things," she remarked. "They don't even feel like real books. Typical daedric fakery." She rested the Book on the table, and she and Lydia put their arms around each other's waists.
Lethiel opened the Book.
"Word wall," Lydia reported as they emerged from the tunnel. "And one, no two, tentacle beasties."
"Must find out what they're called." Lethiel raised her bow, and Lydia did likewise. The creatures fell, unaware what had hit them.
"Well, I'll get the Word," Lethiel said, "but it's been so long since I killed a dragon I'm not sure I can unlock it."
"Try anyway," Lydia said, keeping her eyes on the sky. If Miraak were going to attack, it would be from there. Lethiel retrieved the literary remains from the two dead beasts, and went to the word wall.
A winged shape flew into view, and Lydia braced herself. This was the ultimate test. Had she actually done it, learned a Shout, or had she simply been fooling herself all this time? She breathed deeply as the serpentine form hovered closer, itself drawing breath. It was now or, well, it was just now.
Golden fire struck the dragon squarely in the breast, and it came in to land as meekly as a lamb. Lydia's knees buckled, but Lethiel was there to hold her up. She could feel the dragon as almost an extension of herself. There was a weird sensation of being in two places at once.
--I am Sahrotaar. Your Thu'um is strong, but you are not the one I was expecting. What must I do?
"Take us both," she managed, "to Miraak."
The flight was even more unpleasant than her first, but Lydia valiantly refrained from being sick. For one thing, Lethiel was right behind her. They circled around and around a colossal tower that rose out of the black oil sea till it seemed about to pierce the green, sickly sky. Then Sahrotaar was bringing them in to land, and Miraak was standing there, on the verge of a central pool, flanked by two more dragons. Lydia wondered if she could control all three of them. She thought probably not.
"Both of you?" Miraak's voice rose in disgust. "What is this, are you joined at the hip or summat? Kill One Get One Free?"
"We're the Dragonborn Company," Lethiel said, dismounting. "We come as a set. The others send their apologies, but you are rather hogging the dragons."
"Ooh, straight out of the knife drawer, aren't you?" Miraak spat. "And you somehow managed to tame Sahrotaar, stupid great lump that he is. I thought we'd stuffed you good and proper, sticking you with the wrong Word. My idea, by the way, not his. No bother. I may as well kill you now as later. And I'll start with your little...friend."
Lydia directed Sahrotaar into the air, and avoided the bolt of flame Miraak shot at her. She couldn't actually do anything, except be a distraction, but she could be that. Meanwhile Lethiel was firing arrow after arrow, as Miraak whirled and tried to bring a Shout to bear.
The false Dragonborn was now outlined in flame, which seemed to be serving her for armour. Lethiel paused a moment, and Lydia brought Sahrotaar over Miraak's head in a screaming dive that should have parted her hair. When she looked back, Lethiel was also armoured in flame, and the two were sword against sword.
Something caught Lydia's eye, far away, something moving. Not surprising, everything was in constant motion in this foul world, but this looked white. She identified the platform with the word wall, and strained her eyes at the three little white dots jumping up and down on it. Then she sent Sahrotaar arrowing that way.
"Can you carry four?"
--As many as you wish, the dragon replied, but quickly. Your Thu'um will not last for ever.
By the time they got back to Miraak's Tower, the other two dragons were both dead, bleached skeletons. Lydia had no idea what had happened. Lethiel was not doing well. The Dragonborn was on the run, dodging and evading Shout after Shout, and Miraak seemed as fresh as ever.
"Hey!" Miraak yelled as Lydia, Sigrid, Sienna and Erin leapt off the dragon and charged. "Not fair! Not bloody fair!"
"Sahrotaar, get away from here!" Lydia gasped, but the dragon did not move. Then they were on Miraak, giving her no room to turn, no moment to think, sword and sword and war axe and greatsword slashing at her, her dragon armour peeling away in flakes of light, and Lethiel was with them.
"Sahrotaar!" Miraak gasped. "Ziil los dii du!"
To Lydia's horror, the dragon convulsed and shrivelled, the flesh burning away from bleached bone. Miraak grinned at her expression. "Told you!" she taunted. "It's all about power! Nothing else is worth a damn! And now--" And she flew into a furious whirling attack that drove them all back and caught Erin's arm with a blow that shivered bone. Erin howled and fell to her knees. For a moment there was a clear space around Miraak.
Miraak's body flew into the air and went spinning away, far from the tower, to land who knew where. Lydia looked round at her Thane, and looked away quickly. Sienna and Sigrid were tending to Erin; they were all bleeding in several places, and Sienna looked to be limping.
When Lydia ventured to look back at Lethiel, her expression was once again one she could look at without horror. She came forward.
"I'm okay," Erin said. "Just need...a potion."
"I think we're done here." Lethiel's voice was flat.
"NoT...quITe." The sky above them was suddenly full of black globes with tentacles and staring eyes.
Lethiel put her hands on her hips and stared up at the apparition.
"So," she remarked affably, "the tired old puppet master appears at last."
With a sucking sound, a huge tentacle emerged from the pool of black oil at the centre of the platform. On it, twitching and gasping, was impaled the body of Miraak, coated in a gruesome mixture of slime and blood.
Lethiel spared a glance at the hideous spectacle. "Gottle of geer?" she inquired innocently.
"We haVe unfinIShed busiNEss, DragONborn," the glutinous voice said.
"Ah, no, I don't think so."
"You wERe to BrinG the SkaAL shaMAn to mE. I reqUIre his sECrets."
"Well, you're going to have to go on requiring, I'm afraid," Lethiel said. "No more secrets for you. Ever, if I have anything to do with it. You talk about your 'library.' Have you looked at it lately? This is no library, this is a junkyard. And you," she went on, pacing around the platform, talking with easy gestures, "the lean and slippered pantaloon, shuffling and mumbling about in your old sloppy slippers, fumbling at decaying rubbish with arthritic hands in moth-eaten fingerless gloves, your mind half gone and the other half consumed by fantasies of the wisdom of the ages. Who was the seventh king of Solitude?" she snapped suddenly, whirling to point a finger at Mora. "No answer? How tall is the second highest mountain in Tamriel? What's the average litter size of the common skeever? What's the airspeed velocity of an unladen dragon? Any ideas?" Lethiel paused. "Do you actually know anything at all?"
"i COuld kILl yoU whERE you STAnd," the voice said, sounding distinctly nettled.
"And then you'd know even less," Lethiel said. "Yes, you could kill us. It's one talent even daedra seem to be capable of mastering, and they all do. But we always come back." Her voice fell to a thrilling whisper. "Millions and millions of us, more and more with every generation, and more and more of us seeing through the tired old Elder God shtick and the pose of omniscience. Everyone you let into this horrible old shonky shop of yours knows you for what you truly are, and you can go on killing us till the cows come home, but sooner or later we always come back. And we know you, Herma-Mora." She paused again. "Yes, that's right. The old bogeyman of the Skaal, transformed with a lick of paint and a bit of elbow grease into a Daedric Prince, no less. At least the last one I dealt with had something to be said for her. You? Pfff. You're irrelevant, Herma-Mora."
"YoU DarE nOt sAY ThEse THIngs!!" The voice was raging now. Lydia was transfixed with terror. The sound ran like fingernails along the blackboard of her nerves.
"You gave me the third Word of a Shout when I didn't know the second. Miraak's idea, she said. Stupid idea, but you went along with it. And we beat her anyway, and we'll beat you too. Because you're stupid, and you're alone, and you have no idea what's happening to the world. We are Mortal. We are Legion. We know how to hold on to knowledge, to keep it from you, and to pass it around among ourselves. That's your stock in trade--" Lethiel snapped her fingers. "Gone."
"YoU WiLL nEVer LEAvE HeRE!!!"
"That's up to you, of course," Lethiel said, starting to walk about again. The eyeball swivelled to follow her. "You can keep us here, or kill us, or whatever. We're in your house, and you hold the keys. It won't stop what's happening. Mortals are gaining on you all the time, you're on the way out whether we live or die, and if I were you I'd be planning a quiet retirement somewhere. Oh, and in case you hadn't noticed, Alduin's come back and is planning to eat the world. What that does to your career prospects I wouldn't like to speculate, but I can't see them exactly flowering when there's nobody left to know anything, nobody left to push around, nobody left to gibber at and try to frighten. At which, by the way, you are truly pathetic. But, if that doesn't bother you, by all means, keep the Last Dragonborn and her allies here and indulge your childish pique to your heart's content. You could hold your breath till your eyeball turns blue, or whatever colour it would turn. Frankly I don't care. I can just as easily spend my last days of life giving this place a radical facelift." She looked up at the quivering form of Miraak. "You know, if you stuck a candle holder in her mouth she'd make quite an interesting conversation piece."
There was a long silence. Then a Black Book on a stand rose out of the pool, apparently untouched by the slime.
"GO," Hermaeus Mora rumbled.
"There's a good daedra. Come on, people, before he changes what passes for his mind." Lethiel quickly gathered her companions around the Book, all as closely touching as possible. "Oh, and if you were wondering, the average litter size of the common skeever is four. Unless I'm lying." She opened the Book. "You can stick your rewards up whatever you keep at the opposite end from your eyeball. Bye-bye."
They all read the Book together, and Apocrypha dimmed and vanished from around them, to be replaced by Severin Manor. Lydia breathed in untainted air gratefully.
"You did it, my Thane," she said.
"Of course I did," Lethiel said matter-of-factly, smiling. "Hadn't you heard? I'm the Dragonborn." Then her eyes rolled up, her knees gave, and she collapsed on the floor.
"I'm all right, I'm all right." Lethiel was picking herself up almost before Lydia reached her. "Sorry," she went on. "I just came over all unnecessary there for a minute."
"That was your big plan?" Sienna demanded. "Insult Hermaeus Mora to death?"
"You can't kill a daedra," Sigrid said.
"You know what I mean!"
"Plan?" Lethiel said. "How would you plan to defeat a daedra? Of course I didn't have a plan. Not at first anyway. When Mora pulled that trick with the Shout I got an inkling, but no, sorry, my dear, there was no big plan. I just thought what would Anja do and did it. Hey, she got to be jarl."
"That thing could have killed us all at any time!"
"Yes." Lydia looked at Sienna thoughtfully. "So why *did* you all come through the Book after us? Not that I'm not very glad you did."
"We thought you could use some help," Erin said. She had found a healing potion and was massaging her arm.
"And what would you have done if Lydia hadn't commandeered a dragon? Given that there might not have been any way out again from where you were?"
Lydia, Sigrid and Sienna looked uncomfortably at each other.
"Yes, I gambled with all our lives, but so did you," Lethiel said. "Yes, I faced down a daedra with nothing in my hand, not even as much as I had against Namira, but it only worked because he was doing the same and we both knew I knew it. You just came charging through the Book ready to hit things. It was horribly irresponsible of you, my dears, especially not leaving anyone behind to mind the house. Thank you, and I love you for it, but please don't do that again."
"Lydia?" Sienna said. "Haven't you got anything to say about this?"
"What should I say?" Lydia said. "I trusted my Thane and here I am alive to tell about it. To be honest? I think she might have done it all on her own, if it hadn't been for that Shout, and I think she would much rather have done it all on her own, without putting any of us at risk. And I don't understand what you're so angry about."
"She's angry because it worked," Lethiel said. "I got away with it when I shouldn't have done. That's why I went wobbly just then, because I almost couldn't believe it myself."
Sienna looked as if she would like to say more, but contented herself with a sullen glance from under her brows.
"But don't worry," Lethiel went on. "I have a much better plan for dealing with Alduin. I'll go to Sovngarde, bring him down with Dragonrend and hit him with a big lump of something till he stops moving. No fancy stuff, no risk, no brains required. Is that better?"
"Well," Sienna said grudgingly, "at least I promise not to be angry if it works." She offered a tentative smile. "Ah, I'm just jealous. I've been working the marks all my life and you just pulled off a score I would never even have tried. And you made it look easy."
"That's how we do it, isn't it?" Lethiel executed a little dance step. "Float like a butterfly, sting like something that stings a lot. And now," she said, "time to rest. Tomorrow, or whenever the boat comes back, we sail for Skyrim, and then it will be time to call time on Alduin."
"Do you think you're strong enough now?" Sigrid said.
"I'm stronger than I was," Lethiel said. "I think that'll have to do. Anja was right. I can't keep on putting it off."
Lydia watched her Thane moving about, as the others dispersed to their beds, saw the deadly weariness she had been dissembling. The months of adventuring, the battle with Miraak, had hardened the Dragonborn, but had also sapped a good deal of her energy.
She wondered whether it really would do.
She knew it was a dream this time, but it didn't make it any easier.
The curving paths doubled back on each other endlessly, and Lydia had no idea whether she was going inwards or outwards, or whether she had got turned around and was merely retracing her own steps. She padded along, looking for...something, swivelling the shutters at every corner to peer through at the next turn. Maybe she was just looking for the way out, but she didn't think so. There was something in here she needed to find.
And there was something else in here with her. Someone else. She could sometimes hear him breathing, the tick, tick of his claws on the stone floor, the rasp of barbed wingtips against the walls. Sometimes, peering through a shutter, she would catch the glint of a milky blue eye, or torchlight glancing off grey scales. But were they grey, or were they really black?
And there was the voice, the old, loved, familiar deep voice, that spoke to her from deep inside her.
--It is called the Unslaad Hahnu, or sometimes the Zojiik Krent. We call it so to avoid using its name.
"Why?" Lydia shouted, and her voice echoed and re-echoed down the curving passages.
--Because it is sahlom, a weakness. To name it is to own it, to take the Word inside oneself and be opened by it. To understand its meaning is to duvaat meyar, to renounce one's self. No dov dare do that.
"You're wrong," Lydia said. "You wouldn't have a Word for it if no dragon ever--"
--We have Words for many things that no dov can know. As you should remember.
The passage turned, and Lydia turned with it; was that a tail, flicking round the curve of the passage just ahead? But now the voice was coming from behind her.
--But you are right. It is not a thing utterly vomindok, unknown, to my kind. And perhaps to see it as weakness is to yield it suleyk over us. Paradox again. There is no filok, no escape.
Lydia was starting to believe it. She was sure she had threaded these curves before. She wondered how the passages, which were barely wide enough for her to walk, also accommodated him. "Please," she begged. "Tell me the Word. Teach me what it means to you."
--I dare not. The voice was sad, defeated. My zeymah would fall upon me and devour me, and then who would stand against Alduin?
"My Thane stands against Alduin," Lydia said angrily. "She will not fail."
--Aalkos. Perhaps. If she conquers, if Alduin is truly defeated...then perhaps I may teach you this Rot.
"But what if I need it sooner?" Lydia cried, and again the maze echoed to her voice.
--Hush, little joor. There was amusement mingled with the sadness in the voice now. You have mastered one Shout, and you think to bend all the world to your Jah, your will? There is more dov in you than you dream.
And with that word, the walls of the maze began to grow misty and insubstantial around her, and she cried out in rage and frustration, because she was so close, so close...and just before the light of day struck through her closed eyelids and banished the dream for ever from her mind, she was sure she could see him, through the ghostly walls, in the very next passage to hers...but she still could not tell if he were grey, or black.
And then she was sitting up, in the big bed in Skyfall Estate, back home in Skyrim, and Lethiel was stirring and mumbling and reaching out for her, and she had lost it again.
Lydia stood on the deck of Skyfall Estate, being rained on.
It was so, so good to be home, where what fell out of the sky was wet water and not foul ash. Her heart went out to the people of Morrowind and Solstheim, and she twirled in the rain, arms outstretched, head thrown back, mouth open, and caught the cool clean drops on her tongue.
A voice from the doorway broke into her rapture.
"Oi! Azura! Get inside before you drown!"
Lydia, laughing, suffered herself to be thus summoned by her Thane, and they went through into the main room, Lydia stripping off her wet clothes as she went. Olivia, the silent servant, collected them and handed her a dry robe.
"I was thinking tomorrow," Lethiel said, picking up the thought that was in both their minds. "I know it's a bit soon, but the sooner I go, the sooner I can get back."
Assuming you can get back, Lydia thought, as her head emerged from the neck of the robe.
"Do you have any...you know, memories of this part?" she said.
Lethiel looked puzzled for a moment, then smiled. "Oh, you mean that old idea of mine about having done all this before? No, nothing at all. I'd almost forgotten about it. Either I've never got this far before, or more probably I've done so much differently this time that none of my previous efforts are relevant. I'm winging it, love. I know what I've got to do, and I know that I should have all I need to be able to do it." She took both Lydia's hands in her own. "I hate that I have to do it on my own...but at the same time I'm glad that it *has* to be that way. I can't be tempted to put you or any of the others at any more risk."
"Me, I'm overjoyed," Sienna said, appearing from the kitchen with two mugs of hot spiced wine. "I had enough of whaling on Alduin up on the mountain."
"Well, if Paarthurnax is right, he should be rather more vulnerable in Sovngarde," Lethiel said, and drank. "Gods, that's good."
"I still don't get how that works," Erin uncoiled from an armchair by the fire. "I mean, the dead are supposed to be immortal in Sovngarde, so why won't he be?"
"Because he doesn't belong there, doofus," Sigrid said. "It wasn't made for him. His life force is sort of out of sync with it."
"But he eats the souls of the dead."
"Well? You eat fish, but could you breathe underwater?"
"With a potion I could," Erin came back smartly.
"Dragons don't drink potions. If they did they'd need like a barrelful at a time. Anyway, that's irrelevant. Alduin..."
Lydia, cradling the hot mug in her hands, left them to it. Lethiel was watching the argument with evident enjoyment, occasionally marking a score on an imaginary chalkboard. Lydia wandered out into the library, and sat down at a small table by the window.
--Paarthurnax? she whispered inside herself. Are you there?
There was no reply.
--I don't know if my Thane is coming back, and I don't think she knows either. If you knew, would you tell me?
Silence in her mind, broken by laughter from the inner room. Somebody had clearly made a telling point.
--Look, maybe you're real and maybe you're not. Maybe you're you, and maybe you're just me. I don't know. But either way, I really need your advice.
--Advice in the face of Mahtiid is foolish. The voice came at last. You already know what you have decided to do. Whether it is onik, wise, is of no matter. You must have no doubts, little joor. They will destroy you.
--I don't have any doubts, Lydia thought. I just wish I knew what would happen.
--So do all who ride the wuldsetiid. Odahviing was right to name you Tuzahrkspaan. But will a blade and a shield be enough? Wo mindok? Who knows?
Erin came running in from the inner room, shrieking with laughter and pursued by a flying cushion, and Lydia banished her dark thoughts. They were for tomorrow. Today was for living in. She caught the cushion and flung it back at whomever had thrown it, and joined in the free-for-all into which the argument had degenerated.
I don't have any doubts, Lydia had said in her mind to the voice she thought of as Paarthurnax. She had lied. Now, as she crept up the stairs in the wake of Balgruuf, Irileth and Lethiel, doubts were crowding in on her thick and fast. Not about whether what she was about to do was the right thing, but about whether she could even do it.
One of the guards at the doors to the Great Porch saw her, and she froze. Deliberately he winked at her, and shoved the butt of his spear into the hinge of the door, preventing it from locking straight away. Lydia gave him a grateful smile--it was Fraknar, an old friend from her guarding days--and slipped through the narrowing gap, at once fading rapidly sideways in case the boom of the door should cause anyone to look that way.
--Doubts will destroy you, Paarthurnax had said. She strove to crush them, edging round the side of the vast space. The trap mechanism was still broken, but scaffolding on either side of the Porch indicated that on another day there would be artisans up there effecting repairs. Lydia wondered where they would find another chunk of wood that big.
The Shout filled the air. Lethiel's Voice had gained in body and timbre since the previous occasion. Everyone waited, tensely, to see if the dragon would keep the word he had given to Lydia. She wondered if Lethiel was regretting not having asked her to come along. Probably not; the Dragonborn didn't seem that big on regrets, and this way, as Lethiel probably thought, Lydia would be safe at home doing her sewing while she was off facing death and danger.
Well, to hell with that, Lydia thought, and braced herself.
There he was, as promised, growing on the air, coming ever closer. He paused, hovering, for a moment, and she had a feeling that one of his eyes had picked her out from the shadows; then he came in to land, and began to shuffle round as he had done before. Lydia took her chance. Doubts melted away as she grabbed on to the tail and climbed up it, seeking a secure purchase.
--Dovahkiin, Odahviing said. The joor to whom I spoke is not here?
"Alas no," Lethiel said. "I asked her to remain behind. This is not a journey I would ask anyone to take with me."
--Do you fear flying so much? The dragon sounded amused. She was not so timorous. But I take your meaning. It is the end of the journey, at Skuldafn Temple and beyond, that you fear, and rightly. The way will not be easy. It is well guarded, and I dare not venture beyond the outer gate. Be ready, Dovahkiin. We who serve not Alduin wish you well.
"Thank you," Lethiel said, settling herself astride Odahviing's neck. "Shall we be off?"
Three times in one lifetime, Lydia thought. Am I an idiot, or just greedy?
And as Odahviing's wings grabbed at the air, and Dragonsreach dropped away beneath her, she heard, for the first time, the sound of draconic laughter in her mind.
As Lethiel, moving in shadow and silence, crept up the broad steps to Skuldafn Temple, Odahviing took to the air and flapped away.
A few minutes later, he landed again, and Lydia gratefully slipped down from his tail and approached the huge head.
--Fight well, Tuzahrkspaan, as the Orsimer say. Odahviing kept his voice low. Protect your Dovahkiin. She will still be needed once Alduin is defeated.
Lydia almost asked what for, but this was not the time for idle tinvaak. "Thank you, Odahviing," she whispered, and briefly stroked the dragon's scaly cheek. For the merest instant she almost thought to feel him nuzzling into her hand; but she could not be sure. The next instant he was aloft again, and she was on her backside on the dusty earth, buffeted off her feet by the wind of his passing.
She called herself to order, checked her sword, bow and arrows, and crept after Lethiel.
And you will know her by the trail of undead, she thought, passing the first of many extinct and looted draugr. She kept well back, and thus had an excellent view of the Dragonborn's lethal progress through the extensive temple complex. A pang of sadness touched her, not to be fighting at her Thane's side, but then that was the whole point: Lethiel would not have countenanced it.
She would be angry when she found out.
Lydia would cross that bridge when she came to it.
She caught herself up. She had followed too closely; she was barely twenty feet from Lethiel, could hear her mutter "Hold still while I rob you," as the draugr she was looting slid down the steps. Lydia stayed where she was till the gap was once again wide enough for discretion.
A movement caught her eye; a draugr, one of the really bad ones in the horned helmets, was sighting along an arrow at Lethiel's back from a far wall. The Dragonborn had not seen it. Without even thinking, Lydia notched an arrow, raised it and fired. The draugr fell, and she cast an anxious glance back at Lethiel; but the incident had not attracted her attention, and she was going towards a big set of iron doors. Lydia moved a little faster. She could not afford to lose Lethiel in some inner labyrinth.
A Dragon Priest. Of course Alduin would have his own.
Lydia watched, her fist in her mouth like some green girl, as Lethiel battled the thing. It sailed left and right, dodging arrows with contemptuous ease and spraying a wall of lightning in front of it from its staff. Lethiel battled through it with dogged persistence, and kept on firing arrows. Save some for Alduin, Lydia silently begged.
This was torture. If she revealed herself now, Lethiel would simply march her back to the entrance and call Odahviing to take her home in disgrace. No way would she go through the shimmering, radiant portal behind the Priest if she knew Lydia was following her. Lydia had to hold back. She dared not help.
At last Lethiel seemed to get the measure of her opponent. Two arrows went home in quick succession, and as the lich hesitated in mid-float, Lethiel leapt forward and severed its head with one stroke, catching it before it could fall into the portal. She picked up the staff in her other hand, looked at it for a moment, then (Lydia ducked out of sight) took a long look around at her surroundings, as if memorising them. Then she rammed the staff into the ground in front of her, took a few paces back, took a run up and leapt into the portal.
From a standing start, Lydia pelted after her, and reached the portal only a few seconds behind her.
They vanished from this world.
Lydia was overwhelmed.
The light, from the unchanging, ever-changing, sunless sky was not bright, but there was so much of it. The sounds, of moving air and water and the rustle of leaves, were not loud, yet they flooded her hearing. The fragrances, though but those of the simple, familiar flowers of Skyrim, almost brought her to tears with their poignancy, and the air itself seemed to go to her head.
She could tell Lethiel was feeling the same, if only because she had arrived just three paces behind the Dragonborn and Lethiel hadn't noticed her yet. Now, she concentrated on being invisible and inaudible as Lethiel set off down the path which sloped downwards into the mist that seemed to veil most of the land spread out before her.
Something about the mist seemed out of place to Lydia. It didn't belong. This mist mislikes me, malign is its purpose, she thought, and found nothing strange in the phrasing of her thoughts. It was going to be hard to keep distance when she couldn't see Lethiel in front of her.
Ah, thought Lydia, deft is the Dragonborn, crafty in cunning, with valiant Shout to shoo off these vapours. The mists cleared immediately around Lethiel, and wandering figures became visible, soldiers in armour of the Empire and of the Stormcloaks, others in yet stranger gear; and in the distance, a large edifice emerged, its buttresses and turrets piercing the sky.
The end of our faring, but I may not follow, Lydia thought; unworthy of welcome to Shor's hall of wassail, I'll bide here in patience till battle be joined. She watched Lethiel, tiny now in the distance, meet the challenge of a brawny warrior who stood at the nearer end of a bridge constructed of bones.
Battle. The thought thrilled along her every nerve. She felt invincible, as though she could take on every dragon that had ever flown and round off the feast of slaughter with the Lords of Oblivion. She was a Nord, and Nords were born to fight. What else were they for? She looked around momentarily for someone to pick a quarrel with.
And then she saw her father.
All the battle fury left Lydia in a rush. She hurried down the path from the place where she had paused, and met him there. At the sight of her, his eyes filled with tears.
"Ah, Lydia, Lydia, beloved daughter," he said, "how fare you here, yet hale and in flesh? And why, when our doom is so deathly upon us, voyage so far from Skyrim's fair valleys?"
"I come on an errand uncanny and eerie," Lydia said, "to succour the Dragonborn, doomed to the deed. The dragon devouring the dead of this land is destined to die at my sword-sister's hand." She was rather proud of this, though in truth the versifying was not something she could have put aside in any case.
Her father shook his head despondently. "I fear lest you fall, for fate is yet fickle, and I all alone here, unchildered, unwived. Your mother came not to this meadhall of heroes. Elsewhere in Aetherius she wanders at will."
Lydia embraced him. "I'll join you with joy when my time comes upon me, and many's the tale I will tell at that meeting. But lo, I must leave you; my lover is coming, and so is the fight for the fate of our souls!"
Lethiel had indeed emerged from Shor's hall, flanked by three grim and seasoned warriors whom Lydia could not recognise. The mists had closed in again while she had been inside, and Lydia saw with a shock that her father was no longer in sight. Still she kept out of Lethiel's view. It was not yet time.
"LOK...VAH KOOR!!!" Again the Shout Lethiel had called "Clear Skies" rang out, this time in fourfold unison, and the mists thinned and vanished, revealing the true extent of Sovngarde. Lydia gasped at the size of it, thus briefly displayed; but almost at once came a savage Shout in response, and the mists rolled back. Twice more this was repeated; and then, a black shadow crossed the unveiled land, and Alduin came forth to battle.
Again, at the impact of that dread Shout, Lydia saw Alduin convulse in mid-air, and descend in awkward, lurching dips to land heavily on the sward before Shor's hall. At once the heroes of Sovngarde were upon him, and Lethiel with them, raining stroke after stroke on his black scaly hide; but he was still formidable, even here, even bound to the earth, and a savage slash with a claw brought one of the heroes, cursing, to his knees. Another, a scarred woman, made a desperate cut at his snout, and paid for it dearly, as his jaws closed on her, shook her as a terrier shakes a rat, and sent her soaring into the air. The third, an older man, wasted a precious moment bending over his fallen comrade, and a wing caught him and knocked him senseless to the ground.
But Alduin was flagging. Blood was streaking his flanks, his wings, his head and shoulders. He was vulnerable here. He could be hurt. The younger male hero returned to the attack, and Lethiel charged in for the kill.
And then Lethiel was down, limp and motionless, pinioned beneath one great taloned foot, and the other hero was sprawling on the ground, and the jaws were opening, and suddenly, though no voice had spoken in her head, Lydia knew.
"Alduin!" she shouted. "Stop!"
There was a frozen moment of hesitation, and then the black horned head turned towards her, and the red eyes were glaring into hers.
--Who are you, Alduin said, to command me?
"Me?" The compulsion to alliterate seemed to have left her, and not a moment too soon, Lydia thought. "I'm nobody. I have no power, no dragon blood. But I know you, Alduin."
--All know me. I am Al-Du-In, Destroyer Devourer Master. And you distract me from my prey.
"That is not your name," Lydia said clearly.
Alduin seemed almost to flinch. Lydia pressed her advantage.
"Our names are our natures," she said, "But you are the First Born of Akatosh, and why would Akatosh beget first of all a monster of greed and cruelty?" She must go carefully. This was not a time for the Anja technique of bluster and obfuscation. The truth must be spoken simply and clearly, and above all, quietly. "Our nature is as it is," she went on, "but we can go with it, or against it. You went against your nature, as only one other dov has done, but he kept his original name as a badge of his shame. You changed yours to one you liked better, and all dovahhe took their natures from you thereafter."
--You lie, Alduin said, but the thunder in his voice was muted.
"And the name you chose was a cunning one," she said, "for that for which you were first named is also a destroyer, a devourer, and a master, if it goes to extremes. I know you, Alduin. You are the hidden face of the dovah's greatest weakness. Your greed, your cruelty, your ambition, your arrogance, all perverted, self-directed extremes of the one thing you sought to deny to all dov, to cast out of the world, that it might for ever be a place of hatred and war and never-ending struggle for dominance, and nothing more.
"I know you, and I will call you by your true name. It is a Word I have never heard spoken in your tongue, and yet I have no need to learn it, for I have known part of its meaning perhaps my whole life. Though only lately have I understood it in full." She smiled.
--NOOO! Alduin shouted. The Dragonrend effect had passed off, but he remained on the ground.
"I name you Lokaal, and I call forth your true nature," Lydia said.
Alduin writhed; the claw pinioning Lethiel dug cruelly into her body, drawing a whimper of pain from her, then lifted and waved feebly in air, and the old man, who had just recovered his senses, quickly pulled her clear as black flames began to engulf the dragon's body. Black flakes of skin began to float away, and where they had been something else appeared, a dazzling, shimmering gold. Alduin screamed, a sound without words, as his scales shed their inky coating, as the black flames consumed the blackness that had concealed his true nature. And as the last of the black floated free and vanished, so the whole body of Lokaal, the First Born of Akatosh, became a mass of glowing golden sparks that thinned and faded and were gone at last, leaving not a trace behind.
--Pruzah Krongrah, little joor, said the deep voice in Lydia's head.
"You helped me," Lydia said aloud, not caring who heard her.
--I only gave you the Word. As you said, you already knew the meaning and the Mulaag, so it was no betrayal of my zeymah. And now my brother is free of his self-inflicted curse, and the world must find some other way to be ended.
"I'm sure it will manage," Lydia said.
Lethiel was sitting up, shaking her head. The other heroes, seemingly unharmed by the fight (this was Sovngarde, after all), were clustered round her. None of them had seen or heard what had gone on. Lydia smiled as she listened to them. The consensus appeared to be that Lethiel had been the last warrior standing, so she must have killed Alduin.
That was absolutely fine with Lydia.
Lethiel saw her, and crooked a finger, her brow like thunder. "You," she began.
Lydia quickly put a finger to her lips. "Well done, my Thane," she said enthusiastically. "I saw it all. A heroic battle, and a great victory. You will live on in song and story for the deeds of this day." She had a momentary flash of fear that the alliteration was coming back. "Now shall we leave, quickly? I'm sure the air of this place isn't designed with mortals in mind." Rhyming now. What next?
Lethiel got painfully to her feet. "You just wait till I get you home," she said ominously.
"I'll take whatever punishment you see fit, my Thane," she said. "I disobeyed your instructions, and I deserve punishment. I take full responsibility."
Lethiel glowered. "Well, you're no fun," she muttered. "How about telling me exactly what happened?"
"Not right away, if you don't mind," Lydia said. "There's someone else I have to tell as well, and I'd rather not do it twice.”
"There's this bard in my home town," Lydia said.
The Dragonborn Company were gathered together, at her request, on the Throat of the World, and Paarthurnax and Odahviing were among the party. For the mortals, there was mead. Odahviing, as the younger dragon, had brought four freshly killed elk, one of which Lethiel and Paarthurnax had carefully roasted whole for those who preferred their meat cooked.
"You gave me part of it," Lydia went on to Lethiel, "when you dealt with Namira, talking about a bad thing being the hidden face of a good thing. And, well, there's Mikael. I've known him most of my life, apart from when he was off at the Bards' College--that didn't last long--and he's always thought of himself as this great, legendary lover. But what he thinks of as love is to grab hold of every woman he can, conquer her 'as a true Nord,' which means half honeyed words and half beating her up, have his pleasure with her, and then throw her away and move on to the next. Most of the women in Whiterun just avoid him, unless that kind of thing appeals to them--there are one or two--but he's just an extreme case of a man with an idea of 'love' that's completely perverted and twisted out of shape. Actually, he's kind of pathetic.
"And he's also Alduin. Just, you know, on a really small scale."
Odahviing said something to Paarthurnax in dragon, and the two of them made the sound Lydia now recognised as laughter.
"Hey, keep it clean," Lethiel called sharply. "Go on, love."
"Well, there's not that much more to tell," Lydia said. "I knew, because it's obvious, that Akatosh never created Alduin as he was--the Divines aren't insane sadists--"
"As opposed to the daedra," Amarie interjected.
"So he must have started out as something good and noble, and Mikael gave me the clue to what. Then I just had to find the words to express it." Lydia paused. She had still not told anyone about her strange inner dialogue with the voice she thought of as Paarthurnax, not even Paarthurnax himself. Part of it was that she feared to discover it was not real; part that she feared that it was. And part of it was the fear that either way, talking about it would break it.
--What led him so far astray, Paarthurnax--the real one--rumbled, I do not know. He was already far along that path when I became. It must have been something that happened in the Vuselein zok Vath, the earliest dawn of creation, between him and Akatosh.
"Family's always difficult," Anja observed.
"And suppose I had actually succeeded in killing him?" Lethiel said.
"Then he would have been dead, and the world would have been saved that way."
"But you couldn't be sure I could bring it off." Lethiel's voice was light and easy, but the look she gave Lydia was freighted with challenge.
Lydia hesitated. "Were you, my Thane?" she said at last.
Lethiel laughed. "Good point, well made." She lifted her mug. "Here's to other ways of winning than just hitting things."
They drank, and Sigrid raised her own mug. "I've got one." Everyone obediently lifted their vessels and waited. "The dragon language is powerful indeed, and Shouts can be very effective in a straight fight," she said. "But, as we've seen more than once since we came together, to really fight and win battles with words..." She grinned and toasted Anja, Lethiel and Lydia in turn. "It takes a joor."
Amid the laughter, human and draconic, Lydia's gaze found Lethiel's, and Lethiel's hand found Lydia's.
"What now, my Thane?" she said quietly.
Lethiel grinned, and then mimed a kiss at her.
"Now...at last...we get to the good bit," she said.