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To Love The Dragonborn

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To Love The Dragonborn

by Zanda Myrande


Half way down the first flight of steps, Lydia hesitated. Something odd had just happened. She had a sense of something skittering away, just out of reach, maybe a lot of somethings. Like rats, or worse, skeevers.

She shook her head. She was on a mission, and it couldn't wait. Irileth would not be at home to excuses, any more than at any other time. She rapidly descended to the Wind District, where Heimskr was as usual engaged on his endless rant to anyone who would listen, and down again to the Plains. It was a pleasant morning, and everyone was out shopping or just passing the time of day--though in the case of Olfrid Battle-Born and his son, confronting Fralia Grey-Mane beside her stall, it was not so much passing as hurling with great force. Lydia edged past them--their quarrel was none of her business--and nearly collided with someone just coming out of the Bannered Mare.

"Oh," she exclaimed, stepping back a pace or two.

"Sorry." The stranger was female, drably dressed, and apart from her unusual height could have been anyone, though a hint of pale skin under the hood suggested Nord. Something about the voice, though...

Abstracted, Lydia had failed to notice that she was still blocking the stranger's path, and for a few moments they engaged in a sort of folk dance on the steps, till a bounty hunter intent on scanning the notice board simply barged past them both. The stranger, muttering to herself, hurried on her way, and Lydia, glaring at the churl but mindful of her mission, mounted the steps and entered the inn. Hulda was behind the bar as usual, and Lydia greeted her courteously and ordered a mead (she was allowed one and no more on these excursions; not that this bothered her).

"Yes," Hulda said before she could ask, "'Master Furblag' was in here again last night."

Lydia sighed. Where the jarl had got hold of the notion that in a town this size he could get away with putting on ordinary (if preternaturally clean) clothes and pretending to be somebody else, she couldn't guess, and as to why he should want to do it...

"What did he say?" she asked wearily.

"Ah, the beauteous Lydia," said a familiar voice, and Lydia stiffened, sighing.

"Mikael," she said, "how are you at playing the lute with your teeth?"

The bard looked startled. "I have never tried," he confessed.

"Then you should take better care of your hands," Lydia said, removing the offending one from the place whereto it had wandered. "We wouldn't want any...accidents."

"I love it when you pretend to reject me," Mikael said. "It sweetens the thrill of the hunt."

Cursing inwardly, Lydia turned to confront the idiot. Her mission was accomplished. She could just get up and walk away. She ought to just get up and walk away.

"Mikael," she said, "you're a keen observer of life in all its aspects."

"As all bards must be." Mikael absorbed this monstrous flattery without hesitation, as she had known he would.

"Someone was in here last night," she said. "Tall lass, Nord. Looks as if a strong wind would blow her over. Quiet."

Mikael brightened. "I knew it," he said. "That's why you are blind to my obvious charms. You prefer the company of women. Of course, it's so clear to me now."

"Answer the question, Mikael," Lydia said through her teeth.

"Yes, I noticed her," Mikael said, looking disapproving. "Very drunk. A mumbler. Spent her last septim on the upstairs room."

"What did she mumble?" It was a legitimate question. These were troubled times. Strangers in town could be anyone at all, and with Jarl Balgruuf determinedly maintaining his neutral position, either side could be sending spies or provocateurs. Lydia was perfectly within her rights and her duty to be asking about this strange woman. She was quite sure of that.

Fortunately one of Mikael's few virtues was a good memory, and he loved to show it off. "I only caught snatches, but it seemed the wench had lately fallen from high estate. Let me see. It went somewhat after this wise." He cleared his throat and assumed the tones of an inebriated woman. "I've done it all. Been everything. Listened, I can listen. Good listener, me. Harbinged, I can harbinge with the best of 'em. Arch-Mage...I can be as bloody arch as anyone, ducky, what, I should say so. I beat thingy, I beat wassisface, I was boss of all of it. Nearly married to Edifice, no, Exodus, wassername. I was just getting to the good bit." Mikael hiccupped with startling verisimilitude, and his assumed voice turned lachrymose. "Just getting to the bit where I could relax, and She has to...has to...annow I gotta start all over again from the bloody beginning. I ask you, izzat fair? Izzat just?" He mimed somebody falling face first into a table. "And that was that."

Lydia could make nothing of this, and was abruptly impatient with herself for being interested. The woman had been just another drunk with a hard-luck story, and she would almost certainly be back at the Mare tonight to repeat the performance. "Thank you, Mikael," she said formally, as if the inquiry had been official. "You've been most helpful."

"I could be even more so." Mikael's hand was back where it did not belong. "I could help you with your sad affliction. One night with me--"

"Mikael," Lydia said sweetly, "do you by any chance know the song 'Ragnar the Red'?"

He brightened. "Of course I do." Of course he did. It was the one song any bard in Skyrim could be relied on to know.

Lydia leaned close. "How would you like to take part," she said, "in a live re-enactment?"

A week passed, and then another, and the encounter faded into the back of Lydia's memory, jostled aside by more urgent concerns. Hrongar, the jarl's brother, was pushing harder and harder to bring Balgruuf round to entering the war on the side of the Stormcloaks; Lydia, who personally favoured neither side, privately suspected him of having spent too long listening to Heimskr. Fortunately, Avenicci the steward was Imperial to his bony fingertips, and his "special relationship" with Balgruuf was so far equal to the task of balancing out a brother's influence and keeping Whiterun firmly on the fence. 

When she had first learned of it, Lydia, a simple and traditional woman, had been scandalised by the idea of that kind of relationship between two men, but long use had dulled the edge of her outrage. The world was larger than she knew, after all, and there was room for all sorts of strangeness. You only had to listen to some of Irileth's stories in the mess late at night to learn that. And at least Balgruuf and Avenicci kept it discreet. Probably mostly Avenicci, she thought.

Apart from that, the business of the town went on as usual, and Lydia was kept too occupied for much indulgence in introspection. Some fool had apparently bought the huge, ramshackle estate that a speculative builder named Gibson had thrown up the year before last just opposite the Honningbrew meadery (and hadn't old Sabjorn been livid about that, spoiling his view?) and then found no takers for it. Lydia wished them joy of it, whoever they were, as long as they kept the peace. Someone had torched a cart at the corner just a bit further down the road; they never got to the bottom of that one. Valerius, in Riverwood, was kicking up a fuss about a minor theft from his shop. Someone would be sent to ask the usual routine questions, and that would be that.

Closer to home, there was the usual simmering discontent between the Grey-Manes and the Battle-Borns, between the Companions in Jorrvaskr and the priests of Kynareth, between Nazeem and just about everybody. Lydia, serving her turns as a guard in the hot and uncomfortable pot-helm that Irileth insisted she wear (the elf preferred male subordinates, but could not ignore the fact that Lydia could beat most of them into next Tirdas with one hand tied behind her back) wished people could just learn to get along.

And then, one morning, a runner, dropping with exhaustion, arrived at the gatehouse and spoke urgently to the guard captain, and then to Irileth. Lydia couldn't tell what it was about, apart from the word "Helgen," but the effect was immediate; the gates were locked, the guards were doubled, and Irileth returned to Dragonsreach.

"What's going on?" Lydia demanded of everyone within sight, and got a selection of bizarre answers: the consensus appeared to be that General Tullius had captured Ulfric Stormcloak and cut off his head, but that Ulfric had leapt up laughing from the block (laughing with what, Lydia wondered) and flown away on the back of a huge black dragon.

Lydia shuddered. Dragon. Why should that word work so oddly on her imagination? Dragons were a myth from the olden time. Maybe they had existed long ago--there was the huge old yoke mechanism up on the Great Porch, for one thing, testifying to the reason for the palace's name--but not in this day and age.

She shrugged, and went out to stand a watch on the gate.

Her mind in a turmoil, Lydia followed the strange woman, so suddenly and shockingly elevated to high rank, down the steps of Dragonsreach.

The jarl had just given her away. As casually as he would hand over a sword or a shield from his personal armoury. Lydia found it hard not to resent that a little. Not, she added hastily to herself, that the woman--her Thane, she amended--didn't deserve the honour given her. Lydia had, after all, been there. Against orders, she had squeezed herself into the guard's gear and the damned pot-helm and tacked herself on to the squad sent out to the watchtower.

And she had seen it.

A small, unworthy part of her was still whimpering and trying to hide behind itself. That great bulk, gliding and wheeling through the air with such impossible ease...the sick, acrid smell of its flaming breath...the gut-churning, mind-scarring roar, in which there sounded, horribly, the shape of syllables... mere words couldn't encompass the experience. In the end, you just said "dragon" and left it at that.

The woman--her Thane, damn it--hadn't brought it down all on her own. It had been a team effort, and everyone had got in a blow or a shot. A couple--Svipnar and Gurnir--hadn't lived to see the result. But it had been she, Lethiel Lightfoot, who had delivered the coup de grace, and the dragon had definitely come out with a recognisable word in that last moment, a word Lydia had heard again, resounding from the sky, while bolting back to the keep to change into her own armour.


There were songs about the person that belonged to that word, old songs. Somehow they didn't fit the tall, willowy woman with the startling red hair, currently armed and armoured in the style technically known as What The Other Guy Was Wearing (Lydia took a dim view of trusting yourself to weapons and armour that had last been worn by a bunch of losers), whom she had first met two weeks ago stumbling down the steps of the Bannered Mare. You expected the Dragonborn to be some brawny, barrel-chested, battle-scarred veteran. You expected big and ugly.

They were heading out of the city now, and Lydia wondered where this Dragonborn lived. It must be someplace near. She forced herself to some sort of clarity. She was a personal housecarl now, by her jarl's order, and that meant she stood to Lethiel as Irileth did to Balgruuf. She literally was her sword and her shield. And she was, she admitted to her secret self, a pretty damned worthy gift. It was kind of a promotion.

Somehow she felt no surprise as they crossed the bridge that led to Gibson's stupid white mammoth of an estate. Of course it would be the Dragonborn who had bought it. Where she had got the money, when two weeks ago she had been a penniless drunk, Lydia decided was none of her business. Adventuring, she had heard, was like that; you stole it, you spent it, you went out for more when you needed to.

There was a dagger stuck in the door, a note transfixed by it. Lethiel tore it down, glanced at it, shrugged and stuck it in her belt pouch.

"I hate cold callers," she remarked, pulling the dagger from the door and thrusting it into her belt. "Shall we?"

"Oh look," Lethiel said. "We're about to be held up."

Lydia gratefully slipped off the horse; riding, while something she had had to learn in the jarl's household, was not something she would ever do for pleasure. Lethiel seemed to expect it of her, though.

Nor was that all Lethiel seemed to expect. Lydia was fairly sure that, were she to live to be as old as the Greybeards, she would never have a more embarrassing conversation than the one she had had with her new Thane the previous night. Lethiel had dropped the subject, and Lydia was trying to file it away as no more than an unfortunate misunderstanding, but she had a feeling she had begun her housecarlship badly, had let herself and even the jarl down in some way.

Well, she could do no other. She simply wasn't wired that way, she told herself. She had hastily erected a tissue of fabrications about having been saved from sin by the love of Lady Mara, but she felt sure Lethiel hadn't bought it.

And then, this morning, they had gone to see Adrianne Avenicci at Warmaidens, ostensibly to buy Lydia some better armour (as if she were the one in need of it, Lydia thought sourly) and the woman had brazenly started romancing the blacksmith, right there in front of her. At that moment, Lydia had been seriously considering making her excuses and returning to Dragonsreach. This was not the kind of world she was used to. She didn't want to know about Adrianne's marital difficulties, or anything else of that kind. If this Dragonborn was going to be stravaiging across Skyrim adding lovers to her score willy-nilly, and female ones at that, Lydia had more important work to do, thank you very much.

Adrianne hadn't helped. She had more or less said straight out that Lydia's duties as housecarl included performing in...that way...whenever her Thane demanded it. To her credit, Lethiel had seemed as unenchanted by that view of the matter as Lydia herself...but it had started a tiny worm of doubt in Lydia's mind. If what the smith said was true...if her father served Balgruuf in that way purely as a matter of duty...then wasn't it her duty also? And should it matter if her Thane had other lovers as well?

Lydia had been saving herself for marriage, true, but when she thought about it, she really wasn't sure why. Nobody else seemed to think that way about...about sex. Look at Mikael. Or rather, she amended hastily, don't. The bard was just an indiscriminate lech.

Anyway, Lethiel had not pursued that matter, and now they were riding to Darkwater Crossing to fetch some corundum ore for Adrianne. This, of course, entailed going all the way around the Throat of the World, the huge mountain that pinned Skyrim at its centre to the sky from which the Nords had come. Lethiel had not been pleased about that--she seemed to have an instinctive preference for moving towards her goal in a straight line no matter what was in the way--but the only way up the mountain was the Seven Thousand Steps, and they started from Ivarstead, which was already most of the way to Darkwater Crossing in any case.

All things considered, any diversion that would allow both women to blow off some steam was very welcome about now. And here was a bandit, swaggering forward demanding a toll for using the road. Lydia eased her sword in its sheath, and cast a glance at her Thane.

And looked away again, hastily. It didn't do to let your enemy see you blushing.

After disposing, in fairly short order, of what Lethiel persisted in referring to as the Gyppy Tummy Gang (the healing potion in the privy was a bit of a sad giveaway, Lydia thought) and sharing out everything of value they had accumulated, thus making Lydia richer than she had ever been in her life, the rest of the journey passed uneventfully, till, with night coming on, they rode into Ivarstead. Then Lydia had decided it was time to make her move.

"The jarl ordered you," she said again, "to go to High Hrothgar immediately. The Greybeards summoned you. You don't just ignore that."

"I'm not ignoring it." Lethiel was all sweet reason. "I'm just postponing it. It's a question of priorities."

"You're a Thane of Whiterun now. The jarl's commands take priority, or they should. You owe fealty--"

"I don't remember swearing any oath. Or, come to that, asking to be enthaned. Besides, we're kind of outside his jurisdiction now."

Lydia tried sweet reason herself. "Look, this shipment of ore will still be there when we come back down."

"If it comes to that, I expect High Hrothgar will still be there when we get back from Darkwater Crossing. It's been there a wee while already, or so I gather. It can wait a bit longer."

"And when you've picked up the ore, you'll want to take it straight back to Adrianne so she can make this armour, and then we'll have to slog all the way back here. It makes more sense to go up the Steps first."

"And suppose these Greymanes--"

"Grey*beards*," Lydia broke in, shuddering.

"Suppose these Greybeards give me something else to do, and tell me that's got to be done right away or they'll curse me or something?" Lethiel was firm. "No, we'll get the ore in the morning, and then come back here and go up and see them, and *then* head back to Whiterun. I'm definitely not climbing a damn mountain in the dark, anyway."

Lydia could see this was the best she was going to get. "All right," she said grudgingly. "I'll hold you to it, though."

"Promise?" Lethiel's grin was wicked. "Done and done," she said, as Lydia went red again. "All right, let's get in and find a bed for the night, or two if you insist. I'm starved."

"Two beds," Lydia said. "I do insist."

They entered the Vilemyr Inn, where a tall, statuesque woman was complaining to anyone who would listen about bears. Lethiel paused by the door to have a brief conversation with a depressed-looking Dunmer man who was nursing a mead. Lydia saw money change hands, and wondered what that was about, but Lethiel said nothing and walked up to the bar. The innkeeper looked her up and down, and evidently came to a decision.

"If I were you," he said carefully, "I'd stay away from the barrow on the east side of's haunted."

Lethiel's ears positively pricked up, and Lydia's heart sank.

Much to Lydia's relief, Wilhelm the innkeeper's blatant fishing expedition was only partly successful. Lethiel did walk out, the following morning, to inspect the barrow and mark it on her map, but did not go in. She also paused, on their way out of town, to do the same to a big, burned-out building just over the bridge. Lydia did not ask.

Two wolves and a bear attempted unsuccessfully to dispute their right of passage on the way to Darkwater Crossing. Between them they killed all three, and Lethiel dressed and stripped the carcasses of anything remotely useful, including meat. Lydia had never eaten bear or wolf, but Lethiel seemed content with her haul, and again, Lydia did not ask. She was busy with her thoughts.

Darkwater Crossing was even smaller than Ivarstead, no more than one house, a huddle of tents and the corundum mine, on the edge of an area of hot pools and bare rock. Lydia looked around while Lethiel engaged Annekke Crag-Jumper in conversation. The blonde, blue-eyed miner--why did Skyrim suddenly seem to be full of attractive women?--seemed more concerned with preaching the worship of Dibella than with handing over the ore shipment. Lydia realised with a start that this was an effective counter to her Mara ploy, and wondered, not for the first time, if Adrianne Avenicci had planned this whole trip as a way of--

A sudden and horrifyingly familiar noise scattered her thoughts, and a blast of acrid flame seared the crops in a nearby garden and sent people scurrying for shelter, mostly into the mine. Lydia quickly drew her bow and notched an arrow, but Lethiel had already got off a shot at the huge, hovering shape above the house. It staggered in mid-air, recovered itself and launched another gout of flame before landing, earth-shakingly, directly in front of Lydia. She looked into eyes as old as time and as malevolent, down a maw as huge as death itself, saw the flame roiling and swelling towards her, and knew that this was the end.

A touch on her shoulder, as light as a breeze, and Lethiel had leapt fully over her to land on the dragon's head, clamping its jaw shut on its own flame. She held on grimly to one bony brow ridge, drawing her greatsword with the other hand, and then jumped in the air and drove the blade straight through the beast's skull. This time there were no dying words; the dragon simply writhed, throwing Lethiel off, and collapsed, inert, upon the ground.

Lydia, stunned and shaken, managed to gesture to the people already emerging from cover. As they watched, the body of the dragon was suffused with a strange glow, and then currents of eldritch force flowed from it into the slight frame of the woman now painfully picking herself up. Lethiel's body tensed, and she arched her back and threw back her head, absorbing the power of the dead dragon into herself. This was what had happened out by the watchtower; this was what being a Dragonborn was apparently all about. It was going to take a lot of getting used to, Lydia thought numbly.

Even as she thought this, though, her body was moving forward, moving in on her Thane. Somehow she had come to a decision without realising it. As her arms enfolded Lethiel, and her lips met another woman's for the first time in her life, she knew that Adrianne Avenicci had been right, and wrong; it was not simply a matter of duty, or gratitude, or any such dry and empty transaction. Mara and Dibella demand passion from us, she thought, and who was she to baulk at the will of two Divines, no less?


When Lethiel and Lydia rode away from Darkwater Crossing the next day, back up over the slopes towards Ivarstead, their saddlebags were heavy not only with Adrianne's ore, but with the loot from the dragon's lair high atop Bonestrewn Crest, not to mention from the dragon's gut, and Lethiel's bags also contained bones, scales, organs and a great deal of raw dragon meat. They would eat well, she said, when they got home.

The saddlebags were heavy; but Lydia's heart was light.

"So what was with that wall?" Lydia asked, as they rode along.

"Wall?" Lethiel echoed absently.

"On Bonestrewn Crest. Big wall covered with marks. You stared at it for like a minute and then just turned away."

"You didn't see--" Lethiel broke off. "There was one like it in Bleak Falls Barrow. One of the words sort of drew me to it. Same with this one. I think it's got something to do with the Shouting, but I don't know. It's just odd feeling. Maybe the Greyfeet can explain."

"Grey *beards*," Lydia said.

"Them too." Lethiel seemed unsettled. Lydia suddenly saw that the Dragonborn was...not scared, exactly, but a little awed by the prospect of answering the Greybeards' summons, and was dissembling this with flippancy.

"I'll be with you," she said bracingly. "I've never climbed the Steps myself. It'll be an adventure."

"The trouble with adventures," Lethiel said, "is that people get hurt."

"Not if you can help it, though, right?"

Lethiel shook herself, causing Onyx the horse to snort, and grinned back at her. "Right," she said.

Back in Ivarstead, they left the horses tethered outside the inn and walked down to the bridge, where an elf and a burly man were in conversation. Lydia watched while Lethiel introduced herself, spoke briefly to the man and accepted a bulky bag which she hoisted over one shoulder. Another distraction, Lydia thought glumly, but it turned out that the bag was to be delivered to High Hrothgar itself; food supplies for the Greybeards. Lydia supposed that it must be hard to grow things on the top of a mountain. Except beards, of course.

The man wished them well and walked away, limping slightly, and Lethiel and Lydia crossed the bridge and started up the slope that led to the Seven Thousand Steps.

It was a silent Dragonborn and housecarl who picked their way back down the Seven Thousand Steps, some hours later. Lydia had firmly vetoed Lethiel's suggestion of going down "the quick way" ("Look, I can see Whiterun from here, it's just a step...") by pointing out, rather brilliantly she thought, that the horses and all their gear would be left in Ivarstead where anyone could make off with them. Lethiel had agreed, but had not been happy about it.

As for Lydia, she was wrestling with feelings to which she was distinctly unaccustomed. The Greybeards had been kindness itself, and presented the appearance of harmless and rather dotty old men, and yet something about them had rather got to Lydia where she lived. This was probably why the embarrassing thing had happened.

"Child," Master Arngeir had said gently, "you are staring."

"Please, sir, I'm sorry," Lydia had blurted, "but I've never met a Greyface before."

Lethiel's malicious hiss of "Grey*beard*" had not helped one bit.

In a way, Arngeir was the scariest of all of them. The others had not spoken except when Shouting, and this was apparently because, except for Arngeir who was the youngest of them, they could no longer tune their voices to a normal conversational tone. The scary thing about Arngeir was that, even when he was speaking in that soft, mellifluous voice of his, you could see and hear the sheer effort he was having to put into merely reining it in.

Lydia wondered if Lethiel would go like that, as she advanced along the Way of the Voice. Possibly not; as Dragonborn, she did not have to put as much effort into learning to Shout as the Greybeards had had to. She wondered what would happen if a Greybeard sneezed; the place was thick with dust, after all, a typical male-only habitat. Did "AH HAH SHU" mean anything in dragon language?

The question of the walls had been answered, at any rate. They bore inscriptions in the dragon tongue, and one or more of the words in each of those inscriptions were the Words of Power used in Shouts. Lethiel would have to find and read those words, and then use the power she gained from absorbing the souls of dragons to unlock the words in her mind.

Oh, and Lethiel had been right again; there had been a job to do. They were tasked (or Lethiel was, anyway) to retrieve a horn from an old tomb, somewhere north of Morthal. Lethiel had accepted this amicably enough; she was heading up that way anyway, she said, to investigate some mine or other.

They passed the body of the frost troll that had ambushed them, and Lydia ventured to speak.

"Are know, okay?" she said.

Lethiel looked back, startled. "Of course," she said. "I don't know what I was expecting, but on the whole I don't think I did too badly. What do you think?"

"I think it'll be a cold day in Sovngarde before I come back here again," Lydia said, surprising herself a little. "Once was quite enough."

"I know what you mean," Lethiel said, smiling. "They're a bit terrifying, for all they look harmless. I bet most of the pilgrims never go in. Still, I'll have to come back a few times if I want to learn this stuff."

"I'll wait with the horses," Lydia said. "If you don't mind."

"Course not, love," Lethiel said, dropping back to squeeze Lydia familiarly round the waist. "So what do you think? Go straight back to Whiterun, investigate this barrow the guy was banging on about, or just get ratted and go to bed?"

Lydia looked up at the sky. The sun was declining, but not yet setting.

"Go home," she said. "Give Adrianne her ore, get me some better armour--" She looked ruefully down at her cuirass; the frost troll's claws had not been kind to it. "And then go look for this horn. If you want me along, that is."

"Oh, definitely," Lethiel said. "Home it is, then. We should be--" She stopped and looked comically dismayed. "I don't believe it."

"What?" Lydia said.

Lethiel unslung the bag from her shoulder. "Klimmek's supplies," she said. "I've got to go back. What an idiot." She looked at Lydia. "You want to wait here, or go on ahead?"

"Double idiot," Lydia said. "I'll come with you, of course."

"I'm quite sure," Lethiel said with affected primness, "that's not how a housecarl should address her Thane."

"I don't remember asking to be your housecarl," Lydia said. "Come on, light's a-wasting. And I don't want to be climbing *down* a damn mountain in the dark either."

They turned and started back up.

"Thif if..." Lydia swallowed hastily. "...amazing. How did you learn to cook it?"

The delivery of Klimmek's supplies and the final descent to Ivarstead had been achieved without incident, and what incidents there had been on the ride home had been easily enough handled. Now, Lydia and Lethiel were sitting at ease in front of the big living room fire, nursing bowls in their laps which Lethiel had filled with a sort of stew made from some of the dragon meat. The flavour was...utterly unique, the texture tender beyond compare. It wasn't something Lydia would want to eat every day, because it would spoil her for other foods, but it was definitely a dish fit for the gods.

The firelight shed warm lights on Lethiel's pale skin as she lowered her eyelashes. "Oh, you pick things up," she murmured.

"Where from?" Lydia persisted. "There haven't been dragons around since the time of Jurgen Windcaller. Are you going to tell me you found a recipe in a centuries-old tomb?"

"Would that be enough?" Lethiel raised her eyes again and looked at Lydia directly.

"If it was the truth," Lydia said.

"Oh, truth, truth," Lethiel sighed. "Look, I'm really tired. Can we talk about it another time, love? I promise I'll tell you, and you won't believe me and you'll think I'm crazy, just like you always--" Her lips clamped shut. "Like people always do," she amended lamely, "when someone says something that sounds crazy. Leave it for tonight, Lydia. Please?"

Lydia could not gainsay the plea in those brown eyes. This was clearly something of great significance to her Thane, and she'd given Lydia no reason not to trust her. "You'll tell me...when you're ready?" she said.

"Soon," Lethiel said. "I promise."

"Then that's good enough for me," Lydia said, and moved in for a kiss.


The next morning, they delivered the ore to Adrianne, who at once divined that something in their relationship had shifted, and almost managed to hide her smug smile. She then presented Lydia with a suit of ebony armour she had, she said, been making for the jarl. Lydia eyed the prominent pectoral protuberances on the cuirass, of which Balgruuf could stand in no need whatever, but said nothing. The armour was a rich gift, and excessively generous as a reward for a simple fetch-and-carry job, but of course there was more to this than just that.

They travelled by carriage to Morthal, in deference to Lydia's aching limbs, and forayed forth on foot in the general direction of the tomb of Jurgen Windcaller at Ustengrav, and also of Windstad Mine. It appeared that that burned-out cart Lydia had heard about--it seemed weeks ago now--had contained a clue to a bandit lair there. Lethiel wanted to clear it out, for some reason--Lydia was sure there were bandits closer to home, if she was bored, but she was learning to cope with her Thane's whims and quirks.

The swamps were full of noises, and once the biggest mudcrab Lydia had ever seen charged towards them, claws snapping. It soon found reason to regret this rash action. The necromancer who was hanging around the entrance to Ustengrav had no such leisure; he and his bandit servants never knew who or what had hit them.

"Well," Lethiel said, as they quickly looted the bodies of what little wealth they had owned, "here we go."

"Something wrong?" Lydia said. "You sound, I don't know, not so keen suddenly."

"Nothing, nothing at all," Lethiel said. "Only..." She hesitated. "No, I'll tell you when we're through this," she said. "And then you'll understand." She took Lydia's hands. "This is where it really starts to bite down," she said. "I'll need you."

"You've got me," Lydia said.

"Well, that's that done," Lethiel said briskly, climbing the steps from Ustengrav's stone dome. "Now let's have a look at this mine."

"Wait a second," Lydia said. "I've been doing some thinking."

"Uh-huh?" Lethiel said. In her hand, she held the note they had found where the horn should have been, tightly crumpled into a ball.

"You went through that place like a hot sword through snow," Lydia said. "You knew everything that was coming." She indicated Lethiel's clenched fist. "Including that. You knew the horn wasn't going to be there."

"Busted," Lethiel said with a rueful smile. "So what do you deduce from that?"

"Either a really fierce case of déjà vu," Lydia said, "'ve done this before. All of this." She hesitated. ""

Lethiel looked at her for a long moment, saying nothing.

"Am I close?" Lydia said.

"You're right on it," Lethiel said. She sighed, and in that sigh was the weariness of a much older woman. "I've lived this life before. It's not always the same. In some ways it's always different, and always new. But the broad strokes...the main path...that's always the same. I see a dragon attack Helgen, I come to Whiterun via Riverwood, I kill the dragon at the watchtower, I get to meet you." She smiled. "That's one of the parts that always feels new."

Lydia stared at her. If this was a delusion, it was like nothing she had heard of in her admittedly circumscribed life. If it was real, it raised questions she really didn't want answered.

"So what happens next?" she said.

"On the main path? I go to Riverwood and rent the attic room at the inn."

"The Sleeping Giant doesn't have an attic room," Lydia pointed out.

"I know. I've seen it. There I will, assuming everything goes as it always has, get the Horn, if you'll pardon the expression, and get dragged off somewhere to kill another dragon. After that, it gets complicated."

"Why do you keep doing it?" Lydia demanded. "Over and over again...if it's always the same, what's the point?"

"The point?" Lethiel echoed. "The point is that the world needs saving, and I'm the girl who has to do it, and if it needs doing again, then it needs doing again. No, that's not the point at all, though it's *a* point. *The* point is that I hope that one day I'll get to do it right, so right that I can go on living in a post-being-saved world and just be me. Raise crops, pound bandits, collect books, learn magic, deal a little dope, sing some rock and roll, and..." She took a deep breath, and caught Lydia's hands in hers. "And be with you. Because you, my dear, are the point. A world with you in it is the world I want to live in, and if I have to save it first, it's cheap at the price."

"Me," Lydia said, smiling back at her. "And Adrianne, and Annekke, and anyone else who happens along. I've seen you ogling that courier girl who took over from the guy with the odd face."

"Oh yes," Lethiel said. "But you first, foremost and always. You in my heart." She let go of Lydia's hands. "Now, let's clear out the lowlifes from this mine."

"Why this mine?" Lydia was glad of the distraction. Either her Thane was mad, which would be a problem, or the world was organised on lines of which Lydia could hardly approve. Either way, the situation would bear watching. And thinking about. "What's so special about this one?"

The answer came back in a whisper, as Lethiel faded into the foreground in that way she had. Lydia had never seen it done better. "I'm going to buy it and get it working again.”

Three weeks later, two weary, work-stained figures stumbled into the Moorside Inn in Morthal and plonked themselves down, with an air of finality, on two adjacent barstools. Jonna, the innkeeper, a handsome Redguard woman, sized them up expertly, deposited two large tankards of mead in front of them, and followed them with two hot, sizzling venison chops and a dish of vegetables.

"On the house, honey," she said, when one of the figures made a move towards a belt pouch. "Looks like Tovis finally found himself a sucker. That's worth a couple meals."

"Tovis?" Lydia said, emerging from her tankard. "Tovis Horansen? Wasn't he the guy you hired to--"

"Manage the mine, yes," Lethiel said. "And he's also the guy I bought it from." She raised bleary eyes to Jonna. "I'm guessing you know more about this than we do?"

Jonna beamed and settled herself to tell the tale. "Well, young Tovis, he inherited that old mine from his auntie, who had it from his uncle. Neither of them cared a button about it while they were alive, but one thing and another, by the time the old lady came to dyin', wasn't much else left to leave. Well, sir, old Auntie didn't have much time for Tovis, thought he was just idlin' his time away, so she put a condition on that bequest. He had to have that mine up and runnin' within a year, or the property would revert to the jarl."

"Seems reasonable," Lydia said. Lethiel was looking thoughtful.

"So," Jonna continued, warming to her story, "young Tovis treks up there to view his inheritance, and gets chased off by a bunch of bandits, just moved in and took over. So back he comes to Morthal and spends the next ten months hangin' round the jarl's court, mopin' and carryin' on. Then, last month, he was in here, drunk as a daedra, allowin' as how he had it aaaall figured out." Jonna paused for effect. "He was goin' to plant a burned-out cart somewheres down south, and way he figured, he could get some adventurer to go to the mine, clear out the bandits, buy the deed from him, spruce the place up, hire miners and guards and all, and then hire *him* to sit in an office all day and run the place." She paused again, and refilled the tankards. "Seems young Tovis don't have too high an opinion of adventurers, when it come to brains, if you know what I mean."

Lydia, despite her aches and pains, was fighting the urge to laugh. Lethiel was now looking acutely embarrassed.

"Good mine, though," Jonna continued. "Imperial Geologist took a look at it while Tovis's uncle was still alive, said there was pretty near everything down there if a body cared to dig it out. If you own it, and you got it all workin', you won't be the loser."

"Financially, no," Lethiel said. "As long as Tovis runs it honestly and competently, it should bring in quite a bit."

"He'd damned well better," Lydia growled.

"Still," Jonna said, "hurts to get played, don't it?"

"Only for a while," Lethiel said, "and it could have been worse." She looked at Lydia. "I'm sorry I let you in for all that work, love."

"Hey, I could have left you to it at any time," Lydia said. "Besides, it kind of feels good to build something instead of just killing things. There's a sense of achievement, you know?" Her grin turned wicked. "But I won't forget how the mighty Dragonborn got taken in by a smooth-talking guy with a deed to a mine."

Lethiel put out her tongue, and then turned back to Jonna.

"So," she said, "is there a story behind that burned-down house?”

Lethiel, despite her philosophical line in the inn, was obviously still upset about it days later. She and Lydia had spent some time in Morthal clearing out a vampire lair, and it seemed to Lydia that her Thane had dealt with the enemy more viciously than usual. Her cry, as she skewered the master vampire, of "Take that you backstabbing plausible mine-owning bastard!" had been a subtle clue, not simply to all the other vampires in the cave, but to Lydia as well.

"It happens," Lydia said now, as they rode out of town. "People are not always honest. My brother once told me about a sure-fire way to get chosen for the jarl's personal guard. It involved...doing certain things with a broom handle, in front of the jarl. So in I marched, right up to the throne in Dragonsreach, and I took my broom handle and did just what he had told me. Everyone laughed at me for days."

"How old were you?"

"Eight," Lydia admitted, "but the point stands. And to be fair, when I was old enough Irileth did choose me, and she told me that was why. I had nerve, and I could follow orders, and I..." She broke off.

"I didn't know you had a brother," Lethiel said.

"He died," Lydia said shortly. "Accidentally." She blinked, and nudged her horse to come up level with Onyx. "How can there be anything about me you don't know? I mean, if you're right about this reliving thing? You must have known me inside out long ago." She shivered. "It puts me at kind of a disadvantage."

Lethiel reined Onyx in. He stretched his neck for the nearest clump of grass, failed to reach it, and adjusted his position slightly to bring the snack within range. Lydia halted her horse, still unnamed, and waited while Lethiel considered.

"I don't know everything about you," she said at last. "Not everything comes across from life to life, and I always start out with a huge bender to try to forget as much as possible of the rest. It's not fun, running in a set path and knowing it. But you're right. It isn't fair, me knowing about you and you not knowing about me. The thing is, I can't help that. I can't change it."

"I know," Lydia said, and slashed viciously at a frostbite spider which had been creeping up silently from the trees beside the road. "I'm not asking you to. It's just...something to be aware of."

"Believe me," Lethiel said, dispatching a bear which had reared up from behind a bush, "I am. Shall we postpone this till we get home? The traffic's a bit intrusive here."

"Sure," Lydia said easily.

The subject did not in fact come up again when they got home. There was loot to be stowed, food to be made, and a long hot bath to be shared, and by a sort of unspoken mutual agreement neither Lydia nor Lethiel raised it again.

After all, Lydia thought as she soaped her Thane's back, what Lethiel had said was unavoidably true. There was nothing to be done about it. It came down to the age-old question, go or stay, and Lydia had already chosen in her heart.

That didn't mean she had to let her off the hook altogether, though.

"I saw you, you know," she said. "Making time with the jarl's daughter."

"What? Oh, Idgrod." Lethiel half turned. "I wasn't making time. I was just trying to help a troubled young woman."

"Ah, of course." Lydia nodded sagely. "Well, good. Maybe she's got a mine she can sell you."

The next few minutes were crowded, and at the end of them most of the water was outside the bath, and Lethiel and Lydia were both too breathless with laughter to continue the discussion.

But when, the following morning, Lethiel set out for Riverwood, Lydia elected to stay behind.

Time hung heavy on Lydia's hands, as a day turned into two, and then three. She wandered about the house, read a little, practiced sword moves on one of the mannequins that lined the walls of the basement, cooked food, read some more. The estate ran to three staff, two men and a woman, but they were taciturn and always busy doing something, and Lydia, for the first time since her childhood, was at a loose end.

So it was a relief when, at about noon of the third day, there was a knock on the front door.

Lydia ran down the stairs to open it, and was surprised to discover Mila Valentia on the doorstep, looking scared.

"You're not the Dragonborn," Mila said. Then, slightly less definitely, "Are you?"

"No, I'm not, but I'm her friend," Lydia said. "Would you like to come in?" It was raining quite hard, and the child was soaked.

"No thank you. I have to get back or my mother worries. Please would you ask the Dragonborn to come to town and speak to me when she gets back?"

"I'll be sure to do that," Lydia said. "What's it about? Maybe I can help." She knew the basic story; father had been a shiftless layabout, always looking for a get-rich-quick scheme, and had sloped off one day, presumably in the belief that he had found it. Since then, Carlotta Valentia had brought Mila up on her own, fiercely determined to be independent and to do without a man. Or a woman, Lydia thought, from her somewhat broadened perspective. That would be one heart Lethiel Lightfoot would not be stealing.

"I'd rather talk to the Dragonborn first, if you don't mind." Mila was polite, but resolute. "Thank you very much for seeing me, miss." And before Lydia could say more, she was running back down the drive and across the bridge, her slight form disappearing into the grey curtain of the rain.

It was about ten minutes later that the door opened again to admit a dripping, exhausted Lethiel. Lydia brought her towels and dry clothes, made canis root tea, and listened to her account of the trip.

"This Delphine...I've seen her around," she said, when Lethiel had finished. "Liked to think she was playing the role of the mousy little innkeeper who wouldn't hurt a fly, but you could tell by the walk that was skeever crap. Besides, every other innkeeper I've known has been badass, they have to be. So, she's a Blade."

"Apparently," Lethiel said. She was starting to warm through and her colour was coming back.

"And the big black dragon is bringing the other dragons back to life...with a Shout," Lydia mused. "And Delphine thinks the Thalmor are behind it."

"She thinks the Thalmor are behind everything, probably up to and including this rain," Lethiel said wryly. "And no, before you ask, I don't know. That's one of the things I mercifully forget, I think because it comes later and I don't always make it that far. Even if I did know, I'd have to have proof to convince Delphine."

"So, you've got to get into the Thalmor Embassy," Lydia said.

"And that's going to be another solo job, I'm afraid," Lethiel said. "Who was the kid?"

"How did you know--" Lydia's eyes narrowed.

"Wet footprints on the mat, too small for me or you," Lethiel explained, and Lydia recounted Mila Valentia's visit and something of her circumstances.

"Okay," Lethiel said. "Assuming this flood ever stops, we can trundle up there tomorrow and see if I can help. In the meantime, I'm going to make myself some better gear, I think."

"Why not go to Adrianne?" Lydia said.

"She doesn't work with the kind of materials I'm planning to use," Lethiel said, rising and stretching. "I might do a set for you as well, if you ever get tired of ebony."

"I'd like to see how good you are first. Adrianne's a professional."

"Maybe I am too," Lethiel said. "Come and have a look when it's done."

"How will I know?"

"I won't be hammering any more." And Lethiel disappeared down the stairs to the basement.

The new armour was...interesting.

"Spiky," Lydia said.

"Yes, I'll have to remember not to look down," Lethiel said. "Still, it's a significant improvement over what I was wearing."

"And it's made of..."

"Dragon scales. You can make a slightly heftier version out of dragon bones, but it makes you look like an atronach. I do have some vanity." Lethiel preened outrageously.

"So, shall we go talk to this kid?"

"Sure. I want to see what this feels like to ride in. At the moment it's...really comfy. Feels like a second skin."

"Well, you are Dragonborn," Lydia said. "It would."

"Graar," Lethiel said, making claw hands, and they laughed.

Later, after their meeting with Mila Valentia and her mother, they set off for the place named in her husband Flavius's note. "Shearpoint," Lethiel said. "Is it far?"

"Oh no," Lydia said. "I'm not venturing an opinion, not after Darkwater Crossing. It's halfway to Dawnstar."

"What's at Dawnstar?"

"I've never been." Lydia shrugged. "People. Boats probably. The jarl apparently doesn't like giants."

"Short, is he?"

"No idea."

They rode in silence for a while.

"You know..." Lydia began. "I've been thinking about what Master Arngeir said. About language being intrinsic to dragon nature, and a fight actually being a verbal debate?"


"Well, I've heard debates. Farengar used to have mage gatherings and they would talk about all kinds of high-flown stuff, quoting authorities and constructing complex arguments. What do dragons do? They Shout. It's not a debate, it's literally a Shouting match."

Lethiel nodded. "On the level of 'yeah, sez you?' and 'suck my--'"

"Exactly," Lydia said quickly. "So, the way I see it, dragons may have language in their bones, but they don't necessarily have to be that bright, do they?"

"I don't think many of them are. I mean, when you've got that much power, you don't need to be. I could be wrong, though. I've never actually had a long conversation with one." Lethiel frowned. "Not that I can remember."

Lydia steered the conversation away from that area, and soon they were making up Shouts for people.

"Brenuin," Lydia said. "GIVE. ME. MEAD."

"Nazeem," Lethiel said. "I'M. SO. RICH."

"You know those two are cousins, right? And Brenuin used to be the owner of Chillfurrow Farm?"

"No, I didn't."

"He was all set to marry Ahlam too, only Nazeem came to stay from Cyrodiil for a few weeks, and by the end of that time Brenuin was a hopeless drunk and Nazeem had finessed the farm and the woman out from under him. Not that Brenuin didn't get drunk before that," Lydia went on, "but he had sober spells. Not so good at running a farm though."

"That's shameful," Lethiel said. "Why didn't the jarl do something?"

"I'm guessing," Lydia said. "The jarl doesn't include me in his counsels. But I'd say he took a long look and decided that the city needed the farm run by the best person for the job, and Brenuin by that time couldn't find his feet, let alone his brain. You're right, it was shameful, and the jarl tries to help him out when he can, but there isn't much even he can do."

"Well, I'll do something," Lethiel said. "I'll--" Lydia laid a quick hand on her arm and pointed. Just up over the rise they could see the distinctive shape of a word wall, with a scaly form draped over it.

Lethiel drew her bow, and Lydia did likewise, and they crept closer.

Lethiel's first arrow, by luck or judgment, went home squarely in the dragon's side, and the beast leapt for the air, but couldn't make it and crashed to the ground. Lydia ran forward, sword out, and got in a couple of good blows before it could turn, and Lethiel finished it off with an arrow down its gullet. It writhed and collapsed, and the glow began to gather, and Lethiel just had time to remark that she would never get that one back before the rush of power hit her and she stiffened galvanically, fighting to retain control over her limbs.

Almost before the power had released her, though, there was a sudden cracking noise, and from a coffin neither of them had noticed rose a skeletal, eerie shape.

"What the hell is that?" Lydia screamed.

"No idea!" Lethiel shouted back, frantically notching an arrow. It was humanoid, but as dehydrated and colourless as a draugr. Only draugr didn't commonly float about. Lethiel shot arrow after arrow, but the thing was too quick, skidding sideways in the air as if it were on ice, and shooting bolts of flame from a staff it held aloft like a banner.

Lydia concentrated on being invisible. She was nowhere near as good as Lethiel at it, but she tried, and hoped Lethiel would get the idea. The Dragonborn did, and circled round, outflanking the creature and driving it back towards the word wall. She got a couple of shots in, and the thing faltered in mid-float, and fired more flame at her. The new armour seemed to be helping. Well, dragon scales, of course it would, Lydia thought dizzily.

And then the thing was within reach, its back to her, fully focussed on Lethiel. Lydia rose up, her sword held high, and plunged it into the thing's back, just as another arrow from Lethiel sped fast and true to its target. The creature screeched, and a jolt of power ran up Lydia's sword and jerked it from her hand, sending her to her knees; and then it shredded into black fragments and grey ash, and the armour and cloak it was wearing, along with its grotesquely impassive mask, thudded to the snow.

Lydia picked herself up and shook herself. Lethiel hurried over. "Are you okay? Your hair--"

Lydia could feel it, standing out from her head. "I'm fine," she said shortly. "What was that thing?"

"I don't know," Lethiel said, gathering up the mask, the cloak and the staff. "It was a bit like a sort of super-draugr. Must be linked to the dragons somehow. I'll find out."

"Better gut this beastie first," Lydia said. "I've decided. Ebony's fine, but I want some armour like yours. You just shrugged off those fire bolts." She picked up a blackened, twisted thing from the remains. "And a new sword, please."

"Wall first," Lethiel said, "then chest. Then beastie. Then see if we can find any trace of this--" The wall had caught her eye, and her voice trailed off as she gazed at it. "Whoa. Head rush. Three words at once," she said, a minute later. "I'm going to need to kill some more dragons."

Lydia had wandered a little way off. "This looks promising," she said, holding up a frost-encrusted object. "It's Flavius' journal. He was here, but he left. For--" She checked. "For Forelhost. I think that's somewhere way over past Riften."

"That would be far, then," Lethiel said, with a grin. "I'd better check in with Delphine first. And maybe ask that Farengar if he knows anything about these whatever they ares. I hope they only come singly. Two at once would have killed us for certain."

Lydia could believe it. The thing had been practically impossible to hit. They had been lucky.

"And ask about this mask," Lethiel said, weighing it in her hand. "I can feel something. I think it might be magical." She made as if to put it to her face, and Lydia caught her arm and lowered it.

"It might turn you into one of those things," she said. "I wouldn't."

Lethiel shivered. "Good point."

Lydia sorted through the chest that stood nearby, while Lethiel stripped the body of the dragon, and then they returned to the horses and made their way back through the gathering dusk toward the road to Whiterun, and home.

Lydia found herself staring at Farengar's chin, and forced herself to look away. There was just so much of it. He had to have some elf in his family somewhere.

"Ah, yes," he said, turning the mask over and over in his hands. "Fascinating. This is the mask of Krosis. He was a very powerful Dragon Priest."

"They had priests?" Lydia said.

"Many people served them willingly, in return for rewards of various sorts. You encounter them even today, in tombs and such places. We call them draugr."

"And they demand respect," Lethiel said.

"I beg your pardon?" The wizard was disconcerted.

"Well, when they see you the first thing they say is 'Bow!'"

Farengar stared for a moment, then obviously decided to ignore the comment. "The Dragon Priests--there were only a few--were granted greater powers, encapsulated in these masks. This one...I would have to run tests, but I imagine it fortifies certain skills." He stared at it fixedly through a coloured lens for a moment. "Yes. I can't be sure which ones though."

"And it doesn't turn you into a Dragon Priest?" Lethiel said, with every appearance of earnestness.

"Ah, ha, ha," Farengar said, returning the mask with some reluctance. "No, none of the masks will do that. It would be a great boon to my studies if you could find some more. Thank you for bringing this one to my attention. You have significantly advanced the cause of dragon lore." He brandished the notes he had been making.

"So," Lydia said, as they once again descended into Whiterun, "I guess Flavius was at Shearpoint before there was a dragon there, if he got away alive."

"Must have been." Lethiel was absent. "Riverwood or Forelhost, Riverwood or Forelhost. I'm torn."

"We could split up," Lydia suggested. "I do one and you do the other."

"Delphine wouldn't accept you as a substitute," Lethiel pointed out. "She's completely paranoid. She'd think you were a Thalmor spy."

"Then let me go to Forelhost," Lydia said. "I've never even been as far as Riften."

"And suppose there's a dragon? Or another of those priest things? I don't want to risk you on your own, darling."

"You think I'm not up to it?" Lydia felt herself beginning to bristle, though in honesty she could see the point.

"No, of course I don't." Lethiel sighed. "Okay. You go to Forelhost. Take my map, if there's a word wall I'll want to see it. I'll get you a ride to Riften tomorrow and you can take it from there. And I'll sort you out some gear first. I have an idea I can substantially improve on that sword."

"I need all the help I can get," Lydia admitted.

"And we'll go to Riverwood now and see Delphine, so you'll know what I'm going to be doing." Lethiel hugged Lydia close. "Don't get killed. Stick to the mission. Find out what happened to Flavius and get back to me, okay?"

"Okay," Lydia agreed.

Delphine, though suspicious of Lydia, explained her plan succinctly, and Lydia suppressed a pang of jealousy; she had never been to Solitude either. Well, there would be time, and she could not imagine herself pretending to be a guest at a swanky party. Lethiel could carry it off much better. The idea of her Thane having to entrust all her gear to someone else and go in effectively naked and unarmed was more worrying, but Lethiel agreed to it.

Back home, the sound of hammering once again made the evening hideous, and Lethiel presented Lydia with her own dragon scale armour, and a sword and bow made from dragon bones. Lydia doubted even Eorlund Grey-Mane could have done better. The armour fitted like a second skin, as Lethiel had said, and weighed practically nothing. Of course it doesn't, Lydia thought. They fly. The sword was well balanced, light, and remarkably sharp.

"Where did you learn to work this stuff?" she asked, and then shook her head. "Never mind. Thank you."

"I'd hug you, but the spikes..." Lethiel grinned.

"Well, that's easily fixed," Lydia said, and began to remove the armour.

The following morning, Bjorlam accepted Lydia as a passenger on his carriage, and Lethiel set off on Onyx for Solitude and the mysterious Malborn, who was to smuggle her stuff into the Embassy. Mid-afternoon saw Lydia outside Riften, where a guard tried to shake her down for "visitor's tax." She advised him where he could stick it, and set off around the curve of the city walls; Farengar had marked roughly where he thought Forelhost would be on Lethiel's map.

Half an hour later, she was completely lost.

Lydia stood, breathing hard, over the remains of Rahgot, the Dragon Priest.

Never again, she thought. Never again. Not on my own.

There had been ghosts. There had been draugr. There had been traps, and runes, and that horrible room where she had only just rolled off the floor in the second before it mashed her into the spiked ceiling. The draugr attacking her hadn't been so lucky. She had had to swallow so many healing potions just to keep herself moving that...well...she was going to have to get some of this armour off very soon.

And right at the end there had been yet more draugr, and this. Rahgot. She knew the name from Captain Valmir, the Stormcloak officer who had accosted her as she dragged herself, wearily and finally, up the slope and into Forelhost. She had thought she had been tired then, after hours of wandering all over the Rift, fending off spiders and bears and wolves and gods knew what.

And here, now, there was a big chest, and a charred body, and a toy. Mila's "great gift." Her father's last gesture of affection to the daughter he couldn't simply stay home and get a proper job for. Lydia thought the kid deserved rather more than that. She would talk to Lethiel. Assuming, of course, that there wasn't anything more waiting for her beyond that big door. Like a dragon, or something. Right now Lydia didn't feel she could fight her way out of a cloud of dust.

She loaded herself up with everything she could carry from the chest--there seemed to be no reason, she thought, to increase one's collection of iron warhammers and kite shields--and pocketed the toy and Flavius's last scribbled apologies. As an afterthought she collared Rahgot's mask, cloak and staff. I am ser-worn to carry your burdens, she thought wryly, as she turned Rahgot's key in the ancient lock and shouldered open the door.

There was a word wall, off in the distance, but no dragon. She could hear voices, and one of them sounded familiar. She crept closer to the edge of the balcony on which she stood, and peered over. There was Captain Valmir, in earnest conversation with an Imperial soldier. Also in the uniform of an Imperial officer.

Well, well. Well, well, well.

Lydia dropped down silently on to the snow, and readied her sword. Suddenly her weariness was gone, and the idea of fighting seemed very appealing indeed.

...and that's when you killed him," Lethiel said, toasting Lydia with her mug of tea.

Lydia nodded. "I still don't know why the other guy attacked me. I mean, he'd just realised Valmir was an impostor, so he should have been on my side, you'd have thought."

"Men are strange in the brain," Lethiel commented wisely. "So there is a word wall. Good. And we can get to it without having to go all the way back through the place."

"It might be a bit of a climb," Lydia said. 

"We'll manage. So, do you want to hear about my adventures?"

"I thought you were just having drinkies with the great and the good and sneaking off for a little spying on the side," Lydia said.

"Well, that's what I thought, but it appears these Thalmor can tell the difference between a High Elf and a Nord woman even when they're wearing the same kind of clothes. No idea what gave me away. So I ended up having to kill rather a lot of people. Managed to get Malborn out alive though, not to mention a rather nice young man called Etienne. And after all that, the Thalmor don't know any more about the dragons than we do. They're looking for an old chap named Esbern who they think does."

"So you told Delphine about this," Lydia said.

"And she was flummoxed. Apparently this Esbern is an old friend of hers, and a Blade as well. So now I've got to get him out of Riften and deliver him to Delphine."

"Why can't she do it herself?"

"No reason that I can see. Any elf I can kill she can kill just as quickly, I'd say. I guess she just likes having someone she can delegate these menial tasks to." Lethiel grinned, and stretched her bare feet towards the fire. "Ah, but it's good to be home."

"It certainly is." Lydia sipped her own tea. "So what do you think about Mila's dad's 'great gift'?"

"Well, it's the thought that counts, or so they say, but I know what you mean. I hardly think he had to go and get killed by a Dragon Priest to find her a stuffed bunny."

"Well, no."

"I'll have a think," Lethiel said.

In the event, Mila Valentia was overjoyed with her bunny toy, proving as it did that her father had not forgotten her even at the end, and almost as thrilled with the perfect replica of Lethiel's own dragon scale armour that Lethiel said was a gift from her and Lydia "along of being good." It was accompanied by a wooden copy of the dragon bone greatsword Lethiel had made for herself, and they watched the girl run away to find her friends, waving the weapon jubilantly in one hand, with smiles on their faces.

Lydia was still smiling a little later, as she watched Lethiel follow Carlotta Valentia into her house and close the door quietly behind her. The single mother's heart had not been proof against the Dragonborn after all. She wanted to show her gratitude, and it was in Lethiel's nature to prefer payment in kind, as it were, when an attractive woman was involved.

Lydia supposed she would get used to it. It wasn't, after all, as if Lethiel loved her any less for loving other people, or indeed vice versa. 

Mila ran past, waving her wooden dragon bone sword and pursuing Braith, who shrieked in delight. Lydia's smile deepened. Harsh as life could be in Skyrim, someone with the will and the power to make even one child happy was good to find, and worth holding on to.

"Ohhh my goodness," Lethiel said.

The two of them were taking a day to unwind after their solo trips. Delphine had apparently been anxious that Esbern should be found as soon as possible, but from what Lethiel had gathered, the Thalmor were no closer to finding him than they were, and she was adamant that she needed some downtime. Lydia had been only too keen to agree.

"What is it?" Lydia said, looking up from her book.

Lethiel held up a battered thing she had evidently just extracted from the bottom of her backpack. "Only the Horn of Jurgen Windbreaker," she said. "I completely forgot to take it up to High Hrothgar. I was so busy with the mine and everything."

"Tsk tsk," Lydia said. "Naughty Dragonborn. No sweetroll for you."

"I'd better do it on the way to Riften," Lethiel said. "What an idiot."

"Want me to write you a note?" Lydia said. "'Dear Greybeards, please excuse Lethiel's tardiness, the dog ran off with the Horn and buried it thinking it was a bone, and she has only just managed to find it again--'"

Lethiel considered throwing the ancient artefact, thought better of it, and blew a raspberry instead. "Funny though," she said. "Arngeir told me I was the only Dragonborn to come to them in this age, didn't he? And yet Delphine knew that if they had a candidate for Dragonborn they'd send them after the Horn. That's why she pinched it first. How did she know that?"

"Who knows?" Lydia shrugged. "Maybe it's in some old book somewhere that they did that with Tiber Septim. You should ask her."

"Maybe," Lethiel said. "It's still not much of a basis for a prediction."

"Maybe she's like you," Lydia suggested. "Maybe she remembers going through all this before."

"Gods, I hope not." Lethiel studied the Horn with distaste, put it to her lips and blew. Nothing happened.

"In a few minutes," Lydia prophesied, "every dragon in Skyrim will be converging on this house, drawn by a call too high-pitched for human ears."

"No they won't. It's stuffed up with gods know what, and I'm going to leave it that way." Lethiel replaced the thing in her backpack. "Don't let me forget it again, please."

"I promise I won't. And I'm still going to wait with the horses."

The following day, fully refreshed and relaxed, they set out for Ivarstead, and reached it somewhat earlier this time. After a quick lunch at the inn, Lethiel set off up the Steps once more, and Lydia watched her figure dwindle till it rounded a corner and disappeared from sight. Then she settled down to wait.

After half an hour she was bored. Ivarstead was a quiet village, the only sounds Temba Wide-Arm's constant railing against the ursine scourge, and some girl arguing with her parents. Lydia looked about her, and found herself looking over at the haunted barrow.

She could deal with a ghost or two on her own, surely. She had done so already.

She wandered up to the structure, peered in, and then went inside.

Lydia looked at the claw Wilhelm had handed her, when she had returned from Shroud Hearth Barrow, after a remarkably short exploration, with the late occupant's journal. She looked at Wilhelm, who looked back steadily.

"You're putting me on, right?" she said.

"Beg your pardon, miss?" Wilhelm said.

"You and I both know that this is going to unlock the big door I found down there, so I can clear out the rest of the place."

"Wouldn't know about that, miss." Wilhelm was gazing stolidly over Lydia's head. Since she was a moderately tall lass, this involved some craning, but he managed it. "It's just an ornament I happened to have hanging around. If you don't want it--" He reached out, but Lydia kept hold of the claw.

"I didn't say that," she said. The man's deadpan act was perfect, and that in itself was suspicious. Lydia was about to pursue the matter, though to be honest she wasn't sure how, when the door of the inn opened and Lethiel walked in.

"Hi," Lydia said. "How did it go?"

"Pardon?" Lethiel's voice was oddly loud.

"How did it go?"

Lethiel shook her head. "Can't hear you."

"HOW DID IT GO?" Lydia bellowed, causing everyone in the inn to stare.

"Oh," Lethiel said. "I thought you were going to ask me how it went. Mead, please, Wilhelm." She sat down on the stool next to Lydia. "I can't hear a thing. They all Shouted at me at once, it was a sort of ceremony. Apparently I'm now formally recognised as Dragonborn. There are various things I have to do, and there's a place they call the Library which only has two books in it...ah, thanks, Wilhelm. What's that?"

"It's a pickle fork," Lydia said.

"Really? Looks like a pickle fork to me," Lethiel said.

"You can hear perfectly well," Lydia said accusingly.

"Well, mostly," Lethiel admitted, "but it was a bit eerie coming down the mountain for the first hour or so, and I am still a bit fuzzy. So, you went into the barrow, eh?"

Lydia explained. Lethiel whistled. "Neat scam. If it hadn't driven him doolally. So there's more to this place?"

Lydia nodded. "I was going to wait for you. I've no idea what could be down there. Oh, and just to prove you're not the only one who puts things in her pack and forgets about them..." She drew out another claw, this one fashioned of glass. "This was from Forelhost."

"Maybe we should give them all to Lucan Valerius. To put with his golden one."

"He'd run out of counter space."

"This is true. Well," Lethiel drained her tankard, "much as I'd love to go straight in and clear it out, it'll have to wait till we've been to Riften. One thing at a time. I'm sure the draugr won't mind waiting."

"That okay with you, Wilhelm?" Lydia asked pointedly.

"I'm sure it's none of my concern, miss," Wilhelm said woodenly. "As long as there won't be no more spirits bothering my customers, I'm happy."

"I think you can be sure of that." Lethiel rose, and Lydia followed suit. "Come on, housecarl."

"Watch your back in Riften," Wilhelm said unexpectedly. "What with the Thieves Guild and the Black-Briars, it's a chancy place to venture into."

"Isn't everywhere?" Lydia threw this back over her shoulder as she followed Lethiel out.

The guard, cringing visibly, hurried to unlock the gate, and Lethiel and Lydia walked into Riften.

"Visitor's tax indeed." Lethiel snorted.

"He tried that on me," Lydia said.

"I bet he says it to all the girls."

A burly, black-bearded man blocked their path.

"I don't know you," he began.

"That sounds like a fine arrangement to me," Lethiel said, and walked around him. Lydia followed, a little nervously.

"Delphine said I should talk to Brynjolf," Lethiel said. "Do you think that was Brynjolf? He didn't look like someone I want to talk to."

"Hey!" the man shouted from behind them. Lethiel turned back, looked at him for a moment and pressed a septim into his hand.

"Don't spend it on drink," she said, and turned away.

The man grabbed her shoulder. There was a moment of confusion, and then he was up against a pillar with Lethiel's hand around his neck.

"I'm sure you don't want to make me angry," she said. "So tell me the quickest way to the Ratway, and maybe I'll let you off this once."

"Down the steps," the man said, with some difficulty, "cross the bridge, round to the right, gate."

"Thank you," Lethiel said sweetly. "And if you touch me again I'll rip off your--" She mouthed a silent word. "Pull it over your head and make you wear it as a highly appropriate hat. Report me to whomever you work for, same result. I'm just passing through, and I don't want any trouble, but I have plenty to dish out if you find yourself running short. Are we clear?"

"Gllk," the man agreed.

"Good." Lethiel released the man's neck and they walked on.

"I'm betting that's Brynjolf," Lydia said, indicating with her chin a man walking with elaborate unconcern towards them.

"Then I definitely don't want to talk to him," Lethiel said, "at least not yet. We have a job to do, and he looks like someone who'll want me to do something else. Down here."

They descended the steps, crossed a narrow plank bridge, and walked, quite fast, along a catwalk that led around to the right. They could hear the man pause at the top of the steps, then turn away. Lydia looked back.

"Khajiit," she said. "Following us."

"Could be nothing," Lethiel said. "Let's keep going." They rounded the corner, found the gate the man had indicated, passed through it and the door beyond, and found themselves in a rat-infested tunnel. Lethiel signed for silence, and in a moment, to all appearances, the tunnel was utterly empty.

"Uh...excuse me, ladies."

Lethiel did a majestic slow turn. Lydia and Esbern paused. The burly, black-bearded man hesitated, twiddling his fingers in front of him. "I, uh, I think we got off on kind of the wrong foot earlier," he said. "I sometimes, uh, come on a bit strong."

"No, really?" Lethiel said, wide-eyed. "I hadn't noticed."

"Anyways, uh, I hope there's no hard feelings," the man said. "My name's Maul. I work for Maven Black-Briar. Uh. She wanted me to, uh, give you a message."

"Oh yes?"


"That's the whole of the message?"

Maul nodded.

"Tell her 'I'll be back,'" Lethiel said.

"She, uh, she won't like that," Maul said nervously.

"I don't imagine there's much she does like," Lethiel said, "so it'll fit right in. Come along, my dears, we have a long way to go."

They set off, with Esbern riding behind Lethiel on Onyx.

"That was some pretty good fighting back there," Lydia remarked. "How come you were hiding away in that cellar waiting for us? You could have fought your way out any time."

Esbern huffed. "Well, in the first place, young lady, I wasn't waiting for you. I had no idea you were coming. And yes, I could have fought my way out. I could have spent my every waking moment fighting, and running, and fighting again, all the way across Tamriel. When a man gets to my age, though, he finds better things to do."

"Easier things, anyway," Lethiel said.

"In some ways," Esbern admitted. "Remember also that till you turned up, I had given up the idea of there being any point to doing anything. I thought the world was about to end. I still think it might."

"So it might," Lethiel agreed cheerfully. "No guarantees, right?"

"Still," Lydia said, "a mage with as much power as you--"

"I'm not a mage," Esbern broke in with dignity. "I am an archivist. I have been compelled to learn a few defensive cantrips, merely to ensure my survival, but my vocation is the conservation and classification of knowledge, and for that I require absolute peace and quiet. In the Ratway, I found that, at least for a time."

"Well," Lethiel said, as Lydia subsided in chagrin, "maybe you and Delphine can find somewhere else peaceful."

Esbern laughed. "Oh, I shouldn't think so. Peace is hardly Delphine's natural habitat. She's a warrior to her core. And this is what the Blades have come to. One warrior, one old scholar."

"And one Dragonborn," Lydia put in.

"True," Esbern said; but Lydia could see his expression, and it was doubtful.

"Yes, of course, Delphine," Lethiel said furiously as they rode out of Riverwood. "It's three o'clock in the morning, we've just cleaned out a major sewer and rescued an old man from at least two bands of Thalmor, there's nothing I'd like better than to set off straight away for somewhere halfway across Skyrim which is probably infested with nasties I'll have to kill, would you like grilled leeks with that?"

"Delphine said they'd wait for us," Lydia said soothingly.

"Well, they're going to have to. I want food, I need sleep, I desperately need cuddle time and comfy as this armour is, I want out of it. I'm not an emergency service. At least not on my own I'm not. And neither are you." She took a deep breath and tried to calm down. "I need some more peeps."

"Some more what?" Lydia said.

"Some backup," Lethiel amplified. "People I can delegate stuff to. Otherwise I'm going to run myself into the ground here. Everyone wants everything done now now now. It's the curse of the modern age, I tell you. Hustle, bustle, no time to stop and smell the deathbell. I've already got jobs backed up all over the map. Honestly..."

Lydia let the rant wash over her. It was therapeutic, she thought. She wondered if Tiber Septim had felt the need to blow off steam like this.

"Well," she said, when Lethiel paused for breath, "you could do worse than check out the Drunken Huntsman."

"Who's he when he's at home?"

"It's an inn," Lydia explained. "Well, sort of an inn. Sort of a combined inn and hunting supplies shop, in Whiterun. Adventurers tend to gather there when they've got nothing to do."

Lethiel snorted. "Lucky them. You mean I might find some...some followers there? Henchmen, sort of? Someone to hench for me?"

"At very least a mercenary or two," Lydia said. "Which I'd say you can probably afford."

"Sounds good." Lethiel considered, and nodded. "We'll check it out. After I've had some downtime. That comes first. I'd say Delphine and Esbern can very well take care of themselves for a while. Maybe they'll find this temple or whatever without me."

Lydia nodded, as they rounded the corner where Tovis Horansen's ingenious decoy cart had now been removed by person or persons unknown. "Whatever Esbern says, he's a damn good battlemage. And I'd say Delphine can hold her own in a fight. Though..." She frowned. "If they're up against Forsworn..."

"Who or what are Forsworn?"

"I've only heard bits and pieces," Lydia said, "but I gather they're ferocious savages who hate Nords, elves, the Empire and just about everyone else. They used to rule the Reach before the Nords came, or so the story goes. Karthspire's in the Reach."

"Then Delphine and Esbern will have the sense to lie low and wait for me," Lethiel said decisively. "Home at last." She dismounted and helped Lydia down. "Have you decided what to call him yet?"

"The horse? No." Lydia had not needed help dismounting, but it was welcome nonetheless; she was bone tired. The younger of the two male servants, Drake, was standing by to rub the horses down and feed them.

"You'll think of something," Lethiel said, and yawned. "Soon be dawn. Time for bed."

"And then we'll be awake all night," Lydia said.

"Well, I'm sure we can find some way to pass the time." Lethiel grinned wickedly.

"What just happened?" Lethiel said, a little faintly, as the small man bustled away.

"I think you got another job," Lydia said.

They had only just stepped into the Drunken Huntsman--and Lydia had just had time to notice that almost the entire clientele was (a) of the adventurer persuasion, (b) female and (c) attractive--when the little man had come up to Lethiel, talking nineteen to the dozen, handed her a letter and some money, and told her to go and see his master in Falkreath.

"Marcus Jannus," Lethiel said. "Imperial, from the name. Well, he can join the queue." She swept her gaze around the room. "I can see you were right. This is an ideal place to look for henchmen. Henchpersons."

"Henchwenches," Lydia muttered. One young woman was attired in a scandalously scanty robe. The others wore variations on the well-known theme of barbarian armour, concealing or revealing according to how many holes had been punched in it before they had looted it. One was a tall High Elf, taller even than Lethiel, with altogether too much blonde hair.

"And we've got acres of spare beds in the basement," Lethiel continued, and then caught Lydia's eye. "You don't approve?"

"It's not my place to approve, Thane," Lydia said neutrally. Then she relented. "It's only that I would like to think I could have you to myself some of the time."

Lethiel looked at her, and Lydia saw her eyes fill with sudden tears. "I'll never hurt you," she whispered. "Say the word and we'll go."

"You need more help," Lydia said, trying not to give way to tears herself, "and these women look...very capable. Just..."

Lethiel took her in her arms and kissed her. A couple of the women whooped and applauded. "Do you mind?" she said over her shoulder. "I promise," she said. "Hands off. I'm yours."

"We'll see," Lydia said. "I know you, remember. Okay, okay, go hire them."

"Let's give them a trial run first," Lethiel said. "Take them to Karthspire, see how they shake down. Hello?" This was to a well-dressed man sitting in a corner, flanked by two heavies in steel plate armour.

"Good day," the man said. "My name is Selibrio Atius. I just wondered if you were aware of this." He passed Lethiel a flyer.

"I see," she said, scanning it quickly. "And this farm, would it by any chance be full of bandits?"

"Not full," Selibrio Atius said quickly. "I can't rule out the odd one."

"And I would not be about to find, after spending my all on rebuilding it, that I'd hired you to run it?"

"Absolutely not," the man declared. "I'm not staying in this godsforsaken province any longer than it takes me to sell the thing. But the land's good and fertile, and it could be a regular source of income if handled well."

"All right," Lethiel said. "My mother always said..." She frowned. "I forget. It would have been something sensible, anyway. I'll take it."

Selibrio Atius pocketed the gold. "You and me," he said, "we're the only people around who aren't complete fools."

"That's what they all say," Lethiel sighed.

"It's been four days," Delphine fretted. "I knew it. She's sold us out. She's a Thalmor spy."

"Delphine," Esbern said, "you have no reason to believe that."

"Damn it, she knows how important this is. We have to get to that temple. There could be weapons in there, secrets, anything. Why didn't she come with us?"

"Perhaps because she was exhausted already from fetching me out? How did you spend that day, Delphine?"

"Two hours weapons practice, then--" Delphine slumped. "All right, I get it. She still should be here. We need her. That's the truth."

"That's good to know," Lydia said, straightening up from concealment, watching Delphine's hand go straight to her sword and Esbern readying a spell, "because we're here."

As if in response to her words, what seemed like a screaming, yelling horde of female warriors appeared from nowhere and charged down the slope towards the Forsworn camp.

"Excuse me," Lydia added, and went to join them.

"They have a Hagraven," Esbern called.

"We killed her first!" Lydia called back.

The Forsworn were indeed savage, and vicious, but they were no match for Lethiel's army, all in dragon scale and wielding dragon bone weapons. Amarie, the elf, stood head and shoulders above the battle, dealing out healing spells to friends and sword strokes to foes by turns. Erin and Sienna, the dark and the light, held back, as did Rowan, the red-headed mage, using bows and spells to deadly effect. Anja and Sigrid waded into the fray with swords flying.

Lethiel was in the lead, and had come to a halt, confronting four Forsworn warriors. Lydia caught sight of her, standing with lowered weapon and drawing a deep breath, and was about to charge past her to engage the oncoming enemy, and it was well for her that she did not make it.


The titanic Voice filled the sky from horizon to horizon, and rolled with the thunder of the gods themselves. The four warriors were picked up as if by the hand of Shor and flung all the way across the river to strike the rocks with crushing force and land, broken dolls, half in and half out of the water, where curious mudcrabs came to inspect them.

Ooo-kay, thought Lydia, shaking her head to stop her ears ringing. Good rule of thumb: stay *behind* the nice Dragonborn. She had never heard Lethiel Shout in combat before; only in practice, up in High Hrothgar. Now she knew why. That Shout could obliterate friend and foe alike. Would, if the friend were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Well, that friend was not going to be Lydia.

As quickly as it had begun, the battle was over. The camp was littered with bodies. Delphine and Esbern were just arriving on the scene, and Lethiel turned and went to meet them.

"What kept you?" Delphine said. "Never mind," she added, "let's keep moving. Sky Haven Temple must be around here somewhere."

"I was thinking maybe over there," Lethiel said, indicating the large torch-flanked cave entrance at the top of a broad flight of stone steps.

"Good call," Lydia said, wiping her sword. The other women were gathering around. Delphine looked a question at Lethiel.

"My troops," Lethiel said shortly. "And yes, I trust them. If that's not good enough for you we can have an argument about it, or we can get on. I have other work to do."

"I'm sure they're fine," Esbern said. "I agree with the Dragonborn. I need to find this temple."

Delphine grudgingly acquiesced, and the small army set off, stepping over the piled bodies, across the wooden bridges towards the Karthspire.

Lydia would never have described herself as a connoisseuse of great art, mainly because she didn't know the word, but she had to admit she found Alduin's Wall a bit of a disappointment.

While Esbern raved on about the complex symbology and the early Akaviri's masterly stonework, all she could see was a sort of cartoon. "Alduin used to rule the world, we beat him, but he's coming back and we hope someone will beat him again." This, she thought, we knew already.

Delphine seemed upset at the idea of using a Shout to defeat the enemy. It emerged that this was because she didn't like the Greybeards. Lydia could see how that would be entirely mutual. Lethiel agreed readily enough to go back to High Hrothgar and ask Arngeir about a Shout that could defeat a dragon, and she and Delphine parted on reasonably friendly terms, while Esbern continued to cluck and fuss over his wall.

"Okay," Lethiel said, once they were outside in the daylight again. "So I need to do this. What do you all want to do?"

"I'll take them home and get them settled in," Lydia volunteered. "I take it they're all hired?"

"Oh yes," Lethiel said at once, and several of the women looked pleased. "Full bed and board and a share of whatever loot we find, is that okay?"

"Then..." Lydia considered. "What can we do that doesn't necessarily need you there?"

"Good question. If there's a word wall I want to be there. There's rebuilding my new farm, of course, but that's a bit menial."

"Whereabouts is it, anyway?"

"Just on the borders of the Pale, past the Loreius farm." It was Sigrid, the red-haired sworder, who spoke. "I asked the guy about it, but it was out of my price range. There's a giant camp nearby, but they generally keep themselves to themselves unless you go poking about."

"Would you care to go with Lydia and sort that out for me?"

"Sure. I'm not afraid of hard work." Sigrid smiled. "And I like eating. I grew up on a farm."

"A woman after my own heart." Lethiel delved into a pouch and handed over several bags of coin. "If you need more, Lydia, check out the safe in my room, but that should cover any expenses. I'll meet you up there when I've finished. Hopefully, this Shout won't be too hard to learn."

Lydia kept her misgivings to herself.

In the event, they rode all together as far as the estate, and Lydia was as good as her word, assigning beds and making sure everyone was fed. She still had an ambition to learn how to cook turnips, and the fact that they didn't seem to grow in Skyrim had not deterred her, but in the meantime her apple cabbage stew met with universal approval. Lethiel kissed her, and rode off into the dusk.

The following day, Lydia and Sigrid set off along the northward road. Talk was desultory; the redhead was shy, Lydia guessed, and set herself to draw Sigrid out. By the time they came upon the disabled wagon with the huge box on it, they were firm friends.

"Maybe we should stop and help," Sigrid suggested.

What would Lethiel do, Lydia thought. Of course she would stop and help. Even if it is...a creepy-looking woman with pink eyes dressed as a jester. Ooo-kay.

"Problem?" she said, dismounting.

It took some doing--neither Lydia nor Sigrid had Lethiel's silver tongue--but eventually Vantus Loreius agreed shamefacedly to help the creepy-eyed merryperson with her wagon wheel, and Cicero (that being her name) pressed some money into Lydia's hand. Not very much money, in point of fact, but Lydia imagined jesting could hardly be a lucrative trade.

"I don't know," Sigrid said when she mentioned it. "People like a laugh in troubled times."

"Have you ever laughed at a jester?" Lydia countered.

"Good point."

The dilapidated farm did indeed boast one bandit, cooking a mess of something over a sad little fire. He tried to get up and drag out his sword, but they didn't give him the chance.

Sigrid picked up the spoon he had been using and watched the grey glop drip back into the pan. "Yuk. Death was probably a relief."

They set to work, clearing the debris and overgrown weeds, and when Lilly the courier arrived with the jarl's ratification of Lethiel's deed (which she eventually agreed to hand over to Lydia as Lethiel's representative) they took the opportunity to send back to Whiterun for some materials and supplementary labour. Lydia had vivid muscular memories of rebuilding Windstad Mine, and while this was at least in the open air, she had no desire to do the whole thing herself.

What arrived, in due course, was a cart laden down with wood, stone and iron, driven by Adrianne Avenicci, with two men and a young woman perched on top.

"Heard you needed some help," the smith said, jumping down and eyeing Lydia's armour. "I see you upgraded already. My work not good enough?" Her tone was light, but Lydia was not deceived.

"Too good," she said, diplomatically yet honestly as well. "I'm keeping it for best."

"What is that?" Adrianne fingered the material curiously.

"Dragon scale."

"Oooh." Adrianne's eyes positively lit up. "Do you think the Thane would sell me some? I'd give a pretty to have a try at working that."

"I think she would," Lydia said, smiling, "and I think she would probably be happy to promise not to sell any to Eorlund Grey-Mane."

Adrianne's laugh was wicked. "You tempt me, lovely one. But that can wait. Let's get this done." She clapped her hands, and her assistants leapt down and began unloading materials and tools.

The work proceeded swiftly, and once the farmhouse was habitable, they all went inside and ate. Adrianne had brought food to share, and introduced her helpers; Roggvold, Strovar and Sigja.

"These two are interested in running the farm when it's finished," she said, "assuming the Dragonborn isn't ready to retire into pastoral tranquility just yet. And Strovar tells me there used to be a meadery in the basement, and he wants to try rebuilding that."

"They know this place?" Lydia was startled.

"Heljarchen Farm?" Strovar said. "Sure. Heljarchen Mead used to be near as popular as Honningbrew. This was back in my granddaddy's time, but my daddy had a few bottles left and a note of the recipes they used. Farm got pillaged eighty years back, and the family all but wiped out. They say it was bandits, but..." He spat meaningfully. "Mead business has always been cut-throat. Look at the damn Black-Briars."

"And you think you can revive the brand?" Lydia said.

"I'll sure give it a try." Strovar squared his jaw and looked around belligerently, as if daring anyone to doubt his resolve.

"We'll need some guards as well," Roggvold said doubtfully, rubbing his chin. "Out here we're pretty well cut off from civilisation. Bandits, wolves...Sigja and I are pretty handy, but some help would be welcome."

"My Thane will cover whatever is needed," Lydia said confidently.

They spent the afternoon resurrecting the fields, the windmill and the greenhouse. With six of them it went swiftly, but even so it was full dark before they had finished. A lone wolf came to investigate, and Sigrid and Strovar chased it down and dispatched it without undue effort.

"I ought to take the cart back," Adrianne said. "Ulfberth frets if I'm not there, and I have work tomorrow. Want a ride?"

"We'll stay, thanks," Lydia said. "We're meeting Lethiel here. She's gone back to High Hrothgar."

"Can't keep away, huh?" Adrianne nodded. "They must have some wild parties up there. Give her my love and tell her to stop by soon. I miss her."

They watched the cart dwindle down the road towards Whiterun, and then went back into the farmhouse.

"You have the bed," Lydia said. There was only one available. "I'll be okay in a chair."

"Don't be silly," Sigrid said. "You'll freeze if the fire goes out. There's plenty of room in here for both of us."

And it turned out that there was.

Lydia blinked awake to find herself wrapped round a sleeping Sigrid, and Lethiel Lightfoot staring down at them and grinning broadly.

"I turn my back for five minutes," Lethiel began.

Lydia, feeling herself blushing all over, tried to disengage herself, somewhat handicapped by the fact that she was between Sigrid and the wall. "I, er, she, no, we didn't, um, the fire, body heat--" she said.

"I'm shocked," Lethiel said. "Shocked, I say, to discover that you prefer being warm to being cold. Oh, don't be so silly. I'd have done the same, and for the same reasons."

"How long have you been...back?" Lydia recovered a little of her composure, and eased her hair out from under Sigrid's head.

"Long enough to notice," Lethiel said, "that you've done an amazing job. This is perfect. Good morning, sleepyhead." This was to Sigrid, roused by the voices to semi-wakefulness. "I met the farmers you hired, and they told me about Adrianne's helping. I must pop down and thank her properly."

Lydia explained about the dragon scales.

"Bones, scales, anything she wants," Lethiel proclaimed expansively. "I can't possibly use it all. Now, is there any food in this place?"

After they had eaten, Lydia broached the question in her mind.

"How did it go?"

"Well, not well at all, at first. Arngeir doesn't like the Blades any more than Delphine likes the Greybeards. I nearly got chucked out on my ear, till one of the others broke his vow of silence and reminded Arngeir who was Dragonborn around here. So then I went up to the top of the mountain--"

"There's more of it!?"

"Quite a bit more--and spoke to their leader. Who, it turns out, is a dragon."

Lydia stared, speechless.

"But a good one," Lethiel continued. "Rather an old poppet, in a draconic sort of way. Lives on his own up there and misses the chance to chat with people. Anyway, the long and the short of it is that I have to find an Elder Scroll."

"A what?"

"That's what I said. Apparently they're these really old, er, scrolls. It's a long story, I'll tell you when we get home. But the consensus seems to be that I have to go to the College at Winterhold." Lethiel laughed briefly. "You see life in this racket, don't you?"

The three of them rode home in the afternoon, after putting the finishing touches to the farm and planting the seeds that Sigrid had thoughtfully brought with her. In Skyrim's climate they would be bearing fruit--and vegetables--in no time. On the way, Lethiel stopped at a guard outpost and spoke briefly to the officer on duty.

"He knows a couple of freelancers who can use the work guarding the farm," she said by way of explanation. "I've told him to send them on up."

"So does this College have an Elder Scroll?" Lydia said.

"I don't know. They may just know where I can find one." Lethiel sighed, and the weariness was back in her voice. "It's just one damn thing after another. I just want to find this Alduin, pound him into the ground and dance on his bones, and be done with it, but nooo, it's got to be this rigmarole."

"That's life," Sigrid said unexpectedly. "It's never going to be simple. If it was, it wouldn't be fun."

"And when you think about it," Lydia added, "Alduin's a bit special, isn't he? I mean, First Born of Akatosh and all. He's not going to be as easy as your ordinary kind of dragon."

The road in front of them abruptly vanished in a sheet of flame.

"Like that one," Lydia added, hastily dismounting and readying her bow.

"That one" proved to be quite hard to kill, in the end. Even when Lethiel and Lydia had both got good shots in on it, it remained aloft for quite some time, leaving Sigrid dancing frustratedly around and yelling at it to come down and fight like a man, dragon, whatever. Eventually, though, it landed on the road, and then it was only a matter of time.

"You have a strange definition of the word 'easy,'" Sigrid said to Lydia, as they rode on.

"Well, I meant relatively," Lydia said.

"It's a shame we can't all Shout like the Dragonborn."

Lydia saw once again those four Forsworn, lifted up helplessly and dashed against stone.

"No, I don't think so," she said.

"I've had a thought," Lethiel said, as they dismounted on the drive. "The main problem with me delegating jobs is not knowing whether there's going to be a Word of Power I need to learn, right?"

"One of the main problems," Lydia agreed. Or a dragon, or a Dragon Priest, or some other kind of nasty we haven't even met yet, she thought.

"Well," Lethiel said, "dragon Shouting isn't magic. It's inherent in the language, the Word itself calling out to the dragon part of me, if Arngeir is to be believed. So the power isn't actually in the wall, it's in the Word."

"Oh, I get you," Sigrid said.

Lydia looked blank, and felt stupid. Then she got it too. "So if one of us finds a word wall, and we make a drawing of the Word, that should work as well as you actually seeing the Word on the wall." An objection occurred to her. "I can't draw."

"You could make a rubbing," Sigrid said. "Some paper and some charcoal's all you need. Put the paper over the Word--"

"But it's usually only one Word, on a wall full of them," Lethiel said. "You'd need an awful lot of paper and charcoal, and most of it would be wasted. The drawing idea's worth a try though."

"And if it doesn't work, the wall's still there, and the way to it should be clear," Lydia said, hoisting her saddlebags.

"We can try it out easily enough. There's a wall I haven't seen yet, in Forelhost, and it's in the open air. if you wouldn't mind going back, love..."

"Sure," Lydia said, "But I think we should find out which of all of us are best at copying dragon symbols, and sort ourselves out in pairs, one good copier and one less so."

Lethiel looked pleased. "This could work."

The exercise had to be deferred, though. Anja and Sienna were absent.

"They went up to Whiterun," Drake said, "to fetch some of their stuff from the Huntsman. They haven't got back yet."

"They're perfectly capable of taking care of themselves," said Amarie the elf. "Possibly they had other business."

"Or possibly they're going to come reeling in drunk as newts," Lethiel said sourly. "Never mind, we'll wait for them. Who's hungry?"

In fact it was nearly midnight before the two truants returned, and they were not only sober, but extremely angry.

"We heard this old lady," Sienna began, "arguing with these two guys about her son."

Lydia guiltily recalled the argument she had overheard, weeks ago now. The participants weren't hard to identify. "The Grey-Manes and the Battle-Borns," she said. "Thorold Grey-Mane's been missing for some time, and Olfrid Battle-Born just loves taunting his mother about it."

"So See went and talked to her," Anja said, "and it turned out these two Bottle-Brains did know something."

"How did you find that out?" Amarie asked.

"I sneaked into their house and looked through their private papers," Anja said simply.

"You weren't seen?" Lethiel broke in.

"I'm a hunter." Anja was scornful.

"Aren't we all, dearie," Sigrid said under her breath.

"No, I wasn't seen. And it turns out this Thorold is being held in a Thalmor prison somewhere up north. Why these Brittle-Bones should merit being told about it I don't know."

"What did you do?" Lydia said wearily. She knew already.

"We took the information back to the Grey-Manes," Sienna said, "and this one guy, Avulstein, was all for charging in there and trying to fight his way in and out with his brother."

"Suicidal," Rowan said. "The Thalmor are utterly ruthless. No offence," she added to Amarie.

"None taken," the elf said. "I'm not Thalmor."

"So we told them the Dragonborn would take care of it," Anja said.

"Oh, you did, did you?" Lydia said.

"Isn't that what you do?" Sienna countered. "Help people?"

"What I *do* is kill dragons," Lethiel said. "But, yes, okay, I see your point. In future if you could maybe run these things past me before making any promises..."

"Absolutely," Anja said, too quickly. "Sorry."

"But since you're so keen, why don't you two handle that little job for me?" Lethiel went on. "I've got to go gallivanting off to Winterhold to find an Elder Scroll, and Lydia and one of you has another job to do, so it all works out rather well."

"Lydia and me," Sigrid said. "I was there when we thought of it." She put her hands possessively around Lydia's arm. Lydia was startled, but made no reaction.

"Okay," Lethiel said, "but we do the art test when everyone gets back, all right? I want to organise these things on a slightly more considered basis than that, if we're going to do it at all. And now, I need some sleep. I hardly got any last night, unlike some I could name."

Lydia squirmed uncomfortably. Sigrid still had her arm.

The following morning, they all went their separate ways: Lethiel to Winterhold, Anja and Sienna to hunt for a place called Northwatch Keep, which Anja said was on the far northern coast west of Solitude, and Lydia and Sigrid to Forelhost, armed with paper and charcoal. Amarie, Erin and Rowan remained behind to hold the fort.

"And don't take any jobs on till I come back," were Lethiel's parting words to them.

"Are you sure this is easier and quicker than just going through the place?" Sigrid asked, from above.

"Trust me," Lydia grunted, trying to shift one of Sigrid's boots out of her ear, "it is."

If there were steps up to the balcony with the word wall, they had not succeeded in finding them. In addition, neither of them had thought to bring rope, pitons, or any other climbing equipment. Lethiel, Lydia knew, would simply have charged at it and forced her way up with sheer bloody-mindedness, but neither of them were up to that. Maybe it was a Dragonborn thing.

Eventually, however, persistence paid off, and they lay on the snow that mantled the balcony, panting.

"Why did you want to come with me on this trip anyway?" Lydia said, when she had recovered her breath.

"I know you," Sigrid said simply. "I don't know any of the others that well. We just met up in the Huntsman. And I know I can trust you to snuggle when it's cold." She grinned engagingly, and her nose wrinkled. "Besides, like I said, I was there when we thought of the idea. I feel, you know, proprietorial about it."

It seemed to Lydia that there was more to this than she was seeing, but she put the thought aside for later. "Okay," she said, scrambling up. "Let's get this done while the light's still there."

"Ah, I did think of that," Sigrid said, delving into her bag and bringing out a bundle of torches.

"Great," Lydia said. "Got anything to light them with?"

Sigrid's face fell.

They each made rapid sketches of the deeply incised claw marks in the stone, and compared the two. Lydia's was actually rather better.

"It would help if we knew what it all means," Sigrid said. "Maybe a word would leap out at us as the kind of word a Word of Power would be."

"Well, we don't," Lydia said.

"We could try guessing." The woman was irrepressible, Lydia thought glumly. "I'd say...that one." She pointed at Lydia's sketch. "That looks powerful to me."

It looked like oversized chicken marks to Lydia.

"We'll let the Dragonborn decide," she said firmly.

After an uncomfortable night among the remains of Captain Valmir's campsite, in which Lydia was once again too tired to do more than sleep (and in which Sigrid once again insisted on "sharing body heat" as she put it), they set off for home, the precious drawings stowed safely in one of the saddlebags. They passed the permanently closed southern gate of Riften, and rode in leisurely fashion along the southern edge of whichever lake it was. Lydia was a stranger round here.

Thus, when Sigrid said "This way," and turned her horse, named Dabs for no fathomable reason, to the right, Lydia was in no position to argue.

(The question of finding a name for her own horse, in fact, was rapidly assuming in Lydia's mind the stature of a conundrum of unimaginable complexity. You couldn't, after all, just call a horse whatever nonsense word came into your head. Names were important. A name should partake of the nature of the thing or person it indicated, should express its identity as completely yet as succinctly as possible. She wasn't actually having nightmares about the thing rearing up over her and whinnying out a dread demand for a name, but it could only be a matter of time.)

The road seemed to have led them into a ruined village. All around were burned-out, shattered cottages, and Lydia saw with a sinking sensation the tell-tale signs of dragon attack. One building remained viable, at the far end of the place, and to this she directed her innominate steed.

"Excuse me," she said to the careworn woman sweeping the step, "are we still on the road for Whiterun?"

"Will be," the woman said, "once you pass through here. Al the roads join up again."

"What is this place?" Sigrid asked from behind Lydia.

"This used to be Blackthorn," the woman said, casting a weary glance around the ruins. "Nice little place, till that thing came. Everyone's gone off to Riften or Ivarstead now, 'cept Winston and me. Wouldn't take much to rebuild it, now, but it's surely beyond the two of us."

It hung in the air, between the three of them, and before Lydia could utter a warning, Sigrid took the bait whole. "We might know someone who could help," she said.

"Really?" The woman did not sound much impressed by the likelihood of this. "Well, if you'd send 'em this way, we'd take it as a kindness. Not easy running a store like this with no customers."

"What part of 'don't take any more jobs on' did you not get?" Lydia hissed as they rode away.

"That was to the others." Sigrid was airy. "And in any case, doesn't this look just like the kind of thing she'd relish? Bringing a whole village back from the dead, making a real difference to the area...anyway, I can't just not tell her, now we've raised that lady's hopes and all."

"What do you mean 'we'?" Lydia muttered, knowing it was futile. She could see Sigrid's point; rebuilding on this kind of scale was just the sort of challenge that would appeal to Lethiel's soft streak. The mine and the farm had just been trial runs; this would be the real test. A whole village, owing its existence to her...and of course, there might be money in it. Another regular income stream, to supplement the farm, the mine, and the adventuring. That would certainly be a selling point.

Lydia took a certain amount of mean satisfaction, when they passed through Ivarstead and Sigrid remarked on the barrow, in pointing out that they would need the sapphire claw to get any further into it and she didn't happen to have it with her. She knew it was mean, and she felt bad about it, and she knew why she was doing it, and she felt bad about that too. It wasn't Sigrid's fault Lydia had what was starting to seem like an uncommon and distinctly weird foible about not having sex with just any old body to whom one felt attracted. It wasn't her fault Lydia was feeling, if she was honest with herself, more than slightly attracted to Sigrid.

But Lethiel would never, ever, let her hear the end of it. And Lydia could not face that. So she snapped, and snarled, and they rode on in silence around the base of the Throat of the World.

"Are we the first back?" Lydia asked as she stepped across the threshold.

"That's hardly surprising," Amarie said coolly. "You knew where you were going."

"'West of Solitude' covers a fair amount of ground," Rowan added.

"And who knows what they're making the Dragonborn do up at that College," Erin said.

"I expect she's had to enrol as an apprentice," Rowan said. "Just to get in the door. There's a certain amount of tension between the College and Winterhold, and they don't like casual visitors."

"That hardly seems appropriate," Sigrid said.

"How skilled is she at magic?" Rowan said.

"I've never seen her do any," Lydia answered. "She's got quite a few books on the various subjects, but I think that's just because she likes books."

"Apprentice," the mage said. "They'll put her through a few hoops, and then maybe she'll get some answers. How did it go at Forelhost?"

Lydia produced the drawings, and they all pored over them for a few minutes, but this was purely for the sake of form; none of them could read dragon.

"Anything happen here while we were gone?"

"A Thalmor bigwig and two soldiers called at the door asking for Lethiel Lightfoot," Amarie said. "I told them no-one of that name lived here. They were inclined to come in and search the place, but I managed to dissuade them."

"You should have seen her," Rowan said. "All Elf dignity and poise. I think that was what convinced them more than anything else."

"They won't have given up though," Amarie went on. "They'll be waiting somewhere nearby to see who comes and goes. We'll need to be wary."

"She must really have upset them," Lydia said thoughtfully.

"Well, the bigwig mentioned a major disruption at the Embassy, several guards dead and some highly classified papers stolen," Amarie said. "That would probably do it."

"There'll be patrols out on the roads looking for her as well," Erin said. "It's never wise to antagonise the Thalmor. No offence."

"None taken," Amarie said, with deceptive lightness.

"Well, we've probably made it worse, then," said a voice from the doorway. Anja and Sienna, travel- and bloodstained, stood there.

"Where's what's his name?" Sigrid said.

"He took off," Sienna said, advancing into the room. "Gave us a message for his mother, gardening tips I think, and said his brother ought to get out as well. Heading off to join the Stormcloaks."

"And the Thalmor?" Lydia said.

"All dead." Anja laughed shortly. "We tried it the peaceful way, but they just weren't interested in being co-operative."

"This is exactly why," Lydia said, addressing them all, "we have to be careful what jobs we take on. The next mission of mercy or whatever might involve busting someone out of Dragonsreach, or the Blue Palace. We need friends, and we can't afford to lose any. As of right now, my Thane is top of the Thalmor's list of enemies."

"She managed that all on her own," Rowan pointed out. "And let's face it, they don't like anybody much."

"It's mutual," Anja said.

"Yes, but," Lydia began.

"We get it, mother," Sigrid said, and leaned in to kiss Lydia's cheek. "We'll be careful."

And with that, as the company broke up and prepared for bed, Lydia had to be content. Soon she was drifting into sleep, alone in Lethiel's big bed, and not sure whether she was happy or sad about that.

"Come back soon, my Thane," she whispered into her pillow. "I can't do this on my own."

It was two days before Lethiel returned home.

"I can't stop," she told Lydia breathlessly. "Wouldn't you know it, I've got caught up in something up there. Some sort of big find. I've been given leave to go and find some books that relate to it, but I wasn't going to waste the chance to see you. How's it been?"

Lydia recounted the events of the last few days.

"Yes, I met the Thalmor contingent," Lethiel said. "They won't be taking any further interest in the proceedings. I'm glad Thorald got out all right. Did Anja and See deliver the message?"

Lydia nodded. "Fralia was overjoyed, apparently," she said. "Gave them a weapon each from Eorlund's forge."

"Well earned," Lethiel said, "and you're right, I do like the sound of this Blackthorn village. If I can get myself untangled from this thing in Winterhold, I'll make a point of going down there. How are you getting on with Sigrid?"

Lydia was ready with her answer. "Our professional relationship is very, uh, professional," she said, and cursed under her breath.

Lethiel laughed, and hugged her. "Gods, it's good to be back, even if only for a moment. No more new jobs?"

"No, ma'am," Lydia said promptly. "I gave them a bit of a hard time about the Grey-Mane affair."

"So," Lethiel said slowly, "if I were to say 'come with me to Fellglow Keep'..."

"Yes," Lydia said at once. "Oh, yes."

"Good," Lethiel said. "And that means I've got time for a cup of tea and a bit of a sit down, because obviously you can't just leap up and zoom out on a mission, there has to be planning and organisation and all that stuff."

"We weren't very well organised at Forelhost," Lydia said, busying herself with the kettle.

"You learn on the job in this game. And that reminds me, Forelhost. Drawings. Did you do drawings?"

"We did drawings," Lydia said, and brought them out. Lethiel spread them side by side on the table and stared down at them.

"Ah, no," she said at last, shaking her head. "Nothing. Damn and blast. I was so sure it would work."

"Maybe we got something wrong," Lydia suggested.

"I'm quite sure you didn't. No, it must be some other reason. Maybe it's the size, or something." Lethiel looked up. "I'm sorry, love."

"No, I am," Lydia said. "That's the water." She returned to the kitchen, her heart singing to drown out the singing of the kettle.

"You didn't have to kill her," Lethiel said as they rode away from Fellglow Keep.

"She was going for a spell," Lydia maintained. "Anyway, we killed everyone else. Why leave just her? Necromancers are halfway dead already, if you ask me."

"I was thinking leaving just her would be poetic."

"Sure, and then she goes around raising up everyone we just killed, and then they start back in business again. No, clean out the whole nest." Lydia was emphatic.

"I have to go this way," Lethiel said sadly. "These need to go back to Winterhold. Will you go straight home?"

"I have a couple errands to run first," Lydia said.

"Don't do anything I wouldn't do."

Lydia watched till she could no longer distinguish Onyx and his rider from the landscape. Then she turned her horse, but not towards Whiterun and home.

Well, look at that, she thought. It's a cold day in Sovngarde.


"Welcome, child," Master Arngeir said. "Of course I remember you. You are a friend of the Dragonborn, and hence a friend to the Greybeards."

"I would like to think so, Master," Lydia said.

"And now you hope to learn to do what the Dragonborn does," Arngeir continued. "To Shout."

"No, Master," Lydia said. "Not to Shout." She explained, as best she could, the situation. Arngeir frowned.

"The ability to absorb a Word of Power into oneself in this way is unique to the Dragonborn," he said gravely. "It cannot be taught, or farmed out to others. In this, I fear, there are no short cuts."

Lydia bowed her head.

"I feared as much," the old man went on. "This Dragonborn is hasty, impetuous. She wants victory all at once, without effort. Such is not the Way of the Voice. The Blades have turned her mind that way. You should try to persuade her away from it."

"With respect, Master," Lydia said, "it's not my place to persuade her of anything."

Arngeir smiled ruefully. "True," he said. "That was my task, and I failed in it. Whether my failure is a blessing or a curse, only time will tell. Child, we could teach you to unlock your own Thu'um, but it would take many years of practice and study here in High Hrothgar, and I suspect you would find that...uncongenial."

"How did Ulfric Stormcloak learn?" Lydia said. "From you?"

"Initially." Arngeir looked troubled. "He grew impatient with the Way of the Voice, and abandoned his studies prematurely. He learned just enough to be dangerous, and not enough to be safe. We resolved not to make that mistake again." His voice had hardened, and just for a second Lydia heard the thunder behind it.

"Well," she said, "what could you teach me--hastily--about the dragon language? Could I learn to read it?"

Arngeir nodded, surprising her. "It is a simple language in many ways, almost one might say brutal. There is very little grammar, and even after studying it for all our lives, my brothers and I know only a few hundred words. But its very simplicity adds to its power."

"Leth--the Dragonborn and I were talking about that," Lydia said. "They don't go in much for complex concepts."

"That is indeed true. I perhaps overstated the case when I spoke of debating. Most dragons are not deep or complex thinkers--indeed, I know of only two. But then," and Arngeir's kindly eyes pierced Lydia's, "the same could be said of most men and most mer, could it not?"

"Not my place to say, Master," Lydia muttered.

"Perhaps not, perhaps not. Well. To learn to read the inscriptions on the word walls is not difficult. First one must learn the shapes of the draconic letters, and then the meanings of the words themselves. Excuse me one moment." Arngeir moved away into the shadows of High Hrothgar, and Lydia waited. Another Greybeard emerged from a passage, gave her a curious look, and passed on his way.

Eventually Arngeir returned with two very small books, which he handed over with due ceremony. "One is a guide to the letters, the other is a list of all the words of the dragon language we have learned to this day. I hope you will find them useful. Unfortunately, though, the Dovahkiin will have to be reconciled to going to the word walls and looking for herself. There is no other way."

Lydia bowed, and Arngeir responded in kind. "Sky guard you," he said.

"I don't believe it," Anja declared stoutly. "They're just protecting their secrets, enhancing their mystique. Like any old wizard." She glared at Rowan, who looked back calmly.

"No, I believe him," Lydia said, "or at least I believe that that's what he believes."

"That could be just the power of his voice," Erin said. "I mean, Lethiel's really persuasive, isn't she? Maybe that's a side benefit. Being able to fool people into believing you."

"Or maybe I'm just really gullible?" Lydia's own voice held an edge. Erin looked away. "Either way," Lydia went on, holding up the two little books, "we've got something to work with."

"Play toys," Anja said. "DIstractions. You don't even know if they're accurate."

"And for all I know you could be a Dwemer in disguise," Lydia snapped. "We work with what we've got, and we do the best we can. Now, first of all, I think we should make a chart of these letters, and practice deciphering the inscriptions we drew at Forelhost. There's paper, pens and ink in the desk upstairs, Sigrid, will you go and get them?"

"Right away," Sigrid said, grinning and saluting.

"This is pointless busywork," Anja said. "I'm going for a walk. Who's with me?" Nobody spoke. "Fine," she snapped, and the door banged behind her.

Sienna caught Lydia's eye. "Can't read," she mouthed silently.

"She'll learn," Lydia said, "if she wants to stay here."

"I can't imagine not being able to read," Sigrid said, returning with her arms full. "My mama taught me when I was still only a baby. She said anyone who couldn't read was wide open to deceit."

"That's true enough," Rowan said. "I guess Anja's mama taught her differently." Lydia had laid one of the books open on the table, and the mage was carefully drawing out a grid of squares on a sheet of paper.

"She was probably more interested in getting work out of her kids than putting ideas into their heads," Erin said. "Mine was the same. I learned to read on my own, in secret."

"Farengar taught me," Lydia said. "He's the court wizard up at Dragonsreach. I grew up in the jarl's service."

"Oh, the chin that goes on for ever?" Sienna laughed. "I wonder he doesn't grow a beard."

Lydia knew why not, but it wasn't her place to tell these women. She respected Farengar, though she somehow couldn't actually like him, and his troubles had not been of his own making.

"Okay, here's a grid," Rowan said. "Now, who's going to do the copying?"

"Why not you?" Lydia said.

Rowan sighed. "Okay."

The others fidgeted uneasily while Rowan worked. Erin wandered into the kitchen in search of food, Sienna fiddled with the ornaments on the shelves, and Sigrid came and stood too close to Lydia. Only Amarie seemed content to wait silently and motionless.

"All done," Rowan said at last. "I had to use two sheets in the end, because I started too big. And I can see one word already in the inscription there." She pointed. "'Sovngarde.'"

"I guess that proves the letters are accurate enough," Lydia said. "Now we need to turn the rest of it into letters we can read, and see if we can work out what it means."

"Why?" It was Sienna who asked.

"The more we know, the more useful we are," Lydia explained, as if it were obvious.

"I don't see how." But Sienna shrugged and joined the rest of them clustered around the drawing.

"How long a walk was Anja going to take?"

It was Erin who put this question. They had transliterated the inscription, puzzled it out using the second book as a dictionary, and tentatively identified a couple of words as possibly being the Word of Power intended to be conveyed. They had also decided, after some discussion, that this inscription had been carved by Nords. Dragons would have no reason to commend a Nordic hero to Sovngarde.

"She has been gone a while," Rowan said.

"She can look after herself," Lydia said, but doubt was already gnawing at her. "I'll go see if I can see her."

She went through the hall and stepped out into the evening air. A couple of guards were walking on the road, across the stream; otherwise the entire place was deserted, not even Nazeem on his habitual sentry-go. Something white lay on the bridge, occasionally shifting a bit as the light breeze caught it. Lydia went to retrieve it, brought it back inside and spread it out in the light.

Come to White River Watch, it read. Come alone. I need your help. It was signed Lethiel Lightfoot.

"Well, now we know what happened," Amarie said bleakly.

"That's not even Lethiel's handwriting," Sigrid said. Lydia wondered how she knew. She could read perfectly well, but somehow everyone's handwriting looked the same to her.

"And how would Anja know that?" Sienna pointed out.

"An elf wrote that," Amarie said definitely. "The penmanship is Thalmor."

"And here comes the next stage," Sienna said, as someone knocked at the door.

It was Lilly, the courier. Lydia waited while she went through her little prepared speech, took the letter from her, and went back inside.

"'If you want to see your companion alive again,'" she read aloud, "'you will deliver the woman Lethiel Lightfoot to my agents at White River Watch before midnight. You will tell no-one of this, you will come unarmed, and the woman will be gagged. If you disobey, your friend will die in considerable discomfort.' It's not signed."

"Elenwen," Amarie said, and her normally impassive face twisted into an expression of pure hatred.

"Who else?" Rowan said. "All right, let's gear up and go get Anja. Where is this White River Watch anyway?"

"Across the river east," Lydia said. "It's a cave complex that leads up to an overlook. Bandits use it a lot."

"Why doesn't somebody clear them out?"

"Because it's not that easy," Lydia snapped.

"And because the jarl doesn't mind a few bandits outside the city," Sigrid guessed. "That way people stay at home and are glad of the guards and the walls."

At another time, Lydia might have taken issue with this cynical pronouncement, but she pushed it aside. "They can see us coming from the overlook, and as soon as they do they'll kill Anja," she said. "I guess they've already killed the bandits."

"Well, we can't give them Lethiel," Erin said. "Even if we would, we don't have her."

"And we can't just sit here and do nothing," Rowan said, hitting the table with the flat of her hand.

"I know!" Lydia said, more sharply than she had intended. "I've got some ideas," she said, "and I'm going to need you all. Now this is what we're going to do..."

A little while later, a party of three on horseback could be observed crossing the bridge to the road and turning eastward. The lead rider, a tall elf, was leading the second horse, a procedure necessitated by the fact that its cloaked and hooded rider's hands were bound in front of her. She rode with head bowed.

The party crossed the bridge over the waterfall, turned left and rode for a little way, before turning aside and climbing a steep slope that wound round to the left. There, in front of a cave entrance, two grinning elves in armour were waiting, armed with swords and bows. The two unbound riders dismounted and were swiftly searched for weapons; then the elves dragged the bound woman from her mount and marched her into the cave.

"You will wait here," one of them threw contemptuously over his shoulder.

The path through the cave was tortuous, and lined with Thalmor soldiers, with here and there the body of a bandit. The woman noticed, lying beside one elderly corpse, a book which had fallen open, revealing only blank pages. At length she was bundled out on to the overlook, a broad ledge giving on the valley below. There stood an imposingly built elf in the robes of a Thalmor Justiciar. Behind him, trussed and gagged, lay Anja, glaring furiously over her gag at all and sundry.

"My name is Lorcalin," he said, "and you are guilty of crimes against the Aldmeri Dominion. As such, your life is forfeit, as--" He smirked unpleasingly. "As is that of your companion here."

The woman made an inarticulate sound of rage behind her own gag. Lorcalin's smirk widened, and he stepped forward and twitched the rag away from her mouth.

"You said you would spare her life--"

"Did I?" Lorcalin affected puzzlement. "I'm quite sure I didn't. I merely said that you would see her alive again. You have now done so. As for your other companions, they will have a brief opportunity to do so, before she lands. I regret, though, that there will hardly be time for an extended conversation."

He stepped back towards Anja, and made as if to tip her over the edge of the overlook with the toe of his boot. At this point, Sienna, Erin and Rowan dropped down from above and quickly dispatched the two startled soldiers guarding Lydia. With a curse, Lorcalin started forward, drawing his own weapon.

"Don't you see?" he snarled. "Elven supremacy is the only truth!"

"I think you'll find that's gravity," Lydia said, and took a deep breath. "Oh, by the way...FUS RO DAH!!!"

It was not a Shout, could not have been, but its effect was sufficient. Lorcalin stepped back again, hands upraised as if to ward off a blow, and by that time Lydia was charging forward, head lowered. She caught him in the pit of the stomach, he staggered back two more paces, and Anja's outstretched legs did the rest. With a shrill scream, he went over the edge.

Amarie and Sigrid appeared. "We got them all," Sigrid reported. "After the first two it was easy." She brushed away the blood that was seeping from a cut above one eye. "Easy-ish," she amended.

Lydia removed Anja's gag and helped her to her feet. "Are you okay?" she asked.

"Sure," Anja said. "Thanks."

"No problem. Oh, and look, a chest."

In a little while, the horses laden down with bandit loot and elven gear, they made their way back home.

"I was stupid," Anja said. "I'm sorry. I just followed the guy like a fool. They got me with some sort of spell as soon as I stepped inside, and the next thing I knew I was tied up and this guy was gloating over me."

"They have one weakness," Amarie said. "They always expect people to give in to them, as the superior race. It always startles them when people fight back." She grinned. "Especially when they're sneaky."

"Good plan, General," Sigrid said to Lydia. "If we ever lose the Dragonborn, it's good to know we have someone who can take over."

"Bite your tongue," Lydia snapped. "We are not going to lose her."

Later, as Lydia was preparing for bed, Anja appeared in the doorway.

"Thanks," she said. "For not saying it."

Lydia was not sure how to respond to this.

"I never learned," Anja said. "I tried to, but the letter things never stayed still and I couldn't make sense of them. So I learned to fake it instead. See usually helps me out. It means I can't be any use to you with the Word of Power thing."

"There are lots of other ways you can be useful," Lydia said, going to her. "And even if you weren't, we'd still have come for you. You know that, right?" She turned away for a moment, and picked something up from the bed. "I saved you something extra from the loot," she said, handing it over. Anja opened the book curiously and stared at the blank pages.

"Hey, it's a start, right?" Lydia said. "Now even if you can't read, you can look as if you're reading."

Anja met her eyes, laughed and nodded.

"Thanks," she said, and turned away.

A letter arrived early the following day, and Lydia opened it with some trepidation. 

"It's from Lethiel," she proclaimed to the breakfast table at large, and read it aloud.

"'My dears, all hell has broken loose here. We found some sort of orb thing in a ruin named Saarthal and it got brought back to the College. Well, it turns out it's some horribly overpowered magical artefact and could destroy the world in the wrong hands, which is just about anybody's. Ho hum. There's a particularly slimy Thalmor here called Ancano who's got designs on this thing, I'm sure of it. Anyway, long story short, I have to go to some place called Mzulft and find people called the Synod, and I need some help. Could two or three of you meet me there? Love and kisses, Lethiel Lightfoot.'"

"Hey, a job," Sigrid said. "Count me in."

"Wait a minute," Erin said. "We missed out on the last one. Not counting rescuing Anja, I mean."

"Mzulft sounds Dwemer," Rowan said. "Count me out. I lost a friend in one of those places."

"If Lydia's going, I'm going," Sigrid said, sticking out her chin.

"Lydia is definitely going," Lydia said, "and she's taking, hmm, Erin and Sienna."

Sigrid put on a pathetic face.

"Sigrid and Amarie," Lydia went on, "take as much cash as you think you'll need and head back to Blackthorn. You made a promise, remember?" she said to Sigrid, who sighed and nodded.

"We'll do our best," she said.

"Anja and Rowan, mind the store. Okay, let's get ready."

Half an hour later, the two expeditions were provided with everything that Lydia could imagine they might need. For a wonder, the horses could still move.

"What should I expect in a Dwemer ruin?" she asked Rowan.

"Death," the mage said sombrely. "Their old machines still work, and they don't like intruders. And if you go far enough down you find Falmer, and they're worse."

"Do arrows work on them?"

"Yes, and so do swords, but they're unbelievably quick, they use poison, and even though they're blind they can hear where you are in a heartbeat. And if you survive all that, there's the chance of going the way my friend an earthquake." Rowan looked away and scrubbed fiercely at her eyes. "I've never been near a Dwemer place since."

"We'll be careful," Lydia said.

"You better." Rowan caressed Lydia's cheek briefly, then turned and strode away.

The journey was long, but Lydia was, rather to her surprise, getting used to riding and even found it enjoyable at odd times. They had tents and bedrolls with them, enough for all three to sleep separately, and at noon on the second day they found themselves looking up a long flight of steps that ran beneath a succession of ornate stone arches, at a tiny figure waving frantically at them.

"Welcome, welcome," Lethiel said, hugging Lydia first, long and hard, and then the other two in quick succession. "Hmm. Interesting choices," she added, glancing quickly at Lydia. "Well, I've scouted round a bit and found a building over there full of all kinds of interesting stuff just lying there. I've been inside and spoken to a fellow who is sadly now deceased, who told me to find an apparatus in the Oculory. And he seems to have lost his crystal, whatever that may be. He had a key on him which should get us further in."

"Any news on the Elder Scroll?" Lydia asked.

Lethiel looked blank for a second. "No, I never seem to get time to ask. This junket is to look for something called the Staff of Magnus, which is the only way to control something called the Eye of Magnus, which is the orb we found in Saarthal. You did get my letter? Good. Once I have the Staff and we've taken care of the Eye, I hope to be able to find out about the Elder Scroll, though I must admit my hope dwindles daily. It's just--"

"One damn thing after another," Lydia finished in unison with her, and they laughed. "Well," Lydia said, "the sooner we finish this one thing the sooner the other can present itself, right?"

The four of them nodded, and Lethiel led them into Mzulft.

They left the mad magician standing disconsolately in front of his projection, and quitted the Oculory chamber. There was a short delay while Lethiel appeared to be having some sort of vision, or possibly a brain seizure, and then she led them decisively down a short corridor, through a locked door, and out into the open air.

"So," Lydia said. "Labyrinthian. And I actually know where that is."

"Great," Lethiel said. "Only I don't think I can go straight there."

"Nor me," Sienna said. "I agree with Rowan. Dwemer ruins are bad news." She had had her arm broken by a particularly vicious blow from a mechanical opponent; a healing potion had dealt with the break, but healing potions, as Lydia knew from experience, seldom did anything to relieve the actual pain.

"You three head home," Lethiel said. "I'll join you there when I've reported back to the Arch-Mage."

"Not one chance," Lydia said. "We're sticking with you. I'm not happy about letting you go off alone."

Erin and Sienna nodded. Lethiel looked from one face to another and shrugged. "Okay," she said simply.

This was all new territory to Lydia, so she followed Lethiel, and the others followed her. As they rode north, the wind grew colder and snow began to fall around them. Winterhold the village was permanently blanketed in it. Villagers tramped morosely about, occasionally casting glances of dull resentment at the College, the newcomers, and each other.

"Cheery place," Erin commented.

"This used to be the capital of Skyrim," Sienna said. "Then someone at the College did something, and most of it fell into the sea. What's left kind of holds a grudge."

"You'd best wait here," Lethiel said, at the foot of the bridge that led out across vacancy to the College. "They don't like outsiders barging in. I'll be as quick as I can."

She turned and ran swiftly up the slope of the bridge. Lydia, Erin and Sienna looked at each other.

"Outsiders," Sienna remarked, cocking an eyebrow.

"She didn't mean it like that," Lydia protested.

"Sure she didn't," Sienna said.

Before Lydia could utter the response on her lips, a soundless burst of white light erupted from the College and the ground shook. Lydia and Sienna covered their eyes, and Erin fell to her knees, and then the air was full of angry, buzzing balls of light and blasts of unbelievable cold. 

"What the Nine--" Sienna began.

Lydia already had her sword out and was slashing at the nearest of the things. It exploded with a shock of cold that travelled up her arm, and there on the ground at her feet was a pulsing crystal, a soul gem. She snatched it up and went for another of the entities. Sienna and Erin caught on quickly, and followed suit. By the time Lethiel and two mages had pounded down from the College, the crisis was all but over.

"What happened?" Lydia said, fighting for breath.

"I don't know. Something. The Arch-Mage is dead, the Eye is out of control, Ancano the damn Thalmor's responsible *of course*..." Lethiel glanced back at the College. "And I'm going to have to go straight on to Labyrinthian. We need this Staff as soon as I can bloody well get it. I'm not asking you to come with me..."

"You don't have to," Sienna said, before Lydia could. "We may not be able to save the world by Shouting or learning Words of Power, but we can help save it by keeping you alive. And you're going to need us. You're dead on your feet."

"So are you."

"Half-dead," Erin corrected. "And if she's half-dead and I'm half-dead, that makes one fully alive helper. Are we going straight away?"

"No, I have to go back and report to Mirabelle on the state of things down here," Lethiel said. "Go to the inn and stock up on food, we have no idea how long this will take." She took their hands in hers in turn. "Thank you. Back in a moment." She was gone again.

"So where is this Labyrinthian?" Erin asked.

"It's a huge place on the border of Whiterun and Hjaalmarch. The road actually runs through it, if you go that way. Most don't. Trolls live there." Lydia spoke absently, casting her gaze around, alert for any further eruptions of whatever those things had been.

"Sounds peachy," Sienna commented. "And I guess we won't be stopping overnight?"

"I don't think we'll have time," Lydia said.

Who are these dead idiots?" Erin whispered, as the ghosts once more faded on the air.

"Well," Lethiel said, "one of those dead idiots was till quite recently the Arch-Mage of the College. As for the others, I don't know, but I have a bad feeling about them. I think this was a youthful escapade gone badly wrong."

"Very badly," Lydia agreed. "I take it the former Arch-Mage is the one who keeps encouraging them to go on?"

Lethiel nodded. "And to stick together, yes."

"Well, we must do the same," Sienna said, "if we're going to get at this Staff. Beyond that door, the ghost said."

Lethiel opened the door and they stared out.

"Is that..." Lydia said.

"A Dragon Priest," Lethiel said. "And it seems to be being contained by those two figures up there. Who will probably turn out to be Arch-Mage Aren's two remaining companions."

There was a short silence.

"So much for sticking together," Sienna said scathingly. " I note his loyalty didn't quite extend that far."

"He probably had a library book he needed to return," Erin said.

"I've met the librarian," Lethiel said. "I could believe it. But no," she went on slowly, "this is not a joking matter. Nor is it a coincidence that this has happened now. I thought this was just a pointless distraction from the business I'm supposed to be engaged on, but it's all part of the same thing. I think."

"How is this connected to Alduin and the dragons?" Lydia demanded.

"I'm not entirely sure," Lethiel said, "but there's a connection, either to something I'm going to have to do, or not to do. Something about guilt, and atonement, and whether or not it's possible." She gathered herself. "But in the meantime, we have to release these poor lost souls, kill that thing, and retrieve the Staff clutched in its bony hand, because that, my children, as sure as eggs is eggs, is the Staff we're looking for."

She lifted her bow, sighted, lowered it again. "We need a better angle. Erin, you take the mage nearest to us, Sienna, the further one. Lydia, you're with me, either side of Nimshai there. On my command, you two kill the mages, and when the containment field vanishes, we will hopefully have a chance to gut the thing before it knows what's going on."

"Suppose they attack us?" Erin said.

"They've been doing this for hundreds of years. Their physical bodies have probably turned completely to dust. I'd guess they're a bit focussed right now. You might be able to get their attention with a fanfare of trumpets, but I doubt it." Lethiel made shooing gestures. "Come on, let's do this."

The operation went like clockwork. The mages faded into nothingness, as did the shimmering dome they had been sustaining, and before the Dragon Priest could do more than begin to turn, Lydia and Lethiel had slashed it to pieces. Lethiel collected up the Staff and other items, including another grotesque mask, and the group reassembled and made their way out of the dungeon, brushing past the ghost of Savos Aren uttering his pathetic platitudes.

"Coward," Sienna flung back at him.

The Thalmor who accosted them as they entered the burial chamber beyond the barred door had just time to say "So, you made--" before three swords and an arrow had driven the life from his body. The group hardly broke stride.

"Back to the College?" Lydia said.

"Yes." Lethiel's eyes were too bright, her teeth clenched. She was running on adrenaline and rage now. "This ends.”

Lydia had an eerie feeling of déjà vu.

"What?" Lethiel said, as Tolfdir bustled away. "Wait, what?"

"Congratulations," Sienna said, "Arch-Mage."

"I can't be an Arch-Mage," Lethiel said. "I'm not even a mage. I don't do magic. I never have."

*I can be as bloody arch as anyone, ducky, what, I should say so.* The words drifted through Lydia's memory from somewhere she could not place.

"I expect it's mostly an administrative position," Erin said. "Signing papers, holding meetings, that kind of thing."

"But Mirabelle did all that." Lethiel was obviously trying valiantly to get to grips with the situation. "And she's dead."

"And you had a relationship together." Sienna quoted Lethiel's own words back to her mockingly. "Isn't that special."

The woman's insatiable, Lydia thought. And: when did she find the time?

"Well, she, I, um--" Lethiel's knees abruptly gave way under her and she slumped bonelessly to the floor. Concern overrode whatever else Lydia might have been feeling right then, and she knelt down and felt her Thane's pulse, lifted one eyelid, listened to her chest.

"Out cold," she reported. "We'd better get her home."

"What about this place?" Erin said. "She has quarters here now."

"I haven't seen them," Lydia said, "and I don't trust them. She needs her own bed. That old guy can run things for a while. He's probably going to have to anyway, because if you remember, our Thane here has a job to do already. Living in is not going to be an option."

"And this is nothing at all to do with--" Sienna began.

"Nothing." The word came out like a bear trap closing, and Sienna fell silent. "Help me lift her," Lydia said. "We'll hire a carriage. I saw a sign as we rode in."

They crossed the courtyard, supporting the insensible Dragonborn, without encountering anyone, and made it down into Winterhold village and to the Nordic Carriage Company stop.

By the time the carriage delivered them to Whiterun stables, it was clear that Lethiel was running a fever. Her head rolled from side to side as she lay on the bench seat, her brow was hot enough, as Sienna put it, to boil a kettle on, her skin elsewhere was clammy, and she muttered odd fragments of words, sometimes phrases, that made no sense to the listeners.

"What do we do?" Erin asked.

"Take her to Arcadia's Cauldron," Sienna suggested. "She'll have a potion that will calm this."

Lydia was worried about something else. "Suppose she Shouts?"

"Why would Arcadia shout?" Erin said. "Oh wait. I get it."

"Shouting takes concentration," Sienna said. "You can't Shout if you can't think."

"We don't know that. We don't know what a fever like this will do to someone with dragon blood."

"You mean, she might explode or something?" Erin inquired, and got a quelling look from Sienna for her pains.

"We'll send to Arcadia to come down and look at her," Lydia said, ignoring this. "In the meantime, we'll put her to bed and keep watch over her. If she looks like getting ready to Shout, we'll..." Her invention abruptly deserted her, and she sagged. "Do what we can," she said. "This is just overwork, I think. It should break naturally, but just in case, we'll get Arcadia to come and look."

She was talking to comfort herself, and she knew it, and so did the others. They hoisted Lethiel between them, and carried her back to her house in silence.

Arcadia shook her head. "Potions and spells won't help with this," she said, gathering her tools and bottles and replacing them in her bag.

"Why not?" Lydia demanded, fear clutching at her heart.

"Because there's nothing wrong with her," the other woman said tartly. "This is just her body's natural response to being pushed beyond its limits. It's enforcing what it needs, which is total inactivity. There is a danger of secondary infection--which is to say that she's vulnerable right now to any other disease that may happen along, so be careful around her--but if nothing else goes wrong, then she should ride this out in a week or so, as long as she rests. And that includes when she starts to feel better and thinks it's over and she can get back to work. That will be your job, and I don't envy you. In the meantime, make sure she drinks a lot of water, and make sure she stays in bed, and she probably won't die."


"Probably," Arcadia said flatly. "Now if you'll excuse me, I have people who actually need me waiting back in town. I'll see myself out."

"Well," Rowan said when the door had closed behind the alchemist, "she was rude."

Lydia nodded. "But she knows what she's talking about, I guess. And I'd rather be told that than charged gods know how much for treatments that don't work."

A bed had been brought up from the basement to the inner room, and Lethiel now lay on it. She had not regained any sort of consciousness, but continued to mutter and fret in her delirium. From time to time, Lydia or one of the others would persuade her to drink some water, but she seemed to find swallowing difficult.

"When you think about it," Amarie said, "that's actually about the best you can say for any of us, at any time."

"What?" Lydia looked up.

"That we probably won't die."

Lydia stared at Amarie for a long moment.

"Thank you," she said, "for that."

"Just trying to add some perspective," the elf said serenely. "Someone's at the door."

At the same moment, the someone knocked. Lydia got up to answer it.

"Mila," she said blankly.

Mila Valentia looked up at her. She was wearing the dragon scale armour Lethiel had given her, and clutching a bunch of flowers.

"Mother told me the dragon lady was sick," she said. "So I brought these. They always make me feel better when I'm sick."

Lydia took the bouquet solemnly. "Thank you," she said. "I'll put them in some water."

"May we see the dragon lady?" Mila asked, and Lydia became belatedly aware that there was another young girl behind Mila. Lucia, she realised, the one you sometimes saw begging in the Wind District.

"I don't think that would be a very good idea yet," she temporised. "When she's feeling better you can come and see her, as long as you promise not to do anything to excite her."

The children looked crestfallen, but accepted the verdict with grace. "Thank you," Mila said, and Lucia mumbled something. They turned away, and Lydia closed the door, or tried to; in an instant the two girls had slipped through and past her, and Mila was kneeling on top of Lethiel, pounding her chest with two tiny fists.

"You have to get better!" she yelled. "You don't get to run out on us like my father did! My mommy needs you! Don't you dare die! If you do, I'll...I'll set Braith on you!"

Torn between outrage, concern and an absurd impulse to laugh, Lydia plucked the child off the bed, held her struggling form aloft for a moment and then set her on her feet.

"I promise you," she said, "if she can possibly avoid it, the Dragonborn will not die. I know she cares about your mother very much, and about you, and she doesn't want to die."

Mila, once more all self-possession and control, nodded.

"I know that too," she said. "I just get scared sometimes."

"We all do," Lydia said. "Even the Dragonborn. But that won't stop her coming back to the people he loves."

"Thank you, miss," Mila said, and led Lucia peaceably out of the house. Lydia shut the door and leaned against it for a moment. 

Then she moved back to the bed, bent over and placed her lips next to the supine figure's ear.

"I'm with her," she whispered. "Don't you dare die.”

Lethiel's condition remained the same for two more days, neither improving nor worsening. Various people came to the door to inquire about her and offer good wishes. None of them were Thalmor.

Lilly brought a letter from Tolfdir, expressing regret at the Arch-Mage's temporary indisposition and hoping that she would soon be fully recovered and able to take up her duties. Lydia almost flung the thing into the fire, then changed her mind and marched over to the table to compose a stinging reply, effectively telling the old man where he could stick his duties, his regrets, his whimsical idea of how to reward someone for saving the universe and, if possible, his College, floating bridge and all; to which she intended to couple a pious hope that it would hurt.

She had hardly set pen to paper, though, when the air thickened around her and everything turned shades of grey. She experimentally tried dipping her pen in the inkwell. The nib bent on what was now an impenetrably solid surface. 

"Do not be alarmed," said a voice from behind her, and she whirled round to confront the yellow-robed individual who had manifested in the room. At the moment the robes looked grey, like everything else, but she somehow knew they were yellow.

"I'm not alarmed," she said. "Furious, yes, but not alarmed. You were one of the people who took away the orb."

"The Eye, yes. My name is Tandil, and I am a priest of the Psijic Order. Please listen carefully, as--"

"I'm not in the mood to listen to anyone," Lydia said, getting up. "My Thane is gravely ill and may die, and as I see it it's partly your fault. How dare you--"

"As this conversation," Tandil continued firmly, "is very difficult for me to sustain."

"Trouble talking down to our level, hmm?"

"Not at all," the priest said testily. "Please listen. Everything is happening as it should. Your Thane has restored the balance of forces. She has proved to possess the intuitive understanding of such things--"

"She just went where she was told and did what she had to!" Lydia yelled, closing in on the Psijic and forcing him to step back. "She's not remotely qualified to be Arch-Mage, and she's got far too much else to do already!"

"Aren," Tandil said simply, "was highly qualified, and had nothing else to do. And look what happened."

This gave Lydia pause.

"Under his...leadership," Tandil went on, "relations between the College and the town deteriorated, important volumes and artefacts were stolen from the College, at least one student was translated on to a mystical plane for which they were not adequately prepared, and apprentices have been incinerated or otherwise killed in magical accidents so often that the event is hardly treated as exceptional any more. A member of the despicable Thalmor was not only tolerated within the precincts of the College, but allowed to assume a position of high authority which he then proceeded to abuse with impunity. We have seen what happens when a highly qualified mage is set to run this College. It is time to see what happens when it is run by an individual whose aptitudes lie not within the sphere of magic, but that of practical politics."

Lydia didn't know what that last bit meant, but she wasn't letting Tandil off the hook that easily. "She has too much to do as it is," she repeated doggedly.

"Good," Tandil said at once. He was obviously realisiing that delivering a prepared speech and then melting away was not going to be an option here. "That means she will not be there very often. Since she has no official deputy, as Aren did, that means that any important decisions will have to be shelved till she has time to pop in, as it were, and look at them. And that means that things at the College will stay the same, unless she is there to make them better. We could not hope for a better outcome. That is why her appointment must stand, and why you must not write that letter. Now, please, this conversation is draining my--"

"You want her to be an absentee Arch-Mage?" Lydia was not letting the Psijic off the hook that easily. "Why her, then? Why not me, or anyone else, why not some random adventurer? Why her?"

Tandil was now looking actively exasperated. "Do you not think that any such person would ask the same question? That you would, if we had chosen you? Everyone is busy, Lydia. Everyone has their own life which is as full as they can make it, sometimes more full than they want it to be. Aren's life was full of unresolved guilt for his cowardice in abandoning his friends. Your life is full of emotional tension as you embark upon a complex net of relationships you have not even begun to fathom yet. And Lethiel Lightfoot's life is full of her destiny as Dragonborn, which I agree is a heavy burden for any soul to bear."

Lydia was silent.

"But, as she takes up that burden, it will be of benefit to her to have the resources of the College of Winterhold at her back, to draw on when needed. It will ground her in a field of knowledge in which she is at the moment singularly lacking, and it will give her a way of dealing with magic-related problems as and when they arise. Do you not see that?"

Lydia had only seen it as more work for the Dragonborn to do, but refrained from saying so again. 

Tandil was about to speak further, but was interrupted by a furious pounding from somewhere in the void behind him, as of someone beating their fist on wooden panels, and an impatient voice.

"Tandil! Are you going to be in there all day? There are people waiting, you know!"

"Yes," another voice chimed in, "some of us have work to do."

"What was that about a draining conversation?" Lydia inquired sweetly.

Tandil gave her a look of agonised pleading. "Do not write that letter," he said. "Things will turn out for the best. Trust me." Things around Lydia returned to their natural colours, and the form of the Psijic melted out of existence, to the accompaniment of a faint sound as of running water.

Rowan wandered in. "I felt something strange just then," she remarked. "Did anything happen?"

Lydia looked at her pen. "I bent my nib," she said.

"I'm pretty sure it wasn't that," Rowan said.

"What do you know about the Psijic Order?"

"Yet another bunch of elves who think they have more right to run things than anyone else," Rowan said dismissively, looked around for Amarie to say "no offence" to, didn't see her and carried on. "They disappeared years ago. Probably running things somewhere more interesting than here. Who were you writing to?"

Lydia covered up Tolfdir's letter with her blank sheet. "Nobody," she said. "It was a silly idea anyway.”

Late on the third night, Lethiel's fever broke, and she lapsed into natural-seeming sleep. The relief threatened to overwhelm Lydia, but she kept it together. She had replied to Tolfdir, but in rather more moderate terms than she had originally intended, thanking him for his concern, and advising him that the Arch-Mage would make a brief visit to the College as soon as her health and other work permitted. Now, having seen that Lethiel was breathing normally and her temperature returning to comfortable levels, she climbed the stairs and collapsed into bed herself.

When she came down next morning, she found the Dragonborn sitting up in bed and casting about for clothes.

"Oh no no no," she said, hurrying over. "You are to stay in bed for at least another three days. Alchemist's orders."

"And good morning to you," Lethiel said, smiling. "Don't be silly, love, I'm perfectly all right now."

"You may feel better," Lydia said, "but Arcadia told us to keep you in bed for a week and that is what I am going to do."

Lethiel's smile vanished. "That's quite out of the question. I've got too much to do--"

"And that is exactly what made you sick in the first place. No," Lydia added, as Lethiel made to get out of the bed. "Unless you need to pee, in which case I'll take you and then bring you back, here is where you stay."

"This is ridiculous," Lethiel grumbled. "I'm Dragonborn, I can throw these things off more quickly than--"

"I don't recall Arngeir mentioning anything about that. You can Shout, but I don't think you can Shout yourself well. As far as everything else is concerned you're still human and you could still die, and I am not going to allow that, so you. Stay. In. Bed."

Lethiel looked long and hard into Lydia's green eyes, and then lowered her own brown ones. "All right," she said, relaxing, "but I'll go doolally cooped up here. You'll have to keep a constant watch on me in case I start gibbering and laying about me with a battleaxe."

"That," Lydia said, "will not be a problem. There's no shortage of volunteers."

"I only want you," Lethiel whispered.

"And you'll have me," Lydia said, "for as long as I can manage, but someone has to keep this place running, and I seem to have got landed with the job."

"Talking of being landed with jobs, am I really the Arch-Mage of Winterhold?" Lethiel, having capitulated, made herself more comfortable, and Lydia went to fetch her some water from the kitchen, keeping her in sight the whole time. Just in case.

"So it seems," she replied over her shoulder. "The Psijics say they want an Arch-Mage who's hardly ever there and knows nothing about magic. They think that will work better."

"Hm," Lethiel said. "Better for them maybe. And you can bet the Thalmor will be sending along another Ancano as soon as they can. I really ought to be there."

"Well, you aren't. You're here. Getting well. Tolfdir can deal with anything that comes up. You should have given him the job."

"No, he's another like Aren. Cares more about magic than about what's going on in the world, and thinks that's okay." Lethiel accepted a goblet of water and drank thirstily. "Oh, that feels good going down. How long have I been away?"

"A couple of days. And, as I said, you're not back yet. Rest, lots of water and--"

"I get it, I get it, the horse is dead. It is an ex-horse. It has ceased to be." Lethiel frowned. "Why did I say that? Doesn't matter. So what's everyone else doing?"

"Sigrid and Amarie are off building Blackthorn. I know you wanted to be involved, but they were climbing the walls and I needed to give them something to do. Erin and Anja have gone hunting, whether for deer or bandits I wasn't quite sure. Rowan's--I'm not sure where she or Sienna are." Lydia went to the window and peered out. "Their horses are gone too. Damn it, they should have told me where they were going. How am I supposed to keep them all safe if they keep wandering off?"

Lethiel was smiling again. "I'm sure they'll be fine as long as they stay together. So, no new jobs. Good."

"Definitely no new jobs. I was thinking of putting up a CLOSED sign." Lydia took Lethiel's hand. "Everything important will wait for you. I promise."

There was a knock at the door. Lethiel flinched slightly, and Lydia tutted. "Probably some well-wishers. You're very popular round here. I'll get it."

She opened the door, and looked into three grotesque wooden masks. Behind them a flame atronach twirled lazily in mid-air.

"Good morning," said a voice from behind one of the masks. "Have you heard the good news about our lord and saviour Miraak?”

Before Lydia could do more than begin to form the phrase "Not today, thank you," one of the robed and masked figures stiffened, gurgled and collapsed with an arrow in its back, and almost immediately the atronach shuddered, stiffened in its turn and, all grace gone, fell like a plank to the ground. Lydia just managed to get the door shut before it exploded.

When she opened it again, it was to see that the decking and the door were extensively scorched, as was the body of another of the peculiar visitors who hadn't moved fast enough. The remaining masked figure was a little way off, sending spell after spell at Anja and Erin, who were on the drive and responding with arrows.

"What's going on?" Lethiel called fretfully from within.

"Old trouble," Lydia called back. "Cold callers."

"Tell them I've already got one," was the response.

The final masked figure fell, pierced by at least five arrows that Lydia could see. Anja must have been learning from Erin. The two hunters went to examine the body, then turned and loped up the drive towards the house.

"Hi," Anja said. "We saw this bunch heading towards the house and we followed them a little way and listened. Apparently they worship this person Miraak, who they believe is the true Dragonborn, and who sent them to kill ours. We thought we had better express our disagreement."

"Could you have done it before they turned up on the doorstep?" Lydia demanded.

"I couldn't get a clear shot," Anja confessed sullenly.

"And I couldn't get her to stop trying and let me take care of it," Erin said. Anja glared at her.

"So where is this Miraak person?" Lydia said.

"Solstheim," Erin said. "It's an island off east somewhere, more like Morrowind than Skyrim. Lots of Dunmer, lots of ash, weird place, by all accounts."

"Fantastic," Lydia muttered. "Something else to chase."

"I swear," came from the inner room, "if somebody does not come in here in thirty seconds and tell me exactly what's been happening--"

Lydia, who had been expecting Lethiel to charge out and join the battle at any second, hurried through, followed by the others, and brought the Dragonborn up to date.

"Odd," Lethiel mused. "I was almost...expecting something like that...but I don't know why. Never mind. I expect it will take them a while to get another squad together, so I can complete my convalescence in relative peace. How did the hunting go?"

"Quite a lot of venison and some loot as well," Erin said. "It's all still on the horses, but we'll bring them in and unload them right away."

"I don't suppose Rowan and Sienna mentioned to you where they were going before they took off?" Lydia said casually.

"Oh, yes," Erin said, snapping her fingers. "I was supposed to tell you, but I forgot. They went off to Winterhold to ask about an Elder Scroll."

Nobody spoke for a moment.

"Everything important will wait for me, eh?" Lethiel said to Lydia.

And what do they plan to do with it when they get it? If they get it?" Lethiel went on.

"Bring it back here," Erin said promptly.

"They won't even get into the College," Lydia said. "It's a stupid waste of time. I'll rip them apart when they get back."

"No, don't do that," Lethiel said. "It was a helpful thought, and Rowan might well get in, being a mage. And hopefully, not being me, she might even get out again without getting lumbered with saving the damn world."

"Well," Lydia said, in a summing-up sort of way, "there's no sense worrying about it now, and especially not you worrying. Are you hungry? I am."

"Yes, yes," Lethiel said, waving this aside, "but this all just shows that I can't afford to frowst in bed like some invalid. I have Words to find and learn, and I can't delegate that to you be...cause..." Her words tailed off, and Lydia saw that Erin was holding up a piece of paper on which she had copied out a word in the dragon language. A strange hope burgeoned in her heart.

"You did it," she breathed.

"How did you do it?" Lethiel said. "I got that one. Clear as a bell."

"I may not be very focussed all the time," Erin said, "but I don't stop thinking about something till I find an answer, and this one was simple. You just have to understand what you're writing when you write it."

"Uh?" said Lethiel and Lydia in unison.

"You can't just copy the shapes, the way you and Sigrid did the first time. If it was just a matter of the shapes, you could learn a dragon word from the accidental formation of a...a snowberry bush or a line of trees or something. Know what you're writing, write it with the intent to communicate, and it's not just a row of shapes, it's a Word. And thanks to Master Arngeir's books, we can now copy down Words and know what we're doing."

"But how did you know which word was the Word?" Lydia said, aware that this sentence lacked something in clarity.

"Ah, that was a lucky guess," Erin said, "but we did narrow it down to two if you remember. I just picked the right one."

Lethiel leaned forward, grabbed Erin's hand and planted a kiss in the palm. "You're amazing," she said. "You're all amazing. And now I can relax."

"Because you're going to be sending us all out to scour Skyrim for word walls?" Lydia said.

"Not all of you, or at least not all at the same time," Lethiel said. "And not till those two truants get back from Winterhold. But yes, soon. We have so much to do.”

was Sigrid and Amarie who returned first, though, looking tired but triumphant.

"We did you a bang-up job," Sigrid said. "You'd be proud."

"You didn't have to rebuild the whole village on your own, did you?" Lethiel asked anxiously.

"Not for a moment," Sigrid said. "As soon as word got round, people came flooding back, and everyone pitched in and helped. Blackthorn has everything. A farm, a mine, even a bookshop."

"A bookshop?" Lethiel perked up at once.

"And the manor house is just waiting for you to move in."

"Move in?" Lethiel frowned. "I don't need anywhere else to live. I'm happy here."

"Okay, but try this scenario," Sigrid said. "You're over there, checking out maybe that interesting-looking Nordic ruin we spotted on the way back, and you just can't tear yourself away, so by the time you get out it's way after midnight. Now, would you rather ride all the way back here, or--"

Lethiel threw up her hands, laughing. "Sold," she said. "I suppose it would help to have a pied-à-terre on the other side of the mountain. It's not standing empty, is it?"

"No," Amarie said, "there's a very nice lady named Belle looking after it for you. And every business in town has promised you a share of its profits in perpetuity, so that's more money you don't have to loot out of tombs."

"Well done, both of you," Lethiel said. "And we've got news as well." She explained about Erin's discovery regarding the Words of Power. "So that's a load off my mind."

"Are you feeling better?" Sigrid asked.

"Much better, but Lady Kynareth here insists I stay in bed for another day or two, and I think she's probably right, damn it. And Rowan and Sienna have gone off to try to find this Elder Scroll that I apparently need, without telling me or Lydia, and I don't want to embark on anything else till we're all back together. So we're all on enforced downtime."

"Thank the Nine for that," Sigrid said. "I may not have had to do all the work, but I'm still pooped. And hungry."

"See what's in the kitchen," Lydia said. "We're running low on veggies, but there's plenty of venison thanks to Anja and Erin. I was thinking of going up to the farm," she added to Lethiel. "I should be able to get there and back before it gets dark."

"Sounds like a plan to me. I promise not to move unless the house is on fire, which since it stood up to a flame atronach exploding on the doorstep seems unlikely."

"A what?" Amarie said, and Lethiel began on an account (at second-hand, necessarily) of the visit of the masked cultists and what it might portend. Lydia busied herself getting ready for the journey. She didn't like leaving Lethiel, but on the other hand her Thane was not alone, and she trusted the other four to keep her safe.

As she passed the derelict cider house, she wondered if that too might represent a useful source of money. Lethiel seemed to have plenty already, but Lydia knew how quickly that could change. She spotted a sabre cat lurking among the apple trees, and spared the time to dispatch and strip the carcass. It might have gone on to terrorising the Battle-Borns' cows, not that they would think to say thank you even if they knew. In a warm glow of unsung virtue, Lydia cantered on.

Roggvold welcomed her to the farm and loaded up the Horse With No Name (as Lethiel had taken to calling it) with fruit and vegetables, milk and eggs and flour, and Strovar insisted on pressing a glass of mead on her from his first brewing. It was, naturally, a little young, but very flavourful and deceptively strong, and one glass was quite enough. The glow that suffused Lydia as she rode back up the road was of a different kind.

When the figure leapt out from behind a bush and attacked her, she was suddenly cold sober. It wore unusual form-fitting armour and wielded two swords with deadly skill, but Lydia had the advantage of height, being on horseback, and her dragon scale boots deflected the sword strokes easily. A few moments later it was over, and the would-be assassin lay dead on the verge.

Lydia dismounted, and searched the body efficiently. The note she found tucked into a pocket of the armour (which seemed not to be removable by any means she could find) made her stare blankly for nearly half a minute, while the horse snorted and stamped nervously nearby. Then she mounted and rode at speed for home.

Just one more damn thing, she thought.

"They thought you were me?" Lethiel said.

"That one did." Lydia flung herself into a chair beside the bed. "He obviously saw me ride out from here and just waited for me to come back. It's your name on the contract."

"Assassins," Lethiel said. "Why?"

"Again, it has to be the Thalmor," Lydia said, "though I didn't think they had any dealings with the Dark Brotherhood. Who else would want you dead, though? Everyone loves you."

"Relatives of someone I've killed? I won't be flavour of the month with them." Lethiel brooded for a moment. "Thank gods for dragon scale."

"Yes, well, I didn't get away completely unaffected." Lydia held up a slashed saddle bag. "All our potatoes are now strewn over the road. I didn't have anything else to put them in."

"We can manage without potatoes for a while. I couldn't manage without you." Lethiel held out her arms, and Lydia came to be hugged.

"Hello the house!" came a voice from the front door, closely followed by Rowan and Sienna.

"Hello, absconders," Lethiel called. "How did it go? Do you have the Scroll?"

"No," Sienna said disgustedly. "But we know where it is."

"Urag directed us to this batty old mage who lives in a cave out in the ice fields. He's got an old Dwemer artefact he wants to try to open, and he thinks the Scroll will help him." Rowan snorted derisively.

"I'm seeing a trend here, aren't you?" Lethiel said, glancing up sidelong at Lydia. "Mage encounters Dwemer stuff, mage goes off his chump. It happened in Mzulft, and again here."

"And that's where we came to a juddering halt," Sienna said, "because the Scroll is in an underground realm only accessible through a Dwemer ruin."

"And almost certainly heaving with Falmer," Rowan added. "And like I said, I do not do the Dwemer."

"Afraid of going nutters?" Sigrid crossed her eyes, stuck her tongue out and made "woo-woo" noises.

"You didn't see the guy." Rowan's seriousness abashed the other redhead. "He was Urag's friend, and one of the finest minds at the College. Now..." She shrugged. "Nothing left. It's kind of horrible."

"Well, something left," Lethiel suggested. "He presumably has a plan for getting to the Scroll."

"He gave us a sort of key to get us down to Blackreach--that's the name of the underground place--and what he called a lexicon, which will read the Scroll and store what it reads in a form he can use." Rowan looked up. "You do know reading an Elder Scroll will almost certainly send you blind?"

"I didn't, no," Lethiel said. "But since there isn't any other way to find this Shout, I've got to risk it. When," she added hastily as Lydia roused herself, "I'm all better."

"Well, here's some reading matter from Urag." Rowan reached into a pouch and produced two books which she laid on the bed. "The one on the bottom is by this guy we saw. If you can make sense of it, good luck to you, I can't. The other tells you what you can expect if you try to read the thing."

"Gosh, thanks," Lethiel said. "Good motivation there."

"I try." Rowan grinned.

"Well, we're all back," Lethiel said. "We should throw a party."

"A very quiet party," Lydia said.

"And tomorrow we plan.”

Two days later, Lydia pronounced Lethiel fit enough to leave her bed, much to everyone's relief, and as soon as possible thereafter two parties took to the road. Lethiel, Lydia and Erin were bound for Winterhold, and then for Alftand, the Dwemer settlement that would lead them to Blackreach and, hopefully, the Elder Scroll. Anja, Sienna and Rowan headed for Ivarstead and the barrow, armed with the sapphire dragon claw and the books furnished by Arngeir, in case there turned out to be a word wall down there. Sigrid and Amarie reluctantly stayed behind to "mind the store."

Lethiel made the opportunity, not long after they had set out, for a quiet word with Lydia.

"Why didn't you want Sigrid on this trip?" she said bluntly.

"I beg your pardon?" Lydia said, blushing furiously.

"Oh come on. You were practically jumping up and down and waving a placard, and when I settled on Erin the relief came off you in waves. Sigrid's not stupid, you know, she'll have picked up on it too. What are you trying to do?"

Lydia considered trying to bluff it out, but this was her Thane and she deserved the truth.

"I'm...attracted to her," she said, as if the words were being hauled up from her lowest depths on rusty chains. "I think she likes me as well."

"So far, so completely cuckoo," Lethiel commented drily. "You like her and she likes you, so you run a mile from the sight of her."

"I'm yours, my Thane," Lydia tried to explain. "I can't be for anyone else. I'm a simple and traditional woman."

"You keep saying that," Lethiel said, "but we both know you're far from simple. And what's tradition? Just what people do because they've always done it. We're not married, love. You don't have to be faithful if you don't want to be, and whether you want to want to be or not, if you see what I mean, you clearly want to be with Sigrid some of the time. And your fighting yourself over this is messing up my group dynamics."

"I'm sorry, Thane," Lydia mumbled.

"Never mind sorry. Sorry butters no parsnips. Sort it out. As soon as we get back from this junket, talk to the girl, arrive at whatever accommodation makes you both happy, and try not to get knotted up like this again, orright?"

Lydia couldn't repress a chuckle at Lethiel's assumed brusqueness. "Orright," she echoed.

"That's my girl," Lethiel said, and pulled her in for a kiss.

The journey to Winterhold was enlivened by the usual bears, wolves and occasional giant spiders, but no further assassin attacks. Lydia came to the conclusion that, failure not being an option with the Brotherhood, it would probably throw them into confusion when it happened, and they would need a while to recover.

Tolfdir, having been apprised of their imminent arrival, hurried to meet them at the gate of the College.

"Thank goodness you're here, Arch-Mage!" he said. "We have a situation."

"And a very charming one too," Lethiel said. "Sea views, handy for the shops...access a little tricky possibly, but..." Tolfdir was looking nonplussed. Lethiel relented. "What is it?"

"I'd best show you," Tolfdir said, and hurried away. Lethiel, Lydia and Erin followed.

"Greetings," said the tall, black-clad elf standing in the centre of the Arch-Mage's carpet, as soon as they entered. "My name is Girandor, and I shall be assuming the post of advisor to the Ark-Mage for the Aldmeri Dominion, following the recent regrettable accident to my predecessor."

"Oh, really?" Lethiel murmured.

"Furthermore," Girandor continued smoothly, "since I understand from my sources that the Ark-Mage's duties frequently demand her absence from the College, and since the previous Ark-Mage's deputy sadly perished in the same unfortunate accident, I have been authorised by my government to offer my services in the latter role and to lift from your shoulders the administrative burden of the day-to-day running of the College. I feel personally that this will result in a more streamlined and efficient service, and transform this moribund and decadent institution into a centre of excellence for the thaumaturgic arts."

"I just bet you do," Lydia said softly.

"I have," the elf went on, producing some papers from within his black robes, "carried out a preliminary survey of the College's assets with a view to a long-term programme of rationalisation and cost-cutting. I'm sure the Ark-Mage will concur that our primary duty is to provide a competitive service informed by--"

"I think that's enough of all that," Lethiel said sharply, and Girandor, startled, fell silent. "Now it's my turn. While I appreciate the generosity of the Aldmeri Dominion in finding a surplus idiot to unload on us, I have to inform you that the post of Thalmor Spy has been abolished, or shall we say rationalised, and that your services will therefore not be required, nor will your preliminary survey. As for my deputy...Mirabelle?"

There was a flash of purple light, and a petite, compactly built woman appeared from nowhere, slightly insubstantial and glowing. "Can I help you, Arch-Mage?"

"How did you die, Mirabelle?"

"I was murdered by the Thalmor Ancano, in his attempt to seize control of the artefact known as the Eye of Magnus."

"Necromancy," Girandor hissed. "May I remind you that under the terms of the White-Gold Concordat--"

"The White-Gold Concordat says nothing about necromancy one way or the other," Mirabelle Ervine said calmly. "And in any case, this is nothing of the kind."

"Ancano," Lethiel said, walking up to Girandor and overtopping him by half a head, "was a murdering, filthy, evil-hearted swine. You aren't even good enough to be that. Go. Home. Oh, and by the way," she leaned into his face, "it's Ar*ch*-Mage. Ch. Ch. Ch. Ch." She grinned. "Changes. Get used to them. Tolfdir, call some guards and get this rubbish off the premises." She leaned in even closer and kissed Girandor on the nose. "Before I feel the urge to raise my Voice."

"You have not heard the last of this," Girandor promised, as he swept towards the stairs. "My government will be communicating with the Emperor. You will be removed from--" The closing door cut off his words.

Tolfdir was looking troubled. "I must say I admire your courage, Arch-Mage, but this action might have unfortunate consequences. The Thalmor--"

"If the Thalmor want to start up the war again," Lethiel said, "then making any kind of overtly offensive move against this College would be an excellent way to start. But I don't think they do. I think the end of the war came just in time for them as it did for the Empire, and they were as glad of the White-Gold Piece of Paper as we were. And that's why they're creeping around now, covertly stirring up trouble and undermining things. I didn't tell you," she went on, turning to Lydia, "everything I found in the Thalmor Embassy, and I don't have it with me, but there's some information in my possession that could blow the lid off this whole civil war and bring the Empire and the Stormcloaks together against the true common enemy." She jerked a thumb in the direction of the departed elf. "Only I can't do anything with it till I'm in a better position. The Thalmor won't be back here, Tolfdir, at least not wearing their own clothes. We'll need to be vigilant about any new arrivals from now on."

"Of course, Arch-Mage," the old wizard said.

"Thank you, Mirabelle," Lethiel said, turning to the ghost.

"My pleasure, my dear," Mirabelle said. "I only wish I could do more." She blew Lethiel a kiss and faded out.

Erin was wandering around, admiring the place. "Swanky," she commented, reaching for a glowing purple orb on a desk. "What does this do?"

"I don't know yet." Lethiel dived and caught her arm before she could touch it. "I haven't been here before, remember? Not as proprietor anyway." She took a deep breath and ran her hands through her hair. "Tolfdir, we'd better have a long talk about what needs doing around here. We'll stay tonight and then head for Alftand in the morning. I know it's not your job, but could you organise some food? Lydia, Erin, find some way to amuse yourselves, but don't touch anything that looks magical till I've figured out what it is."

"Alftand?" Tolfdir said, sounding concerned.

"Long story," Lethiel said. "Why, is there something I should know?"

"Only that an archaeological expedition was lost there a little while ago. They went in, but didn't come out. Dwemer ruins are dangerous places, Arch-Mage. If I were you I would be disinclined to risk--"

"Risk is my business," Lethiel said easily. "Don't worry, my friend. It's just something I have to do."

Tolfdir nodded, but his brow was furrowed as he left them.

At a loose end, Lydia and Erin descended to the library, or Arcanaeum as it apparently called itself, where Urag the librarian, a fearsome-looking old orc, was trying not to be in an argument with a shrill middle-aged woman who manifestly felt herself hard done by in ways that did not clearly emerge from her discourse. Lydia stooped to pick up a book that was lying on the floor, and immediately felt eyes boring into her back from behind the big desk. She replaced the book in its exact former position, and the two of them went down two further flights of stairs and out into the courtyard.

"This armour is amazing," Erin said, wriggling comfortably within it. "In my old gear I used to feel the cold like all the time." It was a clear day, and the sun was shining, striking cold fire from the drifted snow, but the wind was bitter from the north.

"You get used to it." Privately, Lydia could believe what Erin had said, considering the amount of bare skin her former attire had left uncovered. It was true, though, that in the dragon scale one could be as warm as toast no matter how chilly the weather outside.

They walked round the outside of the courtyard, then out on to the improbably floating bridge, and gazed out over the landscape.

"I heard some of what you and the Dragonborn were talking about," Erin said unexpectedly.


"Sigrid's a lovely woman." Erin looked artlessly down at her feet.

"So are you," Lydia said, and meant it.

"Do you think so?" Erin's sudden glance was wary but tinged with a feeling Lydia didn't want to identify. She had never before had this kind of problem. Growing up in the jarl's court, conversations had just You chatted, you laughed, you swapped insults, it was easy. Now, every conversation she had seemed to be about people's feelings, and it was a field of tall grass strewn with bear traps.

"You're very attractive," she said, "but it really isn't my place to say so."

"I..." Erin's voice trailed away, and they stood in silence, gazing out over the landscape. "Have you ever seen the Shrine of Azura?" she went on, inconsequently.

"I never went out of Whiterun hold till I met the Dragonborn," Lydia confessed. "I've heard about it though. That's it over there, isn't it?" 

"Mm-hm." The colossal figure, arms outstretched, was plainly visible through the clear air. Nobody, Lydia thought, had ever built anything that size for Talos.

"Do you think the Dragonborn likes me?" Erin asked, in a rush.

Lydia stared at her. "Of course she does," she said at last.

"No, I mean...'likes me' likes me?"

"Look, Erin," Lydia said wearily, "it's really not my place to say."

"I know you two have a thing--" Erin began, but Lydia overrode her.

"If you like someone, and you want to know if that person likes you, that's between you and them. It's nothing to do with me, and to be honest, I'd much rather not know. I'm--" Lydia caught herself before saying it yet again. "I'm not judging anybody. I do...I do love Lethiel, and I believe she loves me, but she's her own woman and she does seem to be open to having other relationships. Ask her. The worst she can say is 'no.' Just be sure," she added, "that you really want to risk changing things before you speak to her. It's all about--" Lethiel's phrase recurred to her, and she seized on it gratefully. "It's all about group dynamics. We're a good team right now, and I'd hate for that to be spoiled."

Erin considered this long speech for a full minute, and Lydia waited on tenterhooks. Then she sighed and nodded.

"You're right of course. I don't want to ruin anything."

Lydia breathed out.

"I'll pass it on to Sigrid," Erin added. "I'm sure she'll appreciate your advice.”

I hate these things," Erin panted as they pushed open a door and ran down a ramp.

"Watch it, tripwire," Lethiel warned. They skirted the trap.

"The Falmer, the machines, or what?" Lydia asked.

"All of it," Erin said, "but mainly the Falmer. They're just"

"Pathetic?" Lethiel said.

"That, and horrible at the same time. You feel sorry for them and you have to kill them."

"If you were better at keeping quiet," Lydia began, and then stopped herself. "No, sorry, that's not fair."

"Yeah, it is. I'm okay for hunting, but these things can pick up the air moving around you. I need more practice."

"I'll teach you. When we get home." Lethiel peered round the corner, brought up her sword and took off the head of a Falmer as it crept round the corner. "I wonder why they always have money?" she mused, looting the body. "You don't often see them in shops. And it can't be because it's shiny."

"Maybe they like the clink," Lydia suggested.

"Maybe. Okay, absolute quiet now." Lethiel eased open the door that lay beyond the trap, and they looked out into a large open space.

Lethiel and Erin took out the two Falmer with an arrow apiece, and Lydia spotted and shot the spider lurking in the shadow of the steps ahead of them, which were blocked off by a row of spears. 

"There must be a way through that. Look for a lever, something like that." Lethiel went to explore the three Falmer dwellings and loot the bodies, and Lydia and Erin did as bid. 

"About Sigrid," Lydia began.

"Maybe later?" Erin said. "This isn't really the time."

Lydia subsided, and almost at once they found the lever and operated it, and the spears sank into the ground with a silken sound.

Of the two gleaming automata at the top of the first flight of stairs, one was already lying inert half out of its frame. The other ground into life as they approached, emitting dense clouds of steam. Lethiel had got an arrow ready, and Lydia and Erin did likewise; they all fired simultaneously, and the huge mechanism crashed to the ground.

"You'd think after all this time they'd boil dry," Lethiel said.

"Two dead bodies up here," Erin called from the top of the second flight, "and a thing."

"What kind of thing?" Lethiel called.

"A machine kind of thing."

"Very informative," Lydia grumbled.

Looting the area took some time, as did finding the lift that would take them back to the surface, but at last it was done, and Lethiel took the sphere that Rowan had given her and inserted it into the machine kind of thing. The floor around it dropped away in stages, revealing steps that led downwards.

"This way to Blackreach," said Lethiel wryly. "Shall we?”

The three figures standing on the stone walkway, regarding what could only be the Tower of Mzark as it ascended into and joined with the stone ceiling of Blackreach, might have been thought by an observer to be somewhat subdued, given the lengths to which they had gone to get here. This was, in part, due to the fact that they were, all three, liberally covered in a pungent-smelling, corrosive green slime.

"I hate those things worse than Falmer," Erin said.

"I'm with you," Lydia said, trying unsuccessfully to wipe her slimy face with a slimy hand.

Lethiel, who had tried to wash the stuff off in the water of Blackreach, and found that it wouldn't, said nothing for a moment. Then, with a deep breath--

"Let's get this over with," she said, and they advanced on the tower.

It was with a sense almost of anticlimax that they emerged, still green and slimy, on to the surface, with the Elder Scroll clutched in Erin's arms.

"I don't suppose for a moment," Lethiel said, "that we are now anywhere near Alftand and our horses?"

"I don't know," Lydia said. Experimentally she whistled, and seemed to hear an answering whinny from somewhere afar off.

"I don't want to get on my horse till I've got this stuff off me," Erin said. "It's itching me badly enough, what it would do to the poor horse I don't want to think."

"Good point." Lethiel thought for a moment, looking around. "Damn it, we could be anywhere in Skyrim."

Lydia gazed around her, turned in a complete circle, and laughed. "We could, but I know exactly where we are."

"I thought you'd never been out of Whiterun hold," Erin said.

"But this is Whiterun hold, or very nearly," Lydia said, still laughing. "Over there is Stonehill Bluff, over there are the Weynon Stones, and I think just over there--" She pointed. "Is the farm we built."

"Which means home's just a hop, skip and a jump away. Well done, Lydia. And here come the horses." As Lethiel spoke, Lydia's horse appeared round an outcrop of rock, leading the other two sedately behind him. "We'll walk them home," Lethiel said, taking Onyx's rein.

And so, by slow degrees, they returned to the estate, where Drake and Zeus stripped their armour from them and took it to be cleaned, and Lethiel, Lydia and Erin shared a hot and thoroughly satisfying bath and cleaned the filth from their skin and hair. And that night, Lethiel slept in her own bed, and Lydia with her, and for the first time in a long while, all was well with the world.

Next morning, the three of them set off to rendezvous with Rowan, Sienna and Anja in Ivarstead. Lethiel, the Elder Scroll on her back, was oddly subdued, almost taciturn, and Lydia felt a sharp pang of concern. Had the recovery been too quick? Had Arcadia been wrong? She firmly repressed such thoughts. 

Once more they rounded the huge skirts of the mountain and took the precipitous path over its knees to the village where the Seven Thousand Steps began, and there they met their companions, lounging against the wall of the inn.

"How did it go?" Lydia called.

"Great," Rowan responded. "No dragons, no priests, but we did get you a word. KAAN. It means Kyne, apparently." She held out the piece of paper in her hand, and Lethiel took it and regarded it steadily for a long time.

"This is working," she said. "Well done you." Then she turned. "You can come out now," she called, and to general surprise Sigrid emerged from cover on the other side of the bridge and came towards them.

"I'm sorry," she said, not sounding sorry at all, "but you don't need two of us to mind the store, and I was not going to be left behind twice in a row."

"If I'd wanted you to stay behind," Lethiel said, "I would have sent you home when I first spotted you. I'm glad you're here. I'm glad you're all here."

"Why?" Again a chill gripped Lydia's heart.

Lethiel looked down, spoke very quietly. "Well, it's just that...I've got to go up there and read this thing, in this special place, and I...I really don't know what's going to happen. I know," she glanced up at Lydia, "I know, in my head, I've done it before, but by now I can't remember any of that any more. Sometimes I don't even believe it. And this...this is kind of scaring me just a little." Her voice had got very small. "I don't want to go blind, or go mad, or anything. And in case I do...I want you all there. As many of you as I can get." She swallowed. "So you can do what's necessary."

Sigrid gasped. "You mean--"

"No way," Anja said harshly, but Lydia silenced them all with a chopping gesture.

"We'll do whatever needs doing," she said, "and we'll be with you all the way. Won't we?" Her glance raked the group, and one by one they lowered their heads and mumbled assent.

"Thank you," Lethiel's eyes were bright, as she hugged them each in turn, saving Lydia for last. Then she sniffed, wiped her nose on her glove, took a deep breath and summoned up a smile. "Here we go, then," she said. "Top of the world.”

--DREM YOL LOK, Paarthurnax said. Greetings.

Lydia stared up at the huge muzzle pointing straight at her, remembering the last time she had been in this position, expecting to die the next moment. Part of her mind was thinking, Peace Fire Sky? What kind of a greeting is that?

"I have the Elder Scroll," Lethiel said.

--And you have brought a lahvu, an army, to my home. Why is this?

"To bear witness, and to watch over me," Lethiel said steadily. "They are my fahdonne. Friends."

The old dragon made a peculiar sound, which Lydia only after a moment interpreted as laughter. Lydia had never heard a voice so deep. Even an orc couldn't manage that level of rumble.

--I know what the word means, he said. You do not have to mimic my bad habits. But there is no time for this. You must read the Elder Scroll at the Time-Wound, quickly. 

Lethiel nodded, and moved to a position halfway between the broken word wall and the rock on which Paarthurnax was perching. She closed her eyes for a moment, then unlimbered the Scroll from her back, brought it up before her eyes, and pulled it open.

A moment later it fell from her hands as they opened convulsively, and she stood in the middle of a sort of eddy in space, the snow swirling about her in a way that did not match the surroundings. Her eyes rolled up in her head till only the whites were showing, and her mouth opened in a silent scream. 

Rowan scrambled forward and gathered up the Scroll, rolling it up without looking at it. Lydia started towards Lethiel.

--Saraan, Parthurnax said. Wait. Let it run its course. You will be needed soon.

Time seemed to stretch out, there on the mountain top, as they watched the Dragonborn's agony. The wind seemed to carry to Lydia's ears the echoing shouts of long dead voices, the sounds of a battle long buried in the past. The ancient dragon watched, his breath coming hard, moving his entire body.

Then Lethiel gasped, and fell forward, and the moment was gone. Lydia caught her and steadied her, and her eyes returned to normal.

"Can you still see?" Lydia demanded.

Lethiel nodded. "I'm obviously too dim for the Scroll to affect me."

--Hi lost ni tiid, Paarthurnax said. You must prepare! Alduin bo!

Lydia looked up, saw a black shape blotting out the sun, heard another impossibly deep voice mouthing words in the dragon language. She felt rather than heard Lethiel drawing a deep breath and had just enough presence of mind to throw herself clear.


For a very long time, after Alduin had flapped away eastward, the small group of figures disposed around the mountain top stood, knelt, sagged or lay where they were without moving. Paarthurnax, having seen off his brother, returned to his habitual perch atop the word wall and regarded them solemnly.

Eventually, one of them drew a ragged breath and addressed him, in a voice made raw by tears and effort.

"Could you...perhaps....have mentioned...beforehand...that we would be wasting....our bloody time?"

A growl of assent from the others greeted Lethiel's words. Lydia, on hands and knees, could not even manage that.

--Krosis, Paarthurnax said. No. I did not know. I hoped this time you might succeed. But this time was not folaas sovaan, wasted.

He went on talking, but Lydia was too weary to listen. Seven of us, she thought. Seven of us, pounding on him with everything we had. Even by dragon standards he should have died at least three times. If he can't be killed, what chance have we? What point is there to any of this?

She pulled herself to her feet, picked up her sword where it had fallen, and went to see to the others. Erin, badly burned in the first attack, was fumbling for a healing potion that wasn't there; Lydia found one and put it into her hands. Anja was beating at the rock of the mountain with her fists, sobbing softly to herself. No-one was in any better state, and that, Lydia thought, included her Thane, even though she was putting up a good show.

A word caught her ear. "Wait, what?" she said.

Lethiel turned to her. "Apparently it's exactly as Esbern said. When he's not here, or caught up in the time-winds, Alduin goes off to Sovngarde and eats the souls of the dead. Now he's free again, that's probably where he's gone, to recover from the wounds we apparently inflicted on him."

The souls of the dead. The words rang through Lydia's head with a terrible brazen clangour. Even Sovngarde was no refuge from this enemy.

"But he can be killed there?" She had to look to see who had spoken. It was Anja, standing upright, fists clenched.

"So Paarthurnax says," Lethiel said.

"Well, then, the answer's simple," Anja said. "Kill me."

"What?" Lethiel said.

"Kill me," Anja repeated, chin thrust forward. "I'm a good Nord warrior. I serve the Nine. Kill me in battle, and Shor will take me to Sovngarde, and I can kill Alduin there. It's the only way."

"Quite apart from anything else, Anja," Lethiel said, "why you?"

"I'm the weak link in this group." The dark girl was fighting with tears as fiercely as she had fought with the black dragon minutes ago. "I'm no good at magic, or reading, or thinking about things. You can do without me. But I can kill things, and if Alduin can be killed in Sovngarde I can kill him. Please." Anja's whole body was rigid. "My mother and father are there, and their mothers and fathers, all my family. I have to save them. Kill me." Her sword was in her hands. "Are you scared?"

Lethiel put up her hands, and walked forward. "Anja," she said. "Darling. Think about this. Do you really think, in Sovngarde, they're short of brave Nord warriors?"

--Your courage is strong, Paarthurnax said, but without the Dragonrend Shout you would be sahlo, powerless. Alduin cannot be killed when in the air. Only when he must touch the Golt, ground, is he vulnerable. You saw that today.

"He didn't look very vulnerable to me," Sienna muttered. 

Lethiel had taken Anja in her arms, and both were weeping. Lydia turned to the dragon. "So what can we do? I can tell you right now nobody is killing the Dragonborn."

--There is no need. Alduin goes to Sovngarde nahl, living. Therefore the Dovahkiin can do the same. 

"Do you know the way?"

--No. Krosis. Alduin has not confided in me. But one of the dov who support him might.


Lydia turned and saw that it was Sigrid who had spoken. She had been badly injured, but healing potions had done their magic, as it were, and now she was on her feet, bracing herself against the edge of the word wall. Lydia went to her as Lethiel and Paarthurnax talked on.

"What is it?" she said. "How can I help?"

Sigrid seized her by one of the spikes on her armour and pulled her in close. "Right now," she said, voice low and rough with pain and need, "you can kiss me. And when we get home, you can share my bed. I could have died today without ever knowing you and I am not going to let my shyness and your--I don't know, your pride or whatever it is--get in the way any longer. I love you, Lydia, and I know you love me, and this is happening right now, okay?"

Lydia had barely time to utter the first syllable of "okay" before Sigrid was kissing her.

They rode home slowly, each apparently lost in their own thoughts. To an outside observer they would have seemed perfectly hale if weary, but to Lydia, glancing from rider to rider as she brought up the rear, the wounds that might never truly heal were as glaringly obvious as if they had been spouting fresh blood. A dragon, given time, could shrug off the effect of the Dragonrend Shout and be as he had been. Mortals, for whom deathlessness was merely an illusion of youth, had no such luxury. Every one of them had known, today, what it was to be up against an enemy that could not be defeated. Every one of them now knew mortality, and it would change them, one way or another.

Lethiel dropped back to ride alongside her.

"Do you think they'll ever forgive me?" she said quietly.

"What?" Lydia was startled out of her own dark thoughts.

"I could have done it on my own," Lethiel said. "I could have gone up there alone and done just as much good, or as little. But I was weak and scared, and I dragged you all along with me and put you through...that. Will they forgive me? Can *you* forgive me?" Her eyes met Lydia's, and there was anxiety and dismay in them.

"My Thane," Lydia said firmly, "there's nothing to forgive. You are the Dragonborn. We're your poops."

Lethiel looked startled for a moment, then a chuckle broke through her concern. "Peeps," she said, "or troops. Not both."

Lydia, having achieved the desired effect, went on. "Whatever the foe, whatever the field, together we stand to triumph or fall. That's just how it is. You heard Anja. There isn't one of us who wouldn't take this burden from you if we could, and since we can't, we'll take it very unkindly if you don't let us share as much of it as we can."

Lethiel was laughing now as well as crying. "Yes, but that's because you're an amazingly, gobsmackingly wonderful bunch of lunatics and dearer to me than gold," she said. She reached out for Lydia, and nearly overbalanced; Onyx made a disapproving noise. "Ah," Lethiel went on. "Never try to hug when riding two separate horses."

"Good rule of thumb," Lydia agreed soberly.

They reached the estate in darkness, and Amarie was waiting at the door.

"We heard the dragon cries all across the valley," she said. "What happened? And what happened to you?" she added pointedly to Sigrid.

They took it in turns to bring the elf up to speed, while they unloaded the gear and loot and tended to the horses. Then they went inside, and there was firelight and food and mead, and gradually the tension eased out of those who had fought at the Throat of the World.

And when it came to be time for bed, Lethiel led Lydia and Sigrid to her own room, gestured at the big luxurious bed, and quietly left the room, closing the door behind her.

The sun rose the next morning on a house full of young women all moving like octogenarian cripples. Amarie, the only exception, brightly suggested a brisk workout to relieve the stiffened muscles, a suggestion received with much grumbling but reluctant acquiescence; and indeed this treatment, carried out in the large basement room where the forge and other smithing equipment lay, was more or less efficacious in all cases.

After lunch, Lethiel gathered them all together in the inner room on the ground floor.

"First of all," she said, "there aren't enough thanks in the world for what you did for me up there on the mountain. It was truly above and beyond anything I should have asked of you. Thank you.

"Now, I know that some of you are concerned about what Alduin is apparently doing in Sovngarde, and feel, quite understandably, that we need to stop him as soon as possible. Which makes what I'm about to say very difficult for me, and probably just as difficult for you to hear, but it's this. 

"I'm not strong enough yet to take him on. 

"Even in Sovngarde, where he's supposedly vulnerable, and even with Dragonrend, I don't think I can take him on my own. And I have a strong feeling that I'm going to have to...that I'm not going to be able to take any of you with me."

She waited for the brief murmur of conversation to subside.

"I have been doing some thinking, and some reading, and while we don't have much reliable information about Sovngarde, the consensus seems to be that there's no actual time there, just an unending day--or night--under a changeless sky. I think it's very possible then that when I finally destroy Alduin--which I will--the souls he has eaten will be released, exactly as they were. I hope that's true anyway, because I am, I'm afraid, going to hold off on going to Sovngarde till I have gained considerably more experience and ability. There's no point in my going if I'm just going to lose, after all."

A thoughtful silence greeted this speech. Lethiel looked from one face to the other, in growing anxiety.

Anja spoke up. "How will you know when you're strong enough? Seems to me you can't. You could put the thing off forever if you wanted to--not that I think you do," she added hastily, "just that you'll never be able to be certain till you go and try it."

"Suppose you die before you get strong enough?" Rowan said. "What will we do then?"

"You do a thing when it needs doing," Anja said, "and when it needs doing is always now. Okay, so maybe when you kill Alduin the souls he's eaten will be set free...but what's happening to them in the meantime? I don't like this. I think we should go ahead now and risk it."

"Risk it?" Erin said. "Risk the Dragonborn going to Sovngarde and getting killed for no reason? How is that different from her dying before she's strong enough? I'm with her, and before you ask, I've got family in Sovngarde as well." She spoke to Lethiel. "Take all the time you need, Dragonborn. We'll back you up."

"This is just giving Alduin time to get even stronger," Sienna protested. "It's a race you can't win. The stronger you get, the stronger he gets, and you'll never catch up."

"Not necessarily." Amarie joined in. "If the Dragonborn is right and there's no time in this Sovngarde place, assuming it even exists--"

"Assuming it exists!" Anja exploded. "Damn your elf arrogance!"

"I'm merely saying--"

"Let the elf speak," Rowan said loudly.

"Why?" Sienna retorted. 

"QUIET!!!" Lydia roared.

Silence fell.

Lydia turned to her Thane. "Go on," she said.

"I'd finished," Lethiel said in a small voice.

"Then it's my turn," Lydia said, and addressed the company as a whole. "The Dragonborn has just told you what she intends to do. It's her decision, not yours, and if you don't believe she is fully aware of the urgency of the situation, then you can't have been paying much attention. Many of us have got family in Sovngarde, but think about this; it's not simply Sovngarde that's in danger. Alduin's ultimate intention is to destroy this entire world. Go to Sky Haven Temple and talk to Esbern if you don't believe me. If she's going to take on a being capable of doing that, then I say the Dragonborn has to be the best she can be, and whatever that takes, however long it takes, it's our job and our duty--and it should be our privilege--to support her in every possible way. Am I right?"

"You're right," Erin and Sigrid said in unison, and one by one the others nodded or muttered assent.

"Good," Lydia said. "Over to you, Thane."

Lethiel nodded, swallowed and carried on. "Now, the first step in getting me there is going to be to catch a dragon and interrogate it, and for that I'm going to need the help of Jarl Balgruuf, whose castle is a dragon trap. This is not going to be easy to get, and he might well throw me out on my ear, Thane or not. So my first plan is going to be to acquire some more political clout in Skyrim, while avoiding taking any side in this stupid civil war. At the same time I'll be learning as many more Shouts as I can and trying to increase my ability to use them, so I'll also be spending more time in High Hrothgar and up on the Throat meditating with Paarthurnax, who says I can increase the power of my Shouts that way. Okay?"

More muttered agreement.

"I know some of you aren't happy," Lethiel went on, "and I'm sorry about that, but I promise you that I will know when I'm strong enough to do this and that at that point I will go straight away and do it. In the meantime, if any of you feel unable to carry on supporting me, I understand. You can leave, or stay, and nobody will judge you in any way, least of all me."

Lydia deliberately looked away, and there was a pause.

Then Anja spoke. "Hell, what do I know. All right, I'm in."

"Me too," said Rowan, and Sienna nodded. One by one they all assented, and somehow it turned into a pledge of loyalty, with hands on hands and Lydia's hand on top.

Lethiel gulped again and took a breath. "I've already said thank you," she said, "but thank you again. I won't let you down."

"We know that," Erin said. "And neither will we.”

It was time, Lethiel proclaimed, to get organised. There were eight of them in all, which worked out nicely as four teams of two. One team would always be left at home, while two teams went out looking for Words of Power or other necessary things. The fourth team, consisting of Lethiel herself and Lydia, were to embark on what Lethiel inexplicably called a "whistle-stop" tour of all the nine holds of Skyrim, establishing the Dragonborn's presence, gathering political and popular support, and if possible doing a bit of good in the process.

The tour would begin in Solitude. This was to some extent at Lydia's insistence, since she had never seen that far-off and glamorous city. Lethiel had visited briefly, during the affair of the party at the Thalmor Embassy, but had seen very little of the place, beyond a rather distressing public execution that had coincided with her arrival. Anja and Erin were directed to investigate the Nordic ruin Sigrid had found near Blackthorn, and Sigrid herself and Amarie volunteered to look into a couple of bandit camps near Whiterun which Anja and Erin had spotted on the day of the cultists' visit, but had not had time to investigate in full. Sienna and Rowan were thus elected to stay at home till one of the other groups returned. If Sigrid was displeased at thus being parted so soon from Lydia, she did not show it.

The Dragonborn and her housecarl, therefore, rode in style to Solitude in Bjorlam's carriage, which was fortunate as it was a day of heavy rain and the carriage was a covered one. Conversation was difficult, what with the rain drumming ceaselessly on the canvas, and the two sat in companionable silence for most of the journey. At a place called (so Bjorlam said) Robber's Gorge, there was an attempt to stop the carriage, and Lethiel and Lydia took the opportunity for a little exercise which resulted in their re-entering the conveyance somewhat more heavily laden than they had been on leaving it. They did, however, take the trouble to move the bodies out of Bjorlam's path before boarding.

"They ought to call it something different," Lethiel said.

"Law-Abiding Citizen's Gorge," Lydia suggested.

Bjorlam, hearing the shrieks of laughter from behind him, shook his head, shrugged and urged the horse onward.

The ride terminated at the foot of a daunting slope up which the road ran straight to the gate of the town. Houses and shops lined each side of it, and intermediary gates ensured that no attacking force could approach unobserved by guards. Lethiel and Lydia slogged up the hill, ignored the guard who seemed to regard them as potential new recruits, and entered Solitude.

They walked the crowded streets, staring about with unabashed interest. A richly-dressed Altmer, carrying, incongruously, a pile of logs, audibly sniffed and drew aside from them; Lydia, showing perhaps a regrettable deterioration in her manners resulting from association with her Thane, stuck out her tongue at the elf's retreating back. 

"You should see me when you get bored, stranger," hissed an Argonian lounging against a wall.

"Why?" Lethiel said. "Do you do something interesting?"

"The important thing," Lydia said, as they passed the Hall of the Dead, "is to stay focussed. We're here for a specific reason, to get a specific job done, and that's what we're going to do. Now, I'm sure there'll be lots of people like that Argonian, wanting you to do this job or that, but those are side issues, and we can come back to them another time if you want to. There's no obligation on you to help every single body who comes to you with some hard-luck story. You see them everywhere, everyone wants the Dragonborn to find their lost sword or rescue a cat from a tree or deliver something to somebody, and it always ends up getting complicated and taking time. I know you're into this personal development thing at the moment, and I respect that, but at the same time we have to consider--"

Lydia broke off. She had, while speaking, passed through a set of double doors and climbed a curving staircase, and she was now being looked at by, from left to right, a traditional-looking Nord in steel plate armour, a ravishingly beautiful woman in regal garb, a robed and hooded mage, a big man with a full red beard, an unprepossessing man in a fur-trimmed tunic and a sharp-featured woman likewise dressed. Further investigation revealed that she was short one Thane.

"Uh--um--excuse me," she babbled, and hurtled down the stairs again and out of the doors.

"Where's the woman who was with me?" she demanded of the pot-helmed guard outside.

"Wasn't no-one with you," the guard stated impassively.

"Then who did you think I was talking to?" Lydia yelled.

"Ain't none of my business," the guard retorted. "Lots of mad folk come here. Some of 'em live here too. Me, I just guard the door."

About to tear the guard's head off and drop-kick it over the wall of the Blue Palace, Lydia relaxed at the sound of running feet, and turned round as her Thane rejoined her.

"I've enrolled in the Bards' College," Lethiel said happily. "What are you doing still out here?”

After some negotiation, it was agreed that for the Dragonborn to enter the presence of the Jarl of Solitude being dragged by one ear would not perhaps set quite the right tone for the meeting, and Lydia contented herself with staying just behind her Thane where she could keep her in sight. There remained some small matters to be thrashed out, however, and the negotiations continued in furious undertones till they had almost reached the top of the stairs, where Thane and housecarl halted at gaze.

An unassuming little man whom Lydia had not previously noticed was standing before the throne, delivering himself of a lengthy and droning complaint about strange lights and noises coming from some cave. Lydia took the opportunity, while not taking her eyes off Lethiel, to question a guard standing nearby, and thus found out some names. The Nord in the plate was Bolgeir, the jarl's housecarl; Falk Firebeard, the steward, was the big man with the beard; the mage was Sybille Stentor, and the other two were Thanes Erikur and Bryling. Jarl Elisif herself was obvious. She looked very small and helpless sitting there, letting Falk run the court for her, and Lydia expressed some concern about her.

"Assassins may find the woman easy prey," she said.

"Oh, I don't believe those rumours, my friend," the guard said. "Besides, who would ever want to harm such beauty?"

The little man eventually wound down, and Lydia watched as Falk deftly and deferentially modified Elisif's initial disproportionate response to his complaint to a more reasonable compromise. The matter of the cave itself he brushed casually aside.

"That looks like our cue," Lethiel whispered.

"Are you sure, Thane?" Lydia said, trying to emulate Falk. "It seems quite a minor matter."

"They always do at first," Lethiel said maddeningly, and went over to talk to Falk.

Lydia decided that she had better take the initiative herself, and cautiously approached the woman sitting on the throne. Jarl Elisif the Fair looked up as she drew near, and Lydia's heart lurched; she cursed inwardly. Running around with the Dragonborn was making her absurdly over-sensitive to feminine pulchritude. 

The substance of the conversation that followed completely escaped her, but by the end of it she had found herself agreeing to do the Jarl a very personal favour. She hoped that she could somehow engineer this so that it redounded to the credit of the Dragonborn. That was, after all, why they were there.

Lethiel rejoined her, and they tendered their respects to the court and descended the stairs once again.

"Okay," Lethiel said, "I've got the job." She handed Lydia a piece of paper. "I'm sure you can handle it."

"Me!" Lydia said. "What are you going to be doing?"

"I've got to go to Dead Man's Respite and recover King Olaf's Verse for Viarmo."

"Who's Viarmo?"

"The head of the Bards' College, of course."

"Lethiel--" Lydia's indignation threatened to boil over, but Lethiel's expression was deadly serious.

"Lydia, becoming a bard is part of who I am, it's--it's part of my destiny, if you like. I always do it. It helps me stay sane amid all this suffering and cruelty and death. Please don't stand in the way of that. I promise I'll be right back on the job as soon as I've done this." Lethiel looked pathetically appealing. Lydia could almost see the eyes expanding.

"Oh, all right," she said. "I'll take care of--" She glanced down at the paper. "Wolfskull Cave--and you do this Bard thing, and we meet back here when it's done, okay?"

"Thank you!" Lethiel hugged her. "You won't regret it, I promise!"

How do you know that? Lydia wondered silently; but she held her peace.

Necromancers, Lydia decided, were not that much more difficult than draugr, if you were sensible. Kill one, and instead of coming and looking for you, at least half the time they concentrated on raising the one you had just killed, which gave you a clear shot at them; and when you got them, the one they had raised collapsed into ash. Just like that one there.

As the magical energies dissipated, she picked up the book from the big altar thingy, looted the bodies (and the ash piles) and found the lever that lowered the bridge.

*I will not be bound*, whispered a fading voice on the air. Lydia, who had not paid much attention during history lessons, knew very little about Potema; a very funny book she had once read (1E 113 And All That, now sadly out of print) had described her as a Bad Queen who thought that dead people were more important than living ones because there were so many more of them. Even on this scanty basis, it seemed like a good idea not to allow anyone to bring her back from the dead, let alone to "bind" her.

She almost barked her shin on the big chest, which was fortunate because otherwise she might have missed it. Lydia risked attracting any remaining adversaries by lighting a torch, and quickly went through the chest. The loot she was carrying already forced her to be selective, but she made sure to grab a couple of books that Lethiel would like to check out, and anything else that seemed seriously valuable.

She was almost sure, she thought, that it should have been Lethiel doing this job. The Dragonborn had been right; this was the important job, the one that would get her favour at the court of Solitude. And yet she was off tracking down some mouldy old poem for a bard. The girl had a serious problem with priorities.

Out in the open air, Lydia was surprised to discover how little time had passed. She stood amid the remains of the skeletons which had greeted her on her arrival, and pondered. Did she have time to do that other little favour for Jarl Elisif? She knew of precisely one Shrine of Talos (apart from the big statue in the Wind District of Whiterun, and she wasn't going to dump Torygg's horn there; for one thing, it would disrupt the political balance Balgruuf was trying so hard to maintain, and for another, it would give Heimskr even more to rave about). Could she get there and back and still not keep Lethiel waiting?

Well, if Lethiel had to wait, she thought, then she would have to wait. It might teach her a lesson about not letting herself get sidetracked by personal considerations. She mounted her horse (one of the weird but welcome things about going around with the Dragonborn was how, no matter where you went or by what means, your horse was somehow always within call) and, gauging her direction by the sun, set off down the southward road.

When she returned to Solitude, however, she found Lethiel just arriving, in company with a skinny, spiky-haired Altmer man whom Lethiel introduced as Master Viarmo. They had time for a brief hug and a few whispered words before Viarmo cleared his throat and suggested that he and Lethiel were expected. Lydia, who understandably didn't have an appointment, followed them up.

She didn't think much of the poem. It seemed to her to combine a rudimentary approach to the alliterative tradition of the earliest Nordic bards with a crude admixture of the later rhymed modes imported from Colovia. Jarl Balgruuf's court would have been rather more exacting in its tastes, she thought. Still, Viarmo declaimed it well, if in a somewhat dry and academic manner; and Lethiel's interpolated "um-diddle-iddle-iddle-um-diddle-aye"'s gave it some much-needed energy, while her "OI!" at the end set the whole performance off quite well.

Jarl Elisif was certainly impressed, and the purse of gold Falk handed over (and the amount Viarmo counted out into Lethiel's hands) was considerable. Lydia overheard him telling her that she would be inducted as a bard at the festival that night. Presumably then they could get back to business. It wouldn't be too much of a delay after all.

Lydia moved forward to report her success to Falk and Elisif.

Five minutes later, a white-faced Lydia joined Lethiel outside.

"She wants to make me a Thane!" Lydia said in a strangled squeak.

"Congratulations," Lethiel said warmly.

"Yes, but she can't!"

"Who's Jarl?" Lethiel inquired.

"I mean I can't be a Thane! You're a Thane! I'm not a Thane, I'm a housecarl! A housecarl can't be a Thane! I mean, if you were a Thane, and I was a Thane--"

"That would be inthane," Lethiel finished with a smile. "Don't be so silly, love. It doesn't really matter which of us gets the honour, as long as it's one of us."

"Yes it does!" The strangled squeak was in danger of straying into whistle mode. "You're the Dragonborn!"

"Yes," Lethiel said gently, "but did you happen to notice the part where I haven't mentioned that to them yet?”

Later, snuggled side by side in a comfortable bed in the Winking Skeever (which Lethiel had procured by the simple expedient of singing a song or two), the Dragonborn elaborated on her earlier thought.

"It's perfectly simple," she said. "Simple and brilliant. I don't know why I didn't think of it before. From now on, as far as the rest of the world is concerned, *we* are the Dragonborn." She laughed softly in the darkness. "I just happen to be the one of the Dragonborn that can Shout."

"It won't work," Lydia said. "It can't work. People will find out."

"What if they do? I wasn't going to make any secret of it. I'm the Dragonborn who can Shout, but it didn't have to be me. It doesn't make me special."

"Yes it does," Lydia persisted. "It makes you a child of Akatosh."

"Aren't we all?" Lethiel countered. "Look, we can all kill dragons, except for Alduin. A couple of well-placed arrows will bring down a dragon just as well as Dragonrend. We can all fight, pretty much as well as each other."

"And suppose we kill a dragon and you're not around to absorb its soul?"

"Oh my gracious, a wasted dragon," Lethiel said. "There's not going to be a shortage, and I only need souls to unlock Words. When I have all the Words, I won't need the souls any more. In any case," she said, squeezing Lydia softly, "it's already done. You are the Dragonborn as far as Solitude is concerned. You cleared out the cave, you delivered the horn, you're going to be a Thane. You may as well accept it."

"I have to buy a piece of property in the city," Lydia said. "I can't do that. And help the people of Solitude. How?"

"You'll find ways. That woman at the festival selling the spiced wine looked as though she needed a favour. And as for the property, why not? We have a reasonable nest egg back home. I just have to send for some of it. I expect the prices round here will be silly, but we can cope."

"I can't own property. I'm a housecarl." Lydia set her jaw in the darkness.

"You have the right to own property in Solitude, because the jarl has said so. I don't know of anyone who can contradict her."

"My Thane," Lydia said, "it's not...proper. I can't do it."

"Oh," Lethiel said. "Well. Not a very good start to the tour, but I expect we'll manage without Haafingar."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, obviously I've blown it. If I'm the only one allowed to do the quests and get the influence, then it's too late. We'll just have to give up and move on." Lethiel sighed. "Of course, it's my fault. I should have done it all myself."

Lydia ground her teeth. "All right," she said. "All right. I'll accept it. But if she gives me a housecarl, she's *your* housecarl, all right? Not mine. A housecarl definitely can't have a housecarl. I mean, where would it end?"

"Housecarls all the way down," Lethiel said. "Let's say *our* housecarl. And if you truly think a Thane can't be a housecarl, then that's fine with me. I release you from my service." Horror struck through Lydia like a sword, till Lethiel added, "I'd much rather have you as a friend, a lover, a companion and an equal anyway, and don't you bloody dare tell me you don't deserve it, because so help me I'll give you such a ding--"

Lydia could find no words. She simply held more tightly on to Lethiel, trying hard not to cry.

"Can I still call you my Thane?" she whispered at last.

"Only if I can call you it back," came the warm voice from the darkness.


Chapter Text


The more Lydia thought about the idea, as they walked the streets of Solitude next morning, the more it seemed to make sense. Skyrim had no aristocracy, as it was understood elsewhere; the Imperials had noble bloodlines and ancestral heritages and such like, but here power came from one's sword arm (or spellcasting hand, she supposed) or the acclaim of one's peers, and that was perfectly right and proper. And Lethiel was right; she and the others were about as good fighters as the Dragonborn was. The ability to Shout, and to absorb dragon souls, was the only real difference between them.

Evette San, the spiced wine woman, did turn out to need a favour. She needed a lot of things, Lydia thought, studying the careworn face, including an easier life. Looking after a drunken old sot of a father had done her no favours at all. Fortunately the immediate task was easily done; Vittoria Vici, the factor for the East Empire Company, was just emerging from her house as they wandered past, and Lethiel contrived to pass Lydia the money required to release Evette's shipment of spices while making it clear that it was Lydia's generosity that enabled the exorbitant and unreasonable tariff to be paid. Evette was effusive in her thanks, and Lydia hugged her briefly before they moved on.

The proprietors of Radiant Raiment were a different kind of proposition altogether. One of them was the Altmer woman who had sniffed at them the previous day while toting firewood, to which Lydia took strong exception, but Lethiel smoothed things over, and Lydia reluctantly agreed to play the part of, effectively, a walking mannequin (or at least, given the behaviour of mannequins generally, a mannequin who was supposed to walk) and advertise their outfits at court. She had to admit that the garb they dressed her in was very fine, if perhaps a little overdone, and Elisif, when she saw it, certainly approved. Another successful commission was achieved, and Lydia folded the outfit carefully before stowing it away. She was going to have to find somewhere to leave some stuff soon.

Lethiel had taken the opportunity, back at the Palace, to inquire, ostensibly on her behalf, about the purchase of a house, and they had both boggled slightly at the price; but the Dragonborn had located a courier and sent her off to Whiterun hold with a request that Rowan or Sienna should at once bring enough cash to buy and furnish this Proudspire Manor in Lydia's name. The tour had no fixed schedule, but neither Lethiel nor Lydia were keen to linger overlong in one hold.

Noster, the beggar whose pitch was directly outside the acerbic sisters' shop (and mustn't that be a thorn in their well-shod feet, Lydia thought with some satisfaction) also had a favour he wanted done, and they agreed to look for his helmet in some local cave or other. Lethiel also made a point of going back into Radiant Raiment, buying a respectable suit of common clothes, and pressing it upon the old man with such insistence that he eventually acquiesced and thanked her very much. "It's my lady's wish," Lethiel told him unblushingly, and to the elves she said, "Think of it as more free advertising." What they said in response to this Lydia did not catch.

Angeline Morrard, who had a herbalist's shop across the street, was looking for news of her daughter from Captain Aldis in Castle Dour. Lydia and Lethiel went to see him, and while the news wasn't good, the lady was grateful nonetheless.

Meanwhile, Lydia had been stewing somewhat over Evette San, and when she saw the woman's father standing unsteadily outside the Winking Skeever, waving a tankard and warbling a personal redaction of "Ragnar the Red," took it upon herself to give the old man a piece of her mind. In the process she learned that he was deeply in debt to one Irnskar as a result of injudicious gambling. Out came Lethiel's purse once more, and Lydia dispatched her to locate this Irnskar and pay him off. She spent the intervening time favouring Octieve San with some of her views on drunks, gamblers, profligate old men and bad fathers, and by the time Lethiel returned with a receipt, the elder San was pale and shaken and resolved, at least for the moment, to try to do better by his daughter. He even managed to thank Lydia for her kindness before stumbling off in the general direction of the Temple of the Divines.

"See how easy?" Lethiel said. "Now all we need do is find Noster's helmet and you're set. And here comes Rowan with the gelt."

The red-headed mage was indeed coming towards them from the gate. She must have made very good time, Lydia thought. Still, the day was now edging into night, and they all decided to spend one more night at the Winking Skeever, and sort out the purchase of the house on the morrow.

In the bar over a meal, they acquainted Rowan with the details of Lethiel's idea.

"Hm," she said. "Makes sense. Spreading the work, spreading the rewards. I like it. Should I come along with you to Markarth?"

"Have you left Sienna on her own?" Lethiel asked.

"No, Anja and Erin are back. They cleared out the ruin--there was some woman already there who seemed to think they were working for her, but she died, they'll tell you the story--and found a word wall. They sent you this." Rowan delved under the moneybags she was carrying and unfolded a sheet of paper. "RAAN. It means animal."

Lethiel absorbed the Word in silence.

"Yes," Lydia said. "I think you should. We can play the same game there as here, only with you as the Dragonborn--"

"Which we're not making a big thing out of," Lethiel put in.

"And if it works, you can be Thane of the Reach."

"I see a problem, though," Rowan said. "Eight of us, nine holds. We're one short."

"Something will turn up," Lethiel said airily. "Shall we have another bottle?”

"No," Lydia protested.

"Why not?" Lethiel said reasonably. "It saves time. Rowan and I will go and get the old man his helmet while you supervise the moving in process. I've promised Rowan no Dwemer stuff, so if there turns out to be any I'll do it on my tod. It all makes perfect sense."

"But it's not fair," Lydia said. "I'm supposed to be the one doing this for him, not you."

"Do I ever refuse help when I need it?"

"Help is one thing, my Thane," Lydia said. "I'll gladly go into any cave or tomb or dragon lair with you, and I'd be hurt if you didn't take me. But you wouldn't wave your hand and say 'you go and take care of it for me,' and neither will I. I'm going with you."

Lethiel shrugged and gave in. "Don't blame me if your bed ends up in the cellar and all your chairs in the attic," she said.

By extensive questioning of Noster, they had established that he had lost his helmet in Shadowgreen Cavern, a cave to the north-west of the town. This was also in the area where the Thalmor Embassy stood, and Lethiel was less than keen to reacquaint herself with its occupants, so circumspection was essential. They stayed in town long enough to pay over to Falk Firebeard a sum of money sufficient to secure the purchase of Proudspire Manor and to furnish it in suitable fashion, and then they descended the steep road to the stables, collected their horses, and rode away.

"Dragons," Lydia said, indicating a high peak behind the town. Indeed, at least two of the beasts could be seen wheeling and diving around it.

"They'll keep," Lethiel said, "unless they attack us. I have no desire to pick a fight with two of the things."

Another winged form appeared from behind the peak.

"Let alone three," Lethiel said. "Ride on."

The cave turned out to be nowhere near the Embassy, and they only found it after a good deal of casting about; but the path was clearly marked with cairns, and they passed within.

Lydia had never encountered a spriggan before, but she had heard stories from other guards who had (presumably prior to the well-known arrow and knee incident which was the excuse most of them adopted for settling down and getting a real job), so when the buzzing, flickering wooden caricature of humanity erupted out of a tree at her she was not wholly taken by surprise. There had been a couple of encounters with wolves and such earlier, and her sword was out. She slashed at the thing, which dodged with depressing agility, and then Rowan shouted "Back!" and a stream of flame splashed across the spriggan's chest. It was over in minutes.

Lethiel seemed more shaken than either Lydia or Rowan. Maybe she had never encountered one either. "Walking tree women," she said, lowering her bow. "Whatever next. Bit of warning would be nice."

"Maybe you should try a crossbow," Rowan suggested.

"Maybe I should. Do you have one on you?"

They tramped up the slope of the central rock formation, encountering a few more animals and two more spriggans before reaching the chest on the island. Lethiel extracted Noster's helmet and a few other interesting-looking objects, and then they retraced their steps.

"We can always come back," Lethiel said.

Back in Solitude, the one-eyed beggar was overjoyed to be reunited with his old hide helmet, and had some fascinating things to say on the subject of moving around while remaining undiscovered. Even Lethiel admitted that she had learned something. The group then went to view Lydia's new property, and found that, in fact, the beds and chairs were exactly where they ought to be, and the decoration and furnishing had been accomplished with taste and practicality.

"I've never had a place of my own before," Lydia kept saying as they moved from room to room.

"There you are," Lethiel said. "Now you've got somewhere to go when you get fed up with all of us."

"Never going to happen, my Thane," Lydia said.

"How about if we get fed up with you?" Rowan said, with just enough of a smile to take the sting out.

"Bite your tongue," Lethiel told her.

FInally, they went to the Blue Palace, where Lydia was invested as a Thane of Haafingar with all due pomp and ceremony. She noticed Thane Erikur looking sour, and decided that he would probably want to deliver a little speech to her on the general theme of interlopers and their undesirability, and indeed, as she was leaving the palace, he did. He seemed to assume that she was out to seduce Jarl Elisif for personal gain, presumably because he harboured similar intentions himself.

"Let me give you a piece of advice," he snarled. "Don't even think about it."

Lethiel sailed in before Lydia could stop her.

"Let me give you a piece of advice, Thane," she said. "The gutter is a terrible place to keep a mind. It gets all trodden on and muddy, and any skeever that comes along might well take a bite out of it. You have no idea what's in my lady's mind with regard to Lady Elisif, and no right to think you do, or that what you think matters to her or anyone else. She told you why she's here--to serve the jarl. If you're worried that she might do better than you in that area, maybe you should ask yourself why." Lethiel curtsied. "With all due respect."

They left Erikur spluttering, and made their way back to the house.

"I wonder when this housecarl will turn up," Rowan said. "Did the jarl say anything about him?"

"No, but if he's anything like her own, my Thane should be fairly safe," Lethiel said, grinning mischievously.

They went in, and a figure rose from a chair and turned to greet them. "The jarl has appointed me to be your housecarl," she said, swinging her blonde braid back over her shoulder. "My name is Jordis the Sword-Maiden. It's an honour to serve you, Lady Lydia."

It's a conspiracy, Lydia thought, falling into the wide blue eyes before her. It's a damned plot.

Jordis proved to be a lively conversationalist, and the four of them sat up till late swapping stories of adventure. The housecarl was very interested, as any true Nord would be, to learn of Lethiel's Dragonborn status, and plied her with questions about the Greybeards and the Way of the Voice, which Lethiel did her best to answer; and when the party finally broke up, Lethiel and Lydia slept together in Lydia's bed.

The following morning, they unloaded all the loot they had been carrying around into a chest, packed some food and water, bade farewell to Jordis, charging her straitly to keep Lydia's house in good order till she should return, and set off for Markarth, the next stop on the tour. Once they had passed through Dragon Bridge and turned south, though, Lethiel quickly became discontented; she kept looking at her map, a dog-eared document she always kept close to her heart, and comparing it to the landscape around them.

"It's that way," she complained, pointing off to the southwest. "Why do we have to go this way? It's a complete detour."

"Uh," Rowan said, "mountains? Kind of in the way."

"That's my Thane," Lydia said. "Always wanting to fly to anywhere new. And I do mean fly."

"Well, I don't think the horses would forgive you," the mage remarked drily.

"We might as well go via Riften and make a proper job of it," Lethiel grumbled; but she suppressed any further complaints, and they rode for a while in silence.

"My Thane," Lydia said.

"Yes, my Thane?" Lethiel answered with a smile.

"You know you said the night before last that something would turn up? About us being short one person?"

"I remember. You're thinking about Jordis, aren't you?"

Lydia nodded. "She seems ideal. If we brought her in, we'd have one person for each hold."

"And, more to the point, you wouldn't have to endure the terrible spiritual agony of having a housecarl of your own."

Lydia flushed. Lethiel knew her too well.

"Put up with it for a bit longer, love," Lethiel said kindly. "You really do get used to it. I did."

Lydia could think of nothing to say to this.

"Hey, look," Rowan said. "Cultists."

There were indeed three of the masked figures on the road ahead. They were going in the same direction, and had not yet noticed the riders behind them; but even as Lethiel dismounted, one of them turned and uttered a cry, and all three charged, one summoning a flame atronach as he or she ran.

Lydia and Rowan immediately charged in, and Lethiel was forced to draw sword and close with the enemy. The battle was close, especially with the atronach hurling bolts of fire at each of them, indiscriminately, but eventually, with two of their number down, the tide turned against the cultists, and Lydia had the satisfaction of felling the last one with a single decapitating stroke. The head, with its grotesque covering, rolled off the road, and the body fell at her feet, neck spouting blood. Lydia danced back to avoid the spray.

"You could have just let me Shout," Lethiel said.

"Practice, my Thane," Lydia said. "Got to keep in practice."

There was a turn to the west just before Rorikstead, and Lethiel relaxed, obviously glad to be going in what she felt was the right direction at last. The bandit ambush was perhaps to be regarded as a courtesy detail, and this time Lydia and Rowan stayed back and let the Dragonborn loose her Voice.

"FUS...RO DAH!!!"

The three bandits, arms and legs flailing, sailed through the air and out of sight.

"And how," Lydia inquired innocently, "do we loot the bodies now, my Thane?"

"With their being in three different holds and all?" Rowan added.

"Everyone's a critic," Lethiel sighed.

They stopped for a brief rest and some food, there at the crossroads, and then resumed their journey westwards.

"So the big problem in the Reach is the Forsworn," Lethiel said, a while later.

"So I've heard," Rowan said.

"Well, we handled them okay at Karthspire," Lydia said.

"Ah, but then we were all together, we had Esbern and Delphine backing us up, and we had the element of surprise," Lethiel said.

"And we were so young," Lydia sighed, tossing back her hair dramatically. "So young and carefree."

"Ah yes," Lethiel said, falling into the game. "How well I remember. A girl, another girl, a pile of corpses. Where have those happy days gone, I wonder?"

An arrow bounced off her armour. They were passing what seemed to be a ruined fortress, and painted faces were leering down at them. More arrows followed.

"Sometimes it seems they are still with us," Lydia said. "Do we stop?"

"No, we come back later," Rowan said. "Mission, remember?"

"I'll make a note," Lethiel said, and they spurred their horses to a run and soon outdistanced the foe.

"Someone wants to be a Thane," Lydia remarked cattily.

"I just want us to get where we're going," Rowan said. "I'm getting sore."

The shades of evening were falling, and it was with some surprise, a little later, that they reined in their steeds in front of a small crowd of people. There were a couple of houses, and what looked like a mine entrance up on the right.

"If this is Markarth, it's smaller than I expected," Lethiel said.

"We must have gone wrong somewhere," Lydia said. "Let me see the map."

"Here." Lethiel handed it over and dismounted. The crowd of people had separated into a couple of groups; one, of armed and menacing-looking thugs, headed back for the mine, and the other, of sullen and resentful miners, moved away up the slope towards a barrack-like building. There remained a balding man in faded finery and an attitude of deep dejection, and Lethiel went to talk to him.

"Karthwasten," Lydia said. "We took the wrong fork. It's just a little way back."

"She's not listening," Rowan said.

After a few minutes, Lethiel returned to them.

"We can do something here," she said. "Lydia, follow me."

"Is this going to take long?" Rowan demanded. 

"Five minutes tops," Lethiel said, as Lydia joined her on the ground.

They walked boldly into the mine, and Lethiel approached the evident leader of the gang.

"We are the Dragonborn Company," she said, "and we come as emissaries from my lady Rowan, a mighty sorceress."

"Oh yeah?" the big man grunted, but Lydia had caught the superstitious flicker in his eyes at the word. They were in with a chance.

Four minutes later, Lethiel had talked the mercenary (for such he was) into abandoning his blockade of the mine and taking his men away. They watched as the gang trooped out of the mine, and then followed them and rejoined Rowan, who was still sitting on her horse.

"Go tell Ainethach you've solved his problem for him," Lethiel said quietly. The balding man was leaning on the rail of his veranda, watching them with the incuriousness of despair.

Rowan eased herself out of the saddle, wincing, and went over to talk to him.

"I love easy jobs," Lethiel said happily. 

"What about these Silver-Bloods?" Lydia was uneasy. "They sound to be big wheels around these parts. They could be trouble."

"Then we'll deal with them," Lethiel said. "One thing at a time, love. That's the secret."

The balding man had brightened considerably, and Rowan was smiling as she returned to them.

"I could get to like this," she said. "Now, will one of you help me back on to this beast? My legs don't want to.”

The man with the dagger pitched forward on his face. The woman he had been about to gut stood, rigid with shock. Guards bustled through the crowd, shooing spectators away.

"Straight ahead," Lethiel said in a low voice. "Keep moving. Do not stop for anything."

They obeyed. Lydia saw a young man trying to attract their attention, but since he clearly did not know just who had loosed the shot, he was easily left behind. Moving in a tight V, Rowan at the head wearing her most forbidding glare, the Dragonborn Company marched up the narrow path, climbed up stairs, turned this way and that and soon reached--

"The Temple of Dibella," Rowan read. "Wrong way."

They about-faced, descended to ground level, tried another path, climbed stairs, marched along, climbed some more steps--

"No lollygagging," rumbled a guard at the door of what was clearly the local lock-up. Once again, the Dragonborn Company retraced their steps, the daunting tight V beginning to fray a little at the edges.

"Excuse me." The young man was closing on them. 

Lydia made a snap decision. "This way," she said, and the V reformed and moved off briskly.

"What's the parade for, lady?" a small child inquired, when they fetched up just in front of the gate.

Lethiel stifled a snort of laughter.

"Sweet child," Rowan said poisonously, "could you direct us to the jarl's palace?"

"Understone Keep? Sure, lady. Two septims."

Muttering, Lethiel paid over the requested sum, and the child pointed. "That way. Just head for the guards."

"Excuse me," the young man said. He was almost upon them.

"You're excused," Lethiel said, and they set off again. This time they were successful, and by the time they arrived at the set of double doors with the guards standing on either side, the young man had evidently given up.

"These doors are Dwemer," Rowan said.

"Markarth's built on an old Dwemer city," one of the guards volunteered. "Nchuand-Zel. Very old."

"Can I pick a different hold?" Rowan said. 

"Too late," Lethiel said. "We're here now. In we go."

Lydia decided that she did not take to Jarl Igmund of the Reach. He was handsome enough, in a washed-out kind of way, but she didn't like the way he continually stared at a point just above Rowan's head as he listened to her, or the slow, sing-song note in his voice. He was courteous enough, though, and his initial request was clear enough, not to say predictable; take out a "nest" of Forsworn. Rowan accepted the commission, and they quitted the court.

"This is his father's shield?" Lydia said doubtfully.

"Maybe it has sentimental value," Lethiel suggested.

"Let's just bag it up and get going," Rowan said briskly. She had quite taken to being the one in charge, and tended to carry on the gag even when they were alone and unobserved, as now. Lydia resolved to speak to her privately about it when they were alone. Fun was fun, but her Thane was in charge, and always would be, whether she admitted it or not.

On the way out of Markarth they had come on a pair of bedraggled miners, Pavo and Gat, who had been dispossessed of their gold mine by a band of Forsworn. Lethiel had promised to clear them out, and the miners had brightened at once. It had not taken long, Pavo and Gat had been appropriately grateful, and Lydia had noted down one case of "helping the people of the Reach," just in case it would be needed.

The first Forsworn nest, apart from being, as Lethiel put it, halfway back to bloody Solitude, had been easy. Recovering Jarl Igmund's father's shield from the clutches of a pair of Hagravens had been less so. Still, there had been a word wall, so that was something. Lethiel now knew FEIM, which meant "fade." What use it might have, apart from as a handy rhyme for "time" in one of the songs Lethiel was now trying to write, would have to wait till she killed several more dragons.

Between the two quests, they had stayed a night in the Silver-Blood Inn, again courtesy of Lethiel's musical skills, and Lydia had decided that the Dwemer were the kind of people who enjoyed pain and discomfort. A stone bed is not a bed even for the hardiest Nord. Why on earth didn't the Silver-Bloods run to some mattresses? She had asked the unpleasant Kleppr, and he had muttered something about people admiring the authentic ambiance, before his wife had cuffed him back to the bar. Lethiel had said something Lydia hadn't caught, and all three of them had made the best of it, but Rowan in her bedroll had passed a better night than the two of them on the bed.

Never again, they had vowed. They would ride all the way back to Rorikstead or Dragon Bridge rather than sleep on one of those things again.

They finished packing up, and rode back towards Markarth.

"Someone's going to make me go down into that Dwemer city," Rowan fretted. "I just know it."

"Cheer up," Lydia said brightly. "An old guard named Hroki in Whiterun once told me the best way to conquer a fear is to confront the source of that fear."

"Really?" Rowan looked hopeful. "Could I talk to him?"

"He was stationed out on the western watchtower," Lydia told her. "Dragon got him."

Rowan snorted. "Gee, thanks."

"We'll do the Dwemer stuff if it's needed," Lethiel said.

"No," Rowan said. "Lydia was right. We fight together or not at all." She sighed. "I'll do it."

The City of Stone (or the City of Stone Beds, as Lethiel called it) received them once again, and Jarl Igmund took his father's battered and unusable shield reverently from Rowan's hands. Yes, he said, there was room in his court for a new Thane. Rowan undertook to help the people of his hold, and also to buy a piece of property; there happened to be one available, as a matter of fact, and the price was, compared with Solitude, quite reasonable. Lethiel agreed to send back home for more money.

"And then Sienna can go on with us to Falkreath," she said, as they quitted the presence.

"Ah, Falkreath," Rowan sighed. "Pine forests, a nice lake, no Dwemer. I wish I hadn't been so keen."

"Oh, that reminds me." Lethiel fumbled in her belt pouch. "I actually had a letter from the jarl, inviting me to visit. Or one of us, anyway."

"When did you get that?" Lydia asked.

"Can't remember," Lethiel said offhandedly.

"World of her own," Rowan said to Lydia.

"When you're the Dragonborn," Lydia explained to Rowan, "keeping track of your fan mail is a full-time job in itself."

"Shut up, you," Lethiel said.

"Wait, though." Rowan's agile mind had spotted a problem. "That means he knows your name."

Lethiel looked at the letter, which she had at last located. "This is true."

"Which means he'll be expecting you, not anyone else." Rowan threw up her hands. "So much for the cunning plan."

An expression of consternation crossed Lethiel's face, and then cleared. "No problem," she said. "He's never seen me. Sienna can be me, and I'll be her."

This seemed like a step too far to Lydia. "Actual imposture?" she said. "Is that wise, my Thane?"

"Of course it isn't," Lethiel said cheerfully. "It's terminally stupid. Wise is getting the hells out of Skyrim and settling down in some civilised little town in Cyrodiil to grow turnips for the rest of my life. But that isn't me. This is what we're doing and this is what we're doing." She seemed to become aware that this last statement lacked a certain coherence. "I'm not abandoning my plan for this. We can do it."

Lydia wondered if they could.

"What a disgustingly contented bunch of people," Lethiel said.

"Doesn't anyone want anything done for them?" Lydia agreed.

"Maybe we should put up a stall," Rowan said.

The afternoon had not been entirely unsuccessful; they had delivered a potion to the jarl's steward, for which he had been furtively grateful, and some dog food to a kitchen assistant in the keep, which had, according to Rowan, left a smell in her pouch that she would never get out. But now night was coming on again, and the ghastly stone beds in the Silver-Blood Inn were looming large and forbidding in all their minds, and nobody else seemed to feel the need for their help.

"How about that priest?" Lydia said.


"You remember, he was getting yelled at by some thug as we went into the keep."

"It's hardly helping the people if all our efforts are spent on the jarl's hangers-on," Lethiel pointed out.

"We've got to help somebody," Rowan said. "Let's go ask him. A priest's errand should be fairly harmless."

They re-entered Understone Keep, and clambered over a pile of fallen rock to the left. The chamber they entered was dominated by a bridge to an impressively large set of Dwemer doors, and Rowan marched past this, and the two robed figures at work at an enchanting altar, without turning her head. "I'll handle this," she said to her two companions, and they obediently dropped back while she advanced on the priest.

"She's so masterful," Lethiel commented in a swooning voice.

"She'll regret it," Lydia said.

Indeed, Rowan did look somewhat disconcerted at whatever the priest was saying to her; but then she glanced back at Lethiel and Lydia, squared her shoulders and continued the conversation.

"Is she going to ask us to help?" Lydia wondered.

"I imagine she hasn't left herself that option," Lethiel said.

Rowan accepted a key from the priest, turned to face the door behind him, hesitated, then summoned her courage and strode boldly up to it. The lock stuck briefly, which rather spoiled the grandeur of the moment, but then it opened, and Rowan passed within.

"Good day, sir priest," Lethiel called. "We are companions of the lady Rowan. May we know your name?"

"Oh, hello," the priest said, walking over to them. "I am Brother Verulus, and I keep the Hall of the Dead here. Your lady is a most valiant...erm...lady."

"We are the Dragonborn Company," Lethiel said. "Valour is our stock in trade. May I ask the nature of the problem?"

Verulus explained. "Some of the honoured dead have been...eaten. The jarl has commanded me to keep the Hall off limits till the problem is resolved. We assume skeevers or other such vermin."

"Lady Rowan will be happy to deal with this trifling matter for you," Lydia said.

"It is no trifle," Brother Verulus said stiffly, and would have gone on, but at that point, the door opened again and Rowan emerged, looking deathly pale but unharmed.

"Skeevers?" Lydia asked.

Rowan ignored this. "Your honoured dead will no longer be molested, brother," she said in a strained voice. "You have the word of the Dragonborn for this."

Verulus was much relieved, and insisted on presenting Rowan with his amulet as a reward. She thanked him, and then turned and walked away, forcing the others to run after her.

"Get me out of here," she said in a low voice. "Get me out of here, get me out of this damned city, get me out of this stupid plan!"

"What happened?" Lethiel asked.

"There was," Rowan coughed, retched and started again. "There was a woman in there...I didn't understand what she was talking about at first, she said...the most disgusting things, horrible things, I can't bear--"

"Calm down," Lethiel said, and there was a snap in her voice that instantly forced the redhead to calm. "What are you talking about?"

"It's not skeevers eating the dead," Rowan said, her voice still trembling. "It's people. They worship a daedra, Namira. I'd read about her, but I never thought, I never--" She pulled herself together. "They were eating the dead in there because their own place, their...temple or whatever, is overrun with draugr. I had to promise to clear the place out." She turned large horrified eyes on them both. "She thinks I'm one of them. I didn't, I didn't say anything that...but she just assumed, and, and you know what the most horrible thing was?"

"You started thinking about what it would be like," Lethiel said. "It's perfectly natural. You're an imaginative woman. And people do eat people. Bosmer eat people all the time, or so I've read."

"Bosmer are elves," Rowan said dismissively. "This is actual people." She looked a little stricken at her own words, and started to say something else, but stopped.

"We may need to have a talk at some point," Lethiel said carefully, "but I assume you mean Nords, Imperials, people like that."

Rowan nodded gratefully.

"Well, they're people, and they live in the Reach, and they've asked for our help," Lethiel said. "So where's this temple?”

They waited till they were all well away from Reachcliff Cave before bursting out laughing.

"That," Lethiel said admiringly, between gusts of laughter, "is the cleverest plan since Clever Clever-Pants of Cleverstead invented eight new words for 'clever' so that nobody could tell he was boasting about how clever he was."

"And they really don't know what they're eating?" Lydia said.

"Not for a moment," Brother Verulus said. "They're all in there tucking into my magical simulacrum and banging on about the unique flavour and texture and the unparalleled sensation and so on, and it's just ordinary meat. It's all pretence and pretension with them, a particularly vile form of snobbery." He abruptly assumed a priestly sobriety. "Such are the frailties of those who follow the paths of evil."

"Well, I have heard that you can do some wonderful things with sauces," Lydia said, deadpan.

"And you worked it out between you?" Lethiel said.

Rowan and Brother Verulus immediately started deferring to each other, and the mutual admiration society continued for some minutes before Lethiel called a halt.

"Well, whoever had the idea, it was brilliant," she said. 

Rowan dropped a ring into Brother Verulus' palm with a slight shudder of distaste. "I guess you'll know what to do with this," she said.

"I think so," the priest said, wrapping the ring carefully in a cloth. "And here is some recompense for you, my lady." He passed Rowan a book, which she looked at briefly before stowing it away. "You have my thanks. May Arkay bless you with a long life."

"Thank you," Rowan said, returning his formal bow.

"New spell?" Lydia said.

"Looks like it," Rowan said. "I'll study it later.”

They parted from Brother Verulus at the gates of Markarth, because Lethiel had spotted Sienna waving to them from outside the inn. Many hugs and greetings followed, and a pouch of money changed hands.

"What's the food like in this place?" Sienna asked, jerking her thumb at the inn.

"Better than the beds," Lydia said.

"Dwarf beds?" SIenna made a face. "No thanks."

"'Come in,'" Lethiel said in an innkeeper voice. "'We've got warm food, warm drink, and remarkably cold, hard beds.'"

"Come and eat," Sienna said. "I'm starved, and you can bring me up to date."

"I'm not sure if I'll ever eat again," Rowan said, "but company would be good."

They talked over the food, and Rowan was in fact persuaded to a dish of baked potatoes and vegetables. Sienna listened with interest as Lethiel explained the plan, and its latest complication.

"Pretend to be you?" she said. "Sure, I'm up for it. Should be a hoot. What do we do about the hair?"

"Good point," Lethiel said, pulling out a scarlet tress and eyeing it.

Rowan immediately grabbed a nearby piece of paper, tore off a strip and wrote on it. "Find these ingredients, get to an alchemy stand and you can make a dye that should come up about the right shade."

"I'm hopeless at alchemy," Lethiel said.

"I'm not," Sienna said, taking the slip of paper. "I'll do it. In fact, I'll go out looking now. Most of these should be findable around here."

"Finish your meal first," Lydia suggested.

After they had eaten, Rowan, Lethiel and Lydia parted from Sienna again and went up to the Keep. Verulus gave them a wave as they passed.

The purchase and outfitting of Vlindrel Hall, which apparently had the distinction of being the highest residence in the city, was quickly arranged, and the title of Thane duly conferred upon the lady Rowan, of the Dragonborn Company. For the sake of form, they trooped up flight after flight of steps, and Rowan unlocked the door with the key Raerek the steward had given her.

Presumably the huge, moustached man waiting inside had also had one.

"The Jarl has appointed me to be your housecarl," he rumbled. "My name is Argis the Bulwark. It is an honour to serve you, Lady Rowan."

Rowan's eyes had grown wide, and now she smiled. "Well," she said softly, "that should work out nicely for both of us.”

"Head home when you're ready to," Lethiel said. "We still need you."

"I will," Rowan said, from the crook of Argis' arm. The big man's face, like hers, wore a satisfied grin. He, at least, had no doubt about the appropriate duties of a housecarl where his Thane's pleasure was concerned.

Lethiel, Lydia and Sienna gathered their things together and picked their way down the steep, unrailed steps towards Markarth far below. Sienna's hair was now a violent red, a couple of shades lighter than Lethiel's, which was tucked into a voluminous pale grey peaked cap with ear flaps, of her own design. They had spent a comfortable night at Vlindrel Hall, whose furnishings did not run to stone beds, and were well prepared for the journey to Falkreath.

They picked up their horses from the stables and set off.

"How are things at home?" Lydia asked Sienna.

"Okay when I left. Sigrid and Amarie got back just after Ro set off to join you, and An and Air took off to scout out some place up north. I didn't catch where."

"Pity," Lethiel said. They were riding easily, three abreast, and it was a fine if blowy day. She had her map out, and it kept trying to escape. "I could have marked it. What about these bandit camps?"

"Silent Moons and Halted Stream. Halted Stream was built round an iron mine. I'll talk to you about that when we get somewhere we can stop."

They continued along the road. Lydia pointed out Reachcliff Cave, and they told Sienna the story of the Namira cult.

"Mm," Sienna said. "I'd have killed the lot of them."

Lethiel chuckled. "On the basis that wholesale murder is more moral than a little necrophagy?"

"Who knows who else they might kill?"

"That lot?" Lethiel was openly scornful. "They would never have the nerve to kill anyone. They only thought of Verulus because they thought they had a dupe who would do the dirty work for them. Petty bourgeois thrill-seekers, every one of them, sad little good citizens groping frantically after a frisson of imagined decadence. Pff. Let 'em rot their digestive systems nibbling on abandoned corpses if they can find any, or chip their teeth on draugr. If they break into the Hall of the Dead again Verulus knows what to do, and he knows who to as well."

"Besides," Lydia said, "when the magic on what they were eating wore off they would realise how they'd been tricked...and so would Namira. I think they're probably getting their punishment."

"Maybe." Sienna was dubious.

"Punishing people for who they worship is how we got into this mess in the first place," Lethiel said.

"Yeah, but daedra," Sienna said.

"Azura's a daedra, and lots of utterly innocent mer worship her," Lethiel said. "Wait, what's that?"

"That" was a small shop by the side of the road, just before a bridge that crossed the river they had been following. A hanging sign outside read "DIVINE ELEGANCE STORE."

Lethiel performed the fastest dismount Lydia had ever seen. "Excuse me a moment," she said, and darted inside. Lydia and Sienna looked at each other, then themselves dismounted, tethered the horses carefully, and followed her.

Half an hour later, they emerged, carrying Lethiel between them by an arm each. The Dragonborn was struggling, but somewhat handicapped by the fact that she was holding in each hand the handles of several large paper bags with the name of the shop on the sides.

"The horses won't carry any more, my Thane," Lydia said. "And you can always come back another time."

"But, but..." Lethiel gave up. "Oh, you're right. And where would I ever wear dresses anyway?"

"That is a point," Sienna said. "We don't get invited to that many parties."

"And the last one you went to turned into a kind of bloodbath and major diplomatic incident," Lydia reminded her Thane.

"That wasn't my fault. I was on a mission." Lethiel began rearranging the contents of the saddlebags to accommodate her new purchases.

"Are you sure this armour will be better than dragon scale?" Sienna said, holding up a loose shirt of some linen-like material.

"It will be when I've finished with it," Lethiel promised. "At least for anything short of an actual dragon."

"Okay." Sienna remained unconvinced. "I think I'll stick with this for the moment, thanks."

"No problem."

They mounted up and rode on across the bridge.

Their road led east, till Whiterun could be glimpsed in the distance, and then south, over a range of hills. They crossed a broad river that drained into Lake Ilinalta, where a lumber mill chugged and clanked tirelessly, and then down a steep slope that led among pine trees. A little while later, as afternoon was just giving way to early evening, they arrived in the town of Falkreath, capital of Falkreath hold.

"Are you ready for this?" Lethiel asked, as they unloaded the horses outside the oddly named inn.

"Sure," Sienna said lightly.

"Then let's go and do it."

"Can I show you something first?"

Sienna drew Lethiel aside and the two fell into quiet conversation. Lydia, still busy with her unnamed horse, let them get on with it. Her Thane would share anything she needed to know.

A few minutes later, having rented a room from Valga Vinicia the innkeeper and stowed their gear in it, they walked down to the jarl's longhouse, which bore no fancy name as in other towns. With Sienna in the lead, they entered, and advanced on the slight figure in the antlered crown, lounging in his throne.

"I got your letter," Sienna said. "I'm Lethiel Lightfoot."

Jarl Siddgeir's eyes lit up. "Ah, it's you. I expected you sooner." Then they narrowed a little. "I was informed you were a Nord, but your accent suggests an Imperial."

"I've been travelling," Sienna said carelessly. "I pick up accents easily. Give me two days in this town and I'll be sounding like you."

The jarl took this pleasantry in his stride. "I do hope not. Well, let's see if the stories about you are true..."

"Bandits in a mine," Lydia said disgustedly a few minutes later, as they stepped out into an evening turning colder. "Too easy."

"Especially since I cleared that mine out only a few weeks ago," Lethiel said.

"Bandits always come back, my Thane," Lydia said sadly. "It's a fact of life."

"Not necessarily," Sienna said. "At least not to mines." She held up a book. Lydia could read the gold-blocked title from where she stood: How To Become A Landlord. "Want to give it a try?”

"What do you think of our young jarl?" Lethiel asked. They were just coming up on the Guardian Stones.

"I think he's a slimy little bastard." Sienna was uncompromising. "I wouldn't trust him as far as I could throw his longhouse. You know the gossip in the inn?"

"Do tell."

"His uncle Dengeir was jarl, but he supported the Stormcloaks, so Siddgeir got support from either the Empire or the Thalmor or both--depending who you talk to--and ousted him. This story about having dealings with bandits sounds right down his alley."

"Most reprehensible," Lethiel said. "What about Dengeir?"

"I didn't pick up much about him. People seem evenly split. Some think he's a loon and a traitor, some think things were better when he was in charge. Most are too scared to mention it in case someone's listening."

"How did you find out then?"

Sienna looked smug. "People tell me things. I guess I've got one of those faces."

"Well," Lydia said, "I've seen a few jarls now, and I have to say I still think Jarl Balgruuf is the best of the bunch."

"He at least seems sane and well-adjusted," Lethiel agreed. "Siddgeir, yes, slimy's the word I'd use. I don't feel nearly so bad about our modest deception now. Igmund, I think, probably hears voices. At very least, he's in a deep funk. He's caught between the Forsworn, whom he knows have a reasonable claim, the Thalmor, whom he hates as much as any sane person does who isn't one, and the Stormcloaks, whom he knows he betrayed. Guilt can be a terrible distorting force on a mind." Lethiel drew rein. "And here we are. It's just up those steps. Quiet, everyone.”

"And it's that simple?" Lethiel said wonderingly, as two more miners trooped up the steps and past them.

"Sure," Sienna said. "You clear out the mine, hire miners, and they work it for you and you get a share of the ore. You buy a farm, and you get a share of the food. You buy a house, or a shop, or an inn, and you get rent. Everything gets stored in the safe in the jarl's dwelling. But that isn't the real attraction."

"What is?" Lydia was feeling very sceptical about this whole thing. She agreed with Lethiel; it was too easy.

"If you buy a place, and then charge a low rent, or even no rent at all...everyone loves you." Sienna spread her hands. "No more touting around trying to find grunt work. You can be known throughout every hold as a great person and a generous friend."

"And nobody's competing with me on this?"

"Not as far as I can tell. We already own most of Whiterun and Riverwood. We've had to dip into your savings quite a bit, but the rent doesn't stop, so it'll pay for itself in the long term."

"There's something very odd about the economy of this province," Lethiel muttered. "Still, if it means I don't have to keep on clearing out the same mine over and over again, I'm all for it."

"Great." Sienna handed over the Landlord book, a small ledger, and a tiny key. "Now, back to Falkreath and my lord of slime?"

"Yes indeed. That little workout's given me an appetite."

They returned to Jarl Siddgeir to report their success. On the way, Sienna entered into brief negotiations with Solaf at Grey Pine Goods, Valga at the Dead Man's Drink, and Matthies at Corpselight Farm. 

"Cheerfui names," Lydia commented.

"Well, the town's main feature is its graveyard," Lethiel said.

"Yeah, but they don't have to make a fetish of it."

By the time they got to the longhouse, word had reached the jarl, and the appointment of Lethiel Lightfoot as Thane of Falkreath was little more than a formality. There was no requirement to own property, though Nenya the steward informed them that land was available on which a fairly extensive estate could be built. Sienna, after a glance at Lethiel, accepted this offer, and paid over almost the last of the money she had brought from home.

A handsome Redguard woman named Rayya approached them as they turned to leave. "Lady Lethiel. The jarl has appointed me to be your housecarl. It's an honour to serve you."

Sienna looked her up and down. "Yeah, you'll do. Follow."

Rayya seemed to take this as no more than her due, and fell in behind them.

"Will you be okay with this building project?" Lethiel said.

"Sure. Rayya will help, and if we need funds, there's always the safe in the longhouse. I have another key. Or I can always use my charm." Sienna flashed her teeth and batted her eyelashes. "That usually works."

"Don't get into any trouble."

"I'll keep my nose clean."

"Oh wait," Lethiel said, and searched through her pouch again and handing over a crumpled letter. "You might want to check this guy out. Marcus Jannus. He's around here somewhere waiting to speak to me--er, you. If it's anything too drastic, send for me. Lilly seems to be able to find me anywhere."

Lethiel and Lydia hugged Sienna briefly, shook Rayya's hand, and watched as the two, on Sienna's horse, set off along the road that led past the town's lumber mill.

"You look troubled, love," Lethiel said.

"Well..." Lydia sought for the right words. "It's just...all this wheeling and dealing and money's not what I know, and I don't trust it. I'm a--"

"Simple and traditional woman," Lethiel said, grinning. "I know. And you're right. Fighting is easier in a lot of ways, and cleaner in some ways...but I'm strange. I actually don't like killing people, and if I can make my way in the world without having to do that all the time I'm happier."

"How about dragons?"

"Oh, I'll kill them all day and all night with a song on my lips. They're just big bullies, after all, apart from Paarthurnax, and big bullies deserve to be taken down. And before you ask, yes I'm okay with killing Thalmor, and people who behave like Thalmor. They go to great lengths to make themselves obnoxious. They really do ask for it."

"On to Riften, then," Lydia said.

"I think I want to go home first, since we're reasonably handy. See exactly how much is left of my fortune. Sleep in our own bed. That kind of thing."

"I like that kind of thing," Lydia said. She had been silently hoping for just this.

"And then we can pick a volunteer to deal with being Thane of the thieving capital of Skyrim."

"I think we just left the best candidate back in Falkreath."

"We'll see," Lethiel said.

The road from Falkreath to Whiterun was familiar and easy, and Lethiel and Lydia were not molested. As they passed the turning that led up to Helgen, Lydia cast a glance in that direction. She had heard that bandits were now occupying that once charming town. It was a damned shame. She wondered briefly if her Thane could buy an entire town and clear the bandits out of it, and then dismissed the ridiculous idea.

They passed through Riverwood shortly afterward, and Lydia looked at the faces of passers-by. Lethiel had pulled off the cap, and her scarlet hair shone in the sunlight. Everyone seemed happy, and happy to see them. Was it that simple, Lydia wondered? Could you buy people's friendship? Was that right?

"I know what you're thinking," Lethiel sang softly.

"Yes, my Thane?" Lydia kept her tone neutral. It wasn't her place to criticise her Thane, even if she was a Thane herself now.

"And I know what you mean. Buying and selling and trading and dealing, that's Erikur's way, not ours. But, you know..." Lethiel gestured vaguely at the empty air. "Somewhere out there there could be a world where that's all there is. Where you can't just pick up a sword and carve out your own little kingdom, or if you try you get arrested."

"Then that world is not as good as this one," Lydia said firmly.

"You could be right. I'll keep the property speculation to a minimum, okay?"

"Do what you think best, my Thane," Lydia said. "And you know I'm not going to say anything else, so don't badger me."

Lethiel laughed.

Home looked incredibly welcoming as they walked their horses up the drive. Markarth had been splendid in a sombre and forbidding kind of way, but not a city for human people. Falkreath's atmosphere had been sombre in a different kind of way, and talking to Jarl Siddgeir made you want a wash. This, Lydia thought, was a good place, in the hale and beating heart of Skyrim, safe--for the moment--from the travails and corruptions that beset the land elsewhere. She blessed the Divines for her good fortune in living here.

Sigrid came to the door and greeted them both warmly, Lydia perhaps a little more so. "Taking a break?" she said. "I don't blame you. All the way round Skyrim is a long slog. How's it been?"

"Let us get in the door first, woman," Lethiel said with mock severity. "We'll tell you when we're sitting down. Is there any tea?"

Erin, Anja and Amarie were also all in residence, and so Lethiel and Lydia had a full and attentive audience in front of the fire in the inner room. They told the story of the tour so far, and the others laughed, and frowned, and commented in all the right places.

"Namira cultists?" Anja said. "Bad news. You should have killed them."

"That's what Sienna said," Lydia said.

"See's got sense. Let me go back there and take them out for you."

"I'd rather you didn't." Lethiel's voice held an edge. "Death is a bit final. They'll learn better."

"Nobody learns better," Anja said flatly, "once a daedra gets its hooks into them. They're all the same. Still, you're the boss."

"Yes," Lethiel said, and a moment of tension passed.

"So," Erin said, "that leaves Riften, Windhelm, Winterhold, Dawnstar--"

"And Morthal, yes," Lethiel said. "Any volunteers?"

Anja put up her hand. "I'll come with you to Riften," she said. "Place needs cleaning out."

"And you're the girl to do it?" Sigrid was amused. "An against a whole town. Should be a fight worth seeing."

"Think I can't do it?" 

"I'm not saying I don't like your chances."

"Nobody's cleaning anything out just yet," Lethiel said. "You need to start out by playing nice. Get in good with the various factions, and then play them off against each other. Still think you're the right person for the job?"

Anja considered, frowning, for almost a full minute, while they waited, and then looked up.

"Yeah," she said. "I think so.”

The following day, Lethiel, Lydia and Anja set off for Riften, once again by carriage. The weather was cloudy and threatening rain, but for the first part of the journey at least it held off.

"I'm known in Riften," Lethiel said, "so you'd better be yourself."

"Don't know how to be anybody else," Anja said.

"What are you going to do if somebody wants you to read something?" Lydia asked practically.

"Pass it to you." Anja shrugged. "Air and See have been trying to teach me, but I still can't make those little buggers stay put on the page. Something wrong with me, I guess."

"We'll manage," Lethiel said.

Lydia wasn't so sure. Anja was magnificent in a fight, was definitely not stupid, and had full measure of courage, resourcefulness and determination; but so much in the so-called civilised cities of Skyrim depended on one's ability to decipher the written word. She could hardly imagine how hard Anja had had to work to overcome that inability already. And now here she was, heading dauntlessly into the heart of a lair of grifters, sharks, smooth-talking bastards and just plain thieves. 

"I know," Lethiel said, apparently reading her mind again. Lydia wished she wouldn't. "They have no idea what's about to hit them, do they?"

The Dragonborn had chosen to wear one of her new outfits; the loose white shirt was accompanied by dark grey trousers with a very thin yellow stripe, leather boots and gloves. She had been at work on it in the basement all night, and now claimed it would be as effective as the dragon scale armour, while having a fraction of the weight and allowing much freer movement. Lydia had to admit it looked good on her, but once again, she was sceptical. She didn't think Lethiel would be swayed away from good sense by good looks, but then, there was so much she still didn't know about her Thane.

The coach drew to a halt outside Riften stables, and Anja was out of it almost before it had stopped moving. She marched up to the gate, ignoring the guard's attempt to accost her, and stood there, waiting. After a second she snapped her fingers impatiently at her side.

The guard, about to register belligerence, recognised Lethiel suddenly and shrank into himself. He hurried to open the gate, and Anja strode through, followed by her companions.

"You." Maul, leaning against a pillar, jerked upright at the monosyllable. "Here. Now."

Maul lounged forward, uttering his catchphrase. "I don't know you--"

"I am Anja, of the Dragonborn Company. You met my apprentice earlier. Trust me, you do not want to give me the same trouble you gave her. Take me to Brynjolf. Move it!" The last snapped out like a whip, and Maul flinched.

Behind Anja, Lethiel and Lydia exchanged glances in which bemusement was mixed with dismay.

This is not "playing nice," Lydia thought.

"Hey! You!"

Anja barked this out as she strode into the central square of Riften, followed by a Lethiel and Lydia who were trying not to cringe. To call Anja's performance into question now would wreck everything. They could only follow along and hope she had gauged the situation correctly.

"Yes, you," Anja blared. "The fancy boy. Come here."

The man who could only be Brynjolf had turned lazily on being shouted at, and now approached at an insolent amble.

"Are you addressing me, lass?" he inquired.

"Are your ears playing you false, boy?" Anja was apparently locked into her outdoor voice, which was meant for somewhere considerably more outdoor than this. "I've been told you're Brynjolf, yes? Big wheel in the Thieves Guild?"

Brynjolf shook his head. "Lass, I don't know who you've been talking to--"

"Oh, not a big wheel, then? A small cog? Just the boy who cleans the boots, is that it? Never mind, I guess you can still take a message, assuming you're not deaf after all. Listen up, boy. The Dragonborn Company is moving into this territory, and if you're wise you'll move out. Get me?"

A dangerous glint had appeared in Brynjolf's eyes. "And just who is this Dragonborn Comp--"

"You don't need to know that, boy. We talk to the shopkeeper, not the pet skeever. Tell your boss to come and talk to me, in here, before nine of the clock. I'm planning on an early night if you know what I mean. Okay?" Anja reached out and brushed an invisible speck of lint from Brynjolf's shoulder, and then patted his cheek. "Now run along, and if you repeat the message as I gave it to you, there might be a gold piece in it for you. Go on. Shoo."

And having made a waving-away gesture at the astonished Brynjolf, Anja turned away as though he had ceased to exist, and pushed open the door of the Bee and Barb. Lethiel and Lydia, maintaining a frozen-faced dignity, followed her in perfect step.

The patrons of the Bee and Barb eyed Anja in mingled fear, incredulity and perhaps a little admiration, as she walked up to the bar, ordered a lavish meal for all three of them, and rented two adjacent rooms.

"We'll eat upstairs," she said. "I'm expecting company. Don't want the whole world listening in. No offence."

The ascent of the stairs was watched closely by every eye in the place.

"Are. You. Completely. InSANE?" hissed Lethiel as soon as they were behind closed doors.

Anja was unruffled. "I'm playing to my strengths. I always used to do this with See. Get 'em nicely churned up, and then you can slip all kinds of stuff past 'em. Assuming you're as good as See was."

"I--You--" Lethiel started again. "The Guild is in the pocket of Maven Black-Briar. So is the jarl. If Maven takes against us, and she will, we'll be mobbed by the entire town as soon as we poke our heads out of that door!"

"I don't think so." Anja sounded very sure of herself; but then, Lydia thought, she had sounded sure of herself all the way through. "See, I don't think anyone likes the Thieves Guild, or the Black-Briars, and I'm pretty damned sure the jarl doesn't like being in anyone's pocket."

"Well, probably she doesn't, but I don't see--"

"Look around you." Suddenly Anja did lower her voice, and Lydia almost felt her ears pop. "This town is cowed. It's never *not* going to be being run by somebody. The Black-Briars all die in the same carriage accident, they'll sit quietly and wait for some other big crooked family to move in and tell 'em what to do. The Thieves Guild splits up, the splinters'll fight for a while, and the one left standing at the end'll be the new Thieves Guild, and you won't hear a peep out of these good citizens. Now," Anja leaned closer, "you can pussyfoot around, do a few favours for a few people, get in good with everyone, and what happens? The corrupt jarl's corrupt court gets a new Thane, and in a few months she's going along to get along, just as corrupt as all the rest. I think we can do better."

"What are you suggesting?" Lethiel seemed to be actually considering Anja's words seriously.

Anja looked at her. "I quite fancy myself as Jarl of the Rift. What do you think?"

It was not easy to tell what Lethiel thought, because she seemed incapable of speech.

"If the town's got to be run by somebody," Anja said, "then it might as well be us. And then I'd have somebody to read all those pesky letters and reports and things for me."

"You do realise that there are only three of us?" Lydia said.

"Yeah, but they don't. Oop, here we go. Follow my lead." A knock had sounded on the door of their room. Anja raised her voice. "Who is it?"

The door opened, and a man stood on the threshold. He spread his open hands, showing that he was unarmed.

"My name is Mercer Frey," he said. "I am the Master of the Thieves Guild. What can I do for you?”

"Come on in," Anja said. "Close the door."

Mercer Frey did so, and sat down in the room's only remaining chair.

"So," Anja said, "they haven't caught you yet?"

"I beg your pardon?"

"I mean your fellow Guild members." Anja's voice was now decidedly indoor. "Oh, come on. Did you think it wasn't obvious? The whole idea of a Thieves' Guild is romantic. I'd bet it was originally all about redistributing the wealth, right? Making sure the little people didn't get squeezed too hard by the big people, keeping the balance, reminding the powerful where they hold their power from? Am I right? And yet now, you mention the Thieves Guild in Riften, people spit and curse. The rich don't mind you at all, the poor hate you. There's been a change, and I'm betting the change is you."

"You can have no possible proof--" Frey began to bluster.

"Maybe, maybe not, but I don't need it now." Anja was triumphant. "You've been feathering your own nest, maybe for years, cosying up to the Black-Briars, doing their dirty work for them and making your noble Guild into their dirty lapdog. What happened to the last guy?"

"The last..."

"The last Guildmaster. I bet you'd have a story or two to tell about him. And your face just clinched it." Anja sat back. "So I don't need proof. All I have to do is pass word among your fellow members, and they'll find the proof easy enough. Won't they?"

Frey's face had closed into a scowl. "And what makes you think you'll get the chance to pass this...word?" he snarled.

"We're the Dragonborn Company. We don't lose. And there are three of us to one of you. Oh, sure, you've got some thugs downstairs, ready to rush up and take us if you stamp your foot on the floorboards or something, but are you sure we can't take them? Do you want to risk it? Here, in this crowded inn, where so many civilians could get hurt?" Anja tsked, shaking her head. "Maven wouldn't like that."

Frey seethed for a moment, then slumped in his chair. "What do you want me to do?"

"I don't want you to do anything," Anja said. "What I *suggest* you do is slip out of this window behind me, go over the rooftops to whatever escape tunnel or whatever you've got rigged up, and use it. Get clear of Riften by sunrise and keep running. Don't think of doubling back and rousing your Guild buddies, because, you know that word? I already passed it. By now your boy Brynjolf is very well aware exactly what kind of a double-dealing traitor you are, and if he or any of his buddies sees you you're dead. As, in fact, you will be if I or my friends see you after you leave this room, because trust me, baby, you won't see us."

Mercer Frey took another moment, and then summoned up a laugh. "A very convincing bluff, my lady Anja," he said, "but I fear--"

"Bluff?" Anja laughed, loud and long. "The Dragonborn Company never bluffs," she said. "We're moving in on Riften and taking over operations, and you can move or be in our way. And you don't want to be in our way. Oh, and you know when I laughed just then? That was the cue to my boys to pass messages to your boys telling them everything. And another one has just gone to Maven Black-Briar, to notify her that for health reasons you've had to take a lengthy sea voyage, and the Guild is entering a period of internal reorganisation that may last some time." She jerked her head at the window. "Go."

Frey moved to the window. One last question occurred to him. "How--how did you know all this?"

Anja laughed again, shortly. "I knew it at first because I know your type. I knew what kind of man you were before you ever put your face in this room. I've met you a hundred times, my friend. You're a practical man and you pride yourself on that fact. You've got no time nor patience for fairy tales like honour and loyalty and fairness. That kind of nonsense carries no weight in a hard cruel world like this one. So you abuse your power and mistreat your fellow man and you make damned sure the world stays hard and cruel, so that you never get proved wrong. All that I knew before I ever saw you. The rest? You told me."

Frey bowed to her, as best he could in the confined space. The next moment the window was swinging open and he was gone.

Lethiel stared at Anja for a moment. Then she quietly slipped to her knees and bowed her head to the floor at Anja's feet.

Anja was amused, but impatient. "Never mind all that. We have minutes before his bodyguard work out that he's not coming back."

"Was there any truth in any of that?" Lydia demanded.

"Well, I don't have any boys, and you know I haven't had time to pass any messages, but about him? I'm sure of it. Like I said, I've seen the type a hundred times. Couldn't walk straight down a three-foot alley. And here they come. Give me some paper, somebody. Something you don't want."

"Here," Lethiel said, diving into her pouch. "Jottings for songs, didn't work out." She handed over several sheets of paper, which Anja at once held in the flame of one of the candles that illuminated the room. They were burning nicely by the time the door opened and Brynjolf, a dark girl Lydia knew was called Sapphire, and a big bald bruiser with no eyebrows appeared in the doorway.

"What's that you're burning, lass?" Brynjolf's voice held tension and threat. He made a grab for the papers, but Anja twitched them away.

"Nothing to do with you, boot boy," she said, the Lady Anja persona back in force. "A record of a private conversation between me and your boss." She thought about it. "Former boss."

"What did he tell you?" the bald bruiser demanded, looking round the room as if Frey might be hiding under the bed. "Where's he gone?"

"Where? How should I know? Fast and far, was all he said. And as for what he told me..." Anja looked at each of the thieves in turn. "I expect you've guessed a lot of it already."

"I knew it!" Brynjolf's face contorted with rage. "He's been selling us out for years, the lousy traitor. We need to check--"

"Wait a minute." It was Sapphire who kept a cool head. "Why did he tell you all this?" She nodded at the papers, now almost consumed in Anja's gauntleted hand.

"He didn't have to. I had most of it already. We've been watching Master Frey for some time. It was just confirmation for our records. He knew you were on to him and that discovery was just a whisker away, so he took the chance I gave him and bolted. I don't blame him."

"And why are you burning it now?"

"Oh come now," Anja lifted an eyebrow. "Surely if Frey taught you anything, he taught you not to leave embarrassing evidence lying around where anyone could find it."

"We're wasting time," Brynjolf said. "Delvin, back to the Ratway, we need to check the strongroom. Sapphire, go to his house, look for any clues to where he's gone. Lady Anja," he said, "it seems we're in your debt."

"Yeah, I'd say you are," Anja said lazily. "And I will collect."

"I wouldn't leave town if I were you," Sapphire said. "Not just yet."

The three closed the door and clattered down the stairs.

"And when they don't find anything?" Lydia said.

"They'll find something." Anja was definite. "I keep telling you, I know that type. Put them in charge of someone else's money, they can't resist taking some, and then some more, and then it's gone and they're in a spiral, trying to get more to fill the hole they made, and the hole just keeps getting bigger. I'd bet most of the Guild's loot over the past years has quietly slipped into Maven Black-Briar's pocket via our friend Frey."

"So what now?" Lethiel was frowning. Lydia could tell that her Thane did not much enjoy being the tail end of the caravan for once. It would do her good, she decided. Assuming they all got out of this alive.

"We wait," Anja said.

Time passed. Anja, Lethiel and Lydia grew bored. It was amazing, Lydia thought, that in a situation such as this, surrounded by enemies with sudden death on every hand, they could still manage boredom.

"I'm going out," Lethiel announced. 

"Want me to come with?" Lydia said.

"I'd rather you stayed with the lady Anja, love," Lethiel said gently. "Good as she is, I'd rather not leave her alone when she's made herself such a splendid target."

"Sitting right here," Anja said without rancour.

"I won't be long," Lethiel said, and left the room.

In fact she was back within half an hour, in which nothing significant had happened.

"Everything okay?" Anja asked.

"Fine," Lethiel said, and sat down next to Lydia, taking her hand and squeezing it gently.

Brynjolf came in, without knocking, a little later. 

"He's going after the Eyes of the Falmer!" he said.

"And they are?" Anja said.

"Enormous jewels, hidden in a Falmer temple. It's a huge job. Gallus, the last Master of the Guild, had planned it, but we never had the resources...or, I guess, the truth is we never had the nerve. Now Mercer's going for it on his own. The lass and I are going after him."

The momentary confusion of his hearers resolved itself a moment later as a slight figure resolved itself from the shadows.

"And we wondered," Brynjolf said, hesitating slightly for possibly the first time in his life, "if, since you tipped us off to Mercer's treachery, you wanted to be in at the kill, as it were. It's not normal Guild procedure, but then, nothing about this is normal."

Anja registered pleased appreciation. "I'd love to," she said, "but I have business that keeps me here in town for a while. However, if the girl would be of any use," she indicated Lethiel with a casual wave, "you could take her. She's quite good."

"Yes, so Maul has told me," Brynjolf said sardonically. "That would be perfectly acceptable. We'll leave immediately, if that suits."

"As my lady pleases," Lethiel said, with an air of respectful submission that made Lydia blink. Only she, and possibly Anja, caught the glint in the Dragonborn's eyes that said: I'll get you for this.

"My lady," Lydia said desperately, "would it not be better if both of us--"

"Absolutely not," Anja said. "I need one of you at my side. The Guild, after all, are not the only force in this town to be reckoned with." She sounded not in the least uncertain that she could deal on her own with whatever assailants might emerge from the woodwork, but nonetheless Lydia saw that to argue would threaten the pose her supposed mistress was keeping up so bravely.

"What's your name, lass?" Brynjolf asked.

"Please, sir, Matilda," said Lethiel without the slightest hesitation.

"That so?" It was equally plain that Brynjolf didn't believe it for a moment. "Well, Matilda, come along. We've got a brief stop to make, and then we're off to Irkngthand."

Lydia's heart sank as Lethiel meekly followed the two out of the room.

"She'll be fine," Anja said, after the sound of feet on the stairs had died away. "She is the real Dragonborn, after all."

"I know," Lydia said, "but will we be?"

Her misgivings were not in any degree allayed two hours later, when the invitation arrived.

The Black-Briar family

request the pleasure of the company of

Lady Anja + entourage

for an informal gathering

at Black-Briar Lodge

tonight at nine of the clock

Drinks & Light Refreshments

Carriage will call at eight-thirty

Come as you are : DNBYOB

"DNBYOB?" Lydia queried.

"Do Not Bring Your Own Bottle," Anja translated. "They make mead. At least, I suppose they do."

"I've heard it said they just steam the labels off bottles of Honningbrew and paste on their own," Lydia said.

"Who told you that?"

"My Thane. Now I think about it, it might have been one of her jokes."

"She's a weird lass, I'll give her that," Anja said musingly.

"I hope she's all right."

"They won't even have got to Irkngthand yet. It's way up north."

"Still, I don't trust that Brynjolf," Lydia said fretfully.

"Think I do." Anja was still thoughtful. "Lad's all hard on the outside, but he's got a core of idealism in him Frey couldn't get at. He could still be a good man."

"A good thief?" Lydia laughed.

"Isn't that what we are?"

Lydia was still thinking about that when a knock at the door signalled the arrival of Maven Black-Briar's carriage.

The carriage drove out of Riften and turned east. It was fully enclosed, a rarity in Skyrim, and its windows were tinted; Lydia could make nothing out beyond the glass. She tried to sense their course from the changes in direction, but quickly got muddled. Anja sat serenely as if she were in truth a high-born lady being conducted to the better class of soirée. 

At length, after a steep ascent, the carriage came to a stop, and a servant opened the door and beckoned the ladies to alight. Ahead lay a large building ablaze with light, and towards this they were ushered, and toward the figure who stood at the door to welcome them.

"Good evening," said Maven Black-Briar. "You must be Lady Anja. I've heard so much about you. Do come in.”

"So pleasant to have this opportunity to chat," Maven Black-Briar went on, leading her guests through what appeared to be a veritable throng of local notables. Lydia marvelled at the favours the woman could call in at a moment's notice to stage this junket. "One so seldom has the leisure, amid the hurly-burly of the city."

How would you know, Lydia thought. The hurly-burly of the city stops whenever you appear and doesn't start again till you've passed by.

Maven led them to a corner of the large room they had entered, and indicated a couple of chairs. Anja and Lydia sat down, and Maven waited while a flunky fetched another chair for her.

"So sad your other...companion...couldn't join us," Maven said.

"She's with us in spirit," Lydia surprised herself by saying.

The chair arrived, and Maven seated herself gracefully. "Well, lady Anja," she said, "you've been causing quite a stir in Riften. And in only one day. I have to say I'm impressed."

Anja inclined her head.

"My associate Maul is quite taken with you," Maven went on.

"Well, I wouldn't kick him out of bed either," Anja said, and positively brayed with laughter in a way that set Lydia's teeth on edge. Maven merely smiled without humour.

"You are clearly a woman of great resource and presence," she continued, a little doggedly. "I feel sure we could work together. Think what two such as we could accomplish, if we pooled our resources."

"I beg your pardon?" Anja said. "Two such as we?"

Maven smiled again. "Forgive me," she said, "but I feel we are much alike, you and I. We are, after all, both ambitious, both eminently practical, and we lack the patience to deal with the pettifogging bureaucracies that surround us, when it is so much simpler to...cut through to the essence of any matter and deal with it directly."

"And is that what we're doing now?" Anja inquired. "Because it seems to me what you're doing is drowning me in soft soap."

For the first time a slight frown appeared on Maven's face. She opened her mouth, but Anja was quicker.

"You're right, by the way. We are a lot alike. Only I'm tougher, and I've got better backing, and that's why I'll win."

The frown settled in for a long stay. "You think so?"

"Lady, I know it," Anja said. "You've had it too easy for too long. You've got soft. Your organisation runs itself, and you've let it, and now it's ready to ditch you and find a better boss. And here I am."

Maven was now looking distinctly ugly. "May I remind you," she said icily, "of exactly where you are. I am in my home, surrounded by my friends and by my staff, and so are you, only you are alone."

Anja laughed; not a bray as before, but a soft, amused chuckle. "You call these your friends?" she said. "Shall we have a show of hands?"

"They know where their advantage lies," Maven said evenly.

"Maybe they're not quite up to date," Anja said. "Lydia, read out the note our friend gave you."

Lydia unfolded the paper Lethiel had pressed into her hand when she had returned from her outing. "The Dragonborn Company," she said, "now owns Black-Briar Manor, Black-Briar Meadery, and almost every other house and place of business in Riften. The Black-Briars' influence is now effectively null and void. All debts owed to the Black-Briars have been paid by the Dragonborn Company, and all monies have been accepted and signed for by a member of the Black-Briar family. Congratulations, Madam Black-Briar. Someone in your family is now rich enough to help you make a new and very comfortable life in almost any province of the Empire." Lydia smiled sweetly. "Except this one."

Maven stared with bulging eyes. "You couldn't possibly," she said. "You couldn't..."

"Like I said," Anja remarked, "I've got better backing than you. The Dragonborn Company has assets in almost every hold in Skyrim. Let's face it, lady, you're a piker. You think too small. So do your children, by the way. They sold your assets for far less than they were worth. You'd almost think they hadn't been trusted with the handling of the family business...and maybe they resented it."

"Which one was it?" Maven raged. She was still sitting down, but her entire body was clenched with fury. "Which of those worthless brats betrayed me?"

"Ah, that would be telling," Anja purred. "But you better be nice to all of them...because one of them is a lot richer than you right now." She stood up. "Now we can do this two ways. You can let us walk out of here and find our way back to Riften, in which case you'll have maybe a week to sort out your travel plans and pack your things...or you can make trouble for us now, or later, in which case our agents have instructions to foreclose on your business and your town house and confiscate anything and everything they find there...including any papers you may keep in that handy safe beside your bed. I'm sure there would be a lot in there that would interest quite a few people."

Maven also stood up. Her hands were trembling, but her voice was under rigid control. "I shall speak to Jarl Laila Law-Giver about this," she said. "This is fraud and larceny on a colossal scale. You will be--"

"Ah, well, but isn't that the very lifeblood of this bustling town?" Anja said, with an outrageous wink. "I notice the jarl isn't among your guests tonight. Did you invite her? I hope she sent you a nice note begging off. See, she can sense the way the tide turns as well as any, and maybe she thinks a rising tide might float her clear of your clutches. And maybe she's right." She gestured imperiously to Lydia. "You've got a week, Mave. Make the most of it. After that, show your face in Riften, it'll soon be looking out from behind bars. Goodnight."

They walked out, unmolested, and behind them a strange sound grew on the air; the sound of applause. Anja kept them walking till they were well beyond the semicircle of lamplight that illumined the threshold, till they were well down the slope that led to the road.

"Run," she said urgently; and she and Lydia ran.

Bluffing again?" Lydia panted, as they put distance between themselves and the Black-Briar Lodge. The moons were out now, and there was enough light to see their way with reasonable clarity.

"Not entirely," Anja replied. "How true it was...depends on how much cash Lee was able to pull together at short notice...but I'd bet she managed the meadery and the manor at least, and paid off some of the debts Maven had been using to keep people under her thumb. And she will have given the money to one of the other Black-Briars, though what she told them about what it was for, you'll have to ask her."

"And...when did you arrange all this?" Lydia couldn't help feeling hurt that her Thane had not confided in her about this elaborate plan.

Anja managed a short laugh. "We didn't."

"What?" Lydia bumped painfully into a tree trunk, and concentrated on looking where she was going.

"I knew she'd gone out to do something, to try to turn the balance of power against Maven, and I saw her pass you the note when she got back, so I took a gamble. I'm guessing the note also said 'Don't talk about this in the inn or anywhere you can be overheard,' right?"

Lydia nodded helplessly.

"She knew you were going to be separated, one way or another, and she left you a way of letting me know what she'd done when the time came." Anja shrugged. "The rest was just winging it."

Lydia shook her head, and came to a stop on the road. "I'm out of my depth. You work on a completely different level to anyone else I know."

Anja, who had also stopped, walked back and gave her a brief, comradely hug. "You'd be surprised. It's just both of us are pretty good at improvising. I've had to learn, working with See, but she's the real master. I'd swear there isn't a situation See can't turn to her own advantage."



Lydia spoke with the utmost sincerity. "Please...tell me you don't call me Lyd when you talk about me."

Anja laughed, and they resumed their journey at a slightly slower pace.

"Do you think it's safe to go back to that room?" Lydia said.

"Honey, I don't think it's safe to go back to Riften. I just don't know where else we can go."

"I do," Lydia said. "Follow me." And she turned westward.

Anja and Lydia spent the night, blissfully enough, in separate beds in Blackthorn Manor. Belle, the steward, had showed no surprise at all when two weary and footsore strangers presented themselves at the door in the early hours of the morning, and had provided food and drink without asking any questions.

"So," Anja said over breakfast the following morning, "that just leaves Jarl Laila."

"Word of advice," Lydia said, buttering bread. "Don't call her Lay."

Anja snorted with laughter. "Does it bother you? It's just a habit See and I got into. I mean, of course, the lady Sienna Flavia," she added with elaborate courtesy.

"It's just confusing sometimes. So, what's your plan for dealing with the jarl?"

"Plan? I don't have a plan. I told you, I just wing it. If I try and plan, it's like with reading. Things start jumping about and don't fit or make sense any more. I figure we'll head back there when we've finished eating, walk into Mistveil Keep, and I'll say the first thing that comes into my head and see where that takes us." Anja laughed again at Lydia's expression. "Hey, it's worked so far."

"That's what worries me," Lydia said darkly.

They set off for Riften as soon as they had finished the dishes, overriding Belle's insistence that it was her job. The manor ran to a horse, but neither of them felt the need to use him; the distance, after all, was not great.

As they drew within sight of the permanently closed southern gate, Lydia frowned. "Why are there no guards?"

Anja shrugged, and they continued round the town walls to the stables and the north gate, again unguarded. The reason was soon clear; all the guards were inside, either forming part of, or in position to control, the large crowd of citizens occupying the central square. As Anja and Lydia came into view, there was a low murmur, which grew and swelled into, inexplicably, cheering.

Anja hesitated in mid-step, and a broad grin spread over her face. "Well, well," she said.

At the top of the steps to Mistveil Keep, the jarl's palace, stood Brynjolf, Lethiel, and a man in priest's robes whom Lydia identified as Maramal, the priest of the temple of Mara. There was a notice pinned to the door, and Anja stepped up and read it. Lydia looked over her shoulder.

As a result of unforeseen

circumstances, it has been

necessary for Laila Law-Giver 

to depart at once for an 

extended stay with family

in Cyrodiil. Since the term of 

this absence is indefinite, 

she has regretfully been 

compelled to abdicate as jarl

of the Rift with immediate


Laila Law-Giver thanks the 

good people of Riften for 

their unfailing support of 

her and her family over

many years, and wishes them

all good fortune and success

in choosing a suitable person

to assume her onerous duties.

It was signed "Laila."

Slowly Lydia and Anja turned. The cheering of the crowd had now resolved itself into a chant.


"I think they like you, lass," Brynjolf said with a smile.

"It's good to see you, my Thane," Lydia said.

"It's so good to see you, love," Lethiel responded with a smile.

Anja moved to the head of the steps and raised both hands. The chant quieted.

"Is this truly what you want?" she asked, her voice carrying easily over the square. "Do you want me as your jarl?"

A loud and sustained cheer greeted this question. Anja raised her hands again.

"Very well. I will take on this task, in the name of the Dragonborn Company. I will be working closely with the reformed Thieves Guild--" Anja glanced at Brynjolf, and received a very slight nod. "--to ensure that injustices of the sort that were common under Laila and the Black-Briars become things of the past. The law is the servant of the people, not its master. You are the Law-Givers now!"

An even louder cheer.

"What about the war?" someone shouted.

"Whose side are you on?" added another voice.

"Whose side am I on?" Anja repeated. "That does not matter. From this moment, the town of Riften is on neither side. Neither side, it seems to me, has shown that right is on its side. From this moment, we stand with Jarl Balgruuf of Whiterun in a position of absolute neutrality. We want no part of this war!"

The loudest cheer of all, followed by a moment of surprise as various elements in the crowd noticed that various other elements were also cheering, and wondered whether, in that case, they ought to be cheering too.

"Skyrim belongs," Anja continued, lowering her voice, "to the people of Skyrim. That means Nords, Imperials, Dunmer, Bretons, Argonians, Reachmen, Khajiit, anyone who lives in this land and works to sustain it. And all are welcome here, if they come with good hearts!"

More cheers.

"That's about enough, lass," Brynjolf said quietly. "Best get inside."

"Thank you all," Anja said. "I will be talking to each and every one of you over the next few weeks. But now," she indicated the palace behind her with her head, "I expect there's a bit of cleaning up to do, and I'm the girl to do it. If you'll excuse me." And she made a gesture as of rolling up her sleeves, which got a laugh, and turned to the doors of the palace.

"Good to see you, girl," she said to Lethiel. "Looking forward to hearing how it went."

"I'll tell you," Lethiel said. "I'll tell you both. But let's get inside first, before I wake up and find this was all a dream.”

...and fortunately Brynjolf was there to hold me up, or I'd have drowned," Lethiel said.

"You can't swim?" Lydia looked concerned, as did many of the notables gathered round the big table in Mistveil Keep. Unlike the previous incumbent, Anja had chosen her dinner guests from among the actual citizens and tradespeople of the town.

"Of course I can," Lethiel said, "but since I'd just been chasing a mostly invisible lunatic up and down a giant statue of a Snow Elf while my two comrades merrily tried to disembowel each other, I wasn't exactly at my best at the time." She indicated her clothing. "If I'd been wearing anything heavier than this I'd have sunk for certain."

"That's pretty good gear," Brynjolf said. "I think we might have to check out this shop of yours."

"During opening hours, please," Lethiel said, to general amusement.

"And you got the Eyes?" Anja said.

"We did, thanks to Lethiel here, or I should say Matilda," Brynjolf said. "And since we only have room on our shelves for one of them, the Guild would like to donate the other to the Dragonborn Company, with our compliments." He ceremoniously produced and handed over an oval pink gem about the size of a man's head. "Along with a half share of the other loot."

"Which should nicely cover everything I didn't manage to do yesterday," Lethiel said. "You were amazing, by the way," she added to Lydia.

Anja nodded. "Absolute conviction. See couldn't have done it better."

That's because I thought it was true, Lydia thought, but did not say.

"What happened to the Black-Briars?" Lydia asked.

"Maven turned up at the Manor in the small hours of the morning." It was Maramal, the priest, who spoke. "She had a brief conversation with her son and daughter, and then they came here and spoke with the jarl--the former jarl, I should say. Her other son was presumably released from prison, and the four of them left town shortly afterwards carrying four very full bags. I happened to be at my devotions last night and saw most of what happened. The jarl, I would imagine, left by the southern gate. I did not see her go."

"You can't have been paying much attention to your devotions," Anja commented.

"The Lady Mara understands," Maramal answered.

"So, jarl of the Rift," Lethiel said, "your reign begins. Remember, your land reaches as far as Ivarstead. You'll have a lot to do."

"I'll remember," Anja promised. "As long as someone finds me a steward who can read. Laila took her elf with her."

"I'd like to propose a toast," Lethiel said, standing up. Everyone looked at her. "Celarus the Loremaster, in some dusty old book I found somewhere, writes about the necessity of 'endowing good men with great power and making powerful men good.' We have to assume he meant women as well." Laughter. "That, in a nutshell, is what the Dragonborn Company is all about. When we're not fighting dragons." More laughter. "I'm proud to have been a part of the notable success we've achieved in that direction here in Riften, and I would like to wish long life and prosperity to the town, to all its people, and to Anja, jarl of the Rift. All hail!"

"All hail Anja, jarl of the Rift!" everyone chorused, and drank.

It was only as they lowered their goblets and tankards that they became aware of the black-clad figure standing before the table.

"There you are," said Lilly the courier. "I've been looking everywhere for you."

When she had handed over her message and gone, Lethiel opened it and scanned it quickly.

"It's from Sienna in Falkreath," she said. "It says 'please come back here as soon as you can. I have a situation I don't know how to deal with.'"

Lydia looked from her Thane to Anja.

"Go, go," said the new jarl. "I can handle things here."

Amid an awkward silence, Lethiel and Lydia got up from the table and left Mistveil Keep.

They rode from Riften straight west towards Falkreath. Once again, Onyx and the unnamed horse, which Lydia knew they had left in Whiterun, were waiting placidly at Riften stables for them. She would have to find out how that was done.

The night was cloudy, but the rain, or snow, held off. The road, once past the turn for Ivarstead, ran through desolate mountain landscapes, and they did not slacken pace in this part of the journey. Ravening beasts tried to accost them, but could not keep up.

At last they drew up at the gate of Falkreath. The sun was now coming up, and the town was beginning to stir.

"The Thane?" said the night guard. "You'll find her at her estate. Lakeview Manor. Take the north road out of town, left at the crossroads, and it's just past Pinewatch."

Lethiel thanked her, and they rode on, more slowly. Lydia's horse was flagging, and even Onyx seemed ready for a rest.

"That guard," Lethiel said a little later, as she stripped the body of a bandit, "could have mentioned this."

"I expect he didn't want to worry us," Lydia said, walking her horse carefully between the boulders that had fallen, presumably at some human direction, from a workmanlike bridge constructed of logs that spanned the roadway.

"Well, I can see how that might have seemed important to him. I mean, if I'd been told about it beforehand, I might have been a tad concerned." Lethiel straightened up and performed a similar service for Onyx, before remounting. "Anyway. Shouldn't be much further."

In fact it was not. A side road led past a pool in which mudcrabs went about their business, to a sturdy iron gate in a high stone wall.

"Impressive," Lydia commented, as the gate slid up with a crash and a robed woman ushered them through.

"She must have used quite a lot of her charm," Lethiel agreed. Within the walls, a resplendent manor house was surrounded by gardens, with a well-appointed stable and a small villa off to the left. A hefty orc was hammering away at a workbench, and a cow and some chickens looked up incuriously as the two riders dismounted again and approached the door of the house.

It was opened almost immediately by Sienna herself.

"Thank the Nine you're here!" she said. "Come on in. Are you too tired to talk? I've been up all night."

"We're not too tired to listen, anyway," Lethiel said.

They followed the Thane of Falkreath through to the main hall of the house, where Sienna sat them down at a long table and brought bread, cheese and mead. Rayya, the housecarl, looked up as they entered, nodded and returned to her own breakfast.

"Okay," Sienna said, sitting down opposite them. "So I met with this Marcus Jannus guy, like you said, and he unloaded a whole lot of history on me--gave me a couple of books you might want to look at, boss--and gave me a message to take to Helgen."

"Helgen?" Lethiel looked up sharply. "But it was destroyed."

"I know," Sienna said, "and so does he. But he knows a guy who's living there now, some old war buddy named Val--Valerius Tiberius Whosiwhatsis, something like that--with a gang of his old comrades, pretending to be bandits and killing Thalmor whenever they get the chance."

"I like him already," Lethiel murmured.

"Yeah, well, you wait. So I took the message, this Marcus wanted to arrange a meeting, and eventually this Val decided I was who I said I was--which was you, if you recall--and sent me back with a yea. Then Marcus talked me into escorting him there, and that was when the troll spoor really hit the windmill." Sienna looked from one of their faces to the other. "Sure you wouldn't rather get some shuteye first?"

"It's broad daylight. We're fine. Go on," Lethiel said impatiently.

"This Marcus Jannus," Sienna said, "wants to rebuild Helgen."

"The whole town?" Lydia was drooping, and would in fact have been grateful for a couple of hours' sleep, but this pronouncement cut through her weariness.

"The whole town," Sienna confirmed. "And he's roped me in to help.”

It's not the building work," Sienna said. "That I could handle. Well, help to handle. He's already had me rescue one of his buddies, Korst, from a Thalmor prison down south--that was fun--but now he wants me to advise him. He wants me--er, you--to be a part of the decision making."

"Well, you can do that, can't you?" Lethiel said.

Sienna looked agonised. "Not and be you. I mean, I don't know if the decisions I'd make are the decisions you'd make, if you see what I mean. And my hair's starting to grow out and I don't have all the ingredients for the dye."

"Tell us what you need and we'll get it. What kind of decisions?"

"Well, like should Helgen be with the Empire or the Stormcloaks?"

"Neither," Lethiel said promptly. "Neutrality is the in thing these days. All the cool kids are doing it. Helgen should be independent. Siddgeir won't give a damn, and Balgruuf will positively welcome it."

"That was what I said." Sienna still looked unhappy. "But that means we have to hire our own guards, and he wants me to look them over, see if they're okay. He's had that little man Patsy putting up notices in all the inns around about--well, six--and now I have to go and interview the candidates."

"Simple," Lydia said, rousing herself from the beginnings of a doze. "Tell them to make their own way to Helgen, and you'll see them there."

Sienna brightened. "What, like a test? And if they make it there they pass? Very clever." She looked more closely at Lydia. "Dragonborn, this woman is dead on her feet, and I know you're just being brave. Use my bed. I'll start out now."

"Weh--" Lethiel's word was swallowed in a yawn. "All right," she said. "You speak sober truth. I am knackered."

"When you wake up, have a wander round, check out the amenities. I don't think I've done too badly," Sienna said with a smirk. "I'll be back as soon as I can."

"Dye," Lethiel called out as Sienna started for the door.

"What?" Sienna looked startled, and Lydia smiled to herself. It had sounded a bit odd.


"Oh, right. Here's Rowan's note. It's all in there." And Sienna put the note on the table, whirled away and departed.

Lydia and Lethiel slept. When they woke up, it was dark again, and Lethiel cursed roundly.

"This is going to delay us getting to Windhelm," she said. "I wouldn't mind, but I've been trying to find ways of putting it off anyway."

"Then why does this bother you?" Lydia asked.

"Because I know I shouldn't. Windhelm is the next most important stop after Solitude. We need a Thane in Ulfric's camp, and we need Ulfric to respect us despite the fact that we're also in bed with Elisif." Lethiel caught Lydia's wince. "In a manner of speaking."

Lydia had picked up the note Sienna had left on the table, and now turned it over. "Well, that's interesting," she said neutrally.

"What is?" Lethiel craned her neck to look.

"I guess this must be the list of places Sienna has to look for her recruits."

"And Windhelm is one of them. Of course. So she's off and away there while we're stuck here."

"Well, I expect we could go, if you want to. You've given her your advice."

"She's going to want more. I can't let her down." Lethiel looked up. "You could go to Windhelm. Nip home, fetch one of the others--"

"I'm sorry, my Thane, but no." Lydia was firm. "We need you there on this tour. If this Dragonborn Company is going to work, the Dragonborn needs to be there, even if nobody knows it." And besides, she added to herself, I've spent enough time already stuck on my own, wondering if you were ever coming back, and that is not what I signed up for.

Lethiel had wandered into the library that adjoined the main hall. "No books. What kind of woman has no books?"

"The kind that hasn't stocked her library yet?" Lydia suggested.

"Oh. Good point."

At this point Rayya appeared from the kitchen with a tureen, and supper was served. Lydia realised with the first mouthful that she was intensely hungry.

"The night is clear," Rayya said, when they had eaten, "and the moons are out."

Lydia wondered if this was some kind of password.

"If you wish for a swim after your food has settled," the housecarl went on, "I can recommend the pool."

"The pool?" Lethiel was confused.

"It is at the back of the house, and quite private," Rayya said calmly. "Towels may be obtained from Sheila at the bar."

This was making no sense at all to Lydia, but Lethiel was quicker. "There's a swimming pool behind the house?"

Rayya inclined her head. "The water is kept at a congenial temperature. I am sure my Thane would wish you to make full use of the facilities during her absence."

Lethiel came to a decision with her usual clarity of mind.

"On the other hand," she said, "Windhelm can wait. Last one in the water's a draugr.”

Sienna was away for three days, and Lydia found the first two idyllic. They swam, they relaxed, they worked out as and when the mood took them. It was enforced down time, and Lydia relished it.

On the third day, Argis the Bulwark turned up, with Rowan slung over his shoulder.

"My Thane is in trouble," he growled. "Need your help."

They let him in and guided him upstairs, where he laid Rowan tenderly on one of the unused beds. She was deathly pale, and horribly thin, and she stirred and muttered restlessly.

"What happened?" Lethiel asked the big man.

"First, bad dreams." Argis visibly marshalled his thoughts. "Horrible dreams. Woke up screaming. Then, voices. No, a voice. Whispering, all the time. Only she could hear. Wouldn't tell what it said. Then, wouldn't eat. Couldn't eat. Couldn't stand to look at food. Then..." Argis hesitated, then reached into his belt pouch and brought out something small. Lydia leaned closer and saw that it was an orange dartwing, a fairly common insect.

She turned at a noise. Rowan's eyes had snapped open and she was sitting up on the bed, hands outstretched towards the little insect. "Give me," she said, her voice a harsh croak. " hungry...give me..."

Lydia had to look away from Argis's face as he offered his Thane the dartwing. Rowan seized it, stuffed it into her mouth and chewed ecstatically. Then she swallowed, and looked up at Argis with hopeful pleading in her eyes. "More?" she said.

Lethiel took one of Rowan's hands. "Rowan, darling," she said, "why?"

Rowan couldn't meet her gaze. "Punishment," she muttered, eyes downcast. "Not worthy...not worthy. Only the lowest forms of my lady's bounty are permitted me." She groaned. "So hungry. All the hungry..." The last word rose to a wail.

"How did you know to find us here?" Lydia said.

"Tried Whiterun. Came here. RIften next, then on. But you were here." The man seemed to feel this a full explanation.

"This is Namira's revenge," Lethiel said, her voice hard. "She's punishing Rowan for our interference with her cult." She looked up at Lydia. "There's a priest of Arkay in Falkreath. Runil. Go and get him. Tell him it's urgent. Tell him it's daedra. Tell him..." She sought for words. "Whatever you have to."

Lydia was already running.

When Lydia returned, the old elf priest panting at her heels, there had been no change.

Runil, having been apprised of the situation, examined Rowan carefully. She shrank away from him, eyes darting fearfully from side to side, refusing to look at him.

"This is a strong case of obsession," he said at last, straightening up. "I am not sure if there is anything I can do. You say you came here from Markarth?"

Argis nodded mutely.

"But surely," Runil said, "there is a priest of Arkay already in that city. Brother Verulus I believe his name is. Did you not seek his help?"

"Dead," Argis said simply. "Same way. Only he tried to eat his own guts."

Lethiel looked green. Lydia felt sick.

"And Arkay is powerless to intervene?" Lethiel said.

"Arkay is not powerless," Runil said severely. "This kind of attack, however, is outside his sphere of influence. I do not know of anything I could try which would enable him to act."

"Then who could?"

"My dear young lady," Runil said, "you ask a question I am unable to answer. I have never encountered this kind of situation before."

"Fine," Lethiel said flatly. "Thank you for your time, priest." Rowan uttered another heartrending groan. "Ideas. I need ideas."

Lydia found herself speaking. "If Arkay can't help," she said, "maybe Kynareth can. If we could get her to the Temple in Whiterun..."

"It's worth a try," Lethiel said at once. "Argis, can you get her there?"

"Sure," Argis said at once.

"Tell the priestess there that if she can help, or even if she tries, the Dragonborn Company will owe her Temple a really big favour."

The man's lips moved as he memorised the message. "Okay."

"Are you still here?" Lethiel said to Runil.

"I feel that I have failed you," the priest said.

"Not you," Lethiel said. "The failure is mine. I've let other people take responsibilities that should have been mine alone, and now, my friends are being punished for my dereliction. I'm sorry I spoke shortly to you."

Runil waved this aside. "Were it not for my duties, I should very much like to go with her. It was in the service of Arkay that she sustained this affliction."

"Don't give it another thought," Lethiel said, and turned to Argis. "I saw this place has a carriage. Use that. Call in at Skyfall Estate on your way. Her other friends will want to know that she's being cared for."

"Sure," Argis said again. He was already hoisting Rowan back on to his shoulder.

"I shall pray to Arkay for her safe return to health," Runil said.

"Good of you." Lethiel spoke absently and without looking, and then turned to Lydia. "As soon as Sienna gets back, we're returning to Whiterun. This tour is a waste of time, and I'm not putting any more of my people in harm's way. We'll see Rowan restored to health and protected from this foul influence, whatever it takes, and then I'm going straight to Balgruuf and making arrangements to trap a dragon."

"You're wrong, my Thane," Lydia said. Runil had already left, and now Argis, carrying Rowan, followed him out.

"What?" The single syllable chilled Lydia's blood, but she forged on.

"The tour is just as important as it was before this happened, and your people deserve more respect than you're giving them. Rowan would say the same if she were in her right mind. If you let Namira change your course now, you're giving in to the daedra, and that's always wrong."

"What happened to 'it's my decision, not yours'?"

"Of course it's your decision, my Thane, but I think when you're less angry and afraid for our friend, you'll decide differently."

Lydia held her breath while Lethiel, visibly forcing herself to calm, thought about this.

"You're right," she said. "As always." She came forward into Lydia's arms, and Lydia held her and felt her trembling. "Never ever leave me," the Dragonborn whispered.

"I won't," Lydia promised.

he gentle voice of Runil broke the tender moment and caused the lovers to spring apart guiltily.

"It has probably already occurred to you," the old elf said, "that this is not mere revenge."

It hadn't to Lydia, but she kept her peace.

"The daedra," Runil went on, "whatever else one may say about them, are generally practical beings and have little time for such childish pranks. Well, except for Sheogorath, but then he's mad. No, Namira wants something from you in exchange for the release of your friend. Probably you, Dragonborn."

He was looking directly at Lethiel, and chuckled softly at her expression. "Our jarl may be a fool, but it takes more than a dollop of hair dye to bamboozle a priest, or a daedric prince. The power of Akatosh is with you, not with your so charming friend who owns this place. Pledge your soul to Namira, become her hands in the world, and your other friend will certainly be released from her suffering, Or, if you can find something else to offer of equal value, by all means offer it. The daedra are always open to long as they set the terms."

"Thank you, Father Runil," Lethiel said sincerely.

Runil raised a dismissive hand. "Now that you have seen what is at stake, Namira will contact you very shortly, probably in dreams as she did your friend. Be wary when you speak to her, and...if I may..." He stepped forward and traced a sign with his forefinger on Lethiel's forehead. "The blessing of Arkay and all the Divines be upon you and with you in the days to come."

Lethiel bowed her head, and the priest repeated the gesture on Lydia and the silent Rayya, and then stepped once again from the room. As soon as he had done so, Lethiel's face broke into a broad grin, and she clapped her hands delightedly.

"What are you so happy about, my Thane?" Lydia couldn't see anything to rejoice at in what had just been said.

Lethiel looked contrite at once. "It's not something to be happy about, but it's hope, love, don't you see? Divine vengeance may be childish, but it's also something you can't do anything about. The incident's closed. You're down here, the god's up there, they don't have to bother about anything you can do."

"The daedra aren't gods," Lydia said quickly.

"Next floor down. Same difference. Or, better, think of it this way. We, mortals, are like ordinary kids. The daedra are the bigger kids who beat us up and take our lunch money, and the gods are like the adults who stand and watch and tell us they're very sorry we got beaten up, but we have to stand up for ourselves. Well, but if the daedra wants something, if the daedra wants to negotiate, then there's an opening."

"Not much of one," Lydia said.

"Maybe not, but consider this. You know what I've said about dragons? How they're so powerful that they've never had to develop much in the way of brains?" Lethiel's grin turned wicked. "How much more true is that going to be of a daedra?”

Sienna returned later that night, and listened soberly to their tale.

"It's like I said," she said at last. "You should have killed them."

"I will never accept that," Lethiel said, "so stop saying it. Namira's believers are as much victims as Rowan is right now. They look for something beyond their little lives, something significant, something bigger than themselves and their world, and nobody is to be blamed for that, let alone punished."

"Well, Rowan's being punished right now," Sienna pointed out.

"I know!" Lethiel banged her fist on the table. "Leave it to me. I'll sort it out. Now, how did you get on?"

"In Windhelm," Lydia added, "where we should be right now."

Lethiel silenced her with a look, and Sienna, with a visible effort, changed the subject. "I found six likely candidates, and did what you suggested, and they all turned up. Yeah, I had to go to Windhelm, but I was very quiet and didn't stir anything up or drop the name Dragonborn. Only thing is, now Korst wants me to take 'em out on missions and evaluate their performance. One on one."

"Well, you can do that, can't you?" Lydia said.

"Yeah, but six of them?"

"Have you got some other pressing appointment?" Lethiel said. "World-eating dragon to kill, daedra to defeat, anything like that?"

"No." Sienna sighed. "All right. I'll do it."

"I'll help you with a couple if you like...and if this Korst will accept me as a substitute." Lydia had surprised herself again. "After all, I can't go into my Thane's dreams and help her with Namira, so I may as well be useful in the meantime."

"You've always been in my dreams, love," Lethiel said, squeezing her hand.

"Never mind the mushy stuff," Sienna said. "Okay, if you're sure, come with tomorrow and I'll introduce you."

It was agreed, and they retired to bed, Lethiel and Lydia to the big bed upstairs, and Sienna to her own bed on the ground floor. Lydia passed a restless night, wondering when Namira would make her move, but Lethiel reported nothing memorable in the dream line on the following morning, and they all set off for Helgen straight after breakfast.

Korst was a large man, old but still hale, and what Lethiel always thought of as a true Nord. He regarded her suspiciously from under his brows as Sienna introduced her and vouched for her skills as an evaluator, and pointed out the saving of time that having two of them on the job would entail. This seemed to please him not at all, and he produced a paper and pored over it for some minutes, with much frowning and crossing out and muttering "two at once, two at once," in tones of deepest gloom.

Eventually he came to a decision. Lydia was directed to take Wanan-Dun, an Argonian recruit, to clear out a nest of vampires in Shriekwind Bastion; Sienna, to accompany Orianthi, a Redguard woman, to Upper Embershard Mine to deal with a haunting. Both locations were relatively near at hand, and Lydia imagined neither mission should take more than a few hours all told.

The two withdrew and joined Lethiel, who was waiting on Onyx outside the gates of the town. It still looked very much like an irretrievable ruin to Lydia, and sadness filled her as she surveyed the piles of rubble and burned-out buildings that had once been so full of life.

"Want to swap?" Sienna's voice jarred her out of her reverie.

"Why?" Lydia said.

"Don't like ghosts," Sienna confessed, with an uneasy grin. "I never have. Besides, there might be a Dragon Priest or something down there. Vampires are just vampires."

"So you want to give me the Dragon Priest?" Lydia said. "Wow, thanks."

"I'll take the Dragon Priest," Lethiel said, "or whatever it is. Bring your recruit out to me and I'll take that one on. I'm feeling itchy with all this Namira business and I need some exercise. Tell her I'm your elder sister or something and more experienced with ghosts than you are. Lydia, you do the vampires, but stay safe, all right?"

Lydia nodded glumly and went to find Wanan-Dun.

The Argonian proved to be a competent if somewhat over-enthusiastic fighter, and Lydia frequently had to haul him back from charging in where a more seasoned warrior would have feared to tread. Vampires were far better taken out from cover and distance. But, as well as vampires, there were thralls, who were just mortals dumb enough to think following a vampire was cool, and plenty of skeletons, who were easy enough, and made a very satisfying rattle when smashed. Lydia watched Wanan-Dun ploughing through them with some satisfaction. This one, if he calmed down a bit, would make an excellent guard for the new town in which she still could not quite believe.

The master vampire took both of them to eliminate, and Lydia took care to dose them both with healing potion just in case. They collected the loot, cleared out a few remaining bloodsuckers, and were about to retrace their steps when Lydia noticed some double doors at the back of the room they were in. These led to a circular chamber containing wooden stairs going up.

"There is more?" Wanan-Dun asked curiously.

"Maybe," Lydia said. "Follow me."

They climbed the stairs cautiously, alert for every creak, and followed a short passage into a large room lined with statues. Both flinched as, with a sharp crack, a sarcophagus at the other end of the room burst its lid and a draugr clambered out. Lydia put her hand on Wanan-Dun's arm, but it was too late; with a weird skirling cry he was off, charging at the thing. Immediately he was hit with an ice dart, and then another; he faltered, stumbled, but went on, and, cursing, Lydia went after him.

By the time she reached the draugr, Wanan-Dun was on his knees, gasping with the pain. It turned to face her, croaking out some nonsense in the dragon language. Lydia blocked a blow with her sword, fell back and then went on the attack.

The thing was no ordinary draugr. It pushed her, further and further back, till she could feel the nearest statue behind her. She got in blow after blow, but it seemed hardly inconvenienced.

Oh, great. So this is where I die. At the hands of a stupid draugr, nursemaiding some rookie I've never even met before, and my Thane--

The draugr suddenly looked very blank. This was because its head was not there. Wanan-Dun was on his feet, wavering slightly and breathing harshly, but the draugr was dead.

"You have maybe another potion?" he said.

Lydia gratefully dug one out and handed it over. "Thank you," she said.

"Is nothing," the Argonian responded. "We go now?"

"Not quite," Lydia said. There were familiar markings on the wall behind the sarcophagus, and she rummaged in her pack for her copies of Arngeir's two books and writing materials. Wanan-Dun watched impassively as she puzzled out the letters, and then the words.

"Here...lies...Fjolmod...Foul-Air..." she muttered, plying her charcoal. When she worked out the rest of the inscription she laughed. The ancient Nords might have honoured their dead, but they were not always polite about it.

She completed her copy, and strained her eyes at the wall, trying to see what Lethiel would see. She could probably rule out "here lies" and the other connecting words. It would be either Air, Earth, Body or Ground, she decided. She wondered if the draugr they had just killed had been Fjolmod Foul-Air. It explained his foul temper. Imagine waking up after centuries in the tomb to discover that your boon companions had written that kind of thing about you, in imperishable stone. She made fairer and larger copies of Su, Gol, Kopraan and Golt, stowed away her papers and books, and turned back to Wanan-Dun.

"Now," she said, "we go.”

ydia met Lethiel in Helgen. The Dragonborn looked very wan and weary, and Lydia's heart turned over.

"There was a dremora in there," Lethiel said. "It nearly got me several times. If I hadn't had the Thu'um I'd be dead. And I nearly let Sienna handle it."

"But you didn't," Lydia said.

"And suppose I hadn't been here? Suppose I'd told her not to worry and gone swanning off to Windhelm?" Lethiel was swaying on her feet.

"What about Orianthi?"

"Who?" Lethiel frowned as if trying to work out a baffling conundrum. "Oh, her. I told her to wait outside. Luckily, as it turned out. She wouldn't have lasted five seconds against that thing."

Lydia didn't know whether to laugh or cry. "My Thane, you were supposed to be evaluating her abilities in combat."

"I was clearing out a haunted mine. That was the job and I did it. Anyway, she more than proved herself with the dragon that attacked us when we came out." Lethiel swayed rather more dramatically, and nearly fell over. "I think I'd like to go home now."

"Back to Lakeview?" A dragon on top of a dremora, Lydia thought. No wonder the woman was dead on her feet.

"Or that. Better, probably. Four more of these things to do. Damn it."

The Dragonborn continued saying "damn it" under her breath all the way back to the horses, and they rode very gently back to Lakeview Manor, where Sienna was waiting anxiously and rather guiltily for their return.

"A what now?" she said.

"A dremora." Exhaustion had made Lethiel a little testy. "Read a book sometime. Daedric servants of Mehrunes Dagon. This one was a warlock, and far more powerful than anything you or Lydia could have coped with. I almost--" She broke off, attempted to recover her composure, and managed a smile. "I almost had to exert myself."

"And they sent me--er, you--with a trainee to deal with it?" Sienna was scandalised. "I'll tell that Korst--"

"Don't. He thinks you're the Dragonborn, remember? Make light of it. It reflects well on the trainee, and well on us. Dremora? Pah. We eat them for breakfast. That kind of thing." Lethiel sighed. "And now I'm going to bed. Whoop te do."

Lydia followed her Thane upstairs, saw her tucked in, and settled herself in a chair to wait. Somehow, both she and Lethiel knew it would be tonight; and she did not dare sleep.

It began quietly enough. Lethiel became restless, and began tossing her head and muttering under her breath. Lydia, straining to listen, thought she caught Namira's name once or twice.

The night was dark. The house was quite silent. So when the bed lifted up three inches and crashed to the floor again, Lydia jumped considerably higher, and a few moments later, Sienna and Rayya were both in the doorway.

"Namira?" Sienna said.

Lydia nodded briefly.

Lethiel was now moaning aloud, and thrashing under the bedclothes. Her face was flushed, and damp with sweat, and her expression was agonised, though her eyes remained closed. It was almost like the fever come again, Lydia thought, and wondered whether she should start moving breakable objects in case of an inadvertent Shout. The bed was rocking from side to side, practically dancing across the floor. Sienna started forward as if to restrain it, or Lethiel, but Rayya restrained her with a hand on her arm.

"Stay clear, my Thane," she said.

And what about *my* Thane? Lydia wondered. How can she stay clear?

Abruptly, the convulsions ceased. Lethiel's face smoothed out, her eyes opened, and she spoke clearly and calmly.

"Namira. I know you."

The silence, after the racketing of the bed, was like a splash of cold water over all of them.

"I see you, Namira. I see you through your mask, and I know you."

What new form of seduction was this, Lydia wondered. How could a mortal know a daedric prince?

"That which we call corruption," Lethiel continued, in the same dead monotone, "is merely life continuing in other ways. Flesh rots and is eaten, and feeds other life, which in its turn will die and rot, and all is part of the one great cycle. Namira, you are called, and mortals shun and fear you, or worship you in furtive ecstasy, but I know you by another name. For you," Lethiel took a long-drawn-out breath, "for you are the hidden face of Arkay, Lord of the Cycles of Life and Death, and your secret is known to me!"

Lydia's mind whirled. Could this be true? Or was it another delusion imposed on the Dragonborn's mind by Namira?

"You exist," the voice went on, "because mortals are weak, and cannot comprehend that good and evil can be embodied in the one thing. And if those who serve you were to come to know that in doing so they merely serve Arkay, then your worship would be at an end; for where is the forbidden pleasure, where the attraction for such little minds, in simply honouring the Divines?

"Release my companion, Namira. Release her at once and never come near me or mine again, or I will make your secret known, and your cult will disappear like a forgotten nightmare. Release her, and I and mine will keep your secret till our souls fly to Sovngarde and our bodies go to feed the humblest of your servants.

"The word of the Dragonborn is given. This ends now."

Amid a shocked silence, the Dragonborn relaxed, turned over on her side, closed her eyes again, and reached out blindly under the covers. Lydia, catching her cue, gestured the others away, and quickly pulled off her clothes.

Is that it? she wondered, as she slipped into bed and her Thane's embrace. Is it really over?

Her question was answered bright and early the next morning, when Lilly brought a note.

"Draginbone, the lady Roan has just sat up and calld for a meet pie. She is completly cured. I do not knoe what you did, but the preets here were very impressd, and you have won the eaturnal gratidute of
Argis the Bulwark.”

Lethiel slept till noon, and woke up refreshed and hungry. Lydia showed her Argis's note over what had to be called lunch.

"Oh, good," Lethiel said. "It worked, then."

"My Thane," Lydia said cautiously, "do you...remember any of what happened?"

"Of course I do," Lethiel said. "I was there."

" it true? That Namira is really Arkay?"

"Who knows?" Lethiel spread her hands, and dropped the butter knife. "Is Shezarr really the same as Shor?" she went on, from under the table. "Is Kynareth merely a later form of Kyne? If one tribe at the top of a mountain worships a god named Boo, and another at the bottom worships a god named Bee, and some scholar comes along and proves that they were originally one god named Baa, does that make it one god, or two, or three? Got you, you bugger." This was to the butter knife. Lethiel straightened up. "Theology's a tricky business. The only certainty is that the threat of being forcibly turned, or turned back, into Arkay, was enough to persuade Namira that I meant business. And now we must keep the secret. All of us."

"But surely," Lydia began, "at least the priests of Arkay--"

"Them least of all," Lethiel said quickly. "Do you think they want their temples flooded with disaffected former Namira worshippers? Besides, priests gossip. It's a tool of the trade. No, just you, me, Sienna and Rayya. It goes no further."

"Of course, my Thane," Lydia said.

"Where is Sienna, anyway?"

"She went to take out another recruit. It's all right, it's just bandits this time," Lydia hastened to add as Lethiel was about to speak.

"It had better be. I swear, if I lose someone to this crack-brained scheme that Marcus Jannus is going to hear from me at some length."

"And from me."

"Join the queue. Who's this now?"

This was Argis and Rowan. The mage still looked pale and thin, but her eyes were as bright as ever and she smiled as she came forward and hugged Lethiel hard.

"I knew it was you," she said. "I said so, didn't I?"

Argis nodded.

"Well," Rowan turned to Lydia, "with apologies to your friend the late Hroki, this is another fear I do not intend to confront. In fact, from now on, I'm retiring as an adventurer. Argis and I are going to live quietly in Markarth, and I'll do a little magic for people, a little alchemy, and of course further the interests of the Dragonborn Company in any way I can, but that's it."

"I think that's a very sensible decision," Lethiel said, "and I hate it, but I wish you every happiness, and a long and fulfilling life. And if you want to further our interests, try and push Igmund towards neutrality."

"Not easy," Argis said, "with Thalmor infesting the palace."

"Do what you can, okay?" Lethiel said, and hugged Rowan back. "Thank you for all your help. Take care, my very dears." She hugged Argis as well, with some difficulty and somewhat to his surprise.

"Oh, we brought someone else along," Rowan said, as she and Argis headed for the door. A hooded figure moved past them, approached, and threw back its hood.

"I believe you wanted someone to go to Windhelm," said Amarie.

There was a short silence.

Then Lethiel said, very, very tentatively, "Are you sure you're right for the job?"

Amarie stared back, impassively. "And why would I not be?"

"Well...not to put too fine a point on're an elf."

"This is substantially true."

"And Ulfric...again, not to put too fine a point on a racist git. I've read terrible things about the way he treats the Dunmer in his city."

"I am not a Dunmer." Was that a spark of annoyance in Amarie's eye? Lydia couldn't be sure.

"No, but he doesn't like High Elves either. I can't see how you could make any headway with him."

"Then would you care to lay a small wager?" Amarie said. "Send me to Windhelm, alone, and I will bet you that I will be Thane of Eastmarch within a week."

"Let's say two." Lethiel's eyes had kindled. "What's the stake?"

"Twenty-five thousand septims."

Lethiel blinked. "This by you is a small wager?"

"I can meet it, and I know you can."

Lydia could restrain herself no longer. "My Thane, this is hardly a matter for idle sport. As you said, Windhelm is crucial. We need a guaranteed victory there. Is it wise to leave it to chance?"

Amarie's look was frozen. "Do you doubt my abilities, Lydia?"

"Of course not! It's Ulfric's good sense I doubt. I know you'd make a fine Thane, but will he see it?"

Amarie was a little mollified. "Aside from his prejudices, the man is a competent leader. I am confident he will make an accurate assessment of my abilities and reach the right decision. But, of course, Dragonborn, if you wish to forfeit the wager..."

"We haven't actually shaken on it yet," Lethiel said, "but no, I don't. I'm in." And she held out her hand. After the briefest of moments, Amarie took it and shook it.

Lydia was torn. She trusted her Thane, and she trusted Amarie of course...but she disapproved of gambling in general, and in any case, if Amarie failed, she did not see how the Dragonborn Company would ever make back the lost ground.

Part of the appeal, she knew, was the fact that the elf was volunteering to go alone, which would save Lethiel from having to go to WIndhelm and make nice with someone whom, however sympathetic his cause might be, she obviously despised on a personal level. But that hadn't stopped her courting the society of the venal Siddgeir. And where had she got her information about Ulfric? All out of books. Books, Lydia knew, were written by people, and what they put in them was not always true.

But of course Lethiel knew that too. Lydia took a deep breath and decided to go with it.

She too held out her hand, and Amarie, surprised, shook it.

"Go out there and win," Lydia said.

"I intend to," Amarie said; and perhaps it was Lydia's imagination that gave the simple statement the smug arrogance typical of all the Thalmor she had ever heard.

"So the elf went off, on her own, to Ulfric Stormcloak's city, to win his support and become his Thane?" Sienna laughed shortly and drank mead. "Yeah right. That'll happen."

"I think it will," Lethiel said. "I believe in her just as much as I believed in you all, and I haven't been wrong yet."

Sienna looked dubiously into her goblet, but said no more on the subject. She had returned in the early hours, having evaluated two recruits for Korst; neither mission had presented any unique difficulties, she said.

"That just leaves two, and I can handle them," she said, "so if you two want to move on, that's fine."

"Are you sure?" Lydia said, remembering the dremora.

"If Amarie can tame Ulfric," Sienna said, "I can handle anything this place can throw at me."

"Well," Lethiel said, "what I want to do is first of all go home--you have a lovely steading here, Sienna, but I miss my own bed--and then spend some time studying the Voice. I've hardly even thought about it this past few days, or weeks, and I can't keep on avoiding it."

"What about Hjaalmarch and the Pale?" Lydia said. "You have to finish the tour first."

"And Winterhold," Sienna pointed out. "You can't leave Winterhold out."

"Oh damn, you're right." Lethiel's face fell.

"You go, my Thane," Lydia said. "I'll take Erin to Dawnstar and Sigrid to Morthal, or the other way round whichever they prefer, and we'll deal with Winterhold when we get to it. As I recall, there wasn't much to it anyway."

"That's no reason not to include it. A jarl's a jarl for all that. And given that I seem to be Arch-Mage of the College still, it might be better if I didn't show my face in the longhouse." Lethiel got up from the table and took a turn around the room. "Politics. I hate politics, and I keep getting bogged down in it."

"It's a necessary part of what we're doing," Sienna said reasonably.

"Yes, but it's boring." Lethiel's jaw set mutinously.

"Then let us take care of it," Lydia said, "and you go and practice your Shouts. Meditate, whatever."

Sienna nodded. "That's your job right now. That's why you've got us. The Dragonborn Company."

"I'm never not going to be saying 'thank you,' am I?" Lethiel said, and came to hug Sienna and then Lydia where they sat.

So, in due course, Lethiel and Lydia set out on the homeward journey once again. Sienna waved goodbye from the gate of Lakeview Manor.

"I told Amarie to write and report her progress every day," Lydia said, "and to address the letters to me. That way the courier won't be struggling up the Steps all the time and risking getting her head blown off."

"Good thinking," Lethiel said; and then abruptly cocked her head and listened. "Dragon," she said, and turned Onyx sharply off the road. Lydia followed.

They were just in time to glimpse the dragon flapping ponderously away from the burnt-out ruins of a small hut. Lethiel investigated, and found a couple of books that had miraculously survived, and a note, obviously intended for the jarl but never sent for some reason, which gave a direction for the beast's lair.

"Up there," she said.

The dragon (whose lair they reached by traversing an ice cave in which a wolf, a frost troll and something Lethiel called "an ice wraith" were all engaged in a spirited discussion of the issues of the day) had obviously only just settled down for a nap, draped over its word wall like an old coat, and was understandably cranky at being awakened with an arrow in the flank. Fortunately, its annoyance was not to be of long duration.

Lydia practiced stripping the carcass while Lethiel went and communed with the word wall; then they returned via the ice cave and the burnt-out hut to the road, and continued homeward.

Erin and Sigrid greeted them at the door, keen for all the news. They had known about Rowan's affliction, of course, since Argis had called there on his way to Falkreath, and were glad to know that Lethiel had found a way to cure her. They did not press for details, which Lydia for one found a great relief. The story of Anja's barnstorming progress to the actual throne of Riften caused Sigrid to clap her hands over her mouth in shocked amusement. It turned out that news of the rebuilding of Helgen had already reached Whiterun, and it did not surprise either of them that Sienna was involved in the endeavour.

Eventually, Lydia broached the subject of future plans.

"Sure," Erin said, "I'll take the Pale." She winked at Lydia. "I know you'll want to keep Red here closer."

This had not in fact occurred to Lydia at all, and she was thrown into confusion by it. "What about the cold?" she said. "Didn't you tell me--"

"Ah, with the dragon scale armour it doesn't bother me at all. Besides, I'm getting soft living here, with everything provided." Erin flexed her muscles. "I need to stretch myself."

"Good," Lethiel said, "then that's settled."

For the rest of the day, Lethiel sequestered herself in a corner with the drawings of Words of Power she had collected and Arngeir's two books, while Lydia, Erin and Sigrid unloaded and stowed the accumulated loot that had been weighing them down. Lydia, who had chafed under enforced inactivity at Lakeview, was glad enough to be able to relax now.

She wondered if Erin was still carrying a torch for Lethiel. The pale girl showed no sign of it in her words or her demeanour at the moment. Maybe it had all been a ruse to extract from Lydia herself some encouragement for Sigrid. Lydia shook her head. Too confusing. Dragons were easier.

Next day, Erin and Lydia set off along the northward road to Dawnstar, and Lethiel, parting from them at the bridge, took the road that curved eastward round the Throat of the World, leaving Sigrid and the household staff alone in the house. Arriving at Heljarchen Farm, Lydia took the opportunity to collect the profits, which had mounted into a tidy little sum while the Dragonborn had been occupied elsewhere, and they rode on, turning westward just past the Weynon Stones.

Four frostbite spiders assailed them just then, and as they negotiated their way past Fort Dunstad a little later an arrow whizzed harmlessly past Erin's head, but they continued on their way without pausing. It was only when they had been riding unmolested for some time that Erin spoke.

"It's going to be hard," she said, drawing rein, "to get us all together again when we're all spread out like this." She sighed. "It kind of feels like...breaking up."

This was exactly the thought that had occurred to Lydia more than once since her Thane had revealed her grand plan, but she did not say so. "We'll manage," she said. "The East Empire Company has offices all over the place, and it keeps itself together. So will ours."

"I hope so," Erin said. "I just know I've been missing everyone more and more, and stuck all the way out here that's only going to get worse. I didn't think of it that way before, but," and she looked around at the landscape, "this is sort of bringing it home to me."

Lydia reached out and squeezed her arm. "You're still a part of us," she said. "You always will be."

Erin smiled, gratefully but as if she didn't quite believe it, and they rode on.

Dawnstar, when they reached it, was a huddle of houses clustered round a natural harbour. A ship rode at anchor in the bay, and one of the hills round about was crowned with a lighthouse.

"That looks like the local inn," Lydia said. "Let's get some food and find out what's going on."

"Why does everyone look so tired?" Erin wondered, as they passed two grey-faced, shambling miners, obviously on their way back to work.

"Maybe life round here is harder than you thought," Lydia suggested, and immediately felt sorry. "We'll find out. Maybe it's something you can help with."

"Me?" Erin looked startled, and then caught on. "Oh, yeah. Right. Sorry."

They pushed open the door and went in.

"We thought you ought to know," Lydia said, as they passed through the insubstantial purple wall.

"I'm very grateful." Erandur, the priest of Mara, though obviously bowed down with grief and weariness, managed a smile. "And even more grateful that you did not yield to her importunities."

A thought had obviously just occurred to Erin, and Lydia knew whence it had come. "Is there any chance...that she know, punish us for not obeying her?"

Erandur shook his head at once. "Vaermina is not among the strongest of the Daedric Princes, and what we have just done has destroyed any power she might have had to reach you. Had you done as she suggested, then you would indubitably have been within her power, and there would have been little enough chance of escaping from it. Trust me, daughter. You did the right thing." He smiled again. "And I say that not merely because I value my own life."

"Be well, Father," Lydia said.

"Blessings of the Lady Mara upon you both," Erandur responded. They left him communing with his makeshift altar, and started back down the slope towards Dawnstar.

It was now too late to report to the jarl, and in any case they had seen him earlier engaged in a furious argument with two of his citizens and were not anxious to catch him in that kind of mood. Accordingly, they retired to their room in the Windpeak Inn, and passed a comfortable and peaceful night.

As, it seemed on the following morning, had the people of the town. The word was on everyone's lips; eyes were brighter, colour healthier, steps lighter. And everyone seemed to know that Erin and Lydia had been at least in part responsible for the change. Lydia remembered riding through Riverwood with Lethiel, seeing the smiles on the faces of the people there, smiles bought with gold and low rents. She decided she liked this a lot better.

The jarl, an old bald hawk of a man, thanked them for ridding the town of its curse of nightmares, and inquired their names.

"I am Lady Erin of the Dragonborn Company," said Erin, with reasonable conviction. "I'm looking for work hereabouts."

"Dragonborn Company, eh?" Jarl Skald said, rubbing his bristly chin. "Not one of these damned Imperial flim-flams, is it? We don't hold with the Empire in this town, young lady. Skyrim belongs to the Nords, not to some perfumed popinjay of an Emperor down there in Cyrodiil, and Talos--"

"Yes," Erin said hastily, "absolutely. But as to work..."

Skald, having ranted for a few minutes, eventually suggested that they go and kill a giant, and marked the location on Lydia's map. As they left, he was excitedly planning with his hulking housecarl the defence of Dawnstar in the event of Imperial invasion.

"What an unpleasant old person," Erin said, once they were safely away from the longhouse.

Lydia was thinking about giants. Apart from the very occasional cattle raid, they were usually content to keep themselves to themselves, and presented no threat at all to ordinary people as long as they were left alone. But it was indeed as she had heard, and relayed to Lethiel on the way to Shearpoint. Skald, though not particularly diminutive in stature, had a particular grudge against giants. And now they were the living instruments of that grudge.

Well, she thought, if it helps the Dragonborn get the support she needs to defeat Alduin.

They mounted up, checked their gear, and rode out of Dawnstar.

From Amarie, of the Dragonborn Company, to Lydia in Whiterun hold:

Greetings. I am safely arrived in Windhelm, where no sooner had I passed through the gates than I was compelled to witness a regrettable scene in which two disreputable and probably inebriated Nord citizens harangued and threatened a Dunmer woman for no discernible reason. I conclude that the Dragonborn's information on the treatment of other races in this city is at least in part reliable.

I arranged for accommodation at Candlehearth Hall without difficulty, however, and decided to take a walk through the city to assess the general tenor of affairs. Passing by a graveyard, I was disconcerted to discover myself assisting at the scene of the particularly brutal murder of a young woman. A guard informed me that it is but the latest in a series of such crimes, and that the perpetrator is unknown.

I immediately asked myself what the Dragonborn would do in this circumstance, and having arrived at the obvious answer, offered my services as an investigator. The guard suggested that I question various witnesses who were in the vicinity, and, this yielding no useful information, that I make my offer in more formal fashion to the steward at the Palace of the Kings.

This I did, and found Jorleif, the steward, by no means personally ill-disposed toward me on racial grounds. He authorised me to take such investigative action as seemed necessary. I was not in a position to speak to Jarl Ulfric on this occasion, as he was engaged in an interminable and ultimately circular argument with one Galmar, a subordinate officer, on the prosecution of the war, with particular reference to Whiterun hold and its jarl.

(I have transcribed what I heard of this discussion on a separate sheet for your consideration. You may or may not wish to acquaint Jarl Balgruuf with the substance of it. At any rate, it seems unlikely ever to reach any definite conclusion in the absence of new information.)

Ulfric himself I found a most interesting study, and I have formed certain tentative conclusions about which I may write more when time and further observation permit. Having obtained my authorisation, as it were, I returned to the crime scene, and, though the light was fading, was able to distinguish a well-marked blood trail which led to a certain untenanted house in the more affluent quarter of the city. Unfortunately, being not as adept as the Dragonborn in the manipulation of locks, and in any case unsure as to whether such action would fall within the remit of a civilian investigator, I was unable to effect entry, and have therefore returned to my lodging to write you this report before retiring for the night.

My intention for the morrow is to ascertain the proprietorship of this house, and address myself to the owner in the hope of obtaining a key. I shall write again at this time with any further information.

Azura guard you.


"Giant killed," said Lydia.

"Check," said Erin.

"Ring found for alchemist lady."


"Void salts recovered for Captain Tight-Pants."


"Bunch of ore mined for Legoff."

"Leigelf. Check."

"I'd say you're ready," Lydia concluded. "Let's go back to Skald the Bald and see if he'll Thane you."

Erin looked uncomfortable.


"You're so...matter-of-fact about all this," Erin said. "But it's kind of a big deal for me."

"I'm sorry," Lydia began.

"My family never amounted to anything," Erin went on. "I'm the first one ever even to be noticed, let alone win any kind of rank. Not that rank matters, of course. But it would be nice if...maybe...I could think it was a little bit special to be made a Thane."

"Of course it's special." Lydia took Erin in her arms. "I'm sorry, Erin. It's running around with the a way she outranks everyone, and she never takes any of that stuff seriously...and it rubs off. But you're right. It means the jarl has recognised you as a person of importance in the hold...and that is no more than you deserve."

"Thanks," Erin said, sniffling.

"When Jarl Elisif said she wanted to make me a Thane, I practically turned myself completely inside out trying to run away from it, because I didn't think I was worthy. I should never lose sight of how important these things are." Lydia let go of Erin with a smile. "My lady Erin, will it please you to attend upon the Jarl of the Pale at your earliest convenience?"

"Why thank you," Erin answered with a deep bow, and they walked back to the White Hall.

Skald was as good as his word, and Erin was duly invested with the rank of Thane of the Pale. Her personal housecarl proved to be another large, moustached Nord named Gregor, and when she inquired about the possibility of purchasing property, it emerged that there was a parcel of land available on which a worthy steading could be constructed.

Lydia and Erin refrained from comment till they were outside.

"I don't believe it," Erin said. "Right down there?"

"Fall over twice and you're in Heljarchen farmyard," Lydia said.

"This is great," Erin said. She was positively glowing. "Here I was feeling terrible about being stuck all this way away from the rest of you, and I'm going to be the closest of all!"

Lydia smiled and hugged her. Closer than me, she thought. "Well," she said, "let's go and build this steading then."

"Can you spare the time?" Erin asked seriously.

"I'm going to," Lydia said.

Amarie, of the Dragonborn Company, to Lydia in Whiterun hold:

Greetings. I have encountered three Altmer living, apparently quite contentedly, in or near Windhelm. Two of them run the stables, and the third has a market stall selling general goods. This woman, Niranye, would seem to merit further investigation, but this is a matter for another time. I have also spoken to a Nord, one Brunwulf Free-Winter, who deplores Jarl Ulfric's attitude to Dunmer and Argonians in his city, and is working to ameliorate their situation. He has tasked me with the destruction of a bandit gang who reportedly only prey on non-Nords. I shall take care of this minor matter when time allows. At the moment, the matter of the murders must take precedence. However, it is significant that Altmer, as such, do not seem to suffer unduly under Ulfric's rule. At least, the hostler's wife has no more serious matter to complain about than the tedium of her work and the smell of the horses, a smell, incidentally, of which I have always been rather fond.

But to serious matters. The house I mentioned in my previous report belongs to a Nord family named Shatter-Shield, and was occupied by their daughter Friga, now deceased at the hands of this killer. I spoke with her mother, who loaned me a key to the house. It would appear that the murderer, who has either adopted or been given the sobriquet of "the Butcher," has been using it as a lair. I now have two of his journals, and a number of leaflets produced by a concerned citizen, which the Butcher seems to have been collecting, for reasons I cannot fathom.

There was also a strange and somewhat disturbing amulet in the house, and this, on the advice of a guard, I took to Calixto Corrium, who runs a curio shop in town. He offered me five hundred septims for it, but I could hardly sell what might be important evidence. Instead, I intend to consult the court mage, Wuunferth the Unliving (reassuring names these Nord mages assume!) as soon as possible.

I was not able to do this today, because on leaving Corrium's shop I was accosted by one Viola Giordano, who is the source of the leaflets I have been carrying about. She appears quite fixated on the subject, and has now formed the notion that this Wuunferth is himself the murderer. She demands that I inform Jorleif at once, but I require further information before I make such a drastic move.

In the matter of Jarl Ulfric, I am more than ever convinced of my initial conjecture. It is a matter of historical record that he was captured by the Thalmor during the Great War, and somehow escaped from them. As we all know, contrary to Thalmor pretensions, it is possible to escape from them; and yet I am uneasy about this particular instance. There is something in the jarl's manner and speech that raises questions in my mind. I have written separately to Rowan in Markarth to ask her for any information she can gather about the incident there in which Ulfric was involved. When I am more certain of my ground, I will write in greater detail on this matter, but I must seek conversation with him first, if between him and Galmar I can contrive to get a word in edgeways.

When you receive this, do write back and let me know how matters are progressing with our friends, and with the Dragonborn. I miss you all.

Azura guard you.


"Aw, that's sweet," said Sigrid, reading over Lydia's shoulder.

"And surprising," Lydia said drily, folding the letter, "given how many times some of us sniped at her for being an elf."

"Not me," Sigrid said. "I like her. We got to talking, out there in Blackthorn. She hates the Thalmor as much as any of us do."

"Well, yes," Lydia said.

"She told me a saying the elves have," Sigrid said, collecting up the breakfast dishes. She paused and frowned, remembering. "'A leaden tongue speaks little; a silver tongue speaks much; a golden tongue speaks only at need.' It means that if you're really good, you don't need to talk about it all the time. She says the Thalmor are silver tongues, always going on about how superior elves are, and high elves over all the others, and that's because they really don't believe they are, but they want to."

Lydia said nothing.

"I mean," Sigrid went on from the kitchen, "everyone thinks, deep down, that they're the best, don't they? Like, I'm a Nord, and I think a Nord is a pretty good thing to be. Don't you?"

"My father was Nord," Lydia said, getting up from the table. "My mother was Imperial. That's why I have an Imperial name."

"Oh," Sigrid said. "I hadn't realised. I thought it was Nordic."

"I don't think about whether I'm better than anyone else," Lydia said. "I just want to be the best me I can be."

"Well, you're special, sweetie," Sigrid said, and came out to give Lydia a hug. Then her face clouded. "I don't want to go to Morthal. I know I've got to, but I want to stay here with you."

"Well, you don't have to stay there for ever," Lydia said. "There's no law that says a Thane has to stay in her hold. Everyone's coming back as soon as this Alduin business is over."

"Assuming we all live through it," Sigrid said.

"We will," Lydia said, with more confidence than she actually felt. "We're the Dragonborn Company, right? We always come back."

"I hope you're right." Sigrid looked up. "Oh, what was in the other letter?"

"Other letter? You only gave me one."

Sigrid smacked her forehead. "My bad. It's there on the table."

Lydia opened the other letter and read aloud. "'Lydia, honey, I need a small favour. I'm stuck here in Falkreath, doing you would not believe what to try and get MJ his lumber for the rebuilding, but Val wants something investigated and it looks to be time-sensitive. Would you go to somewhere called the Tall Mast Tavern (map enclosed) and talk to a woman called Dianna. You're looking for information about a Thalmor name of Aerandil, or any of his friends. Please, it's really important, and it may help the cause as well. Love and kisses, Sienna.'"

Sigrid brightened at once. "Road trip. I'll get snacks."

"Wait a minute," Lydia said. "How come you're coming with?"

"Because," Sigrid said, "I am not going to Morthal on my own, nor am I going to be stuck here doing nothing. Drake and Zeus and Olivia can run the place perfectly well without us, in fact I think sometimes they'd prefer it. Besides," Sigrid grinned, "what could possibly go wrong?”

Lydia and Sigrid staggered out of the door of the tavern into the paling light of dawn, and leaned on each other for support. This was not, however it might have appeared, the result of excessive potation.

"The woman's a monster," Lydia panted.

"Oh, come on." Sigrid, though equally exhausted, was in far better spirits. "Don't tell me you didn't enjoy any of that."

Lydia faced her squarely. "I didn't enjoy..." She blushed, and looked away. "Some of that."


"That's not important right now." Lydia shook herself, and straightened up. "We have the information we need."

"So, on to Solitude to find this elf?"

"Me on to Solitude," Lydia said. "You to Morthal."

"Noooo...." Sigrid was dismayed.

"This Aerandil sounds dangerous," Lydia said.

"I can do dangerous." Sigrid drew her sword and made a few passes. "I'm good with dangerous."

"I mean really dangerous. I don't want you getting hurt. And you have a job to do, remember?"

"Job nothing. I'm going with you and keeping you safe. Morthal will still be there when it's done, right?" Sigrid set her jaw and matched Lydia stare for stare. "There's no point in arguing. You know you'll lose."

"The Dragonborn would send you to Morthal," Lydia tried.

"No she wouldn't, 'cause I'd out-argue her too. And anyway she would have the sense to know that this job is going to take two of us. Specifically, me and you." Sigrid's smile became more intimate. "Besides, I learned some things these last two nights that I really want to try out, and not on some Morthal mudcrab."

"What makes you think we'll get the chance?" It was surrender, and Lydia knew it.

"We'll make the chance," Sigrid whispered.

Maenen, the elf referred to, was indeed at the Winking Skeever, showing off to two girls who might politely have been described as wenches. It was only when he returned from the bar with his hands full of drinks that he registered that he was now flanked by two quite different girls.

He held out for a matter of seconds against their two-pronged attack, and then caved in like a mammoth trap. Aerandil, he said, could be found at the wreck of the Orphan's Tear, or in a cave nearby. Lydia, pulling her Thane rank, gave him one day to leave Skyrim and never return, and he made a good start by beating all records for leaving the inn.

"Want to go kill some slavers?" Lydia said.

"Can't think of anything I'd rather do right now," Sigrid said.

The Orphan's Tear, when they located it, was indeed occupied by a number of low types. Lydia's archery was improving; she only missed one, and Sigrid got him. After looting the wrecked ship, they began to scout about for the cave Maenen had mentioned. Here were more bandits, or slavers presumably, but no Thalmor that Lydia could see.

"There'll be more inside," Lydia whispered. "Stay on guard out here. I'm going in."

Sigrid, reluctantly, nodded. "Be careful," she whispered back, and mimed a kiss.

Lydia, creeping like a ghost through the ice tunnels, dispatched several more of the gang, including their apparent leader Guunlaug. A man, who had been imprisoned in a cage, implored her to go and see if the coast was clear so that he and his family could escape. Lydia knew perfectly well that Sigrid would have given a warning if the coast had not been clear, but it could do no harm to give the man this comfort.

The first thing she saw, when she emerged into the evening, was Sigrid's body, lying cold and unnaturally still on the snow. The second was a smirking Thalmor surrounded by soldiers. Then, nothing.

Amarie, of the Dragonborn Company, to Lydia in Whiterun hold:

Greetings. I hope that the fact that I have not heard from you does not signify anything seriously amiss. If you have need of me, please let me know immediately and I will be there.

I have brought the affair of the Butcher to a satisfactory conclusion. Regrettably, it was necessary to kill the perpetrator before another death occurred. I have since found out that it was a tragic case of a mind destroyed by grief, turning to the blackest of unholy arts. One understands and at the same time recoils from such perversion of nature. At least I have managed to bring some closure to this unhappy city.

I have still to deal with the bandits as I mentioned in my last, and a couple of other small jobs have come my way to which I shall now be free to turn my attention. Since Jarl Ulfric requires that I should be "known throughout his hold," I shall make it my business to become so.

Yes, I have spoken to Jarl Ulfric, and am more than ever convinced that I am correct in my surmise. The Thalmor possess a great deal of knowledge in the field of manipulation of the mind, which they mostly use for interrogation and the extraction of information. However, some of them, and the despicable Elenwen among the foremost, have applied these techniques to the insertion of information, or more correctly of misinformation, into the minds of their subjects. It is my considered opinion that Ulfric Stormcloak, while he was in the possession of the Thalmor, was subjected to this process, whose effect can be such that the information inserted feels more "real" to the subject than the evidence of his own senses. This would be why he believes it was he who enabled the Thalmor to take the Imperial City, even though this is proven to be not so.

I suspect that this process has been used to intensify Ulfric's prejudice against non-human races (with Altmer being the telling exception), and that it may indeed have been as a result of such an implanted impulsion that he killed High King Torygg and thus precipitated the civil war. I realise that my speculations are useless without evidence, but they may at least form a starting point from which to investigate further. It is almost certain that Ulfric himself has no idea of any of this, since the erasure of memory is another of the uses to which this detestable process may be put. His own reasons for acting will seem perfectly sound to him, and he will be able to explain them with complete fluency; but from the subtle cues I have observed in his speech and mannerisms, the traces of the process are unmistakable.

This presents much food for thought, and I would urge that we all meet for a full discussion of the implications of it at the earliest possible juncture. I shall be returning to Whiterun as soon as I have completed my mission here.

Azura guard you.


The house was burning. Her ma and da were gone. She ran through each room looking for them, but there was something wrong with the house. Each room opened into another one, and always, everywhere, the fierce heat of flame, the smell of burning, the hideous roaring mingling with the roar of the flames, forming syllables she almost understood.

It wasn't fair. This wasn't supposed to happen. This hadn't happened. And still she ran, because there was nothing else to do, not looking for her parents now but simply for a way out, and every door just opened into a burning room...

And then the burning turned into a freezing, biting cold, or maybe it had been that all along, and the flames still flickered all around her but she couldn't feel them any more. She couldn't feel anything but the soft rain on her face. And there was a little girl in front of her, a little girl with red hair and freckles, staring at her so intensely.

"You have to wake up, Lydia," the little girl said. "You have to wake up. Please don't be dead, Lydia. Lydia...Lydia..."

And the roaring was the roaring of the sea in her ears, and she was lying on freezing cold sands, and Sigrid, her face agonised and wet with more than sea spray, was shaking her by the shoulders and sobbing out her name.

Lydia moved her lips, worked her jaw and made some sort of noise, and Sigrid fell on her, laughing and crying at the same time, and it was actually quite painful but Lydia didn't mind, because she was crying and laughing too.

Later, when they had cried themselves out, they sat side by side on the sand and just looked at each other for a long time. Then they held each other, very close. And then, finally, they talked.

"What happened?" Sigrid said.

"Aerandil," Lydia said. "He had some kind of spell...paralysis, but something else as well. I didn't know...when I first saw you, I thought..."

"I know. I didn't even see it coming. One moment I was keeping guard, the next..." Sigrid shivered. "I was here, and so were you, and if I looked the way you did I know exactly how you feel."

"But in between..." Lydia frowned as memories returned to her. "He took me on board a ship. He woke me up, he gloated a bit..." Her eyes widened. "I have to go to Helgen!"

"Whoa. Slow down. Why do you have to go to Helgen?"

"Because the guy Sienna's been working with, Marcus Jannus...Aerandil's got him!"

"How do you know? Because he told you?" Sigrid was sceptical. "This is a Thalmor we're talking about. If he's got this Jannus guy, then he's probably already killed him."

"We can't take that chance. He wants to exchange Val for Jannus. I have to give Val the message." Lydia was trying to get up. It was not easy. Someone had replaced her muscles with something that hurt a lot and didn't move.

"Wait. Wait." Sigrid got up herself, and helped Lydia to her feet. "In the first place, he won't know you from Ysgramor's left elbow. In the second, you know exactly what this Val will do when you, or whoever, give him the message, and you know how that's going to end."

"I don't have a choice, Sigrid," Lydia said raggedly. "If there's the slightest chance that Jannus could be alive I have to give Val the choice. It's his right. If they'd got me, and say Amarie had the message to bring to you, would you want her to hold off? Would you rather not know?"

Sigrid's shoulders slumped. "No. You're right. But at least let's all go. You, and me, and Sienna. The boss too, if she's back. We can maybe make a difference. Maybe not lose to the damn Thalmor this time."

"That," Lydia said, "is a good idea. And I've thought of another one." She took Sigrid in her arms. "Don't go to Morthal. Stay with us. I don't know how I can love both of you, but I do, and I can't be without you. Jarl Idgrod's a lunatic anyway, she'd probably make a mudcrab Thane if it tipped its claw at her the right way."

"Hey, then I'm in with a chance," Sigrid said, and managed a laugh. "We'll see what the Dragonborn says. But that you said that..." She kissed Lydia gently. "Means so much to me. More than you'll ever know."

"I'm only sorry it took me so long," Lydia said, and kissed her back. "Now let's get going. We've got a long journey ahead.”

The four of them walked slowly away from the Thalmor prison, leaving the men of Helgen to mourn their fallen leader.

"Four of us," Lethiel said bitterly, "and we could do nothing."

"Why didn't you Shout?" Sienna said.

"There was no room. Any Shout I could have used would have killed one of us, or Marcus, or Val himself." Lethiel made an angry and impatient noise. "Damn it, I hate this."

"It was what he wanted."

Lydia was surprised to discover that it was she who had said this.

"He wanted to die?" Lethiel said.

"Not quite that." Lydia was trying to pursue the thought that had first prompted her to speak. "Not that he specially wanted to die now, but he wanted his end to be this way. At the hands of an enemy who himself then died. It's like dying bravely in battle, in fact I suppose in a way it is. And you heard him. He thought he was going to see his family again. Maybe he did."

"I've never heard that Sovngarde's a particularly family-friendly place," Lethiel said. "Sorry. I shouldn't joke. I joke because I'm bloody furious. I do not believe in fate, or destiny, or any of those things, and yes I know it's me saying this. And I hate it, absolutely hate hate HATE it, when fate contradicts me like this."

"The fate you don't believe in," Sigrid said, straight-faced.

"Exactly. I feel like Aerandil back there would if he got to the gates of his own particular snobby afterlife and the guy on the door with the checklist was Talos."

This got a slight ripple of laughter.

"Somebody needs to open up a big barrel of upside," Sigrid said. "Val did what he wanted to do. He got revenge for his family, he killed his enemy, and he's got a whole brand new town as a memorial. He's okay. You," she leaned across and poked Lethiel in the chest, "are just teed off because you couldn't play the big hero and save absolutely everyone like you do every time."

"I hardly ever do, actually," Lethiel said. "Once in a while would be nice."

"You saved Rowan," Sienna pointed out.

"But not Brother Verulus," Lethiel countered. "Who would be alive and well today if not for me and my big ideas."

"Hey," Lydia said sharply. "Can I book some time when you're maybe both (a) here and (b) not in a terminal decline?"

Lethiel looked startled.

"Your plan is working perfectly so far. You have Thanes in Haafingar, the Reach, Falkreath, you actually have a Jarl in the Rift, we're still waiting to hear from Eastmarch, and you have a Thane in the Pale. And you *are* the Thane of Whiterun, and the Arch-Mage of Winterhold. In the process we have done more good for more people than, probably, any other eight people you could name in the whole of Skyrim. And you're beating yourself up because one guy with a death wish got his wish." Lydia shrugged. "It's up to you, of course, my Thane, but brief as life can be in Skyrim, I'd grab any chance to be happy that came along."

They had reached the horses by now, and Lethiel stopped. "You know what," she said, "you're right. As always." She held out her arms. "Group hug."

Everyone mounted their horses.

"That's what I thought," Lethiel said, grinning, and did likewise.

Lydia woke up, not sure what had woken her.

It was dark outside. Lethiel and Sigrid were spooned side by side in the big bed. Lydia smiled fondly at her lovers, slipped out from under the covers and dressed quietly, not bothering with armour. She knew somehow that she wouldn't need it.

There was something she had to do. She didn't know what it was, but she knew it was out there somewhere, and she knew it was not a bad thing. She padded downstairs. Not a soul was stirring. The house was quiet, except for the little noises that a house constructed mainly of wood will always make as the temperature changes around it.

Outside the chill air struck through her clothes. She would have to make herself a cloak. Right now, though, it didn't matter. She mounted her horse (what should his damned name be anyway?) and rode across the bridge, and turned east, and then north.

Past Battle-Born Farm and the deserted ciderhouse, she had the urge to leave the road. Deer galloped madly past her, late for some appointment perhaps; she kept a wary eye out for predators, but there seemed to be none. To her right, the river curved away eastward; ahead of her the hills rose. She knew now where she was going; she just didn't know why. This should have bothered her, but it didn't, for some reason.

Nothing molested her as she rode slowly up the slope towards the shrine of Talos in its hollow in the hillside; but there was something waiting for her, something shimmering and semi-transparent, glowing with a gentle golden light. Lydia dismounted, patting the horse's flank as it nickered nervously, and walked closer. The figure was of a man, a Nord by the look, richly dressed and wearing a circlet on his head that Lydia recognised. In fact, though she had never seen him in her life, she knew him at once.

"High King Torygg," she said.


When she slipped quietly into the house again, Lethiel and Sigrid were waiting for her.

"I woke up and you weren't there," Lethiel said. "Is something wrong?"

"I just felt restless," Lydia said. "I needed some fresh air, so I went for a ride. No big drama."

Lethiel enfolded her in a hug. "Next time leave a note or something," she whispered. "I still remember Anja and all that trouble."

"You weren't here," Lydia said.

"I know, but I heard about it afterwards. I get antsy about any of us going off alone."

"I'm old enough to take care of myself," Lydia said, with just the hint of an edge, "and I'm not going to be fooled the way Anja was. I'm sorry I woke you. Now let's all go back to bed."

She felt bad about not telling her Thane what she had heard, but it wasn't time yet. It would be, soon.

But she needed to talk to Elisif about it first.

There was a Khajiit at the door when Lydia opened it.

"Master Ri'saad," she said blankly. She had known the grizzled old cat by sight since her childhood, when she and her friends had done that thing that kids probably did everywhere; you dared each other to buy moon sugar from the Khajiit, the Khajiit sold you something that was probably finely chopped carrot, and you kept it under your pillow for a week and then threw it into the river in a panic in case your da found out. Lydia had never taken the dare.

"This one seeks the one called Dragonborn," Ri'saad said.

"We are the Dragonborn Company," said Lethiel, coming up behind Lydia. "Is there a problem?"

"No, no," Ri'saad said, with an easy gesture. "This one sees you are on your way out and will not keep you long. It is simply this. A week ago now, Ahkari's caravan arrives at Riften as usual, sets up in usual place. New jarl herself comes out of city, says no, no, Khajiit not set up here." He paused. "Ahkari is very concerned. If Khajiit not welcome in the Rift, very bad for trade."

"Of course," Lethiel said. "I see that."

"Then," the trader went on, "new jarl says, come into city, be welcome, yes, stay in tavern, have stall in market. This is never happening before, you understand. She says, city already full of thieves and smugglers. If Khajiit thieves and smugglers, will make no difference. If Khajiit honest traders, will improve moral tone of city, yes."

"That's our Anja," Lethiel commented, grinning.

"So this one thinks to come and find Dragonborn Company, offer thanks, also substantial discount whenever you wish to trade." The old cat bowed, smiling. At least Lydia thought it was a smile. "May your roads lead you to warm sands."

"Thank you, Master Ri'saad," Lethiel said, bowing deeply.

As the cat trotted away down the drive, Lethiel and Lydia looked at each other and smiled.

"We do good, yes," Lethiel said, in a fair imitation of the Khajiit's accent.

"We do good," Lydia repeated. "And now we're going to Solitude to do some more."

"You still don't want to tell me what this is about?"

"Not till I've talked to the jarl," Lydia said. "I'm sorry, my Thane, but it just has to be that way."

"Not a problem," Lethiel said easily. "Let's go."

A few hours later, in the courtyard of the Blue Palace, neither was in nearly as good a humour.

"He called me a necromancer," Lydia raged. "That greasy little slimeball called me--"

"Well, I have to admit your response impressed me." Lethiel was sarcastic. "A masterpiece of subtle dissimulation, I thought. 'How did you discover I spoke to dead King Torygg?'" she quoted, in an exaggeratedly stupid voice. "I didn't know where to put myself."

Lydia was aware that the criticism was entirely justified, and that only made her feel worse. "He caught me by surprise," she protested. "I didn't have time to think."

"Yes, well," Lethiel said, softening, "never mind. It's done now, and we have to deal with it. I wish you'd told me first."

"He didn't want me to tell anyone." Lydia took a deep breath. "And I didn't even get to the important bit."

She looked around, made sure that the guard on the door was far enough away--not that he would not certainly dismiss anything she might say as more of the ravings of the mad people who came in such droves to the Palace--and told Lethiel the important bit.

Lethiel whistled. "That will certainly be a big help. Okay, here's what we're going to do. I'll try and find a way of neutralising Erikur as a threat. I'll talk to Lisette at the Skeever. I've seen her with him, and maybe as a fellow bard I can gain her trust. You," she went on, "go back in there and talk to that mage who stuck up for you. We can use all the help we can get. Only don't get too close if you can help it, and if you do--" She rummaged in her bag and produced a potion. "Take this as soon as possible afterwards."

Lydia's mouth dropped open. "You think she's--"

"I know she's," Lethiel corrected. "And it looks as though she's got her eye on you. So be careful, love. But get her help with Elisif. We've got some ground to win back here.”

Lydia looked at the potion bottle in her hand.

She should drink it, she knew. Her Thane had told her to, if she got too close Sybille Stentor. And she had. She had got very, very close. And it had felt good.

But she should drink the potion.

Only she wasn't sure she wanted to.

She didn't have to do it right away, did she? There was a time limit, though she couldn't seem to remember what it was. But it wasn't yet. She could enjoy this feeling, this warm, fuzzy feeling, for a little longer, couldn't she? Maybe an hour...or two...maybe find out what it felt like when the sun went down...

No. She should drink the potion.

She looked down at the bottle in her hand. Was she sure it was the right one? Maybe it was the wrong one. Maybe her Thane had given her the wrong potion. In that case, better not drink it. Better wait, and talk to her Thane later. Or better still, talk to Sybille again. That would be good. Sybille would tell her what to do.

"Oh, just drink the damn thing," Sybille said crossly from behind her.

The potion was down Lydia's throat almost before the vampire had finished speaking. Sharp brightness flooded through her body, burning away the vampiric contagion, restoring her to her right mind. There was a tinge of sadness at that. It had felt so good...

And then there was anger, but Lydia suppressed it. She had, after all, asked for it, in a way.

"I can't have a thrall mooning after me all over the place," Sybille continued, "and you are needed elsewhere. It was fun, sweetie. Thank you."

"And you'll still support me with Elisif?" Lydia managed to say, without turning round. If she saw Sybille again, if she looked into those eyes...

"Absolutely. This court needs some new blood, and you'll do nicely. If you know what I mean." Laughter was in the vampire's voice. "Forgive me. But you were so ready to fall for me. People always think, if it happens to them, they'll be strong enough to resist it, their will will triumph over the evil influence. Nobody can. That's just the way it is." The laughter was gone. "Keep my secret, and I'll back you all the way to Elisif's side. Tell...and nobody will ever even wonder where you went. I'll make sure of that."

"Okay." Lydia still didn't trust herself to turn round, and so she did. She looked at the vampire, who was...just a vampire. A deceptively youthful woman with red eyes, swathed in a hooded robe, and smiling with closed lips. Nothing more.

"Tell me," she said, "what's the difference between a vampire and a Thalmor?"

"Oh, that's easy," Sybille Stentor said. "One is an evil, cold-hearted parasite that drains the life out of its victims and kills for pleasure...and the other is me. Now run along, sweetie, I need my beauty sleep.”

"...and so now I have to find Pantea's flute, so she'll help me sort things out with Lisette over what she saw me doing with Illdi, which I only did because Pantea doesn't want to get lumbered with Erikur to take the pressure off Lisette," Lethiel said. "It's a whole big thing." She frowned. "Makes me think of soap for some reason."

"And you're enjoying it immensely," Lydia commented drily. What her Thane had revealed to her about the commercial arrangements at the Bards' College had not surprised her nearly as much as it had apparently surprised Lethiel. For one thing, it explained Mikael completely. "And so Pantea's flute is going to be in this cave?"

"No," Lethiel said. "That's a different cave entirely. This is just something I'm doing to give myself a breather. I meant to do it a lot earlier. You know that Argonian who keeps dropping hints about having a job if you're interested, traveller?"

"Jaree-Ra," Lydia remembered having heard him called that. "Yes."

"Well, I made some inquiries when I first came to Solitude, and it turns out he's mixed up with a bunch of pirates who operate out of this cave. I made a note of it, intending to come and clear it out, but then things got distracting with the Bards and everything and I forgot." Lethiel put a finger to her lips as they approached the cave entrance. "Just a bit of exercise," she whispered.

"Passes the time away," Lydia whispered back.


Bows out, they crept into Broken Oar Grotto.


When they returned to Proudspire Manor, Jordis the housecarl took their sea-sodden clothes and armour away, gave them dry robes that had been warmed in front of the fire, and served them hot soup. I could get used to this, Lydia thought sleepily, as she put her empty bowl down and relaxed into a chair.

"Oh, my Thane," Jordis said suddenly, "this came for you. I would have sent it on, but," she lowered her gaze, "I had no idea where. You didn't tell me."

"How long has that been sitting here?" Lethiel demanded as Lydia struggled back to wakefulness.

"Since shortly after you all left, my lady. I had no idea how long you would be gone."

Lydia looked at the letter. "It's from Falk," she said. "He wants me to go and see him about Wolfskull Cave. Or did, weeks ago. Why didn't he talk to me about it yesterday?"

"You were a bit busy not being convicted of necromancy yourself. Maybe it put him off." Lethiel shrugged. "It's waited this long, it can wait another night."

"No." Lydia got to her feet, which snarled at her. "I need to do this now. Jordis," she said, "if you get any more letters when I'm not here, send them on to Skyfall Estate in Whiterun hold, okay? That will always find me."

"Yes, my Thane," Jordis murmured. "I'm sorry, my Thane."

"It's all right, you weren't to know." Lydia tried to hug the young woman, but Jordis extricated herself quickly.

"Oh no, my Thane," she said. "That's not appropriate."

Lydia thought she understood. "Okay, I need to get to the Blue Palace right now," she said. "What can I wear?"

"How about that outfit the elf tailors gave you?"

"Good thought." Lydia dived for the stairs, her weariness, if not forgotten, at least prepared to wait till this latest crisis had been dealt with.

"Ah, she wasn't so tough," Lydia said, tossing the skull of the Wolf Queen in the air and catching it. Potema's catacombs had disgorged them somewhere well outside Solitude, and now they were strolling back along the road to the city in leaf-dappled sunshine and a cooling breeze.

"You didn't say that when you were dodging those shock blasts," Lethiel said. "Careful with that. Who knows what might happen if you break it before Styrr can sanctify it?"

"He could sanctify the bits," Lydia said.

"You," Lethiel said, pointing a minatory finger, "are getting an extremely disrespectful and irreverent young lady." She sighed. "I can't think where you pick it up from."

Lydia laughed; but she stowed the skull safely away as they started up the long climb to the city gate.

"What about Pantea's flute?"

"Oh, I'll go and get that on my tod. Best if the newest Thane of Haafingar doesn't get a reputation for trailing around after disreputable musicians and such riff-raff. I'll pick up Finn's Lute, Rjorn's Drum, Fingal's Finger Cymbals and Zelda's Ocarina while I'm about it. I should have the makings of a fine one-girl band once I'm done. You stay in town for a bit. Enjoy the life of a Thane. Hang around the court and upset Erikur. I'll call in once I've finished."

Lydia, only a matter of days ago, would have been downcast at the news that her Thane was going adventuring without her. Now, while still sad to be left alone, she felt differently. The bond between them, between all of the Company, was too strong and too elastic to be broken by time or distance. Wherever they were, however long apart, they were always together.

"Okay," she said. "Here we are. Hall of the Dead."

After dropping off the skull with the old priest, whose remark on their first meeting that "he thought he had a book about the Wolf Queen" had tickled Lethiel to a degree, they went on to the Blue Palace, where Lydia reported her success to Falk. Lethiel then excused herself and left, leaving Lydia to, as her Thane had said, hang around the court.

Something about the way Elisif looked was troubling her. The jarl seemed as bright as ever, but there was a fragility about her that Lydia had perhaps not noticed before. So much, after all, was resting on the narrow shoulders of this one young woman; the care of her hold and its people, the political balance of the entire province. She was glad that there was no Thalmor presence here, as there was in Markarth; still, the Embassy was only a little way outside the city. She wondered if she could fulfil the task laid on her by the dead High King. Could she effectively shield Elisif from the insidious and, as she now knew, wholly pernicious influence of the elven enemy?

Well, at least she would not be alone in that task. Falk was clearly devoted to her, even when her less sensible ideas made him momentarily impatient. Bryling, her fellow Thane, seemed to have her head screwed on, and Bolgeir Bearclaw would cheerfully give his life to defend his young liege lady from any straightforward attack. Then there was Sybille...

No, if there was one bad apple in this bunch it was Erikur. The man patently had no concern except for money and the power it accorded him personally. It occurred to Lydia that perhaps the only reason why he had not himself made a play for Elisif's affections was the fact that Haafingar, as a hold, was currently considerably less wealthy than he was, and would therefore require to be subsidised from his own coffers.

She rewarded his burning, resentful glance at her with a sweet smile, and settled down to listen to the business of the court.

Lydia held out for a week.

A letter arrived from Amarie, who had returned in triumph to Skyfall bearing the Axe of Eastmarch, only to find nobody but Sigrid there to welcome her. The bet she had made with Lethiel was not mentioned, but it was clear, reading between the neatly-penned lines, that the elf was missing her companions and would be happy to see them. Lydia wrote back inviting her to Proudspire.

Messages also came from Lethiel, at odd intervals, usually cryptic summaries of her latest achievements. "Flute got. Girl alive when I went in, dead by time I got to her. Life sick joke." "Rjorn's Drum recovered. Many ghosts laid. Not as much fun as it sounds." "Help! What did I do with bit of amulet found in Saarthal? Second bit found in Folgunthur, need first bit to put them together."

Lydia did not begrudge her Thane this alone time. The Dragonborn, like the dragons whose blood she shared, was in many ways a solitary being, she knew. It was her human blood and soul that made her crave the society of others, and she had been well supplied with that. Time to gratify the draconic urge for lone adventuring was a need for her.

But she was more and more worried about Elisif as the days passed. The fragility she had noted on that first day seemed to be increasing. The jarl became pale and quiet, and took less part in the discussions at court. Everyone could see it, but nobody talked about it. It was as if they felt that to mention the jarl's weakness might make it more real than it was.

Amarie arrived on the fourth day, and Lydia greeted her with genuine pleasure. The elf sat in her parlour while Jordis provided tea and cakes, and told about her adventures obtaining the Thanedom from Ulfric, and then, at greater length, about her tentative theories regarding the mental state of Windhelm's Jarl.

"That would explain something I heard," Lydia said, and related the substance of her encounter with the spirit of High King Torygg.

"He was ready to support Ulfric?" Amarie exclaimed. Lydia had never seen such strong emotion on that impassive elven mask.

"He was strongly inclining that way," Lydia said. "If Ulfric had put forward a serious claim for independence for Skyrim, yes, Torygg would have backed him."

"And instead, Ulfric challenged him and killed him." Amarie frowned. "This is vital evidence."

"It's not evidence at all. It's just my word for something which, as Thane Erikur has shown me, could easily be twisted into grounds for my arrest as a necromancer. I wouldn't dare bring it before a Moot."

"Not on its own, perhaps," Amarie said musingly. "We need more."

"And that's not all," Lydia said. "I'm worried about Elisif. I think she's ill."

"You suspect malign influence?"

"Well, it could be," Lydia said.

"And you're taken with the girl."

"No!" Lydia protested. "Yes," she added a second later. "It's not her fault she's in this situation, and she doesn't deserve to be attacked for it. And, yes, I kind of like her."

Amarie smiled, and glanced over at Jordis, who was busying herself in the kitchen area. "Your housecarl is a very attractive woman."

"We have a platonic relationship." This sounded strange to Lydia for a moment, and then she remembered; it was what Lethiel had told Adrianne about their own relationship, back before she had understood...before she had been shown... what a relationship could be. Lydia, from the standpoint of her own vastly broadened experience, imagined that younger Lydia looking at her in horror and disgust. It was not entirely a comfortable sensation.

"Well, there's time," Amarie said, with a smile altogether too knowing. Lydia changed the subject.

"So, have you been to Solitude before?"

"Occasionally. Not for a long time," Amarie said, and now her eyes were both sad and angry.

The outer doors of Proudspire Manor were heavy and ponderous, and difficult to bang, but Lydia managed it, and both Jordis and Amarie looked up in alarm.

"I knew it. She is ill." Lydia stormed in, fetched up in the middle of the floor, and for lack of anything more emphatic to do simply stood there quivering. "She didn't tell me till today."

"Did you ask?" Amarie asked reasonably.

"Well, no, but she might have mentioned it. It only came on a couple of days ago, but it's raging through her system and the healers can't do anything."

" terrible," Jordis said. "When will these dark times end?"

"When Alduin eats the world," Amarie told her flatly. "Unless we can stop it." She turned back to Lydia. "Is it like what happened to Rowan?"

"No, nothing like. She just gets weaker and weaker. I've talked to Sybille, and she says there's a clue in Broken Oar Grotto. Which is ridiculous, because we only cleared out that damn pirate cave last week."

"Well," Amarie said, "let's go and clear it out again."

Lydia was jolted out of her anger by this, and hesitated a moment. "That's so sweet of you, Amarie, but I think it had better be just me. And Jordis. Elisif is my responsibility."

Amarie, seeing her face, clearly decided not to argue. "I'll stay here and mind the house, then."

"Give me a moment to gear up, my Thane." Jordis disappeared into her room, to return a few minutes later wearing her steel armour and a sword.

"Don't get killed," Amarie called after them as they left.


Forsworn, Lydia thought. Forsworn, here in Haafingar. And this?

The shock of recognition had almost undone her. In the poor light of the grotto, the dead woman had at first seemed to be veritably Elisif herself. It was only on closer inspection that the slightly coarser features, the slightly paler hair, had become obvious. But the intention was clear, even if the mechanism was not. This woman was intended for a simulacrum of the Jarl, and she had been brutally murdered, in a wedding dress, clearly as part of some damnable Forsworn magic ritual.

But why would the Forsworn care one way or another about the Jarl of Solitude?

The answer was obvious. Why not, Lydia thought greyly. The Thalmor are already running the Empire and the Stormcloaks, why not the Forsworn as well? Keep everyone fighting everybody else. Keep the pot boiling. Keep everyone distracted. Pay no attention to the elf behind the curtain. She wondered where that last thought had come from.

And in that first distress, in the thought that somehow, magically, her Jarl had been brought here and killed while she was off doing something else, she had reached out for Jordis, purely for comfort as much as anything else, and had hit that wall again. This time, though, the housecarl had made bold to explain. Lydia, she said, was "for" Jarl Elisif. The jarl was in love with her. Everyone knew it. So nobody else could have Lydia, and especially not a humble housecarl.

It made sense, in a peculiar Nordic kind of way--a way, she knew, she would have understood far better before her life had changed--but she knew at least one Dragonborn who would object to that restriction most vigorously.

Well, that was another problem for another time. The object now was to find a way to break this spell. Sybille might know.

"Help me get this dress off her," she told Jordis, and at least this instruction did not seem to outrage the housecarl's personal moral code.

The door banged once again, and Lydia strode into her house, clenched her fists, threw back her head and howled. Jordis, creeping in behind her, shot Amarie a helpless look.

"Problem?" Amarie inquired.

Lydia strove for control of herself. "We went to the cave. Where there was this dead woman. In a wedding dress. So we took the dress to Sybille. Who sent us to the Bards College. Where Pantea Ateia gave us a book. Which made no sense at all. So we took it to one of the tailors. At Radiant Raiment. And she referred me to her sister. Who is bloody INFURIATING!!!"

Amarie's face had altered at a certain point in this somehat telegraphic narrative, but she now schooled her features into their usual bland immobility.

"Your legendary charms let you down?" she inquired.

"I'm not a bard," Lydia ground out, "and I'm not a prostitute. I can't do it on command, and in any case I'm not that much of a catch. Even if that elf were not a complete sadist. You know where this all went wrong?" she said, pointing a finger at Amarie. "This all went wrong when my Thane went off and joined the Bards' College instead of taking the Wolfskull Cave job. It should have been her doing all this stuff. It should have been her doing everything!"

"What, everything? Becoming Thane of every hold, Arch-Mage of the College, fighting Alduin, killing dragons, finding all the Words of Power and doing all the work we've been doing?" Incredulity overcame Amarie's habitual circumspection. "Not to mention all these women...she'd have been dead in a week."

"I know." Lydia was pacing furiously. "And I wouldn't have it any other way than this, except that now I can't do what I need to do to save Elisif's life, and I keep thinking she might."

"Well," Amarie said, standing up, "I think I can help you there."

Lydia went beet red. "Well, uh, I've never asked about your particular preferences--"

"That question will not arise. Follow me." Amarie put on her travelling cloak, which billowed about her in just the way that cloaks were supposed to and almost never did, and sailed out of the house. Lydia and Jordis followed.

Amarie pushed open the door of Radiant Raiment, and the tailor Endarie's usual barbed remark died on her lips. Her sister Taarie looked up from her work, her eyes widening as they took in the scene.

"Greetings," Amarie said coldly. "Sisters.”

"Amarie," Endarie said silkily. "What a wonderful surprise."

"We were certain you had come to some terrible misfortune," Taarie said.

"Life is full of disappointments," Endarie commented sotto voce.

"Are you in good health, dear sister?" Taarie clucked regretfully. "The adventuring life, as we see all too frequently, is so cruel to the complexion, is it not?"

"But your attire...well, I have to say it takes my breath away," Endarie said. "Spikes are definitely going to be the coming thing next season."

"Especially for the more mannish figure," Taarie appended.

This went on for some time. Lydia made surreptitious notes. Eventually, however, the flow of exquisitely polite and venomous chitchat dwindled and died away.

"Have you quite finished?" Amarie said. "Good. Now listen to me. You will do as this lady asks, and for no fee, in cash or in kind, and you will do it right away. Otherwise, I shall inform the Imperial authorities exactly who it is that you go and visit every three months on your so-called 'holidays,' and I may also inform Uncle Ondolemar about the shrine of Talos you keep in the back room."

Both sisters exploded into furious denials, counter-accusations and general invective.

"Oh, have you already moved it out? Well, no matter. I'm quite sure the justiciars would find traces of where it used to be, if they looked for long enough. In fact I would bet your lives on it." Amarie smiled like a predator. "But that question will not arise, will it?"

The two tailors looked helplessly at each other.

"Materials," Taarie said. "We would require materials...very rare, very expensive, hard to obtain..."

"Leave that to us," Amarie said. "We will obtain what you need, if you furnish us with a list. You will hold yourself in readiness to make the particular set of clothes this lady requires, and thus incidentally to perform a great service for your jarl and Skyrim as a whole. And in return, I will forget all about those little matters I mentioned just now, and the subject will not crop up again. I trust I have expressed myself with clarity?"

"With extreme clarity, dear sister," Endarie muttered, "as always."

"Here is the list," Taarie said, proffering a piece of paper.

"We shall return," Amarie said. "So pleasant to see you again, dear sisters. And how resourceful of you to turn your little hobby into a source of income."

"Thalmor?" Lydia asked, as soon as they were outside the shop.

"Sympathisers only," Amarie said shortly. "They have no official standing, and are unlikely to be within the counsels of the senior echelons. I would, however, be careful what you say in their hearing. It might get back to...unwelcome ears."

"You must really hate your family," Jordis observed.

Amarie looked away. "I would much prefer not to have to," she said.

"It's all here," Lydia said, dumping the sack into Taarie's arms. "Work well, and, if possible, quickly."

"We will give you our best work," the elf said calmly. "And we hope you will pass on our good wishes to our sister for a long and fulfilling life."

"Somewhere else," Endarie added sourly.

"I'm sure that feeling is entirely mutual," Lydia commented sweetly, and left the shop.

"There you are," said a voice. "I've been looking everywhere for you."

Lydia stared, then seized Lethiel in a ferocious hug.

"Where have you been?" she demanded into her Thane's shoulder.

"Increasing my Word power," Lethiel said. "I've been all over Skyrim. I gather you've been having interesting times here."

"That's one way of putting it," Lydia agreed, and brought Lethiel up to date as they walked back to Proudspire.

"Yes, I've seen Amarie," Lethiel said. "She did an amazing job in Windhelm. And she certainly won the bet."

"I think it's what she found out on the way that's more interesting."

"Yes, that should really make a difference." Lethiel gazed off into the middle distance. "This time should be different from all the other times."

"I thought you didn't remember those any more."

"Not in any detail, no. Just a general impression of futility and frustration when I get to this point. But not this time." Lethiel stood aside while Lydia opened the door and gestured her to enter. "And all because we actually worked as a team. Hello again, Amarie. Jordis, hi."

"Good day, my lady." Jordis spoke without turning round.

"I agree with you, by the way," Lydia said. "We don't need to bother with getting a Thane in Morthal or Winterhold. I think we've got enough clout now to tip the balance. I'm going to go speak to Balgruuf as soon as we leave here. I expect you'd like to get home again."

"Well," Lydia said, considering, "I've been quite comfortable here, and Jordis is an excellent housecarl."

Jordis glowed. "Thank you, my Thane."

"But yes, I miss Whiterun. I guess I'm just not a Solitude kind of woman." Lydia sighed. "So, as soon as I know Jarl Elisif is safe and sound, I would like to come back."

"How would you feel about coming with us, Jordis?" Lethiel said.

"Oh no, my lady. My place is here. As long as that's my Thane's wish, of course," Jordis added hastily.

"I think that would be best," Lydia said. And besides, she thought, if you were shocked by me wanting a hug, the goings-on at Skyfall would definiteiy be too much for you.

"So you have to wait for these two elves to finish the dress," Lethiel said.

"And then presumably there's some sort of ritual, and then--assuming it all works--Elisif will be safe, and I can leave."

"Sounds good. I'll rest up here a while, if I may, and travel back maybe tomorrow, maybe with you." Lethiel sounded a little vague. Lydia realised that, while not as dramatically exhausted as on some previous occasions, the Dragonborn was extremely tired and wayworn.

"Of course. Treat the place as your own. By rights it ought to have been, right?"

"No," Lethiel said, summoning a smite, "this is the time we're doing it right."

On the following morning, Lydia collected the finished dress from Radiant Raiment. It seemed fine to her, but then she had no sense for magic. She set off at once for the Blue Palace.

Sybille Stentor examined the dress carefully and pronounced it perfect. Lydia found herself tuning out slightly, and it was a single word of the mage's that brought her back to full alertness.

"I'm sorry, what?" she said.

"It should be quite the ceremony," Sybille said, red eyes twinkling. "I'll see you at the Temple of the Divines."

There was nothing for it. Lydia, her mind whirling, carried the wedding dress into the court and presented it to Jarl Elisif.

Elisif was giving her something, something small and hard. Lydia, her mind in a dream, felt the jarl of Solitude sliding the ring on to her finger, heard her say "I insist."

Thane Erikur, in the front pew of the Temple of the Divines, was in floods of happy tears. Something, some element in the situation, had cracked asunder his veneer of hard-headed, businesslike sophistication, and revealed the simple, credulous Nord lad he surely must once have been. There was no way it was a performance; he was sobbing ecstatically into a handkerchief, heedless of the stares of those around him. He also seemed to have taken it that Lydia herself was the Dragonborn of legend; Lydia was not about to disabuse him just at the moment. In fact, just at the moment, if she was honest, she wasn't too sure herself that she was not. Though that might have been because of the blonde bard, possibly Lethiel's Lisette, singing "The Dragonborn Comes" all the way through the ritual. Lydia was not sure how she felt about that.

It had not, of course, been a marriage ceremony. Lydia knew that. Putting a bed in a temple and having the happy couple, well, do the deed in full view of the congregation was no part of any matrimonial liturgy current in Skyrim. And yet there it was. She knew, somehow, in her bones, that Jordis had been at least partly right; she was, now, Elisif's, in a way, and Elisif was hers.

But she was also still Lethiel's, and Sigrid's, and...and in any case, it could not be any kind of official marriage. She could certainly not be High King, and two High Queens at once had never happened before in the history of Skyrim, and would require a Moot to thrash out all the implications. That could not happen yet, at very least. No. For the time being, she and Elisif were simply...soul mates. Joined, but not married.

And--the main point--Elisif was restored to health. The ritual had worked. The dark magic was dispelled. Her job, to put it that way, was done.

Lethiel, Amarie and Jordis were waiting for her at the temple door. Lethiel pulled her into a hug.

"Poor lamb," she said. "Was it very embarrassing?"

"In parts," Lydia said.

"Well, you've certainly won the hearts of the people of Solitude, and rightly so." Lethiel held her at arm's length and looked serious. "Can I ask you to do one teensy tiny jobette for me before you come home?"

"Of course, my Thane."

"I've got to go to Jarl Balgruuf and ask him if I can use his dragon trap to trap a dragon, and I know what he's going to say, because it's obvious. He can't bother about anything like that when he might find a war on his doorstep any minute. So, what I want you to do--and I'm asking Amarie to do the same in Windhelm--is ask General Tullius to attend a conference on High Hrothgar--I've already cleared it with Arngeir--at which Ulfric will also be present. Tell him it's about arranging a temporary truce till the dragon situation is dealt with. Will you do that for me?"

Lydia nodded.

"Wonderful. I'm off now, and so is Amarie, and we'll all meet up at home and plan." Lethiel kissed Lydia and let her go. "See you soon, love. And well done."

Lydia and Jordis walked slowly back down the hill to Proudspire Manor, each full of their own thoughts.

The stones of High Hrothgar, so used to silence, now hummed with quiet talk. The men of violence, as Arngeir called them, had come, and the women too, to talk truce under the aegis of the Greybeards. Ulfric Stormcloak, storm-browed as well, stalked into the council chamber accompanied by his familiar Galmar. General Tullius, accompanied by Legate Rikke and, surprisingly perhaps, by Jarl Elisif herself, took the opposite side of the table. Jarl Balgruuf of Whiterun, being the main reason for the conference, was there as of right. Others, it seemed, had not so much justification.

Lethiel Lightfoot, the Dragonborn, entered the chamber and took her seat, midway between the two opposed parties. Behind her came two whom the Greybeards themselves seemed disposed to bar from the chamber; Delphine of the Blades, and Esbern, the archivist. The Dragonborn spoke up for them, and Arngeir reluctantly assented.

It was, predictably, Ulfric who registered the next objection, and it was to the sinister black-clad figure seated at the far end of the table, on the Imperial side. Eventually, it was the Dragonborn who resolved the matter.

"No, I think she should stay," she said, "but only as an observer. In fact, I have some people I'd like to admit on the same basis." She raised her voice. "Let's go, girls."

"That's our cue," Lydia said, and in single file and perfect step she led the others into the chamber, to take their places spaced out around the walls.

"What's this?" Arngeir said. "Dovahkiin, who are these people? This was not mentioned before."

"Ladies and gentlemen," Lethiel said. "May I present the Dragonborn Company. From left to right--my left, by the way--the lady Lydia, Thane of Haafingar. The lady Erin, Thane of the Pale. The lady Anja, Jarl of the Rift. The lady Rowan, Thane of the Reach. The lady Sienna, Thane of Falkreath. The lady Amarie, Thane of Eastmarch. The lady Sigrid." She paused. "I, of course, am Thane of Whiterun. They are here, at my invitation, to represent the people of Skyrim. You know. The land you're going to be fighting in, and over, and whose people are going to die for one or other of your causes."

"Ridiculous," Elenwen scoffed. "You are turning this into a piece of theatre."

"I agree," General Tullius said. "It will be impossible to have any meaningful discussion with civilians gawking at us."

"And there we have it," Ulfric said. "The Empire would arrange matters in secrecy, behind closed doors, so that their treachery remains unknown. Dragonborn, I welcome your Company, and I challenge Tullius and the Thalmor to do the same. If not, I shall withdraw from these talks at once."

"Dovahkiin," Arngeir said, "why have you done this?"

"That will emerge, Master Arngeir. I apologise for the surprise, but it was necessary that nobody involved should know. You will observe, ladies and gentlemen, that none of us are armed. In this, too, we represent the people of Skyrim, who have no part in the deliberations of jarls and generals, but who bear the brunt of their decisions, always."

"Ulfric fights for the people of Skyrim!" Galmar protested. "For their freedom!"

"Freedom to do what?" Lethiel snapped back. "To worship Talos? Worship is in the heart, Captain Galmar, and no law can prevent it, no spy detect it, unless the worshipper chooses to utter it aloud. Show me a Nord who does not carry Talos in his heart and I'll show you one who doesn't want to. And that, too, is freedom."

Galmar made to respond, but Ulfric laid a hand on his arm. "The Dragonborn speaks truth," he said. "Let be, Galmar. Now is not the time."

"I agree," Tullius said. "Since there seems to be no getting around this...observation. We're here to negotiate, so let's negotiate. We have a list of demands--"

"One more moment, General," Lethiel said. "There is a matter of considerable importance to be dealt with first. Amarie?"

The elf, standing directly behind Ulfric, spoke. Lydia was startled to note that her voice was pitched differently from her normal tone, and was, in fact, a creditable imitation of Elenwen's.

"Ulfric," she said, "what do you think of when you think of a green diamond?"

Two things happened at once. Elenwen, First Emissary of the Thalmor, drew in her breath with a sharp hiss. And Ulfric Stormcloak, Jarl of Eastmarch, spoke. He spoke automatically, and as if his mind were elsewhere, but quite clearly.

"I am open to receive instructions.”

A moment later, Ulfric frowned, shook his head violently, and looked puzzled. "What did I just say?"

Elenwen struck in at once. "I was under the impression," she said, "that we were here to negotiate a truce, not to witness the Dragonborn's doubtless remarkable repertoire of parlour tricks. Perhaps I was mistaken?"

But the significance of the moment had not been lost on Tullius. "No, let her continue," he said. "I love...parlour tricks."

"Jarl Ulfric," Lethiel said. "Why did you kill High King Torygg?"

An expression of disgust settled on Elisif's face as Ulfric launched into what was obviously a well-rehearsed speech. "I killed Torygg to prove our wretched condition. How--"

"Jarl Ulfric," Lethiel said again. "Why did you *challenge* High King Torygg?"

Ulfric faltered, started again. "I challenged him in the traditional way, and he accepted. There were many...witnesses..." He faltered again.

"Not how," Lethiel said gently. "Why. Torygg had nothing but respect for you. He was ready to support your campaign for Skyrim's independence. He would have been an invaluable ally. And yet you challenged him and killed him."

"That's true," Elisif broke in. "He spoke of it many times."

"He what?" Tullius growled.

"Before your time, General," Legate Rikke spoke for the first time. "But yes, Torygg was in favour of independence, if it could be managed peacefully and without disruption to the Empire."

"Give up an entire province?" Tullius was scornful. "The Emperor would never consent--"

"He gave up an entire god for the Thalmor," Lethiel remarked. "But if you're right, then he's a fool. Consider a moment. Put yourself in the Emperor's shoes, since you're effectively wearing his hat at this meeting already." She began ticking off points on her fingers.

"An independent Skyrim would still be in need of goods and services from the Empire, and would pay a fair price for them.

"An independent Skyrim would still supply goods and services to the Empire, and would charge a fair price for them.

"An independent Skyrim would have the Empire's back against any enemy, and vice versa.

"In short, the choice, as we may express it here, is between Skyrim as a part of the Empire, or Skyrim as a friend of the Empire. And on that, I can only say this: that I have been wandering around, killing dragons and generally righting wrongs, for some time now, and in that time I have learned one thing.

"It doesn't matter how powerful you are, how good your fighting skills, how strong your armour, how sharp your sword. It doesn't even matter if you can Shout your enemies down. None of that makes a difference to the simple fact that if you have a friend, standing with you, as these wonderful women have stood with me, your power is doubled. At very least."

Lethiel paused. "That's the case for independence as I see it. Skyrim and the Empire are stronger separate but together than they ever could be as one entity. But that, again, is a side issue. Jarl Ulfric, remember the green diamond. Why did you challenge High King Torygg?"

Again Ulfric frowned. "I...I was told..."

"Who told you, Ulfric? Who told you to kill Torygg?" It was Amarie speaking now, again in that voice so like Elenwen's. "Can you see that person here now?"

Slowly, inexorably, Ulfric's arm rose, his forefinger extended, to point straight at Elenwen.

And there, in fact," Lethiel's voice rang out, "we have it, ladies and gentlemen. The Thalmor have been playing a very long game, with nothing less than complete conquest of the Empire as their ultimate goal. When Ulfric was in their hands during the Great War, they took the opportunity to implant in him the seeds of obedience. When they forced the White-Gold Concordat upon the Emperor, they purposely included that deliberately provocative clause about the worship of Talos, to drive a wedge between Skyrim and the Empire."

"Why would a bunch of elves care what gods we worship?" Rikke said softly.

Lethiel nodded. "And when the High King looked liable to back Ulfric in his campaign for independence--a campaign that sprang entirely from his own natural love of his country, as well as his shrewd political good sense, as I've demonstrated--they aimed Ulfric at Torygg and let him loose, thus precipitating this entire, and utterly stupid, civil war. We have all been pawns in their game the whole time, and you, Jarl Ulfric, I'm afraid, one of the most useful." Lethiel flung a small dossier on the table in front of her. "My associates have copies for you all, but the gist of it is in there. That is from Elenwen's private office in the Thalmor Embassy."

"Lies," Elenwen said, but for the first time her voice was uncertain. "Fabrications. Baseless accusations--"

"Truth," Ulfric said softly. "Truth, you Thalmor bitch. I don't know how, but I know it. You used me. You made me kill my friend--" He stopped abruptly and turned away.

Elisif was staring at Elenwen in horror. Tullius had his head in his hands. Delphine's stare could have melted stone. Esbern was immersed in a book, seemingly unaware of what was happening around him.

"Nothing to say, Elenwen?" Lethiel said gently. "No?"

"You do not deny these charges, Elenwen?" General Tullius asked.

"Why should I?" Elenwen snapped. "Elven supremacy is the only truth. It is our destiny to rule, and those who stand in the way of destiny are swept aside. Diplomacy is only the continuation of war by other means."

"And the war depleted your resources as much as it did the Empire's, didn't it?" Lethiel said. "You couldn't stand any more fighting, so you planned to set Skyrim and the Empire at each other's throats, and simply walk in when the fighting was over and take what was left."

"And it was easy," Elenwen said. "And this meaningless charade will change nothing. We have created too much hate among your beloved people of Skyrim to be turned aside by anything you might do. I shall be leaving now." She rose in one sinuous movement. "Do watch your footing on the mountainside. I am told the so-called Seven Thousand Steps can be...quite treacherous. Ulfric." Her voice changed. "Ulfric, remember the red sload. The red sload, Ulfric."

Lydia, frozen in horror, watched as Ulfric's face contorted into a snarl of insensate rage. He wrenched out his war axe and with a wordless roar plunged it into the neck of his comrade Galmar. At the same moment, Elenwen whipped a tiny crossbow out of her sleeve and aimed it squarely at Elisif.


Crossbow and war axe flew from their wielders' hands. The crossbow shattered against the wall, its bolt flying wide.

"Sorry about that, everyone," Lethiel said. "Not to be used in confined spaces. Catch her, somebody." But Elenwen was already gone. Esbern looked up enquiringly from his book, shrugged, and returned to it. "Okay, restrain Ulfric, then. Amarie, do what you can for him."

And Lethiel was gone, racing from the room in pursuit of the fleeing Thalmor.

"It seems, my lady," General Tullius said, "that we must re-evaluate our positions."

"I can't believe it," Elisif was saying. "I just can't believe it."

"Believe it, my lady," Lydia said. "We've seen the proof."

"'Do what you can for him,'" Amarie was muttering, as she held on to Ulfric's right arm. "I am not a Thalmor torturer. What am I supposed to do?"

"Well, you knew about the green diamond," Sigrid said, changing her grip on his left. Ulfric was struggling, but half-heartedly, as if in his sleep, as if he was having a nightmare and trying to wake.

"That was a lucky guess," Amarie confessed.

"Well, guess again," Sigrid said.

Lethiel was back. "I couldn't get her," she said. "Thalmor soldiers. On the Steps."

"How many?" Lydia said.

"All of them, I think. And they have prisoners with them."

"So you cannot Shout at them, or indeed attack in any way, without killing innocents," Arngeir said. "This shows the ultimate futility of the way of violence. You came here with the noble intention of ending a war, and now you are bound to fight the first battle of a new one. And so it goes on."

"No," Lethiel said, and her face was set. "This ends now. Elenwen's counting on her thugs killing us all before we get off the mountain, which she will almost certainly blame on me. Dragonborn goes doolally, kills self and others, and so on. But the Steps are not the only way down the mountain. They're only the only way up."

"Oh no, my Thane," Lydia protested.

"It's our one chance, my Thane, so don't argue. Arngeir, do you have any rope?"

Rope, it seemed, was not something for which the Greybeards
had much call, but some was eventually located and pronounced strong enough to bear everyone's weight. Ulfric, by now, was taking an interest in the proceedings once more.

"Galmar?" he said.

"I got a potion down him," Rowan said. "He'll live, but he won't be able to talk for a while."

"That's not a problem," Ulfric said. "The man is *the* most boring conversationalist--" His voice caught on something, and he lowered his head into his hand.

"Can anything be done for him?" Lethiel asked Arngeir.

"Not with a Shout," the old man answered, but there was a twinkle in his eye. "Perhaps there are magicians at your College who could devise some technique..."

Lethiel brightened. "That's a thought. I've got a Professor of Illusion whose main ambition seems to be to make himself permanently invisible, and a Professor of Restoration who spends all her time moaning about how she don't get no respect. I'll get them to work together on this. That should be fun." She sobered. "Did I mess things up completely?"

"Not at all. You showed commendable resolve and ingenuity. It is not your fault that you are fighting against an intractable foe. War in one form or another is part of the very fabric of this land. It will not be turned aside with a word. Whether against the Empire, or beside the Empire against the Thalmor, Nords will always fight, and Nords will always die. But you have certainly achieved your immediate object. Whiterun is safe from Imperial and Stormcloak attack. Your mad scheme can go ahead." Arngeir's eyes softened. "Try not to get killed, Dragonborn."

"Everyone keeps telling me that." Lethiel said. "I begin to think there's something about dying that you're all keeping from me." And she laughed, and went to supervise the roping together of the party.

Climbing down a damn mountain in the dark. The words echoed mockingly in Lydia's memory.

Each delegate to the conference had a member of the Dragonborn Company roped to them. Lydia, by her own request, was linked to Elisif. Lethiel, as the strongest of them, had Galmar, who was still drifting in and out of consciousness and had needed to be pretty well trussed up.

"Do not concern yourself with the soldiers," Arngeir had said. "We will deal with them. We may be no longer young, but Shouting is not our only skill."

"I'm sorry, Master," Lethiel had said.

"Nothing lasts for ever, child," Arngeir said gently. "Our seclusion has been long, but it seems the world is still with us. Go quickly now. We will do what we can to ensure your safety."

And they had. When the party had ventured out into the courtyard behind High Hrothgar, it had not only been dark, but blowing a gale and snowing heavily. Arngeir had lifted his head and Shouted, and now the sky was tranquil and star-speckled, the wind had died and the light of Masser and Secunda was there to ease their passage. Lydia hoped her Thane had learned that Shout.

Still, she would long remember that descent, painfully slow as it was from outcrop to ledge to terrifying dip into vacancy. At one time she would glimpse the lights of Whiterun on her left; a few moments later, there they would be away off to her right. Elisif, silent and pale in the moonlight, did what she could, but by the time they reached the lower slopes she was clinging to Lydia's back, her breath warm on Lydia's neck. Ulfric, roped to Amarie, was working his way down with steady determination. Lethiel was far ahead, lost in the darkness with Galmar hanging from her like a pendulum; had it not been for that, Lydia thought, she would have danced down the sheer mountainside playing a flute.

It was with a shock that Lydia suddenly registered her feet touching down on not only solid, but familiar ground. She was standing on White River Overlook, the place where she and the others had rescued Anja from the Thalmor Lorcalin. She gently disengaged Elisif, and they embraced for a moment, wholly caught up in the joy of having made it.

"I know the way down from here, my lady," Lydia whispered, not sure why she was whispering but not caring. "Follow me."

She led the way down through the caves, which mercifully had still not found new tenants, and out on to the road, where Lethiel was waiting with the bound form of Galmar. Two by two the others found their way to earth, and at last they were all together on the road close by Battle-Born Farm.

Tullius relieved Lydia of Elisif. "We'll find horses at the stables," he said, coiling the rope expertly around one arm. "I'll escort you back to Solitude, my lady. I must communicate with the Emperor as soon as possible."

"Indeed you must, General," Elisif said crisply. "We have all been most monstrously deceived, and you should seek new orders in light of the changed circumstances. I should tell you now that, if Jarl Ulfric intends to pursue his quest for Skyrim's independence, I shall stand with him, on the same basis as my late husband."

"I'll be sure to mention that in my report," Tullius said grimly.

Ulfric had heard. " would do that?" he said. "Stand with me?"

"I am told, Jarl Ulfric," Elisif said demurely, "that when one does that, one's power is doubled. I feel we should try the experiment." She faced him squarely. "It will take me some time to change how I feel about you. I hope you will bear with me in patience."

"Since I am going to need some time to find out how I feel about myself," Ulfric said, with a short and bitter laugh, "I can hardly do otherwise, now can I?"

"Well," Jarl Balgruuf was saying to Lethiel, "you certainly lead an interesting life, Dragonborn."

"I try," Lethiel said. "So how about our plan?"

"Our plan, is it now?" Balgruuf laughed, only a little shakily. "Yes, of course, but you will have to give us a couple of days. The mechanism has not been used in some time, and we will need to test it and repair it where necessary."

"Well, I could use a couple of days myself," Lethiel said, "after that little lot. I think we all could. What do you say, Lydia?"

Lydia shook her head. "I would like to return to Solitude with Jarl Elisif, my Thane. I think there will still be some work to do there."

"I think you could be right." Lethiel sighed. "Okay. But come straight back, won't you?"

"I will be here, my Thane," Lydia promised.

The argument was in full swing when Lydia and Elisif crept into the Blue Palace. The jarl's regal robes had not survived the journey down the mountain, and it had been necessary to call in at home (since that was closest) to find her other clothing. Lethiel had happily furnished her with a suit of the Divine Elegance armour which she now constantly wore herself, and Lydia had to admit Elisif looked quite dashing in it.

"--tragic what happened to Elisif," a familiar voice was saying. "Such a young and pretty girl. But the business of the hold must go on, and for that--"

"Custom and practice," Falk Firebeard boomed out, overriding Erikur, "require that we wait a full three days before presuming the death of a jarl. We will wait a full three days."

"Why are you in such a hurry, Erikur?" That was Bryling, sharp as ever.

"I think delay would be most unwise." This voice brought Lydia and Elisif to a stop on the stairs. Erdi, one of the palace maids, looked up, saw their faces, let out a squeak and ran for the kitchen. "This regrettable incident, though of course entirely unrelated to the war, will be taken by both sides as an offensive launched by the other. The Empire will wish to avenge the great General Tullius, who was a close personal friend of mine, while the Stormcloaks will not take the murder of their leader lying down. Open hostilities are a matter of days away. The question of the succession must be resolved, and Thane Erikur is the only logical choice--"

"The question of the succession," Elisif said in a clear voice, "may be deferred for now."

"My Jarl!" Falk was across the room in a moment and holding Elisif in his arms; not as a lover, Lydia thought, but rather as if he were her father, or perhaps her older brother.

Elisif smiled. "It is good to see you too, Falk." She disengaged herself and turned. "Lady Elenwen. I take it you have just informed my court of my tragic demise at the hands of the deranged Dragonborn?"

"She has, my Jarl," Bryling confirmed. "In very circumstantial detail."

"Good. Guards." There was a clank as various armoured individuals stopped gaping and sprang to attention. "The Lady Elenwen is under arrest. Take her below and confine her closely. She is to have no visitors."

"This is an outrage!" Elenwen struggled vainly against her captors. "My government will register the strongest possible protest!"

"I hope they do," Elisif said. "I have some protesting of my own to do. Thane Erikur, you were about to make some proposal?"

Erikur was sweating. "I was merely going to offer myself, uh, as a temporary regent, uh, till you returned. I never doubted for a moment that you were alive."

Elisif smiled. "If you were a better liar I might be angry with you. But your selfish ambition is at least inept, and that I can cope with." She walked past them all and seated herself demurely on the throne. "Do you like my outfit, by the way? I'm told it comes from a marvellous little place near Old Hroldan. I shall be sending for their catalogue. And now, I have some announcements to make..."

Lydia relaxed. It seemed to be the first time since...she couldn't remember when. Her Jarl was safe, her Thane was safe, and it looked, it really looked as if the civil war was over. There were still the dragons, of course, and there was still the matter of Alduin, and then there would be the Thalmor to deal with, but those were matters for another day. For now, she could at last relax.

"...with the Aldmeri Dominion are to be broken off with immediate effect," Elisif was saying, "and the Thalmor Embassy and all military bases established on Skyrim soil by the Dominion will be closed forthwith. Jarl Ulfric Stormcloak is hereby pardoned on all the charges that have been laid against him, and Haafingar formally recognises him as the legitimate Jarl of Eastmarch. All Imperial troops are to stand down immediately pending the formalisation of the cessation of hostilities, which will take place as soon as an appropriate venue can be arranged. This order comes directly from General Tullius, and the ratifying document will be with us very shortly.

"And once that has been done," Elisif said, turning to Falk with a knowing smile on her face, "I will, at long last, have my parade."

Falk smiled back. "Of course, my Jarl.”


Chapter Text


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.

"OD...AH VIING!!!”

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, 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, 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...

"Whoa, lass!"

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?"

Lydia nodded.

"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.


"Wait, wait."

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 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 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!"

"Then what?"

"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."

"Why not?"

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 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."

"No mask?"

"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, 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.

Lydia tried.

--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 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."

"Beat whom?"

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.

"GOL...HAH DOV!!!"

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.

"FUS...RO DAH!!!"

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 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.

"OD...AH VIING!!!"

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.

" last...we get to the good bit," she said.