The Harp’s Call, Part III

Please note:  To read previous installments of this story, please click the following links:

Part I

Part II


Nordvästra Avenyn

Cari held her Aunt’s hand all the way from the embassy.  She felt a little embarrassed; she was twelve years old, for Divines’ sake!  What business did she have holding a grownup’s hand, like some little kid?  But it was comforting – Aunt Teri had been there from the moment Cari was born, and Cari felt that nobody knew her better, or understood her more.

But more than being frightened, Cari was terribly confused.  “Didn’t you see her?” Cari cried.  “Didn’t you hear her?”

“No, Cari.  I didn’t see or hear anything.  I saw you run up the hill toward the walls.  Then you shrieked and ran back down again.”

They paused at the corner of Slotgatta and Nordvästra Avenyn.  “Then I’m hallucinating,” wailed Cari, wide-eyed.  “I’ll have to go to a doctor.  Maybe I’ll have to leave school!”  Once again, a tearful panic began welling in Cari’s eyes

.“Cari, stop,” ordered Aunt Teri.  “You don’t know that.  Maybe a few years ago I might have thought so, but not now.  Do you want to hear why?”

“Please,” whimpered Cari.

“Cari, stop,” ordered Aunt Teri

Aunt Teri propelled her niece to the same corner kitchen where they’d eaten lunch.  Aunt Teri steered Cari to a table and ordered mineral waters and a sweet roll to share.  Seated across from her niece, Aunt Teri began:  “Do you remember, after Adrian and I got together, asking me how I knew he was the one I’d been waiting for?”

“Sure,” Cari replied.  “You said you just knew.  That never seemed like much of an answer.”

“Well, it wasn’t,” said Aunt Teri.  “At least, it wasn’t the whole answer.”  Adrian, she explained, was someone she knew vaguely as one of her passengers on a tram route she’d recently started driving.  They’d smile at each other, maybe say a quick hello, but that was about it.  Not long after taking over the route, she started having a recurring, awful dream, where she was a young girl who’d been heartbroken at losing something she thought she would keep forever.  Those dreams left her depressed and afraid to sleep.  When she ran into Adrian on a trip to the Nerevarine Festival in Seyda Neen, he told her of having a similar dream, but from a young man’s point of view.  Putting the two dreams together, both of them had a pretty good idea of what they were supposed to do.  And when Adrian turned down a huge promotion to stay in Solitude with her, they knew for sure, and married a year later.

“That’s so sweet!” said Cari, smiling a little.  “But what does it have to do with what I saw?”

“This is what I think,” said Aunt Teri.  “I have no idea where those dreams came from.  Were they in our subconscious?  Were they supernatural?  I don’t know.  But whatever they were, they were trying to tell us something.  Something worth listening to and understanding.  I didn’t think either of us were crazy, and I don’t think you are, either.”

“So you’re saying I should try to understand this woman, this song?” asked Cari.

“I think so.  Try to put the pieces together.  A harpist.  A song.  The Bard’s college.  The Thalmor embassy.  Maybe this has to do with something that happened a long time ago.  Maybe you can make sense of it.”

“But where do I start?”

“Just about anywhere.  How about the library?”

“Maybe,” said Cari quietly.  “Aunt Teri, could you help me?”

“In the morning, possibly” said Aunt Teri.  “but I’m driving in the afternoon and all the next day.  You’re smart.  You can do this.”

“I’ll try.”  Aunt Teri paid the bill and they set off toward home.  As they walked, Cari looked up at her Aunt.  “You won’t tell any of this to Papa, will you?”

“No, Baby, of course not.”

After supper that night, Cari sat on her bed, holding her Talking Vilja* doll, which Mama gave her on her Sacred Seventh birthday.  She didn’t dare press the button on the doll’s back, which would launch more than an hour of unstoppable chatter, mostly about strawberries.  Given the last two days, Cari was glad to hold onto something familiar and predictable.  “I’m worried I’m losing my mind, but Aunt Teri doesn’t think so.  What do you think?”

Talking Vilja said nothing.  “Is somebody trying to contact me from, well, who knows?”  The doll remained unresponsive.  “If that’s true, why couldn’t Mama do the same –”  Cari stopped.  She didn’t want to think about that.  What would Mama have said at a time like this?  You’ve got a brain, after all.  It’s supposed to do more than hold your pigtails apart.  Use it!

Then I will!  Cari thought.  She put Talking Vilja away and went to sleep.

Loredas

Overnight, buoyed by Aunt Teri’s confidence and her own inspiration, Cari made a decision.  Whatever I’ve been experiencing, whatever I’m seeing, I’m going to get to the bottom of it!  Even though it was the weekend, Cari rose early; she wanted to be at the neighborhood library the moment it opened.  She was in the kitchen when Papa passed her on his way out the door.  “What are you doing up so early?” he asked.

“Oh, I’m working on a school project.  I have to go to the library.”

“Really?” said Papa.  “I thought maybe you were going to visit with Max.”

Ewww!” replied Cari.  This was a standard joke between them, although Cari was a little tired of it.  Max was Uncle Adrian’s nephew, and his squire at the wedding.  She didn’t appreciate his smart mouth, and he wasn’t even cute!  Well, maybe he was, just a little, but still…

“Well, at least you have a short week coming up.”

“True,” said Cari.  School was only in session Morndas and Tirdas next week, with three days off to let students prepare for exams.  “Big day today, Papa?”

“Off to store number three today.”  Papa owned three grocery shops.  “One of the cashiers is suspected of stealing from the till, but I really think it’s the assistant manager doing it.  I’m going to get this straightened out!  I’ll see you this evening.”  Papa grabbed his briefcase from its spot by the door, and left.

Cari was at the kitchen sink drying her oatmeal bowl when a message from Aunt Teri came over her wireless.  “Not feeling well,” it read.  “Tummy bug of some kind.  I’ll have to beg off this morning.  See you soon!”  Aunt Teri’s never sick, Cari thought.  That’s one more thing to worry about.

Cari tried to push Aunt Teri’s tummy bug out of her mind as she walked to the neighborhood library, a large canvas book bag slung over her shoulder.  It wasn’t far, only a few minutes’ walk.  The library itself was hard to miss.  It was a squat, two story building, made of whitewashed brick with narrow windows in tight groups of three.  Inside, she knew just where to start looking.  She wasn’t a history buff for nothing, after all!  She left with four heavy volumes, musty and dusty from disuse, in her shoulder bag.

Hitting the books

Cari spent the whole day engrossed in her research.  She sat in the kitchen, books beside her.  The first two books didn’t tell her much she wasn’t already familiar with – the Dragonborn Era, the Reconciliation, plus some of the personalities from those turbulent times.  She went over the third book drinking cold snowberry tea on the roof of her home.  This book covered daily life of Skyrim’s common people during the Fourth Era, Nord, Imperial, Merfolk, and Beastfolk.  Cari was intrigued by a discussion of a particular strain of folklore that evolved during that era.  Cari gathered that the folk stories of that era reflected a bitterness towards not only the Empire, but toward the Stormcloaks and Thalmor as well.  That sort of fits, Cari thought.  She wondered if the song she heard (and sang) was part of the folklore the author discussed.

All that reading took Cari late into the afternoon, when she had to make her way back downstairs to start supper.  The noodles were going nicely when Papa arrived.  “How is your project going?”

“My what?” Cari hesitated.  “Oh, that!  I made a lot of progress today, but might need a little more time tomorrow.  How was work?  Did you find out what was going on?”

“Ha!  We got him!” Papa said triumphantly.  “It was just as I thought.  We set up hidden cameras before the assistant manager’s shift started.  We caught him skimming off the tills and trying to blame it on one of the junior workers!”

“What are you going to do to him?” Cari asked, doling out a bowl of noodles for Papa.

“Well, he’s out of a job, now.  We’ll have him charged, of course, but outside of today, we really can’t prove how much money he took.  He’ll probably be fined, or something.”

“Too bad for him,” Cari said.  “Good for your junior clerk, though.”

“It is.  He’s not the brightest kid, but he’s honest and dependable.  I’m glad he was vindicated.”

After supper, Cari continued reading in her room.  The last book concerned ancient Skyrim legends, and it fascinated her.  Looking at the contents, she saw articles about the Dragonborn, Lady Astrid Atwater, Ulfric Stormcloak, and even the origin of the Jot and Miki tales she’d grown up with.  She turned to the index, and looked for “Solitude.”  There were lots of entries.  Cari slowly ran her finger down the list, stopping at the entry for Näktergal.  She gasped.  The night bird with the beautiful song.  Could that fit?

Turning to the proper page, Cari found that the Näktergal topic was part of a larger article on Solitude during the Civil War.  According to the author, Näktergal was a possibly legendary figure, purported to have lived around 4E200.  Little was known about her, but she was said to be a bard of mesmerizing skill.  According to the Learned Berndt, an ancient scholar,

She was a young Nord, of fair and refined countenance.  Her harp and her voice were said to be as one, and all who heard her music felt blessed by the Divines.  The fighting amongst the Nords and the Empire vexed her greatly, and it came to pass that she did exhort, through song, warriors of the Empire, Ulfric Stormcloak, and even the Thalmor to drop their swords and return unto their homes.  It is averred that while the common soldiers did gladly hear her voice, and obey, the generals and kings on all sides were enraged, and declared her an enchantress.  Now, the rest of her deeds and her songs, are they not written in the Acts of the High Kings?

The author added that Näktergal’s fate, if she really existed, is unknown, but it seemed likely that if she managed to make enemies on all sides of the civil war, she couldn’t have had a long life.

It’s her!  Cari thought.  She’s the one.  I’m sure of it!  But she realized there really wasn’t much to go on.  Why the Bard’s College?  Did she study there?  Did she sing in front of the Thalmor embassy?  She had to find out, and made a plan to do that.  She considered calling Aunt Teri, but seeing the time, decided to wait until tomorrow.  After a couple quick calls to Leyda and Anisa, she went to bed, only vaguely aware of the harp and the soft, sad voice, singing her to sleep.

Sondas

After breakfast the next morning, Cari took the tram back up to the historic district.  Bypassing the Bard’s College, she proceeded straight to the Blue Palace Museum and Interpretive Center.  In the entrance hall, she saw a sign advertising an upcoming exhibit entitled “Elspeth in Solitude,” and made a mental note to visit; she treasured the Elspeth story book she received years earlier.  After a moment, she located a docent, a young man of possibly university age, in a dark suit, wearing an earphone.  “Excuse me,” she said as she approached.  “I was wondering if there was anyone here who could tell me about the Näktergal.“

“The Näktergal?  I’m not sure if I’ve heard of that.  What is a Näktergal?”

“She’s kind of a legend,” Cari said.  “I’ve read about her, but I’d like to find out more.”

“Just a moment,” the docent said, and spoke into a small microphone on his collar.  After a moment, he said, “Please follow me.”  He led Cari down a hall to an office labeled “Director.”

The docent left Cari in the company of a slender, elderly, bespectacled man with thinning grey hair.  “I’m Doctor Swenson,” he said.  “I understand you’re curious about the Näktergal.”  He paused to clean his spectacles.  “You’re not one of those ghost hunters, are you?”

Cari was taken aback.  “Ghost hunter?  Oh, no, of course not.”

“Good,” said Doctor Swenson.  “You wouldn’t believe how many people we have coming in here asking for permission to set up all kinds of gadgets to detect disembodied spirits and suchlike.  Nuisances!  I send all of them away.  I understand we get visitors here from all over the world, but this is also a place of scholarship.”  Doctor Swenson emphasized the last word.  “Regardless,” he said, “perhaps you can tell me what you know, and then maybe I can help fill in the gaps.”

Cari did so, omitting any reference to what she’d seen at the Bard’s College or the Thalmor Embassy.  She tried to present herself as a young scholar with a passion for history, which wasn’t far from the truth, really.  Doctor Swenson listened, nodding.  “You actually seem to know a fair amount already,” he said.  “The Näktergal  is considered a legendary figure, but some scholars, myself included, believe she actually existed around the time of the Civil War.  If she really was a bard, she probably trained at the College.  As to her ultimate fate, who knows?  Since her message of pacifism appealed to precisely no-one in power, it stands to reason she was executed, but there is no way to say by whom, or where her final resting place is.”  He cleaned his spectacles again.  “However, since most of the Näktergal stories seem to center on Solitude, I would think that she met her fate here, at the hands of the Imperials.”

Cari was intrigued by the thought and said so.  Then she asked, “These ghost hunters you mentioned – have they been looking for the Näktergal’s ghost?

“Not so far,” said Doctor Swenson.  “I haven’t heard any ghost stories featuring the Näktergal, even though there are countless ghost stories and legends centering on Solitude.”

Cari thanked Doctor Swenson sincerely as she rose to take her leave.  “Good luck with your studies,” Doctor Swenson said.  “I’m glad to see someone with a passion for the past as great as mine is!”

Late that afternoon Cari called Aunt Teri to bring her up to date on her progress.  Aunt Teri was impressed and seemed as excited as Cari was.  Then Cari remembered:  “How are you feeling, by the way?”

“Oh, better, I suppose,” said Aunt Teri.  “Felt dreary this morning, but really, it’s nothing to worry about.  Listen, I have to go.  Uncle Adrian’s taking me out to dinner.  Love you!”

“Love you,” said Cari, disconnecting.  What on Nirn is wrong with Aunt Teri? she wondered.

Worries over Aunt Teri notwithstanding, Cari thought she’d made a lot of progress over the last two days.  As she crawled into bed that night, she thought, I’ve got you now, Frokken Näktergal.  Now just what do you want with me?

Morndas

“Cari!  Oh, how are you?” cried Leyda and Anisa as Cari arrived at school the next morning.  “We were so worried!”

“I’m perfectly fine,” said Cari.  The three girls dodged around the construction barriers leading to the front door.  Workers were digging up the auto park and pouring the foundations for a new tram stop, close to the school.  “The doctor said I was dehydrated.  After all the Megasport I had to drink, I guess I’m better now!”  Cari paused, saying softly, “I’m a little embarrassed to go back into the classroom, though.  Everybody’s going to stare!”

“Oh, they won’t either,” said Leyda.

“We’re just glad to see you well!” said Anisa.

“Well, if you say so,” answered Cari.  Her friends were right, though.  Frokken Karl and her classmates greeted her warmly.  The only snickers came from the two girls she expected them from; she paid as little heed to them as she could.

“Cari Ayalu, I’m so pleased to see you back with us,” said Frokken Karl brightly as the class settled into their desks.  “Today we will continue with our study of ancient epic poetry.  Cari, will you, Leyda, and Anisa come forward and read the first three stanzas of ‘The Saga of Jarl Elisif the Fair?’”

Reluctantly, the three stepped to the front of the classroom with their poetry books.  Cari held up one finger, then pointed to herself.  She would read the first stanza.  Leyda and Anisa followed successively with two and three fingers.  Cari opened her book to the proper page and located the text.  From a corner of the room, she heard someone hiss, “Skyrim is for the Nords!”

Who said that?  While she scanned the room for the culprit, she heard someone else snarl “Traitor!  The Empire is the only thing standing between you and Oblivion!”

Now she was thoroughly confused.  What are they talking about?  Someone else yelled, “The Empire’s the oppressor!  Thalmor lapdog!”

“Talos is just a man, not a god.  You’re a heretic!”

Cari looked around the classroom, but couldn’t identify any faces.  They all blurred together, as if in a thick fog.  She felt fear, then panic rising within her.

“You take that back!  Are you an upright Nord or an Imperial lickspittle?”  Cari futilely covered her ears as she heard the sounds of stomping feet, of fists connecting, of swords leaving their scabbards.  Please, no!  Please don’t do this!  For the love of the Divines, please stop! 

Then Cari began to sing, beautifully:

Yesterday these were thy brothers

And sisters, children of the land.

Why now have you unsheathed your daggers

To put others’ lives in your hand?

Alas for you Skyrim my homeland,

There is no glory for thee!

Thy children all buried in cold graves,

With no end to our misery.

Go to Part II        Go to Part IV


A note about the illustrations: The pictures of Cari and the other characters are screenshots taken while playing The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.  The shots were then manipulated using Paint.net, and occasionally grafted into photos from my personal collection. The following user mods were used for this story:

*Special note:  If you’ve been playing Oblivion or Skyrim without Vilja by your side, you really haven’t been playing at all!  In my opinion, she’s the most unforgettable companion mod in the Elder Scrolls universe.  Go here for the Oblivion version, or here for the Skyrim version.