The tents perched on the edge of the precipice: they challenged the steep mountainside and the valley beneath and the fiery summit above. A formation of rocks protected the tents from the might of wayward winds, and their walls were held in place with thick, wiry ropes and pegs which were hammered into unyielding earth and sealed with magic. Their outer coverings were made up of large pieces of dirt-gray sackcloth and stripped of vivid, colorful ornaments and blazons which could betray their presence to an unlikely observer. They were cheerless like the ill-tempered sky, and they would be gone by daybreak.
The triumphant leader’s marquee would be often marked with fanciful ribbons and symbols of power and prestige, but Nerevar didn’t want to attract unwanted attention and lived in the same tiny, faceless, ordinary tent. The Hortator’s chosen few were of all walks of life: the Ashlander scouts slept side by side with the Indoril guard, and guar riders of House Redoran walked abreast of Dres spearmen. The war erased all differences and the constant presence of danger made them forgetful.
A flat patch of land stretched behind the rock formation. It seemed as though nothing has ever grown on it: no sickly tree could find a crack to spread its roots, nor seed – a groove with fertile soil. A strange piece of machinery dominated the clearing; it resembled a tower leaning in the wind if the existence of such a thing did not mock all laws of reason and it emitted a low rumble barely on the edge of hearing, an echo of a song deep within the bones of the earth. (2) Perhaps it was the Dwemeri device that killed the last remnants of the stunted life that had made the inhospitable wasteland its home, or the cold, sunless winter which reigned in the Ashland regions after the eruption of the Red Mountain, but whatever the cause, the clearing was stark and if it wasn’t for the mist, the sentries would see a great accumulation of fires and many-colored tents with merry banners and bannerets, and pretty ribbons, and figures moving to and fro in senseless ado, and beyond, hills rising and falling in a cadence of elusive beauty which was incomprehensible to the most erudite of the Dwemer yet obvious to a simple fisherman.
It was a strange place: the sun and shadows seemed to have vanished, and snow neighbored upon pools of steaming lava. Light came through the ever-present pall of ash in pale streaks, and no matter the time of day, the air they breathed seemed a gray emptiness. As the day declined, an uncanny, dark-red halo would appear on the firmament now and then – a star of wrath, a sign of impending doom, an imprint of Boethiah’s bloody hand. (3) The sight of it wearied the already weary minds of men and mer, and they gathered by the feeble fires to talk of frightful metallic armies of the Dwarves and tightly hugged their guars.
The small Chimer force advanced inexorably towards the summit of the Red Mountain.
The low, steady rumble haunted them. It wasn’t just the sound they heard; it was a tremor they sensed in their bones, a reverberation in the air they felt on their skin.
Voryn had trouble resting on most nights, but near the source of the Dwemer machinery, as they closed in on their sacred Citadel, he couldn’t get a wink of sleep. If he shut his eyes, he’d see the Heart of the World in its brass armature of pipes, tubes and cranks, pulsating with brilliant light in tune with his own heart, with the hearts of everyone on Tamriel – the Heart of the World which produced that terrifying and elusive Primary Tone whereof Radak often babbled like an excited child. (4)
‘We shatter the Primary Tone and mend it on a whim,’ he told Voryn. ‘Kagrenac invented the tools for it, and he swore that the Heart couldn’t harm us. I can’t fathom how it’s possible. The quaternary tones are dangerous, though we’ve studied them and manipulated them for many centuries. Before Kagrenac became Chief Tonal Architect, we’ve only theorized about the existence of the Primary Tone. It was in our formulae transcribing the laws of nature, but we could not detect it among myriads of other tones, we could not dream of manipulating it. We were deaf, that’s the truth.’
Nerevar didn’t seem to sense anything.
“Dumac will surrender,” he said when Voryn came to his tent one evening to escape the perpetual chill of winter. It was the evening after they attempted to lead a frontal assault against the Dwemer armies. Their foolishness had cost House Redoran its infantry: the kinsmen and lawmen of the warrior House laid down their lives, protecting a patch of frozen ground and waiting for reinforcements that never came.
“Dumac will surrender,” Nerevar repeated as if to convince himself, “when he understands that he is at a considerable disadvantage. It’s only a matter of time. A few Dwemer clans left for Skyrim, the armies of Barysimayn are more steel and brass than the living, breathing mer willing to fight for a cause… I’m confident in our victory and I know Dumac cares deeply for his people, so he’ll surrender.”
That confidence cost him: there was a new web of wrinkles under his eyes, and a sharpness in his features that showed even in the forgiving glow of the warm afternoon sun. He readily twisted his well-defined mouth in disdain, frowned often and smiled rarely, and though Voryn understood that this dastardly war had caused him much misery, his heart ached when he looked at the sun eclipsed.
They’ve both aged.
“But Kagrenac won’t yield to you,” said Vivec, playing with his spear. His chitin armor was reinforced with ebony and inlaid with gold, and he seemed so fragile in it and so tired. “Kagrenac is too proud to understand reason, or he has his own reasons which are beyond our understanding. You’ll have to wipe out his armies of Animunculi and sever his connection to the Heart of the World.”
“No, that’s not enough. We’ll have to fight him to the death.”
“Fight to the death…” muttered Voryn. “You make it sound like another entertaining duel in the Arena.”
“Isn’t the Mournhold Arena an embodiment of an all-encompassing Arena of Tamriel? Of Nirn? Isn’t our ancient tradition a reflection of our common struggles and petty triumphs? We fight Boethiah’s bloody battles to overcome titanic obstacles, we chase illusory dreams, or we seek to return to a paradise beyond the horizon… In everything we do, we sever ourselves from the world around us.” Nerevar said, furious. “The air we breathe, the sea whose beauty we admire, the people we love… all meaningless, ephemeral. Happiness is vanity! What lies beyond – the most foolish of illusory dreams – is the only real thing. I’m tired of it… This world, our mortal life, our love and ambition… Nothing else means a thing to me. So, to Malacath with the Heart of the World, with Kagrenac. I pray for this war to end.”
“Nerevar, please, don’t talk like that,” whispered Voryn just as Almalexia made her entrance, with appropriate aplomb. She heard Nerevar’s last words and not much of their discussion beyond that.
“I, too, pray for this war to end,” she echoed; her eyes lingered on Vivec until he, too, looked up from the floor and gave her a glance full of affection. Their affair was no more secret than Voryn’s and Nerevar’s, but out of high esteem, or fear, or obsessive reverence for obscure signs and omens, few openly talked about it.
“What’s the mood in the camp?”
“Grim. I’ve just met with a Redoran Councilor and she told me outright that she considered withdrawing to save whatever remains of her House. We can’t make a mistake like that again. I had to promise her… I had to beg her, and where were you, Nerevar? Where were you when I had to practically beg her to stay another day?” Almalexia tossed her helmet into the corner of the tent. In a dirty suit of armor which was once the azure of the sky and the gold of the wickwheat fields, with her head uncovered, she was just as pitiful as the rest of them.
“So many Chimer died in that senseless siege, and you’re worried about expressing a little humility. I was in my tent, thinking.”
“Nerevar, spare me -”
“You shouldn’t have come to quibble -”
“Nerevar and I were talking about a subtle stratagem,” Vivec interrupted them in emphatic tones. “A little trickery. The Dwemer don’t expect it from us. They’re scattered and desperate, fighting the Nords in the south and our armies at the Red Mountain, but they still have the might of their Animunculi. They can’t charge us head-on, but they have the advantage. Their armies do not tire, they don’t need food or drink. And it’s a long, torturous climb uphill for anyone who dares storm their fortress.”
“They think we can gain entrance to their lower facilities only through the main gates, but there’s another path,” added Nerevar. “They aren’t going to guard it if something distracts their attention. It’s a well-hidden path. Dumac showed it to me when we were talking about… when we were meeting in secret to discuss our alliance and the imminent war with the Nords, when Dahrk Mezalf forged Moon-and-Star… Do you think that stubborn old Nord, Ysmir, will agree to help us with the distraction?”
“Ah, he can do more than that,” muttered Almalexia, smiling.
Boethiah’s hands are stained with blood.
The Chimer force was ambushed on the second day of their arduous climb. The fiery summit was so close that they could see the smoldering crater, the scattering of thin elegant spires, and the awkward monolith of the watchtower. The Dwemer sentries would surely notice them if it wasn’t for the ash and smoke which blinded their wondrous devices, and in the evening, the clouds burst with icy rain and it was difficult to see anything beyond the length of one’s arm.
The weather aided them and mocked them, and the ill-begotten scheme which seemed so promising in the beginning became less and less attractive by the hour.
It was an ordinary patrol of five spheres and a steam centurion, but they moved unhindered by the night and foul weather, and the Chimer sentries were blind, too, in that terrible gloom, though they wore amulets of night-eye and cast detect spells.
Voryn heard a commotion and stepped out of his tent. Vemyn and Odros were fighting a sphere without magic or fiery weapons, so as not to attract the attention of sentries atop the watchtower. It was notoriously difficult to fight the Dwemer constructs with common weapons. The cheap steel swords shattered, the armor bent, and encumbered the wearer, and the Animunculi had few weaknesses and attacked with unrelenting determination.
But the steam colossus was by far the most dangerous of the Dwemer Animunculi. It was a perfect war machine – untiring in its heavy armor, resistant to magic, impenetrable to simple weapons. It was deceptively fast and incredibly powerful. Nerevar was wont to be in the thick of fray, and faithful to his habits, he faced the centurion with Alandro Sul by his side.
By Vemyn’s and Odros’s efforts, the sphere was missing its sword-arm, and soon they would hack it to pieces. Voryn cocooned himself in a weave of illusion spells, unsheathed his dagger, and tiptoed across the shallow ravine, aiming to slip his dagger into the tangle of wires between the centurion’s head and shoulders.
The magic protected him from the rain which by then subsided into a light drizzle, but the heavy, wet flakes of ash fell everywhere and it was difficult to see something so small as the tiny crack in the centurion’s durable mail.
Nerevar sank on one knee and covered himself with his shield, holding it above his head, while the centurion stubbornly struck its metal fist against it over and over. Alandro Sul snuck behind it with a mace and tried to topple it by crushing its knees while it was distracted by an obstacle that refused to budge. The noise was terrible – the harsh creaking of metal, the hissing of steam, grunts and groans; it was a miracle they were far enough from the Dwemer watchtower and their sentries didn’t hear this confluent tumult.
Voryn waited until Alandro Sul damaged its right leg so that it leaned to the side and he struck swiftly, as if Azura herself guided his hand that night. The dagger from fine Daedric metal, infused with the pain of hundreds of tormented anima, cut through the wiring as if it were made of butter, and the centurion froze, with is head humbly bowed and its fiery eyes extinguished.
Voryn jumped off the pile of useless Dwemer metal and extended Nerevar an arm.
Later, Voryn came to his tent and having said not one word, wrapped his arms around Nerevar’s shoulders and kissed the blood off his lips. They lost a few Chimer to the Animunculi, and after the servants covered their bodies with sackcloth, they tossed them off the cliffs. There was no honorable burial for them: no singing of traditional hymns, no ritualistic markings on the body, no ornamental shrouds. No grieving mother wept for them, and their reproachful ghosts would dwell in the cliffs for a while.
Voryn wondered, absent-mindedly, what made him so daring.
A decade before the incident, Radak introduced Voryn to a learned Dwemer scholar from Kherakah. She was a strange sort: a typical Dwemer, but Voryn didn’t know many typical Dwemer, hence he considered her – Phng – strange. He couldn’t properly pronounce her name which, in Chimer language, lacked vowels despite her people’s affinity to a certain musicality. When Voryn tried to say it out loud, it came out wrong – a curt, constrained sound – and mentally, he mangled it and fixed it so that it fit his comprehension.
It was the greatest tragedy of their people.
The Dwemer never divided their history into Eras – there was no Dawn Era, no waning years poetically called the Gloaming, and the notion of the First Era found its way into their vernacular a few years after their alliance with the Chimer was secured with their shared victory over the Nords. They had to find a common ground during their negotiations.
Phng was one of Kagrenac’s most staunch supporters, and she vehemently espoused his Logic. She developed a system of measurement no less mysterious than Kagrenac’s theories, relying in her calculations on the various stages of planar darkening. Though Voryn had grown awfully curious about the Dwemer way of life and their astounding scientific discoveries, he wasn’t keen on listening to Phng’s appropriately solemn lectures on the tonal phasing of Oblivion Planes. She was very fond of the subject, but where Radak expressed his fondness with infectious zeal, his eyes alight and words verging on incoherent prattle, Phng gave into vanity and drawled to accentuate the gravity of her speeches as if haste was inherently adverse to wisdom.
The Dwemer – and Phng was a typical Dwemer – abhorred hurry in any endeavor: they were persistent, methodical, and faultfinding, and they spent many hours a day in contemplation, for the passing of time observed in dusks, dawns and changing seasons didn’t mean a thing underground. Stars were enslaved in abstract charts, beauty was transcribed in the elegance of numbers, and perhaps the true source of all misunderstandings between their people was the absence of light.
It was the first time the Dwemer let Voryn inside Kherakah, and the gatekeeper agreed to lead him through a web of tortuous tunnels after he put on a heavy brass mask in which he saw and heard nothing. Phng would show him the wonders of Kherakah a few times before the war began, but on that occasion, Voryn glimpsed a cozy workshop of an alchemist who was a thrice-removed apprentice of a Master Crafter in service of the Chief Tonal Architect. Needless to say, Voryn wasn’t impressed with the schemata of sublimation and sophisticated alchemical apparatus.
Phng had a remarkably expressive face with a wide nose, full lips and deep, dark eyes which observed the world from under the arches of thick eyebrows with unnerving intensity.
“I want to tell you a tale, Voryn of House Dagoth,” she said, fixing her eyes on him as if to read his most sacred thoughts, “a tale little known to your people. The popular name of the island of Vvardenfell is Dwemeri. It means the city of the Strong Shield. Before your people came here, there used to be only one enormous Dwemer city. It occupied the entirety of northern Vvardenfell, the island that it is now.”
“What happened to it?”
“Disputes of faith… Don’t look so surprised. The ancient Dwemer understood reason and faith very differently from us. What is reason and what defies reason? We used these words flippantly until such a time came when our ancestors asked ourselves the unavoidable question… There were those among us who staunchly believed that reason was similar to moderation, that for a meaningful conversation about reason to take place, boundaries must exist. If knowledge is understanding of causes, divinity meant a cause beyond which there could be no further cause. Not the entities you call the Daedra, or the Aedra. They were mere shadows that obscured the true causes. No, we looked beyond, in wonder, and we found something.” Phng said it with a haunted expression, but her voice remained eerily steady and calm. “And it shattered our understanding of boundaries and challenged our deductions, revealing them as nothing more than mere superstitions. Moderation, too, is a kind of faith… The city of Vvardenfell ceased to be, torn apart by disagreements, which, to tell you the truth, were rather inconsequential. The schism started a long time ago, but Kagrenac invigorated the stale disputes and proposed a new theory, uniting the old outlooks and the new while never denying the rightness of either.”
“Good for Kagrenac, I suppose. And it’s all quite fascinating, I assure you, but I didn’t understand much of what you told me, and Radak promised -”
It was Nerevar who always spoke of riddles with fascination. (5)
Phng shook her head. “Surface-mer are always in such a hurry. One day you’ll understand it, Voryn of House Dagoth. One day both of us will understand it.”
When Voryn met Nerevar, all pieces of the riddle seemed to have finally fallen into place.
There are men whose lives are not their own. Voryn was one of those men. He was supposed to serve his brother Morin after he became the new Grandmaster, and when he died at so tender an age, Voryn didn’t know what would become of him. He was a shadow thrust into sunlight, a servant to a dead lord, a figurehead of a Great House that was never his to lead. He lost clarity of purpose and faith. He met death face to face, stared into its hollow eyes, and embraced the disheartening absurdity of it all.
Voryn ruled because it was expected of him to take up the Grandmaster’s mantle, but there was no joy in it for him. The onerous duty burdened him, but the mere thought of renouncing it for Odros’s sake, of failing to keep his promise to Morin and mocking tradition terrified him. He had to choose between carrying the burden of obligation or the burden of shame, to sacrifice himself to his House or his House to his selfish desires. The Serpent’s curse haunted him – he was the most blessed and the most wretched of men.
When Nerevar came and announced his bold dream to free Resdayn from under the yoke of the Nords, Voryn plunged headlong into the whirlpool of a destiny which wasn’t his.
“Oh, Nerevar, what have I done? What have I done, for you? They’ll never forgive me. Do you hear me? Never!” Voryn repeated, for an umpteenth time, resting his head against Nerevar’s chest. “I can’t bear it any longer!”
Nerevar put his strong arm around Voryn’s shoulders and kissed him gently on the forehead.
“It’s all right. I won’t let it happen, do you hear me? After the war, I’ll tell everyone about what you’ve done. No one will dare think of you as a traitor.”
Voryn shivered, pressing his lips to Nerevar’s warm skin in a feverish kiss. “No, don’t say anything. Let them praise you! I don’t need their praise.”
“What do you want, Voryn, dear?”
He wanted to say something lofty and bitter along the lines of ‘I can’t have what I want most,’ but it would have been a sweet lie – he’s always had it, but he was a doomed man who had made an awful mistake, and he was terrified he’d lost it.
“I want you to say it to me… Yes, I want to hear you say it, word for word. ‘Your sacrifice wasn’t for nothing, Voryn. We didn’t betray every oath we swore. This victory will not be a shameful affair.’ Say it, please.”
“It wasn’t for nothing, Voryn. Your sacrifice wasn’t in vain. We’ll have our victory tomorrow.”
“And the disgrace and dishonor of it all?”
“Defeat is worse than death.”
Voryn leaned back against the pillow, remembering the azure of the sky and the gold of the wickwheat fields, and in the dazzle of frills, a youthful face unblemished by worry and doubt, like the radiance of the sun.
“I believe you,” he whispered.
‘I believe you,’ Voryn said a long time ago, as he dropped his gaze with a mixture of embarrassment and elation and performed an awkward gesture which started off as a formal bow.
“A bit gloomy for pillow talk,” remarked Nerevar, jaunty as ever. He threw his leg across Voryn’s legs and lay down beside him, idly wiggling his toes. “Do you think Vivec is in Almalexia’s tent right now?”
“I hope so. I think at this very moment, he props himself up on his elbow and asks her: ‘Do you think Voryn is in Nerevar’s tent right now?’ But Almalexia is too tired to answer, so she only nods her head.”
“Maybe we should sleep, too. It will be a long day tomorrow. Who knows, we may have to do battle for many hours. That proud fool Dumac won’t surrender unless he recognizes the hopelessness of his position.”
“I can’t sleep.”
“Why? What’s bothering you? Old memories, old scars? Tell me, Voryn, don’t withdraw into yourself now.”
“It’s the noise.”
“What noise? It’s the patter of rain outside.”
“The Dwemer machines… I hear them everywhere.” Voryn buried his face in Nerevar’s blouse. It was something Phng said to him or showed him, or his insight into the workings of the Dwemer world was gradual, and one day he woke up and heard that music, which was more than music, and he didn’t even notice the difference.
“I’m not sure -”
“It’s fine, I don’t mind it… Do you know what I’m thinking about? There’s a spell I’ve been meaning to teach you. Raise your hand like that, reach for the stars, cross your middle finger and your index finger… Yes, just like that. After the war, I’ll teach you a confusion spell. It works well on mudcrabs. They’ll eat from your hand instead of trying to bite it off.”
“Is that a promise?”
Nerevar lowered his hand and caressed Voryn’s cheek, touched his chin, his nose, playfully tapped a finger on his upper lip. “That you won’t run off and try to die like you’ve done… oh, I’ve lost count how many times. There was that fight in the Arena when we faced the Daedric Titan for the first time.”
“Why, of course, it’s a promise.”
It was love that made him bold.
** This short story alludes and uses quotations from V. Hugo “Les Miserables”
*** As a treat to all Russian readers, a translation (HERE) by a very talented writer and translator Aldariel on ficbook — highly recommended by yours truly for the immersive Russian Morrowind experience.