Dagoth Ur is dead, and he must be dreaming.
There is, perhaps, a certain irony in his undoing – an irony none of those who came in contact with the Heart of the dead god are able to escape. The Trickster deity was betrayed and sundered by his own kin, and so they, too, had to suffer the same fate over and over again: the treason of false expectations, the faithlessness of lovers and clan, the bitterness of unfulfilled ambition.
Dagoth Ur should remember nothing, but the accursed memory stirs within him from time to time to torment him, and in his unending not-being, he sees scraps and shreds of dreams.
Who said that death should afford happiness or peace? But if he were truly dead, how could he be dreaming?
After the bloodbath in Bal Fell, Voryn returned to Kogoruhn – the clanstead of House Dagoth – but he did not linger there and returned to the shrine after a week of respite. During his short stay in Kogoruhn, he managed to quarrel with his brother Gilvoth for the umpteenth time and he refused to wait until he could walk without wincing from pain in his shoulder. As soon as he felt well, he took with him a small company of Chimer and, at the end of the second week, in the dead of night, they disembarked from the ships near the accursed Daedric ruin.
The city lay dead, buried in dense shrubbery, with mist and moonlight its grave-cloth. Shapeless bushes rustled and writhed in the quiet wind, assuming, when clustered together, awe-aspiring and terrible forms – there sprawled a giant serpent and beside it a ferocious nix hound. Unseen presences which clung to imagination haunted the distance, and tall grass appeared as tentacles twining around their prey. A thin wisp of gray smoke colored the starless sky where they piled up the corpses and torched them – the fire which should have died, the embers which should have blackened lived a sinister semblance of life. No queer noises disturbed the tomb-like silence save for an occasional whisper and stir of the grass or sea, those ghostly sounds of night.
Voryn gave the order to enter the shrine and search for clues in whatever shape they may appear, but by the entrance door, which was left ajar by the company of mer, he was overwhelmed by superstitious terror. The black door seemed to him a gate into the depths of Oblivion, the smoke in the sky a gloom foreboding. Rivulets of dried blood could be seen in bright moonshine and pieces of broken, bloodied weaponry, but a few steps further darkness swallowed the last glimpses of light, ebbing and rippling like murky water. In simple words, it was too dense to be nightly air.
Voryn hesitated to send anyone into the shrine alone and told his chap’thil to fall back to the mushroom tower where they last saw the strange fire. It happened to be an ordinary fire, nothing odd or ill-boding was seen around it, and the mystery of its origins was solved when Gurak dragged a pair of frightened looters out of the bushes. Their many pockets were filled with pieces of gold, silver and ebony jewelry of finest craftsmanship, with Indoril and Telvanni crests engraved on the insides. There could be no doubt about who owned it once: the disfigured dead which were piled up and hastily burnt by Nerevar’s faithful guard. Voryn shuddered with disgust, burying his face in his palms for a moment – a brief moment of hesitation and helplessness was all a Grandmaster could afford to feel. For quite some time he couldn’t sleep well, reliving every painful moment of the battle when his mind longed rest, but as the visions faded, his thoughts grew somber, troubling him more than the dreams. Staring into the fire, he reminisced.
‘If one of the House nobles burnt a village, there would be repercussions,’ he thought. ‘Someone would be executed, others jailed, gold or land would be given to the aggrieved persons. Even the Hortator would not stand in the way of a Morag Tong writ. But how do you execute a Daedric Prince? What a ludicrous thought! But they don’t think about it. It doesn’t seem wrong to them or unfair. A natural order of things, they would say… Is it wrong to want justice because justice isn’t infallible?’
“Oh, what nonsense am I thinking?” he interrupted himself aloud. “Our Hortator is not infallible, but we need him… Then what do I want? What am I seeking in these dark ruins strewn with the charred bones of the dead? Gurak!” Voryn raised his voice, turning away from the fire.
“I’m here, serjo.” The Orc’s face could not be seen in darkness, except for a pair of long fangs; he never strayed far away from the fire and answered Voryn’s call at once. “Should we go inside?”
“No, we can’t. I don’t think it’s safe. I’ll send in thieves who stripped the dead bodies of our brave and good warriors of jewelry and gold. It’s a fitting punishment for them. If the shrine is safe, they can go unharmed. Bring them to me at once!”
The two looters stood before him, trembling from head to toe, but in Voryn’s heart there wasn’t a grain of pity for them. One of them was an Argonian and the other a tall, thin Chimer; both were dressed in rags, and over those rags were thrown pieces of expensive garb – a scarf, a skirt, a torn-off lapel of a robe decorated with delicate spider-silk lace. Voryn considered it all the more despicable for a Chimer to loot the bodies of Chimeri warriors.
“Anything you wish to say in your defense? Any last words?”
“Mercy! Mercy!” screamed the Chimer, throwing himself at Voryn’s feet.
“Pray to Azura for mercy. It’s in her hands now. Gurak, take them to Molag Bal’s shrine and lock the door behind them.”
The looters were pushed through the door with sharp spearheads, and the greedy darkness swallowed them. For some time, Voryn stood with his ear pressed to the surface, listening, but after the mutterings and feeble prayers subsided, he had not heard a sound. The two mer disappeared as though they never existed. Voryn’s chap’thil looked inside, called for the thieves, promised a pardon and a boon, but the hours went by, they were parched with thirst and the thieves gave no sign of life. A true mystery unfolded before Voryn’s eyes, and he no longer craved to solve it for Nerevar or in the name of elusive justice – no, he wanted the answer for himself.
And so, at dawn, he summoned Azura.
It was not an easy feat to attract the attention of a capricious goddess. Only in Holamayan, at dawn or dusk on a day when winter met spring, she was said to answer the prayers of her faithful followers and appear before them for a short time. But rumors were afloat that it was possible to ask her for guidance on any day if it wasn’t for not a trifling reason like choosing a newborn’s name or which seed to sow to reap a plentiful harvest. Azura exacted utmost devotion from the worshipers and love; when the summoner was ready, he needed to gather a knotty stem of draggle-tail, dried petals of golden sedge and fire fern, and burn them slowly until the smoke exuded a pleasant aroma while reciting an invocation from memory (reading the words was said to offend the goddess):
“I call upon Her
Who exists in everything and who
Rules over Dusk and Dawn,
Mer and Men,
Appear before me, oh mother of Rose!”
Voryn did as he was told by a wandering priest he met a hundred years or so ago when he traveled to the Red Mountain to parley with Dumac. When the final word of the prayer was carried away to the pale sky, oppressive silence ensued, shadows gathered behind him, the fitful wind tore off a ribbon from his tent, but the fretful goddess didn’t respond. Voryn threw more flower petals into the fire and cried out louder, ‘I beseech you, Azura!’ and it was once again in vain. A deep dejection fell upon him, but when he had lost all hope, a silhouette of a woman rose above the sea. Voryn could not see her well, but her face he remembered for a very long time: a woman’s face with a star of wrath burning on her forehead, a dark gaze, a small gentle mouth and a scattering of pink and lilac clouds instead of her hair. It was Azura’s countenance; the immovable countenance of the righteous.
Azura was undeniably one of the principal goddesses of the Chimer people.
It was Boethiah who, taking the form of Trinimac, seduced some of the Altmer to forswear their basic beliefs and impelled Veloth to lead an exodus of an entire tribe to the distant lands of Resdaynia, and it was Mephala who taught these changed ones how to fend for themselves, but only Azura helped them understand the esoteric mysteries of that profound change. Boethiah and Mephala had laid a cornerstone while Azura built an indestructible house upon it. The notable Chimer scholars considered it fashionable to conduct heated debates on the importance of each of the aforementioned Daedric Princes in the founding of Resdayn. Azura’s popularity remained unmatched for two hundred years.
Voryn could not doubt the veracity of Azura’s words. For a Chimer to deny his goddess unconditional faith meant to reject himself; cutting off a limb or two would seem to him more rational. If he beheld the living deity in person, religious fervor would fill his heart and it was unthinkable to suspect him of harboring doubts when he should feel rapturous joy. But Azura’s words were incredible, and Voryn’s mind reeled when he tried to grasp their meaning, sitting in a frail boat which carried him to one of the islands south of Bal Fell. Their vague simplicity confounded him; their amazing complexity captivated him.
“Listen to my words, mortal, and listen carefully,” Azura told him as he knelt before her, morning dew on his palms and dirt on the hem of his robe. “It is I, Azura, who had closed off the shrine for evils abound in it which no mortal should see. Death is the punishment for anyone who dares open it. Tell Nerevar to seek answers elsewhere and call my priestesses to the shrine to cleanse it from the foul magic of Molag Bal’s priests… My champion, Nerevar, can withstand that evil,” the goddess continued. “He is a mer of remarkable character; evil doesn’t interest him. I gave him power, wealth, youth, and wisdom and demanded in return but one notorious quality of a Chimer – curiosity. The numerous ifs and hows and whys do not test his soul. But it is not my intention to protect him from the many dangers which lurk in the shadows. If he seeks my wisdom, tell him to travel to the ancient burial ground on the slopes of the Red Mountain and retrieve for me a book titled ‘Ten Revelations of Azura’ from an impertinent priestess who stole it from my temple. Afterwards, he is to return that book to the Temple library in Mournhold. He must summon me at dawn of the next day and I’ll tell him what he needs to know. Farewell, mortal, for the power of the summoning ritual is weak and so is your faith.”
After the goddess vanished, Voryn ordered Gurak to board the ships and return to Kogoruhn while he would try to deliver Azura’s message to Nerevar at Mournhold. The ships had set sail, and soon Voryn was left alone on the island of the dead, with only his thoughts and hesitation to accompany him. As the light dispelled encroaching darkness, the shapeless mass of the Daedric ruin emerged on the horizon painted in soft morning hues to torment him with deceitful placidity of a graveyard. Life demonstrated a remarkable ability to forget. During the tumultuous years of the early Merethic era, to oblivion were consigned people, cities, and gods, but life had prevailed. It timidly returned to Bal Fell, too. Orange-and-blue frogs hopped from one patch of grass to another, blades of draggle-tail rose from puddles of fresh water, crimson berries swelled up on comberry bushes, luminous mushrooms twinkled in the distance, and one could feel heat emitted by the warm earth. What does a mer fear more than death of body and soul? Why do dying fathers hurry to appease their alienated sons and solitude torments an old childless widow? Nude women, plump and svelte, old and young, dance to the beat of a guar drum, praying to their twisted Prince to escape a most cruel punishment – to be forgotten.
Preoccupied with uneasy thoughts, Voryn drew a figure with a sharp end of a stick to calculate the coordinates of a place he would have to choose for the teleportation spell to work properly. Upon the figure he depicted the three main constellations and highlighted the main star of the Warrior since it happened to be the first day of Last Seed. Teleportation spells were known for their instability; if the caster did not utter an incantation in close proximity to the destination, he could not predict which direction he would travel. Voryn could end up in Solstheim if he weren’t careful.
At last, he found a reliable location somewhere in the sea, on one of the small islands which surrounded Bal Fell in multitude and with deliberation headed down a path near the stream to the wharf where he hoped to spot a fisherman’s boat. He didn’t hope in vain, for immediately he noticed a wooden hull lying on a stony beach. Sacks of dried herbs and saltrice were scattered about the boat and an oar was attached to its side. By the time Voryn, who was never of particularly robust constitution, pushed the wretched vessel into the sea and emptied it of all cargo with no small difficulty, he was tired and wet through and through. He hadn’t eaten since he landed in Bal Fell and when he left the shade of the undergrowth, he felt dizzy under the sweltering sun, but the hour was late, and he would rather be tormented by hunger than his own conscience which impatiently urged him forward. In such matters even the smallest delay could result in a deadly confrontation between mighty forces of fate and chance.
Voryn rowed awhile against the tide and then it was fog which impeded him, but in less than an hour since he left Bal Fell, his boat slammed into a rocky shore and he allowed himself to rest a bit. He stared into the limpid waters and he saw the sea shells and the small fish until it was frightened away by a dreugh who did not dare attack but watched him from afar; he gazed at the bending sky and counted birds as they fearlessly pecked at the stones beside him; and in it, for a moment, he found some measure of consolation. Then he uttered the incantation, and walls of the temple ousted the sea and its inhabitants from view.
The brief Council meeting did not go well.
Nerevar was glad that quite a few Councilors were unable to attend it, including Voryn Dagoth, but the danger was very much palpable. All the squabbling along with the incident at Bal Fell threatened to undermine his efforts to introduce an important land reform to allow the House lords and the Ashlanders to settle some of their bitterest disputes.
“I didn’t expect it from Almalexia,” Nerevar muttered under his breath. “And now, to make it all worse, Dumac won’t be happy.”
The Hortator of all Resdaynia leaned against the wall and slipped a large bronze key into a keyhole, turning it until it clicked twice. The door opened into a spiral stairwell, which ended abruptly after three complete loops, and there stood a guard, neither more nor less than a silent, immovable statue. Nerevar greeted him and went deeper into the bowels of the Mournhold palace. It was here, in the intricate webbing of the underground tunnels which no one memorized or depicted on a map, away from the fidgety palace life, that Sotha Sil abandoned himself to the studies of all mysteries wondrous and dangerous. When the palace guard was out of earshot, Nerevar continued his sullen monologue.
“It was such boldness, such foolishness on her part. What did she promise Melen so that he lent her his ear? Military aid in the never-ending conflict with Hlaalu? Archmagister Cardea is prudent by nature, and her fear of dubious political affairs had grown only stronger after Telvanni involvement at Bal Fell. And Galmis Hlaalu… What could possibly connect them? What could they gain from listening to her drivel? Nonsense, all of it!”
Nerevar passed by a tall statue to Boethiah which was portrayed with a snake-like visage, brandishing a notched sword, and from there the path steadily descended and grew narrower until it was naught more than a strip of land before his eyes. The mossy walls around him were dripping with water whose origin he never contemplated before this very moment, as he was passing by the sculpture to their patron deity of such meticulous and minute carving that wrinkles could be seen on her face – in Nerevar’s mind, Boethiah appeared as a woman, a heroic yet merciless temptress – and he concluded there was an underground current somewhere nearby. Why did it matter to him? A hundred times he came down to see his teacher and no paltry thoughts of such kind troubled his mind, but they were important to him all at once, as if he could no more dwell on the sheer enormity of Almalexia’s offense than confine himself to his room.
At the end of the path, Sotha Sil’s laboratory came into view, dry and barren, and devoid even of a modicum of comfort. It was a cave, but in his surroundings Nerevar always noticed traces of magic – a wall too smooth or an unnatural prominence which would soon disappear, or a Dwemer device of intricate design, huffing and puffing, and cluttering about. This time it was an odd contraption in the shape of a large sphere from which protruded a metal body of a Dwemer warrior with very thin arms. It didn’t look much like a centurion sphere, but the undeniable resemblance suggested that it was Sotha Sil’s replica of the original Dwemeri design.
Sotha Sil towered above a stone table where he examined another sphere, tall, slim and battle-scarred. Nerevar knew him to be the darkest among the sons and daughters of Veloth: the ardent sun of the southern provinces burnt his swarthy, bony face with a thin nose and high, hollow cheekbones. He had a scar on his face ever since his village went up in flames; his family perished, his house burnt to the ground, his lord and father was slain in front of him and he survived with but a scar which was not large enough to be a deformity.
When he noticed Nerevar, he put down an odd-looking instrument – a Tonal Modulator – and greeted Nerevar with a warm smile.
“You wouldn’t come down here often, but recently you became a frequent visitor to my place. I suspect it has something to do with her. That strange Daedra.”
“Ah, Sotha Sil,” said Nerevar, his countenance grim. “You can’t say you aren’t even a little bit curious about her. Your obsession with forbidden magics would put to shame any self-respecting Telvanni. And your pride doesn’t let you abandon your studies… What did you find out?”
The strange creature they brought from Bal Fell was here, too, on Sotha Sil’s insistence, and Nerevar felt her gaze fixating on him as he entered. She would look at him through the thick grating of her cage, pleading wordlessly to set her free, to return her to her beloved master, but he would always turn away, indifferent to her despair.
“It was written in the ancient times that our World assumed the shape of an enormous, immeasurable Wheel, with Nirn at its center, as a sort of a hub whereat the spokes, known to us as the Earth’s Bones, intercept. It is an old legend that predates the events of the late Merethic era. Some say prophet Veloth brought this knowledge with him from Summerset Isles. With it, the theory of the soul gradient was born. Mudcrabs and other animals possess lesser souls than we, Chimeri. A daedroth’s soul can fit into a large gem while Azura’s is colossal, unfathomable… Nirn is a product of a design, which we call creation, and at its pinnacle – or I should say on the outer rim of the wheel – reside the primordial spirits.”
“And how does it explain her?”
“If creation of Mundus began with an architect like Lorkhan or Magnus, then our spirit is a construct ten, twenty, two hundred gradients below the divine. We are shadows, paint dabs of a sacred artist on the canvas of the world.” Sotha Sil closed his eyes. “But, say, someone – Molag Bal or Mehrunes Dagon – attempted to foil the architect’s design. Imagine a natural process reversed by an unholy plan. Imagine anti-creation. Four souls taken by force, four souls offered willingly…”
“But for what purpose? What would Molag Bal dream to achieve by performing gruesome rituals for melding souls?” exclaimed Nerevar. “By Azura, what have I done to invoke wrath of all the Princes in the realm?! Almalexia and now you -”
“Nerevar, don’t swing your arms frantically. Calm yourself and tell me what it is that bothers you so.”
It was always unnerving to see Nerevar’s genial goodwill eclipsed by sudden aloofness. It would take possession of him, grim and resolute, at a glimpse of a suspicion aroused by one misspoken word.
“It’s a dangerous knowledge,” the Hortator said, choosing his words with care. “I’m not a wizard, but even I know that our souls shouldn’t be used in terrible experiments. Some riddles exist only for the Three to understand until such a time that they deem us worthy of such knowledge. Ask the wrong questions, and curiosity may become your most cruel foe.”
“At first, we speak of Almalexia, and now we return to the subject of forbidden knowledge. Mere superstitions. Your imagination is like a frog, jumping to a fro in a deep morass of your mind.”
Nerevar fixed his eyes on Sotha Sil. “You are worse than my friend Dumac. He doesn’t acknowledge the Daedric Princes and he doesn’t believe in the sacred bonds with his ancestors. His world is simple. But you… you seek to uncover the secrets of creation and in doing so, you sunder a god, you examine him with a magnifying glass, you measure him, dissect him. And in that instant, you cannot curb your craving to imitate him… Swear to me that you didn’t attempt to repeat the ritual.”
“Your mind is filled with such morbid thoughts,” his Tribune said indignantly. “I do not know how to recreate this Daedra and I do not intend to try. But if my studies help prevent another slaughter, it will be worth it.”
“The wheel of which you spoke earlier… I am your friend and king, and as a loyal friend and grateful king, I ask you to forget about this discovery. Let it be as it is, alluring but unsolved.”
“I said everything I wanted, Nerevar, and I abide by what I said. Now leave me to my studies and oblige me by closing the door.” And as Nerevar was leaving, he added, “You are wasting time, trying to play up to a Daedric Prince, while I wish only to please my people.”
Nerevar left Sotha Sil’s cave with a heavy heart. He wasn’t convinced of his suspicions, he uttered them, exaggerating the man’s folly, and regretted his rash words afterwards, but he was quick to dismiss the remorse he felt within. Nerevar rarely felt more than brief pangs of genuine repentance or guilt. He did not let the unreliable recollections of the past events assail him and take him unawares. When he did contemplate the grand picture of everything he had achieved in two hundred years, a feeling of deep satisfaction swept over him akin to the triumph of an artist who looks at his masterpiece, the hours of pain, misery and frenetic inspiration forgotten. “The Great Ashkhan leads by example,” once said Kaliki, the Wise Woman of Kumanishapu tribe, to the future Hortator. “When the Ashkhan errs, he accepts responsibility for his misguided ways before himself and before his people. And so, his strong virtuous character inspires everyone around him. But perfection only breeds envy. A mer who does not struggle evokes jealousy. A man who never stumbles in the dark, a man never inclined to sadness becomes the subject of hateful slander. So never be afraid to err. A man’s brilliance is inimitable in the hour of his victory, and victory is never painless.”
Nerevar remembered her wise precept as he mounted the stairs which led to his chambers in the main building of the royal palace. In the beginning of the First Era, the majestic palace of Resdayn kings flourished, and he constantly demanded that new structures be added to it and the oldest buildings renovated. The flat unadorned roof gave the main building a squat aspect. It abutted upon three slender towers under the many-tier roofs with curved eaves which were crowned with fancy flourishes of different shapes and sizes. The sorcerers of the crown occupied the eastern tower and the western tower was home to the few priests and healers who resided outside the Mournhold Temple of the Three. In the shade of the tall towers sprawled a magnificent garden of mushroom trees, arches and sculptures which stood watch over the secluded benches and walkways studded with golden sedge and Boethiah’s blood. Intricate refined relief of secular rather than religious nature decorated large friezes on the walls and arches, light-gray and weather-beaten on the fresh white wall paint. The simple motifs and patterns dated as far back as the Merethic era. During the incursion of Mehrunes Dagon, the palace sustained heavy damage and, treated with careless facility by the ruling elite, its buildings and fortifications soon fell into decay to never again rise above the city of light and magic in their former glory. But these events would not take place for a few millennia, and from his window, Nerevar marveled at the view which the ancestors of the previous kings and queens of Mournhold had enjoyed before him.
Upon entering his chambers, Nerevar settled comfortably in his favorite chair and called for Alandro Sul. Nerevar’s shield-bearer was a scrawny youth among adults, and he desperately wanted to mature, but because no magic could grant his wish, he duplicated the mannerism of those around him and grew a small beard. Alandro Sul adored Nerevar from that moment when, as a sign of friendship with the Ashlanders, he was chosen to be a shield-bearer despite his age – an illiterate uncouth child flung into the wondrous world on a whim of one man whom he deemed a savior. He was not of timid character, but if Nerevar exposed himself to dangers or ridicule, he exhibited a particular kind of bravery known only to very few; indifferent to his own well-being and reputation, Alandro Sul risked incurring the Hortator’s wrath more than once. It was the ultimate form of self-abnegation; to exile him away from the court was to mete out the cruelest punishment to him.
“My lord Hortator, hai Resdaynia!” Alandro Sul exclaimed, bowing low.
“Tell me, what is the mood among the Councilors after the meeting? I don’t think that the news of an unexplained threat from Molag Bal gladdened them. And Almalexia, my dear Almalexia… It’s as if she knew that talking to the Councilors behind my back at a time when I’m made to look weak would further compromise my reputation. Who am I kidding? Of course, she knew.” The Hortator cast a vacant glance at his shield-bearer. “And I loved her, you know. Or I thought I loved her, and I did everything in my power to win her affections.”
“My lord,” Alandro Sul drooped his eyes.
“And do you know why she talked to them? It’s about the Dwemer, of all things! She didn’t like some of my latest concessions, and she suggested we make war on them. All I did was allow them to have their own trading outposts to further encourage trade between our people. It’s because of some ancient superstitions that our people refuse to buy their wondrous devices… And Almalexia tells me that, in turn, they had to allow our traders to live in their underground cities. As if any dignified Chimer merchant would want to live underground!” Nerevar, with a visible effort, regained his temper. “Well, what do they want after today’s disaster, these hounds?”
“I… I think Archmagister Cardea wants assurances, but she was vague in her demands. She wants you to promise not to allow ‘the ignorant nobles to point fingers at House Telvanni’ after the incident at Bal Fell, as she put it.”
“Well, that’s not too bad. She’s probably worried that some of those nobles would want to stick their noses into her dubious magical experiments… Did she meet with Almalexia?”
“No, she flatly refused to speak with the queen, my lord.”
“Cardea, Cardea,” Nerevar said, smiling. It was as though he had all but forgotten about his outburst. “Our shared history still counts for something. What about that self-proclaimed duke Melen? Undoubtedly, Imperial influence. All these young mer want nowadays is a fancy title and some gold to go with it… Redoran Archmasters never called themselves ‘dukes’ until Vilvan Melen.”
“I don’t think Almalexia got far with him. He’s a staunch traditionalist, or I should say, the powerful Redoran Councilors who influence his policies are traditionalists.”
“That leaves me with Galmis Hlaalu… And I don’t doubt that he’ll spread the rumors. The strong queen who advocates conquest and the weak, craven Hortator who wants peace.”
“But none of it is true, my lord.”
“What does it matter what you think?” Nerevar laughed. “If all my subjects were as loyal to me as you are, my life would be a lot easier… You can go, Alandro. Find Almalexia and tell her to make time for her husband. We need to talk.”
“Yes, of course, my lord. But before I go, may I ask you something? Your Lord Counsel is at an impasse and he is asking for your advice… through me. Councilman Ismi and councilman Nezam petitioned you to resolve an issue with inheriting – and I repeat – one egg mine, three guars, and fifty bushels of yam. The proper papers are either lost or severely damaged.”
“If, say, we needed the Grandmaster’s support, who would prove more useful to us, Ismi or Nezam?”
“I-I’m not sure,” murmured Alandro Sul. “Councilman Ismi, I think. She has more influence than the impoverished Nezam. She owns five saltrice plantations, three ebony mines, two glass mines and… I don’t remember all of her possessions, but I do recall that he… councilman Nezam, that is, owns only a share of an egg mine and one corkbulb plantation.”
“Then we rule in her favor. You can tell Ismi in person that the guars and the kwama egg mine are hers.”
“I didn’t expect your answer right away, my lord. Would you like to look at this parchment -”
“It’s my final decision, Alandro.” Nerevar smiled kindly at him. “One day you will understand that sometimes justice is irrelevant. Who would benefit more from having a mine and a few guars in their possession? Small alms won’t save an impoverished man, nor will they greatly increase the fortune of a rich woman. But I may benefit from this decision in the future… It is dishonorable, but it is necessary.”
“I’ll tell lady Ismi the good news. Forgive me for questioning you! I am young, I am callow and forgetful, while you are honorable and fair!” Alandro Sul dropped on one knee.
Nerevar ruffled the lad’s auburn hair and helped him up from the cold floor. “I’m not angry with you… Now, go find Almalexia. She can’t think I’ll just put it out of my mind.”
Alandro Sul left, but Nerevar didn’t enjoy his solitude for long. The gears in the Dwemer clock on the table barely moved before Almalexia entered his chambers without knocking on the door or announcing herself.
“You know, I could have been with a lover,” Nerevar joked, but Almalexia’s austere face didn’t change when she heard his inappropriate jest.
His wife and queen was renowned for her wholesome beauty among the long-living Velothi women to which bold nobles dedicated poems each year, praising her as, ‘the ravishing, the fair, the elegant’ and so forth. Almalexia knew how to attract attention with her haughty bearing and loud, peremptory speeches. One would be ill-advised to believe that there was little else to add to her portrait than the plump voluptuous mouth, brilliant green eyes, a mane of luxurious red hair over a lofty forehead, and a demeanor which appeared on the first glance to hide the absence of an astute mind. It was difficult to imagine a ruler as quick-witted and cunning as the queen of Resdayn, with whom only Nerevar could contend successfully, and while he displayed uncanny foresight, she impressed people with her extraordinary patience and won over their hearts with magnanimity.
Together they ruled Resdayn unchallenged; Nerevar persuaded, averting disasters in the Council chambers, and Almalexia threatened them if all else failed; he rendered justice and she showed infinite mercy; he led Chimer into battles with many evils and she nursed them and healed their wounds. But for many years, rumors were afloat that the royal couple did not live in harmony which their vassals accepted on faith, and many feared that after their marriage crumbled away, the endangered throne could be usurped by an ambitious member of a Great House or a n’wah.
It has come to Nerevar’s attention that before the Council meeting Almalexia approached a few Councilors and broached to them a subject of a war with the Dwemer, committing in his eyes a serious offense. And now she stood before him clad in a light tunic the color of setting sun, golden bracelets shimmering on her arms and elegant ankles, solemn yet not unattractive, and Nerevar felt an irresistible desire to be reconciled with her out of habit, in spite of all offenses they had caused each other.
“Almalexia, what has come over you?” he asked quietly, angrily. “What were you thinking? I know you weren’t with us at Bal Fell, but that’s our enemy. Cultists, profane sorcerers, worshipers of bad Daedra who seek to harm our people. Dumac and the Dwemer are a part of this Council – the Council I spent many years building on the battlefield and in meeting chambers. How does your profound philosophy of mercy allow such terrible cruelty or is it all pretense now?”
“You’ve always had a predilection to speak dramatically, but save your speeches for the Council,” Almalexia said, and her eyes gleamed wildly. “It’s not what you think. Your baseless accusations -”
“Well, humor me. What do I think? Do you think I don’t recall that you elevated me, accepted me into House Indoril? And I owe all my glories to you? I’m not a puppet king and I’m not going to sit idly while you’re trying to ruin everything I’ve built!”
“Nerevar, you’re not even listening to me. Perhaps I should come back another time, when you’re not in one of your gloomy moods.”
Nerevar grimaced, twisting his fine mouth. “All right, Almalexia. I will give you the opportunity to defend yourself. Say what you came to say.”
“Nobles stir up discontent in the Council because you cling to your alliance with Dumac. Alas, there are more than two or three of them. House Hlaalu Councilmen expressed their grave misgivings about your policies more than once and they have amassed obscene riches in the last forty years, profiting from trade with Skyrim in the north and with the Argonian settlements in the South and taking over rich saltrice plantations. Ebony and saltrice are the source of our wealth, our lifeblood.They could buy a new Hortator if they wanted, for Azura’s sake!”
“Oh, Ayem! If I were unaware of the most prolific schemers in the realm, how long ago do you suppose I would have lost my throne? Those sacks of gold will not dare oppose me because they sold their rights to me, and even heartless scoundrels need rights. House Redoran wanted to claim a few ebony mines in the region which belong to Hlaalu Masters… Ownership and inheritance are such tricky matters; papers get lost and people are awfully forgetful… Would you see an entire continent engulfed in flames because a few Hlaalu nobles intimidate you? That’s preposterous.”
“You misunderstand me. I’m simply trying to say that the issue is graver than you believe it to be. A few misplaced inheritance papers and petty threats won’t solve anything. And while Councilors from House Hlaalu and House Redoran frequently oppose you and criticize your benevolent attitudes towards the Dwemer, you choose to deny any and all possibility of a compromise and stubbornly refuse to talk about it. When was the last time you addressed their concerns? Perhaps they’re small-minded and foolish concerns to you, but you can’t be so out of touch with your people on this issue. And by talking to them you may learn a few interesting things.”
“Do you wish me to believe that it was all a ruse?”
“No, I do believe this war is inevitable,” Almalexia said it absolutely deadpan. “There’s a saying that all roads lead to Mournhold. Vivec agrees with me, and I hear that your trusted friend, Voryn, doesn’t approve of your generosity towards the Dwemer either.”
“Voryn is hopelessly unrepentant in his folly. But he doesn’t nurture treasonous plans of a war under my nose. Don’t bring him into the conversation which doesn’t concern him in the least.”
A shadow crossed Almalexia’s beautiful face. “When will you believe me that I speak out harshly and act decisively out of genuine desire to help you? When I see a flaw in your approach to a problem of some importance, I take up my duty as a queen, as a mother of our people, as your wife to bring it to your attention.”
She came close to him and he embraced her out of dull habit, gazing into her warm eyes and wondering why his heart was so extraordinary still. Woe be to the dull habit and tepid convenience! We long for a sweet flutter of heart, a trembling of a hand, for lips parted in ecstasy, and to know that we have lost it forever is torment to us. Nerevar kissed his wife on the forehead and moved away from her with a guilty expression on his face. They were lying to each other and both were aware of the lie, yet they stubbornly went on with the ritualistic deception, hoping, perhaps, that one day the act would become truth and truce.
Nerevar needed a breath of fresh air.
After his conversation with Almalexia, Nerevar climbed the stairs to the last floor of the above-mentioned eastern tower which was home to some of the best and brightest sorcerers in Mournhold. He asked Cardea’s apprentice to teleport him, using mark and recall, to the Ashlander camp in the shadow of old mountains to the west of Mourning Hold. Kumanishapu, they called their tribe. They lived in small yurts which were herded within an uneven flimsy fence overrun with ivy and without yam fields stretched far and wide, swashing against the hedge like inexorable verdant sea. The Wise Woman’s hut stood separately from the rest, for the Ashlanders didn’t regard seclusion as punishment but rather, as a sign of great honor; in solitude, in quiet and sober reflection, they would say, profound wisdom is born. Thus, to visit the Wise Woman was to willingly pronounce one’s readiness to sever temporarily his connection to the tribe and the world around him and bare his soul to her.
The Ashkhan was, so to speak, their secular leader. According to tradition, his yurt was built under an awning from guar skin together with three or four smaller yurts which belonged to his children, his gulakhan and distinguished healers. Behind the huts, it was customary to dry clothes and fishing nets. Woolen carpets were laid on the floors inside these notable yurts and outside, by the doors; these carpets of ocher and brown hues bespeckled with scarlet and azure tracery and, of course, bamboo wind chimes were the only expensive decorations allowed to variegate the austere design of their abodes.
When a traveler entered the encampment, he saw, firstly, grandiose mountains sprinkled with snow, which dominated the landscape since the gods walked on Mundus, and then he heard the piteous lament of the bamboo chimes. To his left, stretched a row of shovels, mattocks and rakes while to his right, multi-colored linen skirts fluttered in the wind which gave life to the chimes. A small guarskin drum rolled at his feet and a band of sprightly sunburnt children chased after it, laughing and jostling at each other. The life of an Ashlander was mundane and orderly; a field was his home, the firmament his roof, the stars his innermost dream. He desired little and took from nature only what he needed. Before Nerevar met with them, he could not conceive of an existence so natural, careless and liberated from pangs and twitches of conscience and on understanding them, he was seized with both umbrage and fascination. He could never entirely rid himself of that sullen resentment, but he understood that partly it was aroused by jealousy and partly by genuine indignation at their irresponsible, indifferent existence. But ever since the Ashlanders stood by him in battle, bled and died for him, he wouldn’t say one word of reproach to them.
When Cardea’s apprentice completed preparations for her teleportation spell, it was already evening and Nerevar found the Ashlanders readying a feast: a hunter brought a bloodied guar carcass to the fire, the tribesmen wore bejeweled garments trimmed with fur and gimp, and tribe leaders sat under a saffron-yellow canopy, the Wise Woman to the left of the Ashkhan. A young Chimer beat the guarskin drum and to the staccato rhythm, the old wise woman intoned a prayer which was also a story, telling them of the beauty of Moonshadow and severe kindness of the great and terrible Azura, and the vast of green fields, and the tumultuous pitiless deep. Kaliki was old and withered, but with her face aglow in reflections of fire, she seemed to have claimed her youth from the clutches of time and solemnity from a goddess. Nerevar quietly took a seat by the fire and listened to Kaliki’s words. He wore a simple attire, and only children craned their necks to stare at him curiously, recognizing an outsider in him. What prompted him to seek out the Wise Woman in the hour of uncertainty? They haven’t seen each other for some years, but she grew accustomed to expecting either prolonged silence from him or persistent visits every day for a week or so. His erratic behavior didn’t unsettle the Wise Woman, and she always greeted him with a kind word or a sound advice as if he were the son she could never have.
The bright constellation of the Warrior sprawled across the sky, heralding the coming of autumn, and soon the land would be painted in saffron hues, but in the month of Last Seed nature desperately mimicked spring, dressing in the brightest and boldest of colors. The thick vines of bittergreen plant were bestrewn with tiny white flowers which bloomed before frost. Nerevar retained a few memories from his childhood spent in a small village – an island in an endless field of corkbulb: children playing in the dust, a large guar-drawn cart crawling along a derelict road, a woman’s laughter, and a bunch of sweetbarrels on a table near a window. His parents perished from droops when he was very young, but he knew that he was born in the final days of Last Seed under the mystical guidance of the Warrior, a mysterious bearded man with an axe. In his adulthood, before he became a guard of a merchant caravan, he worked in the fields during harvest and he often went to rest at dawn, watching the patterns of stars on the nightly sky as the hooded Lady chased out the man with an axe. His friends often said that the Warrior blessed him with strong constitution and gave him mastery of many weapons and subjects besides one – he could never master his passions.
During the days when the Warrior constellation dominated the firmament, Nerevar felt an irresistible impulse to pack some clothes and food in a bag and travel towards sunset, as though his guardian called him into being and awoke in him a forgotten desire to find treasures and unknown lands.
“The Warrior calls for you, doesn’t he?” said Kaliki. Nerevar was so preoccupied he scarcely noticed her until she tugged at his sleeve. The Ashlanders dispersed after the Wise Woman had finished her story, and now they were clotting into groups around the feast-table and chattered excitedly. There were baskets with cooked meat and fish on the table and a variety of freshly made dishes from saltrice and corkbulb.
“You could say so,” Nerevar gave an absent-minded answer. “I wanted some fresh air and the company of a good listener who would not argue with me over every trifle.”
“Or it was Azura who brought you to us at the hour of need.” Kaliki smiled mysteriously. “The Ashkhan wanted to see you. Come with me, child.”
Kaliki led him through the maze of yurts, and Nerevar saw young Chimer sing and dance in front of a fire while their parents wrapped gifts into guar skin which varied considerably from the objects found in ordinary tombs. To their dead, the Ashlanders gave chitin spears, armor and shields, jewels and fine clothes, enchanted weapons and utensils insofar as they could spare without worrying about starving or grave robbers because the ghosts of their ancestors were quite alive and hungry. With the first rays of dawn, a mournful procession would depart to the nearest burial cave, carrying with them gifts more suitable for the living than the dead.
“The Ashkhan is inside,” whispered Kaliki although in such ado she didn’t need to worry about being overheard and lifted the cloth which hung over the entrance to the gulakhan’s hut. The gulakhan lived in a spacious, clean, well-lit yurt with only a table, a few straw mats, a basket and a few sacks of saltrice in it. The acrid smell of dry herbs filled the yurt, the air was stuffy owing to an iron brazier with a burning incense which stood by a bedding where a young Chimer woman was resting, and Ashkhan Tamal was pacing back and forth thereabout, sprinkling the modest dwelling with hot water – generously around the edges of the mat yet never on the woman’s sunken, sallow face. Although Nerevar could boast but of mediocre magical talent, he understood that the woman was very ill. Her breath was shallow and labored, beads of sweat covered her forehead, and she moaned softly from time to time, riveting her feverish eyes on him.
“This is my daughter, Han-Amma,” said Tamal after Nerevar greeted him. “My gulakhan generously offered to hide her here from all sorts of prying eyes… Oh merciful ancestors, look at her! She is suffering and it’s unbearable to watch.”
“Hush, Tamal,” Kaliki placed her withered hand on his shoulder. “The Great Ashkhan is here, he’ll aid us… Nerevar, Han-Amma is sick and no remedy of mine could alleviate her pain. I would send for a city healer, but you know how it is, he may not come… Azura delivered you to us just in time.”
“What happened to her?”
“She was hunting a few days ago-”
“How many days passed since the hunt?” insisted Nerevar.
“Two days… yes, it was two days ago. She went hunting for the feast. We keep meat in the cellars near the river for some time before cooking it… She was to return in the evening, but Kaliki found her the following morning on the outskirts of the camp. We saw no animal corpses with her, so we assumed she never got too far. We also found her weapons with her… her bow and arrows, and she was clutching a dagger in her hand. Here, take a look at it. We kept it intact.”
Kaliki slipped a simple steel dagger into his hand and Nerevar unsheathed it. “I may be able to help you, after all,” he said. “I am no renowned healer, but in my travels, I learned how to make simple remedies from herbs. Do you see the dark trickles of blood on her dagger? If a diseased beast bit or scratched your daughter and she struggled, this would be its blood. Bring me the extract from bittergreen petals, Wise Woman.”
“Oh, sweet ancestors, have mercy on my only child.”
The Hortator didn’t tell them how slim the hope had been, and he was astonished to see the clear liquid blacken when he gently placed the blade into the cup with the extract. He could no longer doubt the truthfulness of his discovery when he took off Han-Amma’s boots and noticed two distinct marks on her legs.
“It’s not possible,” he muttered. “I believe your daughter contracted chills.”
In that moment, Han-Amma opened her parched mouth and croaked, “Water, please… thirsty…” Kaliki put a wooden cup to her lips, and she clung to the Wise Woman, drinking water avariciously.
“What call you tell me about this illness?” the Ashkhan pleaded.
“Chills is a very common albeit serious disease. I’d say it’s so common that if you lived in Vvardenfell, you would have a cure for it. But how could she catch it here, on the mainland? The nix hounds who carry it do not inhabit these parts… That’s why I said that it wasn’t possible.” The Hortator wrote a few words on a piece of paper. “You will need these herbs for a cure. A healer would know what to give her to alleviate the pain until the cure is ready, but, alas, I know not of such herb.”
“Oh, nevermind! You saved her life!” exclaimed Tamal with tears in his eyes. “How can I ever repay you? Ask anything – and I say anything! – of me and if it is in my modest power to grant your wish, I’ll keep my word. I am the happiest man alive… But do ask something of me!” In different circumstances, Nerevar would say it was fortunate to find an allied leader so willing – almost bursting with eagerness – to comply with his demands but looking at the pallid tired face of his daughter, contorted with suffering, he couldn’t think of it favorably. “No, I changed my mind. Kaliki will prepare a potion in an hour or so, and I’ll sit by Han-Amma’s side until she recovers. In the morning, we are wiser, and we’ll talk then. Rest up for a bit, my dear friend, then refresh yourself with breakfast and beverage, and we’ll l talk, I promise you.”
“I appreciate your sensible words, Ashkhan, and I’ll be glad to rest a bit,” said Nerevar wearily and stepped into the night.
It drizzled outside, and the chief star of the Warrior constellation was fogged in.