CHAPTER III: AS FLESH OR AS DUST

In his sleep, Nerevar wandered about the realm of Moonshadow.

He walked among the stupendous trees which carried the firmament on their mighty branches, gazing at the graceful ships furrowing the endless sea of azure, at the flowers of unutterably beautiful shapes and many-colored wondrous beasts; and he smelled pine sap in the air and the most exquisite perfume, and he beheld waterfalls which glistened as precious gems, having for the background verdant carpets of grass which blended with the rose-colored sky; and he watched storms tear the flawless fabric of the sky and besprinkle the land with starlight; and he woke, bearing an impress of it like a scar on his soul – an impress of a realm which was Padomay and LKHAN, and antithesis.

Moonshadow knew no seasons, but it changed imperceptibly or all at once, dazzling him with its effulgent colors, suffocating him with its giddy smells. Wherever Nerevar went, all roads converged on a palace which was visible to the eye at some distance, but as he approached it, it dissipated around him in puffs of rose-colored smoke. Before he entered the palace, soft darkness enveloped him and he saw or heard naught more until he awakened in the morning, shivering.

When you enter into Oblivion, Oblivion enters into you.

Nerevar knew a few Khajiit with a ‘sweet tooth’ during his days as a guard of a merchant caravan, but they gave him a bewildered look when he asked them about his visions of then unknown to him origins, calling him in jest ‘that elf who’s wilder than a skooma cat’.

Ashkhan Tamal woke Nerevar in an ungodly hour, when the bloody edge of Masser was still visible in the sky, severing his connection to Oblivion before he climbed the thousand stairs which led to Azura’s abode. The Hortator began to say, ‘What are you about!’, but the Ashkhan’s face shone with genuine happiness and Nerevar decided not to darken so rare a moment with petty squabbles.

“Han-Amma is well,” Tamal said to him, “and I am immensely grateful to you for your timely help. The Wise Woman mixed the herbs in precise proportions, just as you told us, and the cure immediately alleviated her pain. She’s still weak but perfectly healthy… When she realized to whom she owes her recovery, she wanted to meet you at once. She is sensitive and extremely polite.”

“It’s not whatsoever necessary to thank me personally,” objected Nerevar, yawning. The impossible visions of Moonshadow were with him, he only needed to lay down his head and the rustling of snow-white leaves would fill the air.

“Sometimes people are forgetful of good manners but not my daughter. Good manners and knowledge of our ancestry, and a profound understanding of where we come from make a good Ashkhan… Don’t be surprised that I talk to you about it now. I am old, older than Kaliki although age hadn’t impaired my hearing, and I feel my days are at an end. I want to leave my tribe in her good, gentle hands… That is my only wish, I say so freely. It’s a bit of an uncommon decision on my part, but with your support there will be few objections to my choice of Ashkhan. And she’ll be loyal to you as was I, don’t worry.”

“You want me to put my unquestioning trust in her, but trust and respect have to be won, not granted like charity without cause. Prove to me… or better yet, let her prove to me that she can rule responsibly and tactfully, and I’ll have no reason to refuse you. But I can’t tell you with utmost certainty that-”

“You’ve said it all, Nerevar,” replied the Ashkhan, grinning slyly. “But if you talk to her, you won’t be disappointed. Her skills with bows and knives are without match, and she knows remedies for a wide variety of local illnesses while her manners and tact are like that of a noble lady.”

“No harm was ever done by talking… Ha-ha-ha! But you know I can’t promise you anything.”

“You did agree, and I can’t ask more of you!”

Tamal signaled Kaliki and she brought in Han-Amma, a young woman of low stature with sharp features and large slanting watery eyes whose color Nerevar couldn’t quite name. She wore a simple woolen frock with a purple trim and mauve ornaments on the sleeves which would suit any woman regardless of rank and a fancy headwear which exposed her freckled forehead. After she bowed to him, she adopted a proud posture, awaiting permission to speak.

‘She is obedient and good-looking,’ thought Nerevar with displeasure. Tamal’s daughter possessed neither the grave and majestic character of Almalexia, nor the serene dignity of the Wise Woman who had forsworn, with the most solemn of oaths, simple pleasures, marriage and children so that she could advise her people on spiritual matters. But a father imagines his daughter’s beauty peerless, her virtue singular, her achievements remarkable.

“I would like to express my profound gratitude for your help, Great Ashkhan,” said Han-Amma. “And I would like us to pray to our ancestors for my swift recovery… Blessed be our ancestors and those who will leave us today, unwittingly. May they depart from our modest houses and find peace in Azura’s palace which is infinite in size.”

“In the House of Stone,” intoned the Ashkhan in the hallow language of Veloth.

“Hear me out, ancestors, hear me out!” Han-Amma continued chanting, swaying to and fro like a flower stem in the wind. “Accept my gratitude, ancestors, and hear me out. I come from Resdayn, our blessed land, under the Moon and Star. I give you today my joy and love, carry it wide and far.”

Nerevar grew accustomed to the odd hymns and songs of the Ashlanders whose meaning he rarely understood, and rather than understand them he chose to be entranced by their simplicity, their crude allusions and non-eloquent rhymes.

“I pray for the herder,” sang Han-Amma, “who is tired and sick; I pray for the hunter who lost his prey; I pray for the wisest and strongest, and meek; And for the children I pray… Is my song pleasing to the Great Ashkhan?” she inquired after she concluded the customary laud by strewing a handful of ash over the threshold.

“Oh, quite so!” Nerevar answered with lively affection. “I always marveled at the composition of your prayers, simple yet heartfelt. What an interesting combination it is and the results thereof – the oral legends, the poetry, the songs – are splendid.”

“I’m delighted, absolutely delighted… Father, thank you for introducing me to the Great Ashkhan, and thank you, Great Ashkhan, for listening to my chant. I won’t distract you any longer. May I go?”

Han-Amma bowed again and went out, casting a timid glance at him from the threshold. She yearned to ask him more questions, but her father’s stern gaze embarrassed her, and she lowered her eyes, fiddling with the hem of her skirt. The silent scene which he had witnessed many times produced a profoundly disagreeable impression on Nerevar: the more the father’s unnecessary rigor troubled him, the more did the daughter’s docility.

“She’s just too shy and humble whereas a leader needs to comport herself with authority,” Nerevar spoke at last. “And you have to let her say what she desires. It doesn’t say much for her that she cannot speak her mind! Let her enjoy a wide freedom.”

“But you know our customs,” objected Tamal. “Elders speak first and youngsters have to wait for their turn. And we teach them to say little but think the more.”

“Customs, you say… I respect your customs, but not all Chimer are of the same mind. A ruler must command respect so that even the most abrasive and stubborn of mer show her deference. Love her they may not but admire her they must.”

“Nay, I don’t follow…. Are you disappointed? My request irritated you, didn’t it? Let’s strike a deal! I’ll do as you say, and you’ll visit us in five years – what are five years to a Chimer? – and you’ll talk to her again. If my daughter’s upbringing satisfies you, you’ll support her once she’s chosen to be the new Ashkhan after my death.”

“I’ll promise you my support if she impresses me,” said Nerevar and in his eyes glanced a lurid light. “I gave you a definitive answer and I won’t stoop to haggling over nuances… But – and I say this with utmost honesty – I require your help, too, and it will benefit both of us in the future if I remember your service to me.”

“You are strikingly frank with me and I’ve always liked that about you. No beating about the bush with you!”

“Walk with me,” said Nerevar, lifting the drapery which hung over the entrance.

The mornings in Last Seed were chilly and misty, and the fog was so dense that the meager light could not penetrate it. The Ashlander camp was waking: shepherds kindled the fires, hunters sharpened their weapons, fishermen gathered their nets, and owing to the early hour and the heavy mist, the metal clangs, the footfall, and the crackling of fire resounded loudly in morning stillness. A few young Ashlanders, men and women alike, danced to a frenzied rhythm of a guar drum around a pile of weapons, armor and utensils which their parents gathered the day before.

Tamal hobbled deliberately slowly, leaning on Nerevar’s arm, so as to convince the Hortator, in every manner conceivable, that he was senile, purblind, and helpless.   

“A pragmatic tribe leader in me protests such a waste,” said Tamal with a wry smile as they passed the dancers, “but my religious inclinations approve of it, for I have long since grasped the necessity of such sacrifice. Do you think of something as both necessary and appealing as well as objectionable and wasteful?”

“And what about our attitudes towards love, friendship, honesty? They are equivocal whereas we desire certainty. I’ll tell you of one such man… His name is Galmis Hlaalu and he is the Grandmaster of House Hlaalu. He boldly commits acts of treason and encourages dissent among the Councilors. But I don’t have any proof. He had vehemently opposed my policies since I took the throne and united a divided Resdayn. ‘There is no need for Hortator in times of peace,’ he says, and he errs in that belief that the Hortator is but a champion. What do you champion for in times of peace? But they need me, their Hortator, because I exhort, I encourage, I inspire… And he doesn’t understand the significance of that role. What happens after an Ashkhan dies? The tribe chooses another Ashkhan. It stands to reason that no one will think that they don’t need a new leader. A Hortator is not solely Nerevar, as the notion is distinct and superior to my mortal body.”

“And what can an Ashkhan do for the Hortator?”

“Galmis Hlaalu does not take bribes like many Councilors do, nor does he allow his servants to participate overtly in smuggling or skooma trade. Alas! It would be easier if he was corrupt… What would you do if one of your gulakhan’s children stirred up discord among the tribe leaders and undermined your authority in every way possible?”

“Why do you ask? You know our laws are different. In my younger years, I’d get him drunk, and when he insulted me, I’d challenge him to a trial by combat. But Mephala offers other ways for the House kin -”

“It’s out of the question. An ambitious upstart murdering his lord to get a seat on the Council will get praise for his boldness. A Hortator who united all Houses and tribes will be seen as weak.”

“It sounds to me that you’ve made up your mind. How can I help you? Try to ease your conscience?”

Nerevar discretely touched the ring on his finger – the pale brilliance of the cold stone seemed to mock him. “You’ve always been quite the talker, Tamal. Galmis’s tricks will worry me a lot less if I knew that I was still in good standing with you.”

“For as long as I draw breath, it won’t change, my Hortator,” muttered the old man in embarrassment, and they walked in silence for a while.

They talked for another hour or so, and the Ashkhan gave Nerevar an amulet – the Teeth of Kumanishapu – as a token of friendship between House Indoril and Kumanishapu tribe although he required no such symbols. Acute need in that relationship was in itself a pledge. It brought them together: Nerevar was assured that he still had many staunch allies by his side, and the Ashkhan envisioned his daughter acting as the tribe leader, and what bonds were firmer than those born out of need and strengthened by the fierce pride which characterized both of them?

***

Voryn spent the night at the Dagoth Manor in the Manor district of Mournhold, impatiently waiting for Nerevar’s return. It was certainly in his wayward lord’s habits to leave the palace unattended, without a warning, and return at such a time when it pleased him, and Voryn couldn’t do much beyond worry and hope.

The Lady of the Manor received Voryn cordially and assured him that the Grandmaster was welcome to stay at the Manor for as long as he desired. Ulvena from the banner-House Ilzah served the Hortator’s Lord Counsel, who was a steadfast and haughty Indoril, and her manner of speech and attitude reflected that she was accustomed to the boisterous life in the capital, and she was less concerned with the affairs of House Dagoth than with acquiring expensive trinkets and fashion novelties. But, to Voryn’s surprise, she proved herself an entertaining companion. During breakfast, for an entire hour and a half, Ulvena chattered and prattled without getting weary, sharing with him every bit of news she had heard recently, from inconsequential gossip to rather curious and possibly dangerous rumors.

“Have you heard about serjo Sarethi’s latest victories in the Arena?” she said, flashing white pearls of her teeth at him. “They’re our neighbors and rivals, but I can’t deny that serjo Sarethi has a certain charm about him. Many splendid lords and ladies flock to him like netches during breeding season. My hanin from the Redoran Manor tells me that serjo Sarethi’s last victory attracted attention of a very influential young lady from House Telvanni. She hangs around him all the time and showers him with exotic gifts… It will end badly, I tell you.”

“Why?” Voryn asked, amused. “Does serjo Sarethi prefer the company of lords?”

“No, quite the contrary. But his heart belongs to a most worthy mistress, our Lady Warrior Boethiah. No mortal mer, however powerful or pleasant of appearance, can compete with her.”

It was Ulvena who, in a matter-of-fact manner, told him about a short Council meeting and about Nerevar’s quarrel with Almalexia.

“The meeting was behind closed doors, but the entire palace knows that the queen is as cross as a daedroth and lord Nerevar left the palace in a hurry. Only Azura knows where he’s now.”

“I need to find him at once. Where would I look?”

“You can try talking to his shield-bearer. He’s still around.” Ulvena shrugged her plump shoulders, whose gentle ivory color was well accentuated by a dark-blue dress from fine spider-silk. “All of it is so mysterious. Wherever he goes, lord Nerevar always takes Alandro Sul with him. Lord Nerevar doesn’t take a walk in the garden without his shield-bearer trailing after him like a pesky kwama scrib. All private appointments with the Hortator have to be approved by Alandro, and I hear he doesn’t accept bribes or gifts and has the temperance of a saint.”

Voryn smiled reservedly, not wishing to indulge her curiosity, and they finished their meal in silence.

At around noon, Alandro Sul came by the Manor and told him that Nerevar had returned from the Ashlander camp. Voryn could not understand his lord’s affections towards the uneducated tribesmen who were unskilled in the art of politics and war. The Dwemer were powerful allies, and no matter how disagreeable an alliance with them appeared at times, their airships and enormous steam colossi, their Tonal Architects and numerous ebony mines were all the justification one needed to appease them and keep them close. But Voryn had long since learned to forgive his lord all his peculiarities.

A guar-drawn coach took them across river Nayne to the palace, and when the austere towers of the Dagoth Manor were out of view, having vanished around the bend of a wide, noisy street, with many obsidian ceremonial arches thrown across from wall to wall, Voryn turned to Nerevar’s shield-bearer and asked:

“How’s Nerevar and the queen?”

“In good health,” muttered Alandro Sul.

Voryn would pay a great deal of gold to learn all of Alandro’s secrets – and he couldn’t begin to imagine how many valuable secrets were in that head of his – but when Nerevar wasn’t around, the youth turned into the likeness of a statue. Under the traditional armor of House Indoril which he decorated with a motley scarf as a tribute to his heritage, he always wore a potent amulet to negate harmful magic. Archmagister Cardea enchanted it for him, and no illusions or charisma potions affected him. Alandro’s expressionless face and enviable self-mastery infuriated even Voryn who wasn’t reckoned among the reckless and quick-tempered mer.

“I take it you won’t answer any of my questions. Why did Nerevar visit the Ashlander camp? Has there been any news from Bal Fell?”

“I don’t want to offend you, my lord.”

“Well, I find your silence offensive. You should know by now that Nerevar trusts me.”

“I do not assume. I do not guess. If lord Nerevar trusts you, he’ll tell you everything himself.”

And that was the end of their conversation.

The coach stopped in the courtyard, and Alandro Sul led him up the magnificent staircase to the double doors which opened into the main palace hall. The heavy doors were bound in the purest, darkest ebony and bristled with sharp thorns of Daedric design. Despite the decorations, the doors looked menacing and would, if a need were to arise, withstand a siege. A guard armed with a spear stood on each side of the outer door, and it was their duty to open it at dawn and close it at dusk when the palace no longer received visitors. Behind the door, stretched a grand hallway illumined by magelights that changed color on a whim of the palace masters; in the afternoon, they were a gentle hue of blue. Overhead, there was a flat roof, and underfoot, a stone floor of alternating blue and green squares. An immaculate line of benches of intricate design along the left wall was occupied by the Resdayn nobility: arrogant Telvanni mages sat aloof, pretending to read books while intently observing the rest of the crowd, Indoril nobles mingled with the Dres and Hlaalu dignitaries, and Azura priests in mauve robes conversed sprightly with the Redoran warriors in bonemold armor. The proud Dagoth nobility rarely visited the capital where they were viewed as outcasts with strong, dissenting opinions.

Opposite of the benches, there was a row of ornate clay pots filled with luminous mushrooms and flowers of every color and shade imaginable. There were persistent rumors that the palace architect has spent some time in Moonshadow, and some of the plants he brought back with him – the luminous vines which had no name in Velothi language, the tiny gold mushrooms, and drooping blood-red flowers on thin, fragile stems which couldn’t support the enormous buds.

The hallway ended with an arch covered in Daedric inscriptions, and Alandro Sul led Voryn through it to the winding staircase. They passed a few more rooms before they reached Nerevar’s bedchambers, and there a large crowd of petitioners and petty House nobles in tawdry garments impeded them.  

The shameless nobles would usually cram into a narrow waiting room, but in the morning, they had clustered together by the entrance, at some distance from the door to the Hortator’s chambers. The sight of two mighty warriors in golden armor didn’t frighten them, and they mocked and insulted them if the waiting became unbearable, though the imperturbable guards never deigned anyone with a response. Bare walls of greenish stone roused but melancholy, and the stifling heat oppressed. Yet when Voryn squeezed through the crowd, he found the waiting room empty; the throng dawdled timorously in the corridor, and soon it became clear to him why they behaved so strangely. Reclining gracefully on a chair of simple design, stood Cardea, the Archmagister of House Telvanni, and guarded her two dremora lords in their terrifying black and crimson suits of armor, rivaling in their immobility the golden warriors of House Indoril. On her pale, thin face presumptuous expression blended with profound indifference to the well-being of those nobles and perhaps more than her retinue it was her countenance that terrified them. Silence reigned supreme since whispers from the corridor were not heard in the room, and Cardea expressed her quiet indignation in withering glances she cast at the guards who, with their spears, barred her way to Nerevar’s chambers.

“Archmagister,” said Voryn, politely inclining his head.

Cardea turned around to see who dared to disturb her contemplation, and her face softened a little. “Ah, Voryn, we weren’t expecting you today.”

“I didn’t expect to be here. Who’s with Nerevar?”

“That fetcher duke Melen. If it didn’t displease our lord Hortator, I’d take him to the Deadlands and flay him alive until he regretted every instance of his miserable whining. Who wants to listen about ‘the trampled ancestral rights of House Redoran’ and ‘the glorious times when the Nords kicked their behinds’? Everyone knows that Vilvan is a spineless wimp with no opinion of his own.”

“I can’t say I disagree with you.”

“I wonder who squeezed his sack and why. Gambling debts? An expensive mistress?” It appeared as though Cardea derived pleasure from speculating on the subject of Vilvan’s terrible misfortunes. “It’s been going on for an entire hour!”

Voryn touched the warm amulet which hung around his neck and closed his eyes. The wards around the Hortator’s bedchambers were designed to be impenetrable, but for a powerful sorcerer like Cardea or himself, an impenetrable barrier was merely a curious riddle to solve. The first layer of illusion made the guards see him chattering quietly with Cardea. The second layer was a complicated mysticism spell which gently slipped through the barrier and exposed to him the participants of the conversation. Wiping sweat off his forehead, Voryn added the third layer, and the interior of the bedchambers gradually grew dim, but the voices rang louder and clearer as if he, Voryn, was present in the room with the other interlocutors.

Duke Vilvan Melen was yelling in his familiar squeaky voice like one possessed. Many witnessed his narky irascible temperament, yet it was unheard of for him to behave so foolishly in the Hortator’s presence.

“This land reform is outrageous! My Councilmen and Brothers will never agree to share our ancestral land with the likes of Ashlanders. It’s never happened before, and we won’t be -”

“When prophet Veloth came to Resdayn, there were no Ashlanders or House mer. We were the same and we lived together, and this new, wondrous land belonged to all of us,” Nerevar said with perfect clam.

“It’s a convenient fabrication invented by your supporters. There are six Great Houses and a few smaller clans, and it was so from the beginning of Veloth’s era. The Ashlanders willingly abandoned our ways of life, left our cities and villages and fled to the wilderness. They were outcasts who banded together because they didn’t like our laws and they looked down on our faith. And now they come to our doors and beg us for land. I won’t stand for it!”

“It hardly made sense for Veloth to come to an unfamiliar land with his people divided into Houses and laws set in place. Who divided them? How did they know they would survive here, obeying those laws? I’m afraid the convenient interpretation belongs to the House mer who needed an excuse to steal what little land belonged to the Ashlanders and mistreat the tribes. And all this moot talk of ancestral rights… If the Ashlanders and House mer had the same ancestors, we should respect their way of life.”

“My parents didn’t die for you to sit in a fancy chair and give away their land to every beggar and… and lousy s’wit in the realm!”

“No, you’re right, they didn’t die for those reasons,” Nerevar said merrily. “A member of House Redoran – your House! – wrote about glorious united Resdayn, but he recognized that his illusory dream would not come to pass without a leader who, so to speak, does not recognize a superior. His name was Hleras S’than and I recall he was venerated among your people for authoring bold ideas.” Nerevar paused and added quietly and with sadness: “I knew your parents well. They were a noble sort who were tired of seeing children sold to the Nords and House mer paying tribute they couldn’t afford to pay. The Nords ruled us without respect for our traditions or our ancestors. They burnt our Temples, desecrated our shrines and put up their totems – to Kyne-Kaan, to Tsun and Stuhn – and whispered of Maloch to enrage Boethiah. And Boethiah spoke, and I was her retribution.”  

“You led us to ruin! Queen Almalexia, who was a queen in name only, she gave us some guarantees which are now all but forgotten. And our most sacred rights -”

Cardea gently touched his arm, and Voryn came to his senses in the familiar waiting room with gloomy greenish walls.

“The guards began to suspect something was wrong,” she explained upon seeing Voryn’s frown. “And I love my freedom dearly… It’s a pity. I enjoy hearing him talk about the Nordic war. It’s his favorite line from that time. ‘I am Boethiah’s retribution!’ Now he’s Azura’s wisdom and Mephala’s patience.”

The amulet around Voryn’s neck had gone dark and cold – the spell sapped all of its power.

“If I may ask, Archmagister, how did you cast your spell while remaining aware of your surroundings?”

Cardea let out a hearty laugh. “Can’t a woman have a few secrets, lord Dagoth? But it’s getting late and I should return to my tower. If Nerevar asks about me, tell him that I’ll meet with him tomorrow. Farewell, lord Dagoth. I hope you have better luck than I.”

After Archmagister Cardea left, Voryn waited for a little bit before the door flew open and Vilvan Melen stormed out, not saying a word at parting, which was considered rude and ill-mannered. Voryn hurried to squeeze through the door before any of the other nobles came in ahead of him.

Nerevar lived modestly but with comfort and he surrounded himself with objects which suited his tastes – unassuming and useful. He slept in a narrow plain bed without pillows to the left of which, at arm’s length, stood a wooden bedstand with a bamboo candle on it and to the right – a bookshelf and, further along the wall, a weapon stand on which were neatly arranged his favorite sword, Trueflame, and his panoply. On the walls hung but two decorations: a mirror in an ebony frame with silver ornaments and a rich tapestry which stretched from the floor to the ceiling, portraying prophet Veloth not in the usual hair shirts but clad in a bedazzling aureate armor which panoplies of House Indoril tried to mimic. A woman who bore an uncanny resemblance to Azura showed him the way through the dangerous wilderness teeming with wild animals and the daedra. In the corner next to the mirror, Voryn noticed an altar and upon it a plate with pearls and rubies in it. Nerevar sat at the table which stood near the window so that light would generously pour forth upon the pile of letters, notes and scrolls until the shades of evening began to descend.

Contrary to Voryn’s expectations, Nerevar was merry and well-disposed towards him. But as he tried to tell his Hortator about his conversation with Azura, Voryn discovered that Nerevar did not pay much attention to him. He was wholly preoccupied with an upcoming “delightful and noble contest of guar racing”. He told Voryn, excitedly, about a guar named Jok who had won the previous race. He intended to approach Jok’s owners with a fair offer to buy the guar from them and add the beast to his stables which were filled with the finest guars in the realm.

“Voryn, will your chap’thil reap a bountiful harvest this year?” Nerevar asked, changing the subject abruptly. He picked out a letter from the pile and looked it over, from top to bottom, with disgust. “In this letter, Galmis Hlaalu blames me for his scanty harvests although the head of House Dres complains that her plantations will yield less grain and saltrice than usual. I’ve worked in the fields some two hundred and fifty years ago and I know that rainy weather and strong winds can ruin crops. Galmis says that his fruit rots because of my attempts to curb slave trade.”

“As you said, lord Nerevar, House Dres complains of poor crop, too, although they refused to honor your proposal to own and trade only house slaves,” Voryn answered patiently. “No, my lands on the Azura coast will yield richly this year. And after I began paying miners, they produced enough ebony to supply with weapons a force twice larger than ours.”

“Will you address the Council in a few months and talk to them about benefits of freeing slaves? The word of the Lord High Councilor has great weight with the Council. I doubt you’ll convince Favela Dres, but you can assure everyone else that the risks they’ll take will be well rewarded… Why did you agree to my proposal, anyway? I couldn’t enforce it. It was an attempt to test the waters, so to speak, and yet you so eagerly agreed to it. Why?”

“I’m not… I don’t deserve the honor, my lord. I think that, to some extent, slavery is like death, but if it is demanded of me in the capacity of a leader to punish a slave, I will. And I’ll own slaves, though I won’t treat them with cruelty… But I can envision the world without slavery. I’m not my father. I’m not opposed to change if I see the benefits of it for my people.”

“What about Dumac and the Dwemer?”

“I don’t understand -”

“You’re lenient towards your slaves and you agreed to my proposal although you were not obliged to me in any way. But you refuse to trust Dumac and his people, though they never showed any intentions of betraying our alliance. And they invent magnificent machines and build towers that reach to the skies. Their optimism fascinates me although we cannot reconcile ourselves with it – our pessimism doesn’t let us.” Voryn pursed his lips in disappointment, but Nerevar continued his passionate speech. “After my conversation with Sotha Sil, I understood it at last. Our pessimism arises from the duality of Anu and Padomay, et’Ada and Lorkhan. We are taught that Mundus is born as a result of an experiment, or a dishonorable trick. We believe that true perfection lies somewhere beyond the prison of this world. We worship the glory that is Boethiah, but a triumph is meaningless without a trial… The Dwemer reject the dualism and with it, the strife and the sorrow of creation. They believe that all is knowable and, thus, it wants to be known while we admit that our wisdom is powerless before the secrets of our gods. In excess, incurable optimism constitutes danger to them, but this is the source of our endless arguments with Dumac.”

“You admit that we can’t understand each other. We’re too different. How can you hope to ever reconcile us?”

Nerevar gave him a cold, hard stare. “It’s a folly to think that differences prevent understanding or reconciliation. I never advocate for a Dwemer to adopt Chimer faith unless such is his desire. But there has to be a choice, a compromise… Meet me half-way, at least.”

“Tell that to Azura. Two days ago, I returned to Bal Fell and summoned her.”

“Why would you do such a reckless thing? Azura -”

“I know, I know. But I needed answers. I summoned her, and she talked to me. She wasn’t displeased with my bold attempts to get her attention. I think she expected us to seek her advice.”

“What did she say? Ah, don’t tell me yet. These walls have ears.” Nerevar rose from the table. “Guard! Fetch Alandro Sul at once.”

One of the solemn guards opened the door, bowed, and gently shut it.  

“It’s a perfect occasion for us to attend the guar races, don’t you think?” Nerevar went on. “I thought I’d be going by myself, but I’ll be happy if you join me. You’ve never seen anything like it! These animals are remarkably fast. They whiz by you in a blink, and the Arena trembles under their feet.”

“I’ll join you on one condition that afterwards we’ll go somewhere and drink ourselves senseless,” said Voryn.

“It will be an evening to remember… Alandro! Where’s that scamp lounging about?”

…For the merry event which the entire Mournhold awaited with reserved excitement, Nerevar jauntily arrayed himself in an ornate woolen blouse with white accessories, a pair of silken breeches and exquisite black shoes with a silver trim. In his ears glimmered expensive but unpretentious ebony-and-glass earrings adorned with diamonds which accentuated the severity of his eyes.

Nerevar chose to walk to the Arena on foot in the company of four silent guards. Two of them walked in front of the Hortator, driving away curious onlookers, and the other two guards trailed after him like shadows. The streets of Mournhold were lit by the waning sunlight, and the awkward angular houses commonly seen on mainland appeared cozy. Greenish and brown masonry prevailed in their architecture as did squat roofs and tiny windows. The majority of high-rise Chimer dwellings did not, in truth, rise above ground but stretched deep below the well-paved roads hence they didn’t need many windows, and around them and underneath them, Chimer masons built obsessively, for many a year, far-reaching convoluted tunnels until a city under a city sprang up, with its own labyrinth of narrow streets and population of wretched outcasts. As they walked through the City of Light and Magic, they were recognized on more than one occasion, and Nerevar greeted each baker, cornerclub owner, trader and smith with a kind word or a good-humored jest. Voryn stood behind him, smiling awkwardly from time to time, and partook unwillingly in the sacred display of love between the people and their king. A few persistent admirers followed them to the Arena, but they kept their distance from the vigilant guards, and their walk was rather uneventful save for one odd encounter.   

The way to the Arena led through the maze of narrow alleys which skirted the Manor district, and they weren’t as well-kept or pleasant to the eye as the wide, clamorous streets near the palace. Riders or guar-drawn carts with goods were a rare sight in these alleys. A few hurried passersby, a few paupers and healers shrank into the shadows of the bulky houses and timidly watched the unusually resplendent company. Nerevar asked the guards to hand out alms to the poor, but some beggars didn’t dare to show themselves, hiding in the dark crevices between houses, or they sat on the pavement, as they were, stooping, with their heads bowed and hands clasped in a wordless prayer. One beggar – an old woman, wrapped from head to toe in dirty woolen rags – sat in the middle of the street, not minding the flies which swarmed all around her. In front of her, there was a cracked clay plate with a few worn-out coins and a cup of fresh water left by a merciful soul. The guards thought that the poor wretch was dead, but when one of them came up to her and shoved her with the blunt end of his spear, she raised her head and Voryn saw a pair of dim, deep-set eyes.

“She’s blind, leave her be,” muttered one of the guards.

 Suddenly, the woman made a lunge and clutched at the guard’s blue skirt with a golden trim.

“He’s coming!” she shrieked. “He’s coming! He’s coming!”

“Let it go,” the guard croaked, struggling to unclench the woman’s fingers. She was surprisingly strong, and she continued screaming as if a flock of angry spirits possessed her all at once. “Old witch!”

The guard raised his spear for a blow, but the beggar let go of his skirt and froze, as though she heard a calling none of them could hear. Then she picked up her meager belongings and slowly limped in the direction of the river.

“Is she one of them… one of the possessed?”

“Or maybe she’s one of those snake-worshipping witches who can paralyze you with a stare. Maybe she touched your clothes to put a curse on you.”

“That’s enough with the speculations, Viras.” Nerevar cut them short and resumed walking.

The Arena was erected in the same style as the ancient Velothi towers. At the beginning, it was a large formless hole in the ground, but the persistent builders gave it a shape of a circle and put up a thick wall of stone around it. In the last years of the Merethic era, during the Gloaming, as they were ominously called, when the Great Houses had come into power and Morag Tong could no longer curb the ambitions of the wealthy and powerful nobles, the Arena received its name and its bloody reputation. It was generally adopted among the Chimer to harbor grudges to the death and determine disputes by means of an ordeal by combat. If a grievance could not be settled by law of peace, the Hortator allowed both parties to duel in the Arena and every such event attracted the vast confluence of people of all ranks and ages whose desire to gaze upon a bloody spectacle won over their fear of death. Each of the six noble Houses devised different rules for combatants and the honor of the House depended on strict observance of those rules; a member of House Dagoth had to wait for his opponent to deliver the first blow and members of House Redoran were forbidden to strike down a disarmed opponent unless he chose to fight without weapons. The most sensitive citizens of Mournhold flocked to the Arena to amuse themselves with guar races. In the first days of Last Seed, from all across Resdayn arrived spectators and animal trainers to observe or compete for supremacy and a considerable monetary prize from the Hortator for ‘the most magnificent of all guars’.

When Nerevar’s arrival was announced, many spectators rose from their seats, shouting, waving their scarves, and throwing coda flowers onto the sand of the Arena. Voryn hastened to take his place in the central gallery which was spread with tapestries and silk to accommodate the nobility. Above them sat the common folk on rough wooden benches and the poorest of the spectators occupied the aisles. In the four corners of the arena were placed pennons emblazoned with Moon and Star and various symbols of Indoril royalty which gaily fluttered in the wind.

“Look over there,” said Nerevar, leaning over to him. “Do you see that guar? No, look to your left… That’s Jok. A gorgeous beast, isn’t he?”

The improvised thrones of the nobility were upholstered in soft blue cloth and provided the view of the entire arena. Voryn saw a dozen or so well-bred guars with strong front claws which were not well developed in their wild kin; they had soft bellies and it seemed to him that they were smiling. Behind them bustled riders in motley clothes and animal trainers with whips.

Here, in the Arena, his older brother issued a challenge to his father in accordance with the honorable tradition and his blood was spilled onto the merciless sand before the eyes of a lone witness.

“Yes, I see him,” Voryn said gently.

The Hortator radiated happiness and gaiety which suited him well, but Voryn could not conceive how he could be so oblivious to his friend’s abject misery.

In the meantime, the guars with the riders firmly seated on their backs were lined up and the roll of a drum resounded, signaling the spectators and the participants of the race to rivet their attention on the arena and, encouraged by the nobles and commoners alike, the riders darted off with the speed of an arrow.

“What did Azura say?” Nerevar asked after the guars finished their first loop.

The head of House Dagoth burst into uneasy laughter.

 “She sent you on an errand to retrieve a book for her and gave a vague speech about cursing the shrine. But she promised to give us the answers we seek. Don’t you want to know why that creature, Arun, was created?”

“Azura’s help comes with a steep price, Voryn. A long time ago, I was foolish enough to think that a bargain with a Daedric Prince was a great honor. If you fail, you’re indebted to the Prince forever. If you succeed and retrieve that godforsaken book, you’ll have half the answers you need, and in a few hundred years, you’ll learn that the book was cursed or it contained truths you weren’t prepared to hear… I ask for Azura’s help only in the most desperate circumstances.”

“I’ll take my chances.”

The guar by the name of Jok swept past them and the onlookers roared, jumping to their feet.

Nerevar, too, rose to his feet and yelled out a few incoherent encouragements for his favorite guar. “You can’t take your promise back,” he said, sitting down, “so get ready to spend weeks or months in the dusty Temple libraries, searching for the location of that tomb.”

Voryn longed to return to Kogoruhn and be with his brothers, but the prospect of spending a few months in Nerevar’s company gladdened him more than he was willing to admit aloud. And if he had to thank Azura for it, he’d leave a generous offering on her altar next time he’d go to the Temple to pray.

***

When does Dagoth Ur realize that he is alive?

A hapless herder fell asleep at the foot of the Red Mountain near a pool of liquid mud which gave off steam. He didn’t lay a fire out of fear that it would attract wild animals which roamed about the Ashlands, but the night was cold, and he hugged his guar to warm the animal. Of his own well-being the shepherd did not think.

Dagoth Ur entered the herder’s dream as he would enter a house and he left a divine seed in it without care or thought; and as the divine seed grew in the house of dreams, it filled it with darkness.

When a divine spark fell upon the flesh, it was extinguished, but such was not the will of the spark but of the flesh which withered in agony, weak and unfit.

The herder woke up, wailing from pain and alone, for his horrifying screams frightened his guar. His skin was covered in blotches and ulcers, or it had rotten away. He was overcome with rapacious hunger which ate away at his soul, as he searched for the divine seed in his throat.

And with his claws the herder tore off a piece of flesh from his womb which dripped with pus and put it in his mouth, and chewed it with his teeth. His flesh was sweet and oily on his tongue, but his throat gave birth to a divine sound.

A weed. A speck of dust.

To wreak vengeance upon his enemies Dagoth Ur will come. And all will greet him as flesh, or as dust.

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4 thoughts on “CHAPTER III: AS FLESH OR AS DUST

  1. What a nice chapter!

    What I really like a lot here is how you made the Ashkhan have some delusions about his daughter’s skills as a leader because a parent’s assessment of their childrens’ skills is indeed rarely objective. In many cases, they are either too harsh on them because they want them to be an idealized version of themselves or their love for them blinds them to their childrens’ shortcomings, and I believe that the contrasts between the Ashkhan and Nerevar’s respective impressions of the Ashkhan’s daughter are a really interesting example of the latter. It’s even more interesting to me because they are both leaders and should therefore have the same level of awareness of what a promising future leader should be like.

    The description of Voryn’s spell as he eavesdrops on Nerevar’s conversation is really interesting, though I also really like the fact that it can be further improved on as in Cardea’s case as it shows that despite Voryn’s immense magical powers, there’s still room for improvement, which makes him come across as powerful, but not as overpowered.

    I think Nerevar’s attempt at convincing Voryn to reconsider his stance on Dumac and the Dwemer is really well-conceived on his part as he first provides an example of Voryn very much having been open to a new idea that would fundamentally change their society and only then mentions the smaller change that would come with acknowledging the Dwemer, who have already proven their trustworthiness, as allies. Nerevar’s description of the differences between the Chimer and the Dwemer, too, was a very interesting read and I’m very much looking forward to learning more about the Dwemer in general.

    On a less serious note, Nerevar being such a big fan of guar races is positively endearing 😀

    I’m really intrigued by the single line about how Voryn’s brother died in the Arena after having challenged his father and I’m wondering whether more about the exact circumstances and the way it has affected Voryn will be revealed at a later point.

    It is very interesting to me that it is Nerevar rather than Voryn who displays a higher awareness of how dangerous it is to make a bargain with a Daedric prince, given what you told me about the two of them in your previous responses and with Nerevar being Azura’s champion as it adds another nice facet to the religious conflict you’ve been establishing in your story. After all, at least in this scene, Nerevar’s faith doesn’t appear to be blind to me.

    Again, thanks for the amazing read ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I think you’re pretty spot on on ALL your observations here, very little to add from my side.

    Ashkhan Tamal is a very biased father, but also… to his defense, the Ashlander world is different from one of Mournhold politics. And while Nerevar is not a stranger to both, Tamal is less aware and more limited in his understanding of the life in the capital and what it demands of a leader. That’s why when Nerevar later asks for his advice, he can only say: this is what I would have done, but it’s definitely not an option for Nerevar (though it would be funny to imagine xD).

    Voryn is by no means overpowered. Especially, in a universe where gods or Daedric Princes walk the realm, and ohhh boy, you don’t want to be near that cataclysm. I hope you like the Dwemer, honestly. You will start meeting them since ch 5 in more detail, I believe. And yes, Nerevar adores the guar (they are cute 🙂 and it’s one of his sillier sides, for sure.

    You’ll find out about what happened to Voryn’s brother. But it’s something I chose to unveil slowly. Very slowly.

    And lastly, the whole faith conflict. It’s something from source material, I believe, but I incorporate it a lot. Chimer faith is practical in some ways more than it is spiritual. The Chimer worship rather dangerous and less than benevolent figures to survive — to appease them so that they’d leave them alone, at least. As the chapter you’ve just read shows (interlude I), Nerevar’s faith had to become somewhat pragmatic, too, in the end, because blind belief would absolutely have cost him his life by then.

    Hope you continue to enjoy the story! ❤

    Like

  3. This review is a little incohesive – these are all snippets I liked, and made a note of, while I was reading, and I hope that’s ok.

    The way you describe Moonshadow in this is absolutely stunning. It’s as vivid as it is dreamlike, and you really capture this sense of haunting beauty. I really like the line: “When you enter into Oblivion, Oblivion enters into you.”

    And then, he awakes, amongst the ashlanders. It was interesting seeing the depiction of the ashlander camp through Nerevar’s eyes, through his negotiations and discussions both with Tamal as he seems to misunderstand their customs and their poetry, but I think you depict the ashlanders with nuance and certainly don’t render them wholly alien from Nerevar’s perspective. I’m interested to see how this plot thread with Galmis will be resolved.

    Love the line “Lord Nerevar doesn’t take a walk in the garden without his shield-bearer trailing after him like a pesky kwama scrib”. What a cutting description of Alandro Sul.

    I’ve also noticed the way that Voryn talks about Nerevar, as ‘his lord’, such as “Voryn had long since learned to forgive his lord all his peculiarities”, is just… very telling in how it conveys both a respect, a loyalty, and a deep admiration, that it is *his* lord, and not another, and yet the way you’ve described it as Voryn doing forgiving, placing him in power, in this sentence… I just like how this sentence plays with the idea of rank and service, especially understanding that they will become intimate later.

    I do like how you’ve depicted Alandro Sul here. He really feels apart from the pack of deceivers who play politics in Mournhold and amongst the First Council – there’s certainly a level of earnestness to him, I think – that I’m sure frustrates absolutely everyone. He’s not a player, and resists as much as he can being a piece, either.

    Really love also how you’re able to tie these dispirate pieces together. The ashlanders crop up again in Nerevar’s argument with the Redoran Duke (definitely do not envy Nerevar’s job here – he deals with it really well by bringing up the question of what is their ancestry, are they such outcasts, etc.) as well as, interestingly, Almalexia’s promise being contrasted to the actions of Nerevar (I like the way you’re positioning Almalexia as Nerevar’s opposition as much as his partner, politically speaking, even though they work together). Azura as a thread runs through this whole chapter, from Nerevar’s dream to Voryn’s recounting of the actions at Bal Fell.

    I really like how Nerevar tries to persuade Voryn about the Dwemer, using slavery as an example, & I think Nerevar’s remark about how difference isn’t a barrier to understanding or reconciliation explains a lot about his outlook and his rulership. All the while, enthusing about the guar races.

    You really get a sense of how multi-faceted Nerevar is in this chapter – and I’ll say that I sympathise with him, certainly, in how many balls he has to juggle and how he has to balance appeasing different factions while pushing forward with progress.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. What are you talking about, it was an amazing comment, Sasha!!

    I always had an impression of Moonshadow as this ever-shifting realm, with ever-changing colors kind of like looking at the world through a prism. It’s one of those realms we never get to see in games, so I just let my imagination run wild. And that one is one of my favorite quotes from one of TES books on Oblivion :D. I think it really captures the danger of Daedric realms in one sentence, and a lot of this fic is dedicated to that topic.

    Nerevar understands and misunderstands Ashlanders. I’m glad you noticed that. A part of him, before he was named Hotrator, feels drawn to their lifestyle, but many years of court politics, unconsciously, separate them nevertheless. I have a scene between him and Dun-Ilu, another important Ashlander character, that really highlights that. I really like Ashlanders as a TES faction, and I have many theories on how they came to be, some made it to this fic.

    Ow, ‘his lord’ was such a tiny small detail, I didn’t think anyone would notice. Omg. xD Well, firstly, Dagoth Ur — and that is how I choose to interpret his message the Nerevarine — is deeply confused about his standing with this new, reborn Nerevar. On one hand, he seeks to assert his dominance by demanding submission from the Incarnate, on the other hand he remembers their friendship and close association, and lastly, he calls them ‘lord’, clearly demonstrating that rank is something very significant to him, no matter how many eons passed; and that more than anything indicates the deep respect and admiration Voryn Dagoth and later Dagoth Ur held for Nerevar. And ‘his lord’ is far more personal than just ‘lord’.

    Yeah, I try to juggle a lot of (hopefully intriguing) political threads all over this fic: Ashlanders, settled Chimer, their uneven attitude to slavery (I believe that since early days, slavery was not commonly accepted among Chimer equally, with Dres and Telvanni being the main culprits, while the other Houses are less involved in the business, though to some degree (except Redoran). And of course, Nerevar is stuck in the midst of these old conflicts – reckless, non-conformist, ready to ditch tradition for good or bad. 🙂

    Speaking of Voryn, I wanted to give Voryn a back story on his relations with the Dwemer that shows his character growth. At this point, to Nerevar’s frustration, he is stubbornly blind. xD

    I definitely hope you will continue to enjoy this mess that’s brewing here, your thoughts are so eloquent and a pleasure to read as always ❤

    Like

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