Inside the ancestral tomb, Nerevar counted six empty rooms and thirty-five pedestals each crowned with an ornamental mortuary urn filled to the brim with bonemeal powder which was soft to the touch and bitter of taste. Unlike many tombs he had shamelessly robbed in the past, it was scrupulously pillaged of everything however little of value and even the sacred adornments were amiss although as loot they were worthless. He debated with the Council for two days and two nights to have a stringent law against the grave robbers adopted for that very reason. But as the Hortator went deeper into the tomb, swiftly cutting down lesser daedra – three scamps, a clannfear, and a winged twilight – a perturbing thought occurred to him. An evil lich could inhabit the old Chimer cemetery, and it could be stripped bare of decorations as a sacrilegious declaration of defiance by a bold, foul will.
Voryn walked beside him, his bearing upright and his countenance expressionless, warning him occasionally about an enemy hiding in the dark room, but he didn’t elaborate on his observations. The surroundings weighed heavily on their spirits – the low ceilings, the labyrinth of poorly lit hallways, the daedra, the stifling air, and smashed burial urns – but they stubbornly continued their ascent up the steep corridor which twisted into coils like a snake, comfortably nestling against the bedrock of a mountain slope.
At the end of the hallway, a door opened into a large chamber of an odd ancient design to which testified a barrel vault, ornate pedestals with urns and a bed of ash littered with skeletal remains – bare fingers, skulls, ribs and small bones without count. On the clay rim of the ash bed were placed sixteen candles in the shape of a blazing circle. Many Chimer mystics deemed ‘sixteen’ a sacred number: sixteen were the Daedric Princes, sixteen were four times the four corners of the House of Troubles, two times the eight spokes in the Wheel according to Sotha Sil’s theories – a symbol of power, mystery and splendor, of divinity and mortality interwoven within creation and of the harmony of the spheres.
Voryn bent over the ash bed.
“What’s the meaning of it, my lord?” he asked.
“How would I know? It isn’t anything like the ritual performed at Bal Fell. And didn’t you once say that I was a newborn in the art of magic?”
“Ah, it was a poetic comparison. I told you that I couldn’t wholly explain what I saw, just as I couldn’t explain Manabi Faren to a newborn. She wrote that the waters of the Inner Sea shine with transparent gold, but what is a sea to a newborn? It was an exaggeration… My lord, I hope you won’t hold these words against me.”
“Come, come, Voryn. I know I have less magical talent than a negligent apprentice in his pinky.”
“Allow me to disagree. Superiority in any craft is not just a matter of secret techniques or talent. You have the talent and the might to obliterate this entire tomb, but not the discipline to practice your spellcraft diligently. It’s something we learn from early childhood. Concentrate on one affair. It isn’t easy to survive in the wilderness if you can’t become a master of your craft. Our healers and hunters, and mages didn’t have the luxury to pursue a whole array of callings. In Mournhold, you look down on illiterate guards. But in Kogoruhn, if a hunter can’t tell one letter from another yet he can shoot a kagouti in the eye from a hundred paces with both hands, he is deserving of praise.”
“You know I don’t have the time for it,” Nerevar muttered, bewildered by his own discomposure. “I can hardly afford to practice my sword, but I have to keep up my form if I don’t want to be perceived weaker that the likes of Nerano Sarethi.”
“I’d bet on you, my lord, if it ever came to it.”
“Well, that’s that. Can you sense anything unusual besides the undead and the daedra?”
“Yes, a woman. She’s somewhere beyond this chamber and she’s powerful. I suggest a cautious approach.”
Their conversation was cut short when, with the suddenness and fury of a thunderclap in a clear sky, a gate to Oblivion opened momentarily, baring its colorful depths. The candles were blown out by a strong gust of wind, and a golden saint, a daedroth and three scamps stepped out of the crack. A flash of lightning which struck one of the lesser daedra cast a pale gleam on the ebony shield of the golden saint and the shadowy figure of the daedroth, and the scurrying scamps as disagreeable to the sight as they were to the nose.
Nerevar drew a plain Daedric sword which he took with him when he journeyed incognito. The scamp who rushed at him the Hortator struck with his shield and crushed its head with a blunt pommel. It squealed and thrashed about like a stray dog in death throes, and he stepped over it to challenge an Aureal, commonly known among mer as a golden saint. She was a tall woman in a splendid golden armor; her head was crowned with a winged helmet and a halo of unearthly light, her tread was easy and movements dazzling, deadly. Unlike scamps – the rats and stray dogs of Oblivion – the Aureals bore resemblance to Resdayn nobility in that they established among themselves a ruling hierarchy and assumed command of the lesser daedra on a battlefield; but if they were summoned by a sorcerer, they demonstrated the greatest disdain for other creatures and wouldn’t spare a glance towards a dying clannfear or spider daedra. Pity would surge up in him when Nerevar had to kill a creature of such tangible, tantalizing and understandable beauty so unlike an ogrim or a daedroth, or even a winged twilight, but so unwanted a pity didn’t defer his deadly blow.
The golden saint skirted him without attempting to engage in combat. In her movements, there was an allure and swiftness, but Nerevar also saw in them what an inexperienced fighter would fail to notice. When they exchanged blows at last, he slipped the blade of his sword under hers, pushing it forcefully to the side, and leaned forward in a quick, precise, devastating lunge. He withdrew his bloodied sword almost at once as her wound was deep enough to wear her out with time, and hid behind his shield, blocking a furious blow after a furious blow, each more mindless than the one that came before it. Then the Hortator opened himself briefly, inviting her to strike him down, and she swung her sword wildly, angrily, spattering the stones with blood in the wake of her erratic lunge. Nerevar stepped to the side, and the blow glanced off his breastplate. The golden saint began vanishing with her arm raised menacingly and his blade lodged deeply in her chest.
Voryn made short work of the daedroth and watched them fight, as though he could truly judge the success of Nerevar’s tactics. He stood in a shaft of bright light, having wasted his magicka on a ‘trivial spell’, as Nerevar recalled with a smile.
“I’ve lost the magelight,” Voryn scoffed in frustration.
Nerevar wiped the blade clean with a piece of cloth and when he turned to face Voryn again, he saw him crouching near the charred body of the daedroth and observed with disgust as he plunged his dagger deep into the creature’s chest, retrieving a lump of flesh in which Nerevar recognized a heart.
“What’s with that intense expression, my lord? A daedra’s heart is a very valuable alchemical substance. It’s a pity the golden saint vanished, or I’d take her heart, too… Do you know how difficult it is to procure one – not to mention two – hearts?”
“Sometimes I believe the reputation of the alchemical craft is justly earned,” muttered Nerevar, ransacking the room on Voryn’s request. At last he found a dusty glass flask whereto his friend hurried to stuff his repelling prize.
“A fresh heart is even more valuable. Two-hundred gold coins don’t lie on the side of the road… I honestly never took you for a fastidious mer. I’ve heard many stories about your feats on the battlefield which weren’t all too pleasant.”
“Where is that woman you sensed earlier?”
Voryn pointed his bloody dagger towards a stairway in the wall opposite from them. They mounted it and found themselves in another room with bare walls and an altar between two empty stone pedestals. A woman stooped over the altar, old, wrinkled, wiry and disheveled; in her hands she held a book. When she saw them, she burst out laughing – it was an eerie, unearthly sound – and clasped the book to her bony breast, as if it were more precious to her than anything in the world.
“Welcome, Moon-and-Star,” she said hoarsely.
“You… you’re her, aren’t you?” Voryn exclaimed in disbelief and stepped in front of Nerevar as if to shield him with his body from a terrible danger. “You’re the priestess who wrote that book.”
“I am. And now she sent you, fools, to retrieve her treasure. It took her long enough, and I grew tired of waiting. Her blessings, her poison… She knew this moment would come. She could have sent anyone after me, but she waited and waited like a spider in her web.”
Nerevar put a hand on Voryn’s shoulder, wordlessly asking him to step aside and let him talk. “How did you know it was me? We’ve never met.”
“You wear Azura’s mark on your finger. Her magic, the blasphemy of the Dwemer… I sense all of it.”
“Why did you steal the book?”
“Steal? You can’t steal the fruits of your effort. Others tried to do terrible things with it, but I protected them, though I knew she’d be angry with me. And you’ve come to drag the old secrets to light, disturb the old wounds… Take it, I can’t fight you. I’m not who I once was when I basked in her benevolence.”
Before Nerevar could come to his senses and interfere, the priestess raised her arm and slowly uttered a spell which didn’t bring down a roof on Nerevar’s head or render him unable to fight, or summon a legion of daedra – no, the abyss didn’t gape under his feet and ice didn’t chill him to the bone, but the woman was engulfed from head to toe in raging flames.
She burnt in silence, as though mocking them in her final moments: her face charred, her skin blackened, her features were terribly distorted, but she didn’t once cry out in pain. There was something fanatical and ecstatic in her self-sacrifice, something incomprehensible to Nerevar who would have fought to the last drop of blood and if he could no longer hold his sword, he’d surrender to live another day. He watched the ritualistic death of an unknown woman in torpor.
It seemed to him that he stood in front of the funeral pyre for a whole hour, but it must have been only a few fleeting moments, for when Nerevar recovered himself, the woman still clutched the accursed book in her charred hands. In spite of the scorching heat which emanated from the crooked figure and the heavy odor of burnt flesh, he snatched the book out of her hands, and she crumbled away in a flurry of ash.
“She used the ring of self-immolation,” Voryn said in a constrained voice.
After they left the underground tomb which now accommodated another body, Voryn talked Nerevar into taking off his gauntlets and scrutinized his palms thoroughly for burns. When Voryn was done fussing over him, they sat down on the edge of the cliff, gazing over the cheerless heathland with sickly trees astir in the wind. Under the bright sun, the terrors of the musty tomb seemed dreamlike.
“Will you read the book?” Voryn asked, squinting in the sunlight.
“I’m not sure if I should read it. You heard the priestess and her story.”
“She’s lived for a long time, my lord. The story didn’t lie about the gift of longevity. The people thought of a happy ending because they didn’t know the outcome. It’s only natural to feel the need for a satisfactory explanation, but sometimes there isn’t one, and we invent it, relying on our imagination shaped by our beliefs and longings… You hold the answers to an ancient riddle. Nothing will come of it but the satisfaction of your curiosity.”
“You’re right, you’re right. Frankly, I worry a lot because I’m afraid.”
“Are you concerned about Almalexia?”
“You’ve heard about her, too? News travels fast,” Nerevar said bitterly. “I know she’s involved in all of this somehow, but her involvement – if it’s truly her – is very subtle. She won’t be caught with her undergarments down… I’m more worried about my meeting with Dumac. What will he say?”
“He’ll understand, but you have to quell the rumors about the war.”
“I’d meet with Galmis if it wasn’t so pointless. I’d sooner convince a rock than that excuse of a pious s’wit.”
“Who said anything about convincing?” Voryn asked dryly.
Nerevar glanced at him confusedly and distrustfully. What was Voryn hinting at? How could he benefit from a dangerous conversation which he so frivolously began?
“Let’s have this talk some other time. I won’t have a better opportunity to sneak out of the palace to visit Dumac and elude the spies on both sides. Can I borrow your guide, a guar, and a guard or two?”
“They’re at your disposal, my lord.” Voryn was once again humbleness and obedience incarnate.
After they climbed down the hill, Voryn called for his chap’thil, and he returned with a saddled guar and the guide who went by the name of Hlera S’ul. Nerevar hid the book in the saddle bag, said the proper farewell words, and followed the guide uphill towards Barysimayn.
Barysimayn stood for the citadel in the crater in the Dwemeri language. It was a marvel of primeval architecture erected in the heart of battle between nature and mer which even in the most callous of souls evoked unwanted fascination. From the natural walls surrounding an enormous pool of ever-burning lava protruded thin towers with elegant steeples, stone galleries now sparsely, now in great numbers clinging to the rock, and between them were scattered pipes, flues, cog wheels and other machinery of odd shapes, clattering, crackling, rumbling, hissing, and belching out smoke and scorching steam. From the volcanic crater rose, swirling, acrid crimson fog.
Atop the walls was erected a single watch tower, reaching with its steeple towards the sky yet firmly set on earth, sturdier than it was appealing to the eye. The Dwemer architecture was scanty in ornaments, and the watch tower appeared an awkward monolith to many men and mer, even as familiar with the Dwemer craft as Nerevar. From the topmost room of the watchtower, vigilant sentries, alternating every six hours, observed the surroundings of the citadel through powerful magnifying devices which were invented by Tonal Architect Bhumunz Zanchu three hundred years before the war with the Nords. Kagrenac’s predecessor stole Bhumunz’s designs, and only posthumously did he receive the fame he was bereft of in life while the thief was punished with utmost severity by the Dwemer Council whose members didn’t take lightly to the theft of inventions. Near the small and round entrance gate wherethrough only two mer could squeeze at a time, towered a mechanical crossbow which was taller than the most robust of Chimer and fired arrows as thick as a warrior’s arm.
But the true wonders of the Dwemer magecraft were hidden deep beneath the tumultuous volcano and the towers which made but a poor impression on those who didn’t appreciate the unadorned grandiosity of stone and ash. Beneath the surface there were halls as long and wide as city streets alight with the lurid reflections of forge fires, pits which accommodated gigantic hulls of airships, rows upon rows of sleeping metallic colossi, statues from pure gold with precious stones as eyes, smithies more ornate than living quarters, and in the bowels of the Red Mountain, hid the sacred dwellings of the Tonal Architects where magic transformed into music and music assumed form.
A Dwemer cemetery was, too, a thing of marvel. They immured their dead into walls to prevent their ghosts from returning, but occasionally one would spawn within the stone tomb, wailing lamentably until one of the architects’ apprentices released it. The Dwemer didn’t regard the remnants of their souls with the obeisance and awe of the superstitious and devout Chimer. Every Frost Fall the Dwemer who lived in Barysimayn celebrated what was known as the night of a hundred ghosts. Some years before Dumac was proclaimed king, the southernmost living quarter was awoken one autumn night by a loud wail, harmonious like a rapturous prayer and delightful like the melody of the Earth Bones. Banishing the ghosts whence they came was a sacrilege for any Chimer who dutifully worshiped his ancestors, but Dumac who then served as Protector ordered with somewhat comedic seriousness to placate the ghostly intruders and set them free. Nerevar heard about the incident from a Dwemer who was more sympathetic towards Chimeri traditions than most of his kin.
When Nerevar arrived in Barysimayn, a guard at the gate offered to accompany him to Dumac’s chambers through the halls, now silent and empty, past the smoldering forges and dark rooms which seemed abandoned. Once Nerevar saw three smiths tinkering with an airship and, overcome with sincere fascination, he stopped in front of it to admire an incomprehensible marvel of the Dwemer engineering. An airship was comprised of a round brass hull Nerevar fancied to be heavy and unwieldy, a mortar and a prow which served as a battering ram, yet it could somehow soar up to the heavens. In battle, the Dwemer possessed no deadlier weapons than their airships. On the distant approaches to the crater, the last army of Nords met a fitting gruesome end; their fearsome thu’um which razed villages and city walls could barely disturb the ancient stones and the Dwemer army had an advantage of ground. The airships rained fire from the sky and when the Nords began to withdraw in disorder, the Chimer host attacked them from the rear, spreading terror among them and slaughtering their exhausted warriors without number.
No sooner had Nerevar recalled the battle of the Red Mountain than he saw a mosaic on a brazen wall depicting three Dwemer in full height, clad from head to toe in armor of such minute detail that Nerevar saw indentations in their helmets and cuirasses: one with a sword and a shield of trefoil shape, the other with a heavy hammer and the third and tallest of them held a mortar, its muzzle aflame – the warrior, the smith and the Tonal Architect. Another mosaic portrayed the Red Mountain which was about to burst forth with fire and ash.
As they went deeper into the mountain, the air around them grew stifling and the clatter of the furnaces, of the cog wheels, air pipes, steam engines and bellows, louder. In contrast to the mayhem of the lower levels, Dumac’s chambers would be quite cozy for a Chimer taste if it wasn’t for the excess of heavy steel and stone furniture —stocky tables, angular stools and cupboards, ornate benches upholstered in red and gold, and washstands. When Nerevar entered, Dumac rose to greet him from the large table upon which was spread out a map and a sailing chart of some sort, but Kagrenac who was with him didn’t waste his time on pleasantries. When he noticed Nerevar, the Chief Tonal Architect struck a noble, proud pose and didn’t seem eager to hold a conversation. He was of sullen haughty disposition which was further accentuated by his choice of attire – heavy golden robes over a pristine white tunic, a richly adorned belt, a pair of large golden earrings, and a slew of golden and ebony ornaments in his neatly braided beard. He exchanged a few quiet words with Dumac and hurried to make himself scarce, but not before he cast a withering glance at the Chimer king.
“Don’t mind him, Nerevar,” said Dumac after Kagrenac left. “He has a brilliant mind, and the tact of a brute. He’ll grumble a little, but he won’t recall he ever saw you in a few hours. He remembers everything until another theory of his engrosses him wholly and he forgets what day of what year it is.”
Nerevar took off the daedric helmet and threw back his head, leaning against the table.
“I don’t mind him. He’s a bit like Voryn, bold, outspoken and disapproving of your every decision from the most honorable of intentions. But I didn’t sneak out of the palace to discuss Kagrenac’s character.”
“I’ve heard the unpleasant rumors, but you don’t have to assure me that you’ll curb their ambitions. I’m confident you’ll adhere to our agreement to a hair’s breadth.”
“You don’t know how loathsome it is to return to the city which you’ve defended with your sweat and blood, knowing that the heads of the Great Houses conspired against you and your wife is disloyal, and your most trusted advisers are on her side. And they smile, nod, and lie to you because if they tell you the truth, you’ll have to throw them in the dungeon. Is it my failure as a king, my fault as a mortal mer? At times – and I say it with shame – at times I feel I don’t want this war so that they’ll never get their way and for no other sensible reason. I can’t let them triumph, will you believe it? It’s loathsome.”
“I don’t understand why you had to marry that woman. You know I never had a fancy for her. She loves herself and her grand ambitions… But you were stubborn, and you didn’t listen to me.”
“Don’t say it, Dumac. Her unfaithfulness reflects poorly on me because I couldn’t earn her loyalty and I had wronged her somehow… It doesn’t matter now. I do not seek reasons to excuse her actions. I won’t let any harm come to her because it’s our kingdom and our unhappiness to bear. But anyone who entertains her talks of war and plots to undermine me will find me less disposed towards mercy.”
“Do as you will, Nerevar. My patience and fondness for you are without measure. And my people trust me when I tell them that they have nothing to worry about.”
The Dwemer king smiled a self-satisfied smile and clapped his hands. A servant in a dark livery embroidered with gold and silver came into the room with a tray on which stood two decorative goblets and a wine jar and placed them upon the table. Dumac poured Nerevar a drink with his own hand out of deep respect for him.
“It’s too early to be drinking wine.” Nerevar was astonished. “What are we celebrating?”
“Do you only drink on a celebratory occasion? Take the goblet with you and we’ll talk in the pits where my presence is awaited. The air in the mines tastes like dust.”
Nerevar took the goblet between his thumb and middle finger as he was accustomed to holding it during feasts and formal receptions and followed the king out of the door and down a long brass hallway which he passed on his way there. The bejeweled mosaics faintly glistened in the glow of wall lamps. They turned left, went through the round door which had a bearded face of a Dwemer etched into it, with red rubies for eyes, and approached a cage guarded by two armed warriors. As they heard the king and his guest approach, they turned the handles on both sides of the fragile cage and a door opened into it with a creak. Nerevar hesitated before he stepped onto the swaying wooden floor which separated him from the gaping abyss of the shaft and when he did step inside, he gripped the rails with both hands, avoiding to look into the black nothingness into which he’d surely fall if the cage were to break. With a jolt, the platform began its unsteady descent, the walls from coarse stone closed in around them, the bright light dimmed, and a gust of hot wind wafted along an awful smell akin to the stench of rotten kwama eggs.
“Now we can discuss your concerns and at the same time I won’t be sitting idly in my room. You’re my friend, Nerevar, and you know it, but you have a habit of coming by unannounced in the most inopportune time.”
Nerevar frowned momentarily. “There was something else I wanted to bring to your attention. Did you happen to see an animal or a bird native to a particular part of Vvardenfell on mainland? I’ve recently helped someone who was bitten by an animal that never lived in those parts… And perhaps I’m imagining the importance of what I saw, but it struck me as odd.”
“You speak in riddles. What sort of animal did you see on mainland that seemed out of place?
“It was a nix hound.”
“I believe you’ve imagined a significance to an event which could be explained simply. But you should have talked to Kagrenac. He’d give you a different answer than I.”
“You know he won’t talk to me.”
The cage shook for the last time and came to a standstill. Dumac opened the door, letting Nerevar through, and as soon as he got out of the cage, he felt the need to refresh himself with the fragrant wine. They found themselves in a dark corridor, with scarcely a lamp for every twenty strides, which led to a wide tunnel crammed with crates and carts filled to the brim with raw ebony of deep purple hue. The thick dust settled on the floor and on the walls all around them, and it hung in the air, immeasurable and all-conquering.
A foreman miner approached them with befitting respect to her king and said a few quiet words to Dumac, but he gestured for her to wait.
“In other words, you’d like me to talk to Kagrenac myself. What should I ask him?”
“Don’t you remember? Ask him about the nix hounds.”
“Oh, he’ll berate me for distracting him from important tasks, but I’ll oblige you if only to annoy him. I know what he’ll tell me: ‘Dumac, why must you pester me with such nonsense! What will it be tomorrow? You’ll ask me to interpret dreams?’ And I’ll tell him: ‘Kagrenac, old friend, if I wanted to have my dreams interpreted, I’d go to a Chimer mage.’ And he’ll laugh at this horrendous joke. The tact of a brute, but what mind! What brilliant mind! Was there anything else you wanted to discuss before we part ways?”
Nerevar involuntarily smiled. “I’m flattered by your eagerness. I need to tell you about my misadventures in Bal Fell and then some.”
And the two kings, conversing about this, that and the other, went deeper into the mines.
Upon his return to Kogoruhn, Voryn retired to his chambers troubled by his conversation with Nerevar. He envisioned them as if he’d seen them with his own eyes, one disaster after another, each having its roots in the odd, undue intimacy of their friendship which Voryn dreaded not because it was repulsive to him – no, he dreaded its attractiveness. He stubbornly refused to call the Hortator by his name, he denied himself the joy of his company, he convinced himself of many a lie, but no sooner had Nerevar looked at him favorably again than he felt his fervent convictions wane. For all his shrewdness, the Hortator didn’t like thinking far into the future. He had that sort of audacious and lighthearted attitude about him which Voryn envied, wishing he could banish all his doubts from his mind instead of contemplating, until he’d feel resentful and repulsed, what the distant future held for him.
He couldn’t elude a bad omen.
Having decided nothing, Voryn lit a fire under the alembic and from the glass flask, he took out the daedroth’s heart, preparing to preserve it in moonsugar alcohol, when he heard a patter of feet outside of his room and voices arguing passionately. Then through the chink in the door came a narrow shaft of light and one of his servants timorously squeezed inside with a glowing lantern in his hand.
“It’s your brother Gilvoth, sera,” he mumbled. “He raised quite the ruckus when he came back from his journeys with that… Ashlander girl. We don’t know-”
“What Ashlander girl? Speak intelligibly or I’ll have you whipped.”
“The Ashlander girl he brought with him. She was on a… on a leash.”
“An Ashlander girl on a leash! Boethiah take your senseless lot!”
“No, sera, please come with me and I’ll show you.”
The servant sounded awfully convinced for someone who’d earn ten lashes for so frivolous a mischief. Voryn blew out the fire under the alembic and followed the servant who led him outside where a small crowd of people had already gathered – temple priests, guards, stable boys – and surrounded a young woman in a woolen skirt and a blouse adorned with purple flowers. She knelt on the ground, but her humble pose wasn’t voluntary and around her wrists and neck was tied a coarse rope. Silent tears streamed down her cheeks, but she didn’t beg the crowd to untie her or give her a glass of water, she wouldn’t even move or bow down her head, sitting upright like a mute statue of desperation and defiance. Beside her stood Gilvoth, holding the end of the rope, and Voryn watched, appalled, as he delivered a speech to the crowd which responded to his words with a sentiment of sympathy.
Gilvoth was younger than Voryn, but on his surly countenance years had left their mark, showing in webs of wrinkles around his mouth and under his eyes, some appearing from excessive drinking and debauchery. After their older brother died by the hand of their father, the brother Voryn knew, free-spirited and devoted to the House, disappeared beneath a conceited angry façade, and the more he indulged his nasty habits, the more irascible he became, rushing from one extreme to another. He’d wallow in depravity and then beg the temple priest to allow him to serve Azura, but his new-found dedication would be fleeting, his moods ever-changing, and he always returned to lechery and a skooma pipe. Nerevar called him ungracious – if only rudeness was his sole vice.
“Ashlanders are our slaves!” Gilvoth exclaimed, his expression savage, vicious. A gentle wind tousled his unkempt hair. “Their customs are barbaric, their faith vulgar. They steal our land to put up their tents and raise their children together with their pack animals. It is our duty to instill in them the proper values of obedience and humbleness. Do not listen to a king who says otherwise! When did our House bow down to anyone? He protects these Ashlanders because he is of one breed with them. He’ll turn our great halls into guar stables, and my brother – my poor, misguided brother – will let him do as he pleases. Why, he’ll even kiss his boots and his illustrious arse!” The spectators guffawed and Gilvoth gave the rope a yank. “Show them who’s your rightful master, s’wit!”
The girl had a look of a scared little animal when Gilvoth struck her across her face. Voryn barked out an order, and the crowd made way for him before Gilvoth could deliver another blow. He stepped between the girl and his enraged brother, and sparks of lighting crackled and danced between his palms.
“I won’t allow you to speak ill words about the Hortator in my abode. You should be ashamed of yourself! If anyone among us spent the night at a guar stable, it was you.”
“Kogoruhn is my home, too! It belongs to all sons of our father, Mephala damn him!”
“Lofty words for a slave to a skooma pipe and a bottle of cheap brandy. Guards! Chain him in fetters and take him out of my sight!”
“You won’t dare, brother!”
But Voryn’s manners and voice were so terrifying that his chap’thil obeyed him at once, in spite of Gilvoth’s verbose protests. Shackled and humiliated, his brother was taken to the dungeon, and Voryn leaned over the girl to untie a knot on her wrists. His heart was heavy.
“Who are you? Where is your home? I need to know,” he said softly, but the girl shrank away from him in fear.
A temple priestess lingered behind when the crowd began to disperse from boredom and asked Voryn’s permission to tend to her. On receiving his silent encouragement, the priestess folded her robe, sank to her knees and cast a healing spell, accompanying it with a hand gesture to ward off evil spirits. The girl gingerly touched her face and when she realized it was no longer swollen, she burst into sobs, spreading dirt all over her cheeks. The priestess wrapped her arm around her shoulders with a motherly gentleness and whispered a few soothing words into her ear.
“I’m the daughter of Ahemmusa, the great tribe to the north of the stone fortress,” the girl said between the sobs.
“I’ll have someone accompany you there after you rest a bit.”
“No, I don’t trust city-dwellers and I won’t accept their pity, yours least of all. My father will appeal to the Great Ashkhan himself.” The priestess loosened the knots on the rope and the girl shook it off, rising to her feet, lean, sunburnt and fierce. “Except your priests… I trust Azura’s priests. Send a priestess with me… please.”
Voryn gave a nod of agreement and averted his gaze from her tear-stained face. A lord could show mercy and take compassion on his subjects as was his right, but he never apologized to someone of low standing. Voryn’s heart was filled with a quiet loathing, and his brother he loathed most of all, his enmity and contempt growing inside him hour by hour, day after day until the ill feeling would burst forth. He awaited that day hopelessly, with inexhaustible patience tolerating Gilvoth’s misdeeds yet not knowing why he tolerated them. Whatever he felt towards his brother, it couldn’t be love anymore and it wasn’t yet a deep-rooted aversion, a mixture perhaps of the most sacred and most base, poisoning him slowly.
He called for Gurak and took a lantern from him with trembling hands so as to illumine the way to the dungeon deep below the living quarters and the summoning chamber. It was a dismal place, lacking even the most attractive feature of a wasteland – expanse; without the sun the soul wilts and the body withers, without the wind and stars in the sky the heart wastes away. Voryn didn’t envy the prisoners who spent many years without a commodity as paltry as a view from a window, but he didn’t come down to the prison often and preferred to banish from the mind any and all thoughts about their fate. Slowly, so as not to slip on the wet stones, he walked down the steps, plunging into darkness, and the sounds and smells of the outside world faded away except for the ever-present stench of damp mildew or lichen, or rot. At the bottom of a staircase a guard waited for him. He opened a rusty grating with a key and Voryn stepped into a small room with dark cobblestone walls, a rough wooden table and two chairs of no less crude workmanship.
Gilvoth had the effrontery to sit with his legs sprawled on the tabletop, but Voryn pretended he didn’t even notice the challenge in his pose, speaking to him coldly as though he was a petty thief who stole a guar.
“Gilvoth, I’ll be visiting the Ahemmusa Ashkhan in the evening and I’ll talk to him about your punishment, but I’m in no position to argue in your defense. Do you wish to confess?”
“You always talk like a priest and priests bore me, their self-righteous sermons and pointless admonishments. I always wanted to be a priest before I talked to them; they seemed so… mysterious to me. Ha-ha-ha! You ask if I confess… Well, you’re my brother, you’ll think of something.”
“If you believe that I’ll protect you -”
“Of course, I do. You always intervened with father on my behalf and I somehow escaped punishment for that stolen kagouti meat and missing vials with alit poison. Do you think I forgot? Maybe I want to be punished, or maybe it’s all a jest and I meant nothing by it.”
“You’re insufferable, Gilvoth.”
“You understand nothing about women. Whatever it is that you desire, it’s not a woman. A guar? You’re lucky, brother. I’ve heard rumors that with some practice – although how do you practice that? – you can do it with a guar.”
“Malacath’s blood curse! I came down here, hoping that there was a shred of reason left in you, but I was greatly mistaken. You’re sick, brother, and I can’t help you.” Voryn slammed his hands on the table and rose to his full height.
Gilvoth changed countenance and quietened down. “I’ll comply. I’ll confess if that’s what you wish. What do you want to know? An insufferable scoundrel Gilvoth hunted for some nix hound meat and he saw a pretty woman, a huntress, too, walk by. She didn’t see him, so he cast an invisibility spell, ambushed her and captured her, and tied her hands and legs with a rope. It was an Ashlander woman, that slave breed!”
“We were all Ashlanders under prophet Veloth before we settled behind the walls of cities. And even if she were an Argonian slave or servant, you can’t abduct someone’s servants.”
“They’re all of slave breed to me… Will you write that down? Do write it!”
A sudden unpleasant thought occurred to Voryn and he ceased listening to Gilvoth’s ramblings. His arguments with Nerevar, his resentment towards the Dwemer were partly senseless and stubborn, as were his brother’s. He laughed without mirth at this grotesquely exaggerated similarity which arose unwanted yet vivid in his mind.
“I will not defend you, brother,” he said, interrupting Gilvoth before he concluded his speech. “I’ll go to the Ashkhan and I’ll accept punishment on your behalf, and agree to all of his demands if they are within reason… I cannot defend you in all conscience, do you understand me?”
But the head of House Dagoth knocked on the grating, deaf to his brother’s entreaties, and when the guard opened the door, he didn’t glance back at him. Araynys waited for him by the stairwell, but Voryn, too, ignored him in spite of the familiar plaintive expression on his face. He mounted the stairs at a run, but he was hardly aware he was running, thinking about the forthcoming meeting with the Ahemmusa Ashkhan and how nothing gratifying would come of it. In his chambers he threw a few potions and scrolls in a small leather saddle bag while explaining to the dumb-founded servant how to preserve the heart in ice and balms until he returned from the camp. Those were senseless movements, for he knew that whether he met with the Ashkhan that day or later or never at all, it would all be the same. The Ahemmusa Ashlanders had camped halfway between Kogoruhn and the coast of the Sea of Ghosts for five seasons and during those five seasons they showed themselves respectful and polite neighbors. They never quarreled with any of the House nobles as it often happened when an Ashlander camp sprang up in the lands of a powerful lord and not once on Voryn’s memory did they dare steal from him or his brothers.
And yet Voryn went to meet with their Ashkhan, for if he didn’t try to negotiate with him, he’d be guilty of something more gruesome than senselessness.
The Ahemmusa camp hid from adverse winds and ash storms in a valley between two hills. The valley was quite unremarkable except for the dry riverbed through which in times out of mind flowed a river, emptying turbid and tumultuous into the sea, but it had long since dried up, stretching across the parched forsaken land, itself parched and forlorn, and if it wasn’t for the gently sloping banks on both sides of it, utterly indistinguishable from it. To the nearness of an abode testified a flimsy fence with gaping holes, a pack of guars by a rack, and a hut under a roof from silt strider’s chitin shell. An Ahemmusa Ashlander lived without many precious amenities to which a settled Chimer was accustomed, yet it couldn’t be said that he suffered from abject poverty or that he was miserable without them.
It was well into the evening when Voryn’s guar trudged into the camp and many Ashlanders gathered at some distance from them, watching him and his chap’thil dismount yet not daring to approach them save for the temple priestess who accompanied the injured girl. The Ashkhan didn’t come to greet his guests, but of itself it wasn’t a sign of his staunch disfavor, as he perchance didn’t expect them until morning. In darkness Voryn couldn’t see the faces of the Ashlanders, but he suspected that he had incurred their animosity already.
The Ashkhan and his gulakhan waited in the gulakhan’s yurt, greeting Voryn and his chap’thil coldly, and if they were astonished to see him, they were careful not to express any of their astonishment. Voryn didn’t see the girl whom Gilvoth caused offense or the Wise Woman who would often dampen down the Ashkhan’s zeal; only the Ashkhan and his champion were present, and in such display of power, he felt a solemn challenge to his authority. Their garments, too, were provocatively bright: jaundiced, crimson and mauve blouses, skirts with dark stripes, elaborate headwear decorated with an abundance of jewelry and garish adornments from cliffracer feathers.
They exchanged curt bows, and the Ashkhan who introduced himself as Dun-Ilu offered them to take a seat on the woolen carpet.
“We were never enemies, city-dweller,” Dun-Ilu said. “We traded decorations from sea shells, pearls, and clothes for your weapons and potions and we paid our dues to the last coin. We didn’t rob caravans like our misguided brothers and sisters without a tribe. Is it true that we abode by the laws of your land?”
“I find no falsehood in your words, Ashkhan,” said Voryn.
“If I spoke the truth, why must you repay us with humiliation, beatings and murder?”
“But there was no murder!”
“No, city-dweller, but it’s only a matter of time before you in your savagery will kill one of us. And you call us savages! That girl meant no harm to you or your brothers while she was hunting kagouti and yet you injure her so. If you believe that by coming here you will mollify me, get out of my yurt.”
“I admit that the thought did cross my mind, but I assure you that it’s no longer my intention to convince you of Gilvoth’s innocence or plead for mercy. He may be my brother, but I’m no common scoundrel.”
“For a city-dweller, you are too tractable,” remarked the gulakhan. “The House khan usually comes with fire and steel, not words, or if he talks, it’s just threats and other meaningless patter.”
Voryn shook his head. “Some House lords heeded the Hortator’s words. We wish to uphold peace between our people. Let’s do away with the threats altogether and examine the nature of the offense.”
“The Wise Woman says that the girl was taken against her will, beaten and violated in a gruesome manner. I’m no city quack, but when I’m told ‘violated in a gruesome manner’ I understand it for what it is.”
“Why haven’t anyone told me?”
“Talk to your priestess. She’s Azura’s witness, she is sworn not to lie.”
The gulakhan called for the priestess and she followed him into the yurt, looking uneasy and frightened.
“Tell me about the girl,” Voryn told her sternly.
“I healed her wounds, sera, and I talked to her, but there was nothing else I could do for her. Such poor creature. She wouldn’t tell me, you see, what happened to her, but she needn’t say a word. Such offense is condemned in Azura’s teachings as vile and unforgivable, and I won’t invoke Molag Bal’s name and defile my soul by repeating what the Wise Woman had told me.”
“Are you sure a violation of body was committed?”
“On Azura’s name I swear it! It is as the Ashkhan said. Your brother, sera, is a disgrace to your noble family.”
The priestess was moved to tears and she was allowed to leave the yurt upon giving her testimony. Dun-Ilu turned to Voryn with an air of self-assured confidence about him, as if telling him wordlessly that his victory was imminent.
“If you don’t agree to my conditions, I’ll appeal to the Hortator himself and you know he’ll lend me his ear. Of all the rulers Resdayn had, he is most sensitive to the troubles of Ashlanders. If you agree to my demands, I’ll still write him, but I’ll speak favorably about your involvement… I demand the following. Your brother must be imprisoned, but the girl’s soul won’t be at peace if he stays in Kogoruhn’s prison. What if you decide to release him prematurely? My camp isn’t suitable for him either, for the Ashlanders don’t take prisoners. We don’t feed them or clothe them. They are lost to us. For the petty offenses, we exile them and for the graver offenses, we give them over to the city… I also demand that neither you nor any one in your family ever approach her. Forget she exists, though she won’t forget you. And, lastly, I demand to hold a hearing in the city. Your apology I do not need or desire to hear.”
As the Ashkhan spoke, Voryn’s face darkened and he flashed him a furious glance, restraining himself from interrupting Dun-Ilu.
“You know I can’t agree to it!” he exclaimed hotly after Dun-Ilu came to be quiet. “My brother will be imprisoned for as many years as the law demands and wherever it will please you for as long as he won’t become a hostage to a greedy lord. But your final words are impermissibly bold. There is no need for a hearing in the city. In the spirit of compassion and conciliation, as our ancestors dictate us, we’ll settle this matter here, now, or I’ll drag you down with me. I helped Gilvoth as much as I could, but my family won’t suffer for his misdeeds.”
“Then we aren’t in agreement and I won’t stoop to haggling.”
“I ask you to reconsider. What’s in it for me? I lose either way, but you’ll spare my family the humiliation. Will you forsake an offer of peace out of greed? A victory may appear certain until the wind of change blows in the direction you don’t like. I never asked the priestess how she knew what you’ve said if she wasn’t here with us at the time, and maybe it was a slip of the tongue. Who but Azura knows? But if she lied, knowingly or unknowingly, out of zeal to see the culprit punished, how will you explain it to the Hortator?”
“The Hortator’s name is sacred among our people. He is just, he’ll know there was no lie.”
Dun-Ilu was implacable, and Voryn felt weary of the conversation and justified in his deep misgivings. He rose from the floor while the Ashkhan was explaining to him that it was blasphemous of him to suggest that the priestess had lied, and after the gulakhan called him an arrant knave, he lost patience. Lifting the fur draping which hung over the entrance to the yurt, he rushed outside in a bad temper. It was cold and quiet, and the bloody Masser ruled the pristine sky unchallenged. Voryn touched a warm amulet which was tied round his neck, whispered a few words, and watched the world around him spin violently, part before him like the immutable dark waters of a nightly lake, collapse upon him, and all was still again.
The familiar darkness of the summoning chamber leered at him from every corner with Mephala’s lustful eyes.
In the evenings Almalexia’s bedchambers were barely lit and the queen enjoyed reposing herself on a fur bed with a book or with one of the maidens by her side who would tell her stories to which she would listen with a sweet languorous look, or with a bamboo flute. In her lips the unpretentious instrument emitted heavenly sounds – gentle like a purl of a mountain rill or wistful, forlorn like the lament of the wind chasing after a tumbleweed, or merry, boisterous, full of life.
Nerevar heard the melody of the flute as he was coming down the stairs which led to the eastern tower and as he was, in the dusty armor and with the sacred book under his armpit, he went to his wife’s chambers to listen to her music. Their rooms were connected with a narrow passage in the walls of whose existence they alone knew. The door was hidden under the luxurious tapestry with Azura and prophet Veloth which was given to Nerevar as a gift by the head of House Dres and he often used the passage to surprise Almalexia when they were young and inseparable or, rather, he was young and it seemed to him that they were inseparable.
The passage door in Almalexia’s room was behind another tapestry of a similar design which portrayed a lone wanderer who found an odd shrine in the forest and behind him, outstretching his right hand towards him and holding a sword in his left, stood a hooded warrior, half-man and half-snake. It was Boethiah, not wholly a man or a woman, or a serpent spirit and the scene Almalexia chose from a famous book, ‘Boethiah, the Temptress’. She often said she found the sight of the warrior-god soothing.
The queen sat on a gilded chair, playing the flute with abandon, and Nerevar came up to her quietly so as not to give himself away with a careless gesture. She played, and the melody rose to unimaginable heights and faded away, thrilling, mighty, and grieving. When he asked her how she learned to play the flute, she said that Vivec had taught her, but even his youngest Councilor couldn’t play so skillfully.
When Almalexia heard him approach in his cumbersome armor, she put aside the flute and turned to him, her head atilt and lips parted in wonder.
“I thought you were away or in your room, asleep,” she said. “I didn’t know you cared for this silly habit of mine to play music in the evenings.”
“And I didn’t think you’d be alone.”
“You left and sent Vivec away to Holamayan. Sotha Sil is with the Psyjics, conversing about magic and nature, and topics incomprehensible to you and me. Of course, I’m alone. I’m always alone, ruling in your absence and advising in their stead. I’m a queen and an errand-girl and what am I more, a queen or an errand-girl?”
“I’m tired, Lexi! It was a long day. Let’s not argue over nothing.”
Almalexia gave a contemptuous wrench of her shoulder. “Are you here to make peace with me?”
“I enjoyed your music, my lady. Am I not allowed to enjoy it?… But maybe you’ll help me summon Azura, what do you say? The ritual is long and if I don’t arrange the candles in time or forget a perfume, she will get angry with me.”
“Azura… only you are infatuated with her, the rest of us are mere believers. But I’ll help you if we summon her together and listen to her wisdom together. Vivec told me about that book while you sulked in your rooms.”
“In this palace, everyone knows everything. Well, if you insist, meet me in the western tower, in that room with large windows facing the bazaar… Do you remember that room?”
“It’s my favorite room. The view of Mournhold from there is breathtaking.”
“Meet me there in an hour and bring bug musk perfume, coda flowers and candles.”
The sacred book was heavy in his hands, but the writing on the pages was intelligible and sparse, and by the time the hour elapsed, Nerevar would read most of it and some of its contents he’d even memorize.