CHAPTER VIII: THE SERPENT

Nerevar woke up with a headache so terrible that he couldn’t ascribe it to the state of obscene drunkenness of the late evening, or to any of the usual causes, and if he tried to recall what happened to him before he retired for the night, he would see a flash of bright light and nothing more. Neither the cup of hot tea which a handmaiden brought for him, nor a simple healing spell could alleviate the pain, and he resolved to bear it stoically even if he couldn’t quite make sense of it all.

On the eve of chil’a, he often drank wine in his bedroom, with only the sunset to accompany him, and reflected on his victories and losses. It was his habit to enjoy a few hours of solitude and drink himself silly so that he wouldn’t be tempted to indulge in spirits during the feast. Unbeknownst to all but Alandro Sul, he partook only water while the rest of his subjects made merry and caroused. He feared that his enemies would try to poison him or otherwise injure him, availing themselves of his inattentiveness and indiscretion. Nerevar remembered that yesterday Voryn interrupted his yearly ritual and they talked for a bit about his brother’s misadventures, and his own youthful escapades in court from the times when they were an enticing novelty to him, when he had just discovered that both men and women were susceptible to his charm. And the more they talked, the more certain Nerevar became that Voryn who wasn’t married or constrained by other oaths wasn’t adverse to fooling around with him, but perhaps it was a fancy of his inebriated mind, a brief illusion in the dark, and the days when his friend looked at him with bold adoration had long since passed. Why was he visited with that disastrous want to ‘fool around’ with Voryn in such a way?

‘It was meant to be just that – a foolery,’ Nerevar assured himself. ‘Will he understand that I implied nothing by it?’

Owing to the confusion and the irritation which were aroused by his sullen thoughts, Nerevar felt even more miserable.  

Grayish morning light shone scarcely through the window and a smell of fresh snow was wafted through it, but both the sunlight and the gusts of cold wind caused him acute torment. Nerevar clasped his head between his arms and gritted his teeth, wishing fervently to hide in a dark warm corner far away from the bustle and the tantalizing aromas of the winter garden.

A servant girl returned and asked him quietly if he wanted to call for a more experienced healer.

“Call for Sotha Sil,” he replied, stifling a groan.

Sotha Sil came in dressed in a festive attire, but he glanced at Nerevar’s face once and shed it in favor of a simple brown robe. He pressed his cold palm to the Hortator’s sweaty forehead, listened to his breathing and his anxious countenance brightened up, and his surly frown dissipated.

“You’re quite all right, Nerevar,” he announced cheerfully, and Nerevar winced from the sound of his voice. “I was worried at first that you had fallen ill, but as it turns out you’re suffering from a temporary curse whose nature I don’t wholly comprehend. But don’t fret yourself! It will wear off in an hour.”

“An entire hour?”

“I know of curses that plagued mer for a lifetime.”

“How is it a consolation to me? I want to be rid of it now.”

“I must thoroughly study the spells which served as the basis for its creation or my remedy will only make matters worse. A crafty malediction like this one weaves elements from two or three schools of magic into one unbroken whole, so to speak… It will take me a few hours to familiarize myself with it and you’ll be unlucky if it lasts half as long. Why don’t you ask the mage who cast it to undo it unless it was one of your disgruntled former lovers?”

“You wouldn’t want to know if I told you the truth,” muttered Nerevar.

Sotha Sil looked at him sternly, moving his lips as if intending to reprimand him, but having changed his mind, he threw the ceremonial robe over his shoulder. Nerevar followed his tall scrawny figure with his eyes until he was out of sight and drew himself up from the bed upon which he reposed himself during the conversation. It was awfully tempting to send for Voryn, but he couldn’t come face to face with his friend in an unbuttoned gown, tangled up in its hem, with bloodshot eyes and tousled hair. The mere thought of it was unbearable to him. Only that Nerevar who radiated confidence and generosity, graceful and well-mannered and well-disposed towards everyone inspired his subjects with adoration; this Nerevar was wretched and pitiful, deserving of scorn or commiseration, and he didn’t want to show himself even to the servants.

After he sent away a handmaiden in tears, there was a brief commotion behind the door to his bedchambers, and the guard had no sooner announced the queen’s arrival than Almalexia rushed to his bedside. Behind her a throng of curious servants thrust themselves in at the doorway, but she recovered her senses and slammed the door forcefully before leaning over to him, her lips pursed and eyes flashing fire.

“Nerevar, we’ll be late to the arena if you don’t get out of bed at once,” she said impatiently. The queen was half-dressed, and in any other circumstance he would appreciate her sensual beauty, but she was the picture of health and goodwill, and her long plump arms, her full thighs, and every part of her he had known intimately which was exposed as a challenge to him – all of it was loathsome to him. “Sil told me everything. Name that foolish mage who cursed you and I’ll drag him here against his will if I must!”

“Almalexia, I beg you, don’t scream at me,” replied Nerevar, burying his face in a soft silken pillow. He longed to see the soothing colors of Moonshadow and hear the music of its fountains, but he abandoned hope that the goddess would invite him to her realm to cure him of a nasty headache.

“Nerevar, you’re king and you have a duty to appear before your people.”  

“I know, my dear wife, of my obligations, but I am king as you so kindly reminded me, and my people will bow to my judgement.”

“You’ll suffer, but you won’t give up the name of the culprit who had injured you. What has gotten into you?”

Nerevar raised himself on the elbow. “I doubt I need your help to reconcile our differences.”

“When you behave like a petulant child, luxuriating in bed in your… dressing gown while the entire city is waiting for your appearance, it’s fair to say that you need my help.”

“Oh, Almalexia, don’t tell me you never dreamed of addressing the citizens of Mournhold instead of me,” muttered Nerevar irritably, forgetting about the pains. “I don’t mind if you take my place today. No one will mind.”

“By Azura, can you hear yourself?” Almalexia imploringly clasped his hot hand. “If I wanted to take your place, I wouldn’t try to persuade you to come to your senses. In these uncertain times, people will be overjoyed to see their king and queen in good health.”

Nerevar yanked his hand away from her, repulsed by her touch.

“No one appreciates me, that’s the whole truth,” he went on hotly. “I’ve given my life to them without recompense, but they still demand something from me. They’ll suck you dry if you let them. What if I told you that I want them to despair?” He glanced at Alamlexia’s countenance on which fear vied with indignation and understood that he didn’t know what it was that he wanted to say, and, feeling both vindicated in his anger and ashamed of it, he fell silent.

His wife shook her head helplessly. “When you’re like that, I can’t…” She threw up her hands. “I refuse to reason with you.”

The door opened and closed after her, and blissful silence settled over the room. Nerevar came up to the window, and his eyes swept the snowbound garden below and the gray expanse of the despondent sky, lingering listlessly on the restless servants running back and forth. He swallowed his seething anger, but he felt no sense of relief, no sense of familiar gaiety.

The invisible crown of Resdayn weighted heavily upon the Hortator’s brow.

***

The celebration of chil’a in Mournhold began when the king and the queen of Resdayn appeared in the courtyard of the palace before the three rows of selected guards in ceremonial armor of House Indoril who were to stand motionless with their spears tilted forwards to demonstrate iron discipline instilled in them during training. But the guards stood motionless, patches of pale light shimmered on the tips of their spears, the time hung heavy and there was a stir in the crowd of nobles which could erupt into an unrest, yet the royal couple didn’t hurry to join the festivities or send a herald to announce the reasons of their absence.

Voryn awaited the appearance of the Hortator in deep agitation, standing now and again on tiptoe so as to look over the sea of heads at the palace doors, and with a palpitating heart he fancied that the heavy folds had moved and that the splendid procession was just about to make its triumphant entrance. He was remorseful about casting that spell which surely caused Nerevar suffering, and at the first opportunity he wanted to ask his forgiveness and explain to him that he was afraid to act on his desires out of prudence. But when Voryn’s attention drifted away, the one picture arose before his eyes over and over, vivid and tantalizing: the inviting gaze of grey, rapacious eyes, the familiar countenance gentle and impassioned and not at all forbidding – and he doubted that he had the firm resolve to fling it all away.

‘By Azura, what am I thinking?’ Voryn was horrified. ‘I came to him to demand a verdict for Gilvoth and now my brother’s fate isn’t even a weight on my mind. I have forgotten it all! But I fret myself about ending up in bed with Nerevar… Why, he is right, a thousand times right! I hesitate and in moments of debilitating hesitation, I let what I desire most slip through my grasp.’

Voryn glanced round himself and, muttering a half-hearted apology, shoved aside a broad-shouldered House noble so as to get a better view of the door, but he had scarcely emerged from the crowd when an imposing hoary Chimer, arrayed in expensive furs and gold, raised his voice.

“Where is our esteemed king and Hortator?” he asked. It was none other than Galmis Hlaalu whom the head of House Dagoth knew in passing because Nerevar often argued with him during the Council meetings. “Tell him that we’re weary of waiting for him.”

The immovable guard by the door paid the enraged noble no heed, but Galmis showed no intention of relenting. The throng made way for him and his impressive retinue in bonemold armor – all tall stately Chimer who were indistinguishable from one another save for the motley coats of arms – and he addressed the guard boldly to demonstrate his authority.

“If the Hortator doesn’t join us soon, I will be leaving to celebrate chil’a at my own estate,” he said. “I know that I speak only for myself, but I suspect that many of you share my sentiment.”

“I don’t have to listen to you, Hlaalu dog!” exclaimed duke Melen of House Redoran with animation. His attire was as garish and tasteless as his manners were boorish and overbearing, and no one expected him to behave with grace and tact befitting the head of the House. (In Resdayn, the word ‘nix-hound’ didn’t bear an opprobrious connotation; the insult ‘dog’ was adopted from the Nedes, but it didn’t become a House noble to utter it any more than writing poetry in formal Velothi language befitted an Argonian shadowscale). 

“My dear Melen,” Galmis said, bowing to the young mer with derisive humility, “I never put to question your devotion to the Hortator. All of us here are his loyal servants and subjects. But to stand in the snow for hours, waiting until the graces us with his presence… will it not make you seem more of a dog than I?” And he pointed to the dark, dismal sky which presaged a heavy snowfall.

A few nobles laughed, and Vilvan Melen who was beside himself with anger put a hand on the hilt of his sword, making his intentions known to challenge the head of House Hlaalu there and then, but his antics didn’t upset Galmis’s equanimity; quite the contrary, the smile on his face grew wider and more guileful.

“Serjo, you know it better than I that we must petition the king for permission to fight each other if we can’t settle our grievances peacefully.”

Vilvan withdrew in humiliation and Galmis looked at the crowd, choosing the next victim of his scathing sarcasm. His eyes fell on Voryn who stood calmly by the staircase which was heaving with people, but before they could exchange unflattering remarks for the delectation of the other nobles, the stoic guard struck thrice at the folds of the door with the shaft of his spear and announced the arrival of the Hortator.

The doors were flung open and the head of the procession walked through it: six priests and priestesses in flowing robes and wreathes, each carrying a wooden staff, nine standard bearers with banners of Moon and Star, guarded on each side by three Ashlanders in chitin armor with feathery adornments, and, lastly, Vivec. Behind him side by side walked slowly and stately the king and the queen of Resdayn. Nerevar’s shoulders were broader in the ceremonial golden panoply of House Indoril with curved pauldrons of rather impractical length and he seemed to sag under their weight. The bedazzling jewelry accentuated his pallor, exacerbating Voryn’s impression that he was worn out by some inner suffering. During the war with the Nords he would sometimes come to the tent, disheveled, tired, and bow-backed from the weight of the terrible responsibility, reminding them that the Champion of Azura was but a mortal mer. Almalexia, too, was thoughtful and mirthless and she raised her arm to greet the nobles out of an onerous duty rather than genuine goodwill. Her armor was more austere than Nerevar’s and the darker hues suited her and the lugubrious mood of the procession more than the Hortator’s blue skirts trimmed with gold. Sotha Sil walked at the end of the procession, visibly bearing discomfort in a dark-blue robe with quaint decorations from jasper on the sleeves and on the belt girt round his waist.

Something cold and wet touched his cheek and Voryn noticed that it was snowing, but the snowflakes were heavy and sparse, and they melted quickly. The guards of House Indoril upraised their spears skywards and shouted a thunderous greeting to the rulers of Resdayn. After the Hortator gave them the blessing of the ancestral spirits, they parted before the procession, forming around it a corridor of living bodies, and the nobles followed after them, pushing one another like ill-mannered peasants. Voryn was swept along by the crowd and he lost sight of Nerevar, but at the gate he overtook the Hortator again while he and the queen mounted their guars: each was a white magnificent beast with a proud tread, embellished with a traditional shabrack on which were depicted a moon and an eight-pointed star embroidered with a golden thread. Voryn unceremoniously shouldered aside an insignificant noble who minced along the lines of the Indoril guard and dropped on one knee before the white guar, gripping the reins with both hands.

“My lord, please, let me say -” he whispered frantically.

“Not right now, Voryn.”

“I meant to say… allow me to remove the curse I so carelessly put on you. It’ll only be a moment.”

Nerevar rose in the stirrups with a faint smile on his lips. “Do you always curse your luckless admirers, Voryn, or did you make an exception for me?”

Voryn drooped his gaze, looking mortified, but his spirits soared, and he hurried to unweave his own spell, noticing, before the nobles separated them, a gleam of gratitude in Nerevar’s eyes. He hoped to hear that Nerevar retained no memories of the unfortunate night, yet when his hopes proved unfounded, he wasn’t at all distressed or confused. He was overcome with a kind of confidence which had no grounds in any one event, but was rather a fruit of a fevered imagination, and he was certain all of a sudden that everything around him was an irrefutable sign of Nerevar’s affection.

The stream of people flowed steadily through the gate, bending round the small island on which was erected a majestic statue of Indoril Nerevar accepting blessings from Azura, and Voryn let that stream carry him across the vast expanse of the plaza. The snowfall gained strength and the drifting white pall of snow obscured from view the face of the goddess which came from the chisel of the finest Dwemer sculptors and the Hortator’s well-set figure in a leather loincloth. Nerevar was fond of the statue, but he often joked that if he were half as stalwart and fearless in life as the overzealous Dwemer portrayed him, he could conquer entire Tamriel and Voryn agreed that in the Hortator’s sculpture there was a robustness innate in the Dwemer people.

The procession traversed the plaza and dove into the narrow street which led to the wide bridge across river Nayne. On the opposite bank of the river, in the Temple district and around the bazaar, were erected rich edifices of Redoran and Hlaalu nobility and in the southernmost corner, the enormous Arena was built so that it wouldn’t overshadow the grandiosity of the tall towers under many-tier roofs. The journey to the arena was slow and uneventful save for the encounter with the nude servants of Molag Bal. They waited until the Hortator’s retinue drew near the bridge and poured out onto the street from the sewers and alleys which enclosed, in an embrace, the narrow riverbed. There were men and women amongst them in rags and nude, but in sheer ecstasy of the ritual, they paid no mind to the frost. It could be that some magic protected them from the whims of winter, and as before, they danced with abandon and hurled dirt into the onlookers, shouting nonsense in their imagined language. A youth in tatters beat a guarskin drum and Voryn peered into his face, as though seeking answers to the many questions which plagued him, but it was blank, with thin unassuming features, and it revealed nothing to him. Some Chimer staunchly believed that during chil’a their patron deities walked on Nirn like mere mortals and if they had the acumen to tell them apart from their neighbors, they would be blessed with unimaginable riches and good fortune. Voryn considered it a fruitless superstition, but a misguided, unfortunate child in front of him would cling to any such belief at the expense of his mortality because it gave meaning to his senseless suffering.

The guards drove the naked dancers away, the boy with a forgettable face was swallowed up by the sea of many similar emaciated faces, and the solemn procession crossed the bridge without ado, going deeper into the Temple district.     

In the arena, men and mer of all conditions had gathered for a bloody spectacle and when the king and the queen ascended the stairs to their makeshift thrones, they shook off torpor, raising their arms and voices in a self-forgetful expression of jubilance. From time immemorial, divinity has been ascribed to the rulers and to a simple craftsman or merchant, the glory of his ancestors and kings shone brighter than the otherworldly radiance of the Three Daedra. There were heard expressions of frustration in the multitudes, but they were scarce, and a continuous outcry of great excitement drowned them out. Voryn seated himself on a chair by the Hortator’s throne and sought for Gurak whom he hasn’t seen since early morning, but the Orc was nowhere to be found, and out of idle curiosity, he took a view of the arena. The blizzard abated as a sign of Boethiah’s will in whose name the merrymaking and the bloodshed were dedicated. The snow which besprinkled the arena began to thaw, exposing patches of wet sand, and against the melancholy of the winter landscape stood out bright and fantastic blazonry of the House nobility which littered the galleries.  

A herald led the combatants into the arena and introduced them to the illustrious assemblage. Dinara Dres wore heavy Daedric armor and wielded the mace of Molag Bal with astounding boldness in the view of the recent events; the weapon glowed ominously, and a faint aura emanated from it of magic adverse to the souls of Anuic origin. Her sister Uvoo studied conjuration with two Telvanni masters of magic arts and was in possession of a powerful ebony staff which, as the herald explained to them, granted its owner defense against weapons of melee. She comported herself with defiance in her scarlet robe, but looking at them, so young, spirited and condemned, Voryn couldn’t shake off an awful feeling.  

The herald concluded his introduction with a brief prayer to Boethiah, and began enumerating the rules of combat which outright forbade the combatants to injure anyone in the audience, cast dangerous spells, call for their shield-bearers or leave the boundaries of the arena until one of them was defeated. The Arbiters – two imposing Telvanni mages in unadorned black robes – were tasked with observing the rules and negating any forbidden magics. Only the Hortator was invested with the authority to spare the combatants, but the herald warned the sisters that Nerevar thought it fit to forgo his right for the time being.  

“And at last, esteemed spectators, let me remind you that the combatants belong to House Dres,” added the herald with a thunderous voice. “If they are fighting for the honor of their House, they will not at any time aim to injure each other’s eyes or use spells causing blindness. The rules are brutal, but you will be remembered for many years to come and a crown of glory will be your reward! May the ancestors choose the worthiest among you to wear it. And now, without more ado, let the duel commence!”

Voryn caught sight of Nerevar’s face which was aglow with excitement; it transformed him into the Hortator he was accustomed to seeing, unbridled and vigorous.  

“Nerevar, who do you suppose will win?” asked Vivec, leaning over to the Hortator. “My bet is on Uvoo. She’s crafty, conniving and resourceful.”

“I don’t think it’ll be Uvoo,” replied Almalexia. “Dinara is faster, stronger and magic tricks won’t baffle her.”

“And you, Voryn? What do you think?”

“I haven’t given it thought, Vivec. It will be the will of Boethiah.”

“What a boring answer! Back in the day when Nerevar fought in the taverns, we often made bets and I usually had luck on my side.”

“You didn’t bet against Nerevar, did you?”

“Sometimes I did. A little. Only a little, I swear, to encourage the crowd.”

Nerevar kept silence, ignoring them altogether, but a deep crease between his eyebrows testified to some arduous thought which continued to trouble him.  

Almalexia cast a fire spell in the air, and a low, deep rumble of drums swept across the arena. The Dres sisters walked to the opposite corners, and Uvoo summoned a flame atronach, cast a bright-orange shield on herself and with a wave of a staff, called forth one lightning bolt after another. All the while Dinara stood with an unconcerned air about her, raising a Daedric shield from time to time to protect herself from an erratic barrage of spells, and destructive magic shattered against it, leaving on its polished surface harmless sooty stains. The atronach swiftly advanced towards her, but its advance was cut short with a precise, deadly swing of a mace.

“What is she waiting for?” muttered Vivec.

Voryn looked away from the arena to pour himself a glass of brandy and when he raised his head, Uvoo had already summoned a daedroth and persisted in bombarding her sister with simple spells, trying to catch her unawares. One of those spells struck Dinara in the chest and she reeled back ungracefully, extinguishing the flames which clung to her armor, but to all appearances she was content with defending herself. Voryn wondered if she waited until Uvoo ran out of magicka, but it wouldn’t bring her victory, only delay the inevitable. Uvoo didn’t strike him as an overconfident, inexperienced sorceress who didn’t carry potions with her to a fight to the death.

Uvoo grew bolder, forcing her sister to retreat to the extremities of the arena, and the crowd rewarded her with loud exclamations and applause. In Dinara’s shield there appeared a deep indentation and she dropped on one knee, but she held her head up high and swung the accursed mace wildly to keep her sister at bay. Voryn sensed echoes of an unfamiliar magic in the air, but he brushed aside all suspicions and leaned forward, his attention preoccupied with the fight. The crowd burst out into loud shouting when the daedroth who till then stood idle and aloof knocked the shield out of Dinara’s hand and as she reached for it, Uvoo summoned a brilliant lightning from the sky and it struck her sister in the back.

But the threads of unfathomable magic hung thick and heavy in the air, and the Arbiters outwardly expressed no worry about it.

After Dinara smashed the daedroth’s skull with the mace of Molag Bal and regained her footing, Voryn turned to Nerevar. “My lord, I ask you to put a stop to the contest,” he said with animation.

“They’ve spilled their first blood. The Hortator-“

“To Malacath with all the rules, Vivec! I think they intend to kill the king.”

“It’s a serious accusation,” Nerevar raised his voice with an air of a man who was startled out of a dream. “Do you have any proof of a plot to kill me?”

“I sense odd magic in the air, an elaborate conjuration spell of some kind ,” Sotha Sil interposed in their argument, but Dinara assailed Uvoo with suddenness and fury of a hurricane in the Deadlands, and all Voryn could do was helplessly watch as her mace rose and fell, engulfed in bluish flame.

The Hortator leaped to his feet and threw the red kerchief onto the arena. There was some confusion in the crowd and among the Arbiters, but they signaled the end of the melee a moment too late and the mace of Molag Bal bathed in blood when Dinara at last struck her sister down with a blow to the temple. A thin black spire shot up from under the arena and on it Uvoo’s body dangled helplessly, pierced by many sharp protuberances which twined round her, taking shape of an enormous hollow gate. A bloodcurdling scream rent the air, and nobles and commoners alike fled every which way, shoving each other aside and trampling down the slow, the clumsy and the weak as it often happened during a stampede. Dinara shouted a few words which were carried away by the wind, and in the black frame of the Oblivion gate, filled up to the brim with even blue flame, appeared a colossal armored creature – neither a dragon, nor an ogre, or any known beast, with the wings and the head of the former, arms and legs of the latter and an enviable ferocity. The Arbiters rushed to the arena so as to give the citizens of Mournhold time to escape, and powerful spells rained down upon the colossus, but the elements only drove it into blind frenzy. The colossus lifted one of the Arbiters above its head and, having crushed him in its powerful grip, hurled the lifeless body into the empty gallery.

“Almalexia, take the guard with you and protect the palace with your life. If the palace falls, we’re finished!” exclaimed Nerevar, fiddling about with the clasps of his ceremonial armor which in a fight would only burden him. “I’ll distract it and kill it with some luck while the rest of you scour the city for more Oblivion gates.”

Almalexia, too, freed herself from the panoply while in the arena the colossus chased after the last Arbiter, roaring in savage delight.

“I understand your wish,” she said imperiously, tossing aside a gilded helmet. “All of you, come with me.”

“You don’t even have a proper sword, my lord,” objected Voryn. “I won’t leave you to fight that brute by yourself.”

The Hortator didn’t argue with him; he beckoned Voryn and with somber determination jumped onto the empty arena.

“I should have known they would attack us during the celebration of chil’a,” the head of House Dagoth heard him whisper. “Unforgivable!”

The Daedric Titan shattered the Arbiter’s magic shield and tore his body in half, lavishly sprinkling the sand with blood and bowels. In the commotion, Dinara disappeared from sight; the spectators, too, had long since scattered about, and they found themselves face to face with the monstrous creation of Molag Bal.

“If you want to help me,” said Nerevar, “give me a Daedric sword and armor.”

Voryn conjured a two-handed sword and a panoply from the depths of Oblivion, and the Hortator, with a spring in his step, walked towards the spawn of Molag Bal’s magic, looking younger and stronger owing to the joy roused by the fray. The Titan opened its maw, igniting the sand under the Hortator’s feet with its deadly magic, but the head of House Dagoth erected a shimmering shield in front of him and quenched the fire. Nerevar furiously swung his sword and it fell upon the creature like lightning through the thick of smoke only to rebound from its armored spine. The fire shield shattered into smithereens, but the Hortator adroitly dove under the titan’s arm and thrust his sword into its underbelly. Voryn, forgetting himself, wove one spell after another and the air around him sparkled with latent magic – now lightning struck at the titan’s head, now spears of flame and ice tested the durability of its armor, now a brilliant aura cloaked it from head to toe, feeding off its foul life force.

The titan began to tire itself out, and the Hortator’s sword found its mark more often; the titan’s limbs and body were covered in deep gashes from which slowly oozed dark-green blood, staining the sand of the arena, but it was remarkable that none of Nerevar’s mighty blows felled it. And after what seemed to him hours of grueling battle, Voryn felt his own reserves of magicka deplete. He couldn’t cast spells and the shield around Nerevar cracked, and the armor and sword vanished from whence he summoned them in spite of all his efforts to hold out until the titan’s demise. The colossus sensed the onslaught slacken and assailed them with renewed zeal, putting to use its wings, claws and destructive magic.

Nerevar retreated to the extremities of the arena, breathless from strenuous fighting; his warm attire was torn to shreds and his shoulder was bleeding, but he valiantly called upon his own power and the titan who followed him relentlessly staggered, as if stumbling into an invisible obstacle, and confusedly shook its head. Suddenly Voryn caught sight of Alandro Sul who stood by the entrance to the arena, frantically waving his arm, and he wordlessly gestured at him, suggesting to withdraw for the time being. Nerevar nodded his head and beckoned his shield-bearer, asking him for a spear, but whilst his attention was occupied with the youth, the titan with a deafening roar rushed towards them, tearing down Voryn’s weak shields one by one. Loyal Alandro Sul stepped between the Hortator and the spawn of Molag Bal, but the titan flung him out of its way as though he were light as a feather. Voryn didn’t have the time to comprehend the enormity of what he was about to do; the titan was in front of him, wings spread menacingly, jaws agape, and he gathered his meager strength to conjure a thin shimmering veil round himself. He heard Nerevar’s frightened scream behind him, but he stood unflinchingly in front of his Hortator, though his shield dissipated from a vicious blow and his body was afire.

‘Forgive me, Nerevar,’ Voryn thought as his legs gave way under him and the sands of the arena swallowed him.

***

Voryn woke up in the dark, his head resting on Nerevar’s lap, and covered his eyes from a pale light which shone above him. Owing to that weak light, he knew that he was with the Hortator – his strained countenance loomed before his unsteady gaze – but to their whereabouts testified only a quiet dripping of water from the ceiling and a dreadful stench. He lay on the cold stones, numb and unmoving, and if it wasn’t for the Hortator’s body hot as a furnace and a small, quivering fire on the barren floor which he noticed after the amulet in Nerevar’s hand had crumbled to dust, he would have surely died from biting frost.

Voryn stirred, but deceptive darkness which concealed the ceiling and the walls from his tired eyes didn’t dissipate, and he gingerly yet with little luck tried to crawl towards the fire. Nerevar in a constrained voice ordered him not to fidget about and wrapped a warm cloak around his shoulders.

“There is a deep gash across your chest,” he added, taking a hold of himself. “I am not a healer and that amulet was all I had to staunch the bleeding. It was foolish of you, unforgivably reckless… But I swear on Azura’s name that you won’t die today. Do you hear me?”

Voryn touched the singed, blood-soaked festive robe on his breast and an indescribable dread gained mastery over him. He was weak, yet his mind wasn’t dulled by pain and he recognized the danger of being stranded Boethiah only knew where, wounded and helpless, while the Daedra ravaged Mournhold. Voryn looked his old friend in the face and, seeing the same fear reflected on it, he was filled with pity for the both of them.

“Nerevar, I implore you…” He coughed and shivered.

“I want to hear nothing of it! Don’t you understand that if you insist on doing your duty, I can’t abandon you in spite of your lofty intentions?”

“I’m not as selfless as you want to believe, and I won’t ask you to leave me here to die. But you don’t have to tend to me as if I were a newborn. Where’s Alandro Sul? Leave me with him and return to the palace-“

“And what good will that do?” Nerevar interrupted him. “I sent Alandro to find a passage that leads to the surface and until he returns with good news, we can’t leave this godforsaken sewer.”

“The Mournhold sewer?”

“Where do you suppose we are? I thought the stench would give it away by now… We got lost, Voryn, and that’s that.”

Voryn hearkened to the faint hollow groans in the distance and a barely audible patter of small feet which now grew louder, now faded away, as if there was a large rat scurrying about the waterway. 

“I am terribly sorry for… all of it,” he whispered.

The Hortator shook his head, groping around for a spear, but Voryn couldn’t tell what startled him until he heard an otherworldly wail and a light tread, and smelled the putrid flesh. Nerevar noiselessly vanished in the darkness and after a brief but violent struggle to which testified fiery flares and the mournful wail of the undead creature, he returned with a handful of dry bones. The small fire burned brighter and merrier, devouring the remains of an elder lich.

“Voryn, you’re a master of magic, so tell me why a lich would enjoy living in a sewer,” Nerevar said, leaning against the wall.

“Don’t we have anything better to do than talking idly?”

“I’m all ears, but until you think of something, talk away.”

“All cities are built upon old graveyards, upon bones of the countless dead men and mer. A sewer lies at the foundation of the city, bordering on the graveyards and the crypts. In some way, a sewer is also a tomb.” Voryn succeeded in casting a healing spell and glanced meaningfully at Nerevar who stared into the dancing fire.

“I like your explanation… Perhaps you could also tell me what manner of abomination we fought today in the arena. What magic created it? Does it have a weakness?”

“You’re rambling on, Nerevar. I place my knowledge at your disposal, but I’m not all-knowing. I have never in my travels encountered so vicious a beast.”

They sat in silence for a while, undisturbed by the inhabitants of the underground, and Voryn dropped his head onto his chest, enjoying the peace and the quietude, until the Hortator’s sudden words roused him from his light sleep.

“Voryn,” he said, “will you forgive my inappropriate behavior last night?”

“Let’s forget about everything,” Voryn hastened to object. “Your apology put me to shame and I… How should I say it? I’m conscious that the fault had been partly my own. I was inconsiderate and I caused you pain thoughtlessly.”

“No, I presumed upon your friendship after all these years. I should have… I’m terribly sorry. But answer me in all honesty and I swear I will forget about all of it if you refuse me flatly… If I were more decorous in expressing my attraction to you, if I confessed to you what I’ve only realized now, when we were fighting in the Arena, would your answer change?”

“And Almalexia won’t object to you spending nights with me?”

“She is my wife and queen, but these are mere formalities I adhere to so as to keep peace in the realm entrusted to me. Our enemies often reproach us for not giving Resdayn an heir. If our marriage was idyllic, I’d have as many children as you have brothers… But even so I consider myself rather fortunate beside the scions of the decadent Empire. I didn’t have to marry my not-so-distant relative. It’s a terrible plight of many kings.”

 “Explain to me why I should hear more of the particulars of your marriage,” Voryn pleaded. He felt himself naked before the Hortator’s stare which seemed to judge his affections with utmost severity and giddy from the loss of blood, ebullient and ashamed of his indecisiveness.

“I wish to allay your fears that my intentions are dishonest.” There was a gentleness in Nerevar’s voice and firmness. “The truth is that I’m tired of deception. Together we conquered a continent and yet I believed for a long time that I couldn’t love anyone but myself. Look at me now… I want to tell you without shame, without regret that I’m drawn to you, Voryn. I don’t know if it is love or illusion, if I’m right in telling you this or I err… But I’m at your mercy, so say something.”

“I can’t say anything you don’t already know, so I take refuge in silence… I also happen to consider the sewer an odd place to confess my sincere feelings to you,” Voryn added to break the awkward silence and laughed. “What do we do now?”

“I don’t know… In spite of what you may believe, Azura didn’t bestow me with a gift of foresight. The future is just as obscure for me as it is for you.”

And, gazing intently at him, Nerevar, too, laughed.

***

They plodded along the waterway for hours – two tired travelers in dirty, blood-soaked clothes and a dispirited youth – and around them stretched, uninviting and unadorned, wide expanses of rooms enclosed in moldy walls, narrow aqueducts, and half-sunken dome-like structures. The waterway was a labyrinth under the city: wherever they went, they saw the same rooms and walls with rusty gratings, reservoirs with stale water and the never-ending arch of the stone ceiling. From Nerevar’s terse remarks Voryn concluded that the Daedric Titan didn’t follow them into the sewer beneath the arena, but the Hortator carried him deep into the maze of waterways and neither he nor his shield-bearer paid heed to the path they took. Not an hour had gone by before they couldn’t find their bearings and the Hortator ordered Alandro Sul to look for a passageway back to the city whilst he rested and healed Voryn’s wounds. But as ill luck would have it or Boethiah willed it, Alandro Sul was waylaid by liches and their skeletal servants and he returned to their makeshift camp dismayed and empty-handed, finding them asleep by the dying fire. He told them that the fire attracted a few dozen large brown rats and as he drove them away, shouting, stomping his feet and valiantly swinging his dagger left and right, Voryn awoke from his uneasy slumber and mistook him for a lich. After the commotion died down, the youth told them about his misadventures. He was on the verge of tears, his voice trembled, and he kept muttering, ‘I was scared, I didn’t want to die’ over and over until Nerevar told him to come to his senses.

Drenched to the skin in fetid water, tormented by hunger, tired from their wounds that haven’t yet healed, they wandered knee-deep in icy water for many hours with only their stubbornness keeping them upright, and Voryn in the haze of near delirium perceived in their unfavorable surroundings a certain irony. Only an utterly humorless mer would not laugh at his own adversities.

Time didn’t exist in the sewers; day or night, it was the same murky air around them and tomb-like silence with now and then a hollow, harrowing wail or an occasional loud gust of cold wind which pierced to the bone. When Voryn couldn’t walk another dozen paces without stumbling at every step, they found a patch of dry land in the middle of a shallow pool of water and laid a fire on a heap of rags they took from a dead lich. They undressed to the breeches and piled up their heavy, wet clothes by the fire. Nerevar wrapped the both of them in the only dry, warm cloak they had in their possession and they sat side by side, chattering with cold and following with their eyes the dark ripples on the glassy surface of a filthy puddle, for many hours. All the while Alandro stood aloof, staring at them with undisguised envy, but such was his unshakable loyalty to the Hortator that he didn’t once complain.

Voryn thought about his family which had gathered round a cozy hearth, engrossed in a quiet conversation, but all of it seemed to him a distant, feverish mirage. He glanced at Nerevar who absent-mindedly drew unfathomable figures with his finger on water and wondered in a surge of self-doubt if his confession was a flight of his fancy, too. His thoughts were elusive like weightless specks of light dancing on the surface of the underground lake yet never reaching its depths, and he could not catch at one, he could not rest on any one of those bothersome, melancholy reflections.  

“Was I wrong to rely on the Champion of Boethiah?” Nerevar muttered to himself when the silence became unbearable. “How did I know Boethiah would choose a champion in a time like this?”

“And you’re not Boethiah’s Champion?”

Nerevar threw back his head and his shoulders shook from quiet laughter. “No, Voryn, I’m good at creating impressions, prevaricating without outright lying. I prefer that everyone believes me to be her champion, too, because it does wonders to my reputation. But I never held the famed Goldbrand in my hands. Boethiah often conducts tournaments in her honor-“

“Why do you persist in calling him a woman?”

“It’s how she always appeared to me. But are the Daedric Princes truly female or male in form? I doubt it… But hear me out. I was always attracted by a chance to win a grand melee against the best warriors and sorcerers in the realm, to show my mettle in an unprecedented clash of arms in the most splendid of all arenas. I wanted to test myself against some of the Nirn’s most terrific forces… In everything you do, there comes a time when you wonder if you’ve reached the bounds of your god-given talent; if the pursuit you’ve chosen brings no challenge or excitement to your life and you slowly wilt away. It may seem foolish or frivolous to you, yet I consider such matters important… But one thought put an end to my aspirations. If I were to die without an heir, what will happen to Resdayn?”

“I didn’t suspect you of discretion.”

“Perhaps your reproach is well-earned, and I am rash -“

“How can you say you’re reckless after you challenge a powerful spawn of Daedric magic without armor and sword?” Voryn felt a surge of vigor and berated Nerevar harshly. “It isn’t your recklessness that I fear, my lord. I believe that sometimes you forget about your own mortality. You aspire to eclipse your legend, outshine yourself, and that isn’t reckless… It’s a well-considered effort on your part. You’re afraid that everything you’ve built is founded on your feats and fame and that if you let yourself rest even for one day, your kingdom will crumble away.”

Nerevar was thrown into confusion; he sat with his head down and he clutched at it, his fingers interlaced in the locks of wet, dirty hair, with his whole pose expressing resignation. They flung off their disguises and, seeing into Nerevar’s soul, Voryn was aware of his love for his Hortator with horrifying clarity.   

“You still call me your lord in spite of what I said not even a day ago, in spite of what you’ve said just now… You’re stubborn, Voryn. You insist on such nonsense.”

“To tell you the truth, I don’t know if you’re wrong,” the head of House Dagoth went on as if he hadn’t heard his Hortator. “I don’t want to dissuade you from your endeavors. I ask you trust my honorable intentions and let me be of service to you. What can’t we do together? You want to rid yourself of Galmis? With me at your side -“

“I’m surprised you remember that conversation.”

“Of course, I remember. I understand your cautiousness, but no one can hear us now besides the wretched undead. You can speak freely with me.”

“If you insist on giving me wise counsel, what will you say if I told you that I suspect Galmis of conspiring with Almalexia and half my court?”

“I was a noble before you even dreamed of unifying Resdayn. I know them. They despise each other more than they despise you. You are an insult to their existence, but they reckon with your effrontery because you’re their Hortator and the people love you. So, they satisfy their greed in endless squabbles and conquests of their neighbors or rivals. An eggmine on a patch of disputed land, an advantageous trade route through the Ashlands… That’s how they’ve always thought. Their vision ends with gold in their pockets. Their enemy is another noble standing in the way of their ambition… Two Houses will reap the benefits of the war with the Dwemer.”

“House Hlaalu and Redoran?”

Voryn cupped his hands and conjured between his palms a weak flame. “You’re right, my dear Nerevar. These are your offenders, but I assure you that Vilvan and Galmis get along no better than two hungry nix hounds fighting over a dead rat. They would slit each other’s throats sooner than conspire to overthrow you.” The warmth of the magic fire was soothing, but he extinguished it before it sapped his strength.

“What are you getting at?”

“You deceive yourself, imagining that your enemies are just about to rise against you strong and united. Some House nobles are satisfied with observing the conflict from afar, and they will readily join one side or the other whenever the tide turns. I don’t know your queen as well as you, but she’s undoubtedly a noble. She avails herself of your confusion. But Azura be my witness when I say that she detests Galmis Hlaalu.”

“I thank you for your uplifting speech, Voryn. I hope that it is as you say… I want to hope.” Nerevar shook the cloak off his shoulders, and in the soft light of the fire to Voryn’s eyes was exposed a long, coarse scar which the Hortator received in the battle at the Red Mountain. He was perturbed by a dim remembrance of walking across a sea of mud bestrewn with corpses, and the dread that they would not escape the sewer alive came over him again.

Nerevar helped him put on his worn-out festive robe which had dried out by then, and there was a particular tenderness in the light touch of his fingers. Was Nerevar flirting with him in such a dreadful place? But in spite of his weariness, Nerevar’s unassuming, absent-minded flirtation evoked Voryn’s smile, and he banished all thoughts of death from his mind.

Alandro Sul who had tactfully left during their conversation returned with a meager catch: a bony fish and a large rat. Voryn bluntly refused to eat the rat and Nerevar shared it with his shield-bearer while he partook of a fish which smelled and tasted like sewage, praying to Azura that he wouldn’t catch a serious illness. The fire attracted attention of a decrepit skeleton who tried to sneak up to them, but no sooner had they heard the rattling of the old bones than Alandro rushed to seize his spear, eager to redeem himself in the eyes of his Hortator for the earlier display of cowardice. His spear struck swiftly and without mercy, through the skeleton’s hollow chest. The undead warrior carried with him a dull Nordic blade with a rusty trollbone tower shield, and Nerevar took the shield with him, leaving the sword with its rightful owner. While Alandro Sul looted the remains, Voryn spotted a dirty medallion around the skeleton’s neck. He tore it off and wiped away the thick rust and filth with the sleeve of his robe. A silver emblem with a pair of spears depicted crosswise showed through the rust and other markings of age and Voryn gave the medallion to the Hortator who affirmed his suspicions that it belonged to one of the thirty honorary guards appointed to the Resdayn rulers by the High King of Skyrim. Almalexia exiled them from Mournhold, but they offered a fierce resistance and were overwhelmed in the streets by the queen’s adherents. It was a valiant but doomed effort. They were slaughtered one by one or fled into the sewers which, as Voryn now saw with his own eyes, became their grave, but he, in spite of the seeming irrelevance of the oddity, hid it in his pocket, vowing to himself to give it to a collector of suchlike curious relics.

After the insipid meal, they went deeper into the intricate labyrinth of the waterways, but they didn’t get far before they encountered a considerable obstacle in their path: in front of them was a massive rusty door of Dwemer craftsmanship with a crank and enclosed it from all sides solid stone walls. When Nerevar gave a tug at the crank, a muffled clanking of heavy chains was heard from under the floor, but after some time, the crank, with the slightest creak, turned on its own and the chains in the invisible mechanism were set loose. Voryn lit a small light above his head and out of gloom emerged a sunken corner with a wide hole in the floor, but the illumination was too scarce to penetrate into the depths of the cold, stagnant water. The parts of the elaborate mechanism have been submerged under water for some time. Nerevar sent his shield-bearer into the gap to investigate the mechanism, and the youth unquestioningly jumped into the underground stream. Voryn protected him insofar as he could with a few spells of his invention, but he hesitated to expend all of his strength, feeling the onset of fever.  

“Aren’t you worried about bloodlines, Nerevar?” he asked thoughtlessly. “A Chimer clings to the purity of his bloodline. Nothing warms his heart more than the illusion of his family’s descent from prophet Veloth… In our previous conversation, you told me that Almalexia won’t give you an heir. And if you openly declare your affection to me, won’t it make matters worse?”

“I won’t openly declare anything. I understand your doubts, but I won’t make promises I can’t keep… And it is important that I say it now. I don’t want you to think that I am ashamed of your company. No, I’d be delighted to make such a declaration.”

“It is adverse to my honor to sneak around like a thief at night, but for you I’ll bear the dishonor.”

“It’s not as awful as you think –”

“I’ve heard enough platitudes for one day. It is how it should be. I’ll sacrifice my honor for you, my lord, but do not make light of my sacrifice.” Nerevar was displeased with his retort and his scowl deepened, yet Voryn felt a sense of relief when he unburdened his mind, when he confessed his innermost fears.

Alandro climbed out of the icy rill, quivering from head to toe, and explained to them in an apologetic tone that he had found the lever, but a heavy rock weighed down against it and he couldn’t move it. Voryn helped him move the stone, but the longer he sustained his spells, the weaker he grew and when the Dwemer mechanism gave in, he couldn’t stand upright and seated himself on the wet floor. His mind went dim and blurry shadows danced before his eyes. His forehead was burning. In a moment of clarity, he asked Nerevar to lay him down on the tower shield, and the Hortator honored his request, covering him with a cloak.  

“Don’t worry about me,” he whispered.

Nerevar squatted down abreast of him and between his palms a bright spark blazed up, illumining his haggard face. He never had the talent for healing arts or the discipline to foster that talent, and the spell was altogether quite weak, but Voryn pressed the Hortator’s palm to his chest in an uprush of gratitude. He knew Nerevar wouldn’t abandon him, and such confidence was comforting to him but thrilling, unfamiliar.

For many hours after, Voryn now woke fleetingly, now lapsed into oblivion and it seemed to him that the bleak scenery slid by him, vision-like: waterways with breaches in the ceiling through which pale light pervaded the air, caves with natural walls, latticed ducts and a half-sunken colonnade. Nerevar and Alandro Sul carried him on the shield, but at times Voryn was under the impression that he was on a ship, sailing into the darkness, and gentle waves lulled him to sleep, or that he was the ship, sinking.

He awoke at long last when four menacing-looking hooded and cloaked figures barred their way and he heard Nerevar arguing with them in heated tones; one was a Khajiit with a lisp and on both sides of him stood an Orc and two Chimer. The Khajiit spoke in a slow and unfriendly manner while the Orc shouted his response sharply, and Nerevar was losing presence of mind. Then the Khajiit waved his arm irritably and they followed after him into a cave which was dotted with ladders leading to small, cozy hollows in the walls, clustered like fruit on boughs. A large fire burnt by a pile of wicker bins and around it were scattered expensive carpets, golden and silver carafes, magic scrolls, old tomes, and Dwemer artifacts: pipes, goblets, cogs laid out in fanciful patterns around a mangled centurion spider. It was sheer misfortune that they walked into a den of thieves and smugglers where even the king of all Resdayn couldn’t expect a warm welcome.

They descended the stone staircase and were surrounded by men and mer in dark attires. Nerevar helped Voryn rise to his feet and held him up with one hand, but he stubbornly refused to part with his spear which was threateningly pointed at the Khajiit.

“I’m king of all Resdayn and you’ll give me and my retinue proper accommodations,” Nerevar said darkly.

“And I’m that Mephala priest from the High Temple,” rang from the crowd together with loud, gusty laughter. “Who’s to say you’re not a lying fish?”

“I order you-“

“Your orders mean nothing here, surface mer,” said the Khajiit who wielded some authority among the thieves. “Turn back and forget your way here, or blood will be spilled tonight.”

“What if he’s king or some other House noble? I say we kill him and rid ourselves of his kingly stench.”

“Does he look like a noble to you, Kish? Some riffraff lost in the sewer or an outlaw –”

“My loyal servant is gravely injured,” said Nerevar in harsher tones. “I demand shelter, food and a guide… Or will you persist in challenging my authority? Do you think you’re worthy of my title? The legend of Nerevar says that an apprentice of the Chief Tonal Architect made him a ring and Nerevar called it Moon-and-Star. Moon and Star had a peculiar significance to him… or I should say, it signified something to me. I am Nerevar and this ring proves my words!” The Hortator raised his hand and on his palm a small precious stone shone brightly. “What is there to fear if you’re convinced that I am a liar? Grant me my final wish and wear it if you dare.”

Voryn heard many sinister legends about Nerevar’s ring, but he dismissed them from his mind as fable. The glint of the jewel in the shape of a star mesmerized, but there was nothing otherworldly or frightful about it save for the confidence with which the Hortator held it high above his head for all the thieves and outcasts to see.

“Azura told me I would be known in Resdayn by this ring,” Nerevar went on. “If anyone other than me puts it on his finger, he will die. Acknowledge me as your king and I give you my word that for three days no guard will set foot in the sewer.”

“What’s in it for us?”

“A king doesn’t bargain with thieves. If you’re clever, a city guard won’t find you and you’ll escape with your life and loot.”

“It’s not a fair deal.” The Khajiit threw off the hood, fearlessly showing them a scarred face with deep-set bright-blue eyes. “If you want to leave your wounded friend in our care, you’ll have to pay us handsomely. We’ll go, but we need something for our troubles. Your earrings, necklaces, bangles… all your jewelry that isn’t enchanted. We’re suspicious of enchantments. If you’re royalty, you can spare a few coins for the poor.”

Kish – a weak-looking man of small stature with a rascally face – boldly stepped out of the crowd and lifted up both of his arms, calling for silence.

“Daro’Zah, you let them deceive you,” he said, solemn of aspect. “Do I speak the truth? You see a small piece of metal and you run with your tail between your legs. I say you’re a lying fish, stranger. Give me your ring, and I’ll wear it proudly and spit our Mother Whore between her eyes.”

“Blasphemer,” muttered Daro’Zah.

Voryn took off his ruby ring and a hair decoration from pure gold and offered them to the thief, but Kish was determined to embarrass his leader in front of the other thieves. He snatched the ring from Nerevar’s palm and slipped it on his finger, smiling unattractively and with a kind of smugness by which an ambitious but witless man could be recognized. He was making lewd gestures towards the ceiling when from the corners of his eyes, from his mouth and nose, blood flowed in thin trickles. Kish tried to rid himself of the deadly ring, but his finger swelled up and out of a sense of profound mercy, Daro’Zah drew an axe and cut off his wrist. If only Azura’s curse could be fooled in such a crude way! With a tremulous wail, the unfortunate thief stumbled out of the crowd and fell stiffly down, cradling the injured hand to his breast. Kish gasped out his life whilst Nerevar stooped over his body, groping about for the ring, and the goddess’s gift slid off his finger, untainted by the blood which oozed from the severed hand. The Hortator turned pale at the sight of a face disfigured terribly by magic beyond his comprehension, but when he stood up, there was not a trace of hesitation about him and his calmness put the Khajiit out of countenance.

The crowd expressed conflicting sentiments: some thieves were dispirited and quiet while others bent their knees, their eyes shining with superstitious wonder, but no one spoke against the Hortator again. ‘Poor wretch, he insulted the Princes for the last time,’ a whisper was heard, but the shuffling of many feet, the coughing and groaning in the thinning crowd drowned it out.

Daro’Zah didn’t appear upset by the gruesome death of one of his thieves. He invited them to climb one of the ladders which led into a small, dry cavern with a hammock, a low wooden stool and an empty writing desk. Nerevar got Voryn to lie down, and he wearily closed his eyes for what seemed only a moment, but when he opened them, a candle was lit on the desk and the Hortator sat on the stool, eating saltrice porridge from an earthen bowl. Voryn couldn’t remember how much time had passed, and all seemed to him fleeting and unimportant. Nerevar was missing his favorite earrings, but he thought little of it, overcome wholly with the unbidden fascination with the scene – the candle flinging off pale light, the shadows, the smell of porridge and earth abounded in mysteries he couldn’t comprehend. He called for Nerevar and he took his hand and whispered something into his ear in his assured, pleasant voice, but Voryn didn’t hear him. He couldn’t stifle an innermost impulse to tell the Hortator everything unreservedly, unwisely. “I’m frightfully in love with you, Nerevar,” he kept on saying with complete abandon, besotted by happiness and fever, and, still more quietly, scarcely breathing: “I wanted to tell you for a long while that I loved you, and now I’m free of that burden.”

Nerevar leaned over the hammock and impressed a light kiss upon Voryn’s brow. “I’ll send someone for you, don’t trouble yourself, but till then I’ll leave Alandro Sul with you. I’ll be a fool to trust these rascals… Get well, old friend. Don’t think silly thoughts and get well.” He stepped away from the bed and added with great feeling, “And, please, eat something. You have a fever.”

‘I asked you to abandon me not so long ago,’ thought Voryn, ‘but now I do not want to leave your side. Maybe I’m too ill to think anything sensible.’

The saltrice porridge tasted like the imaginary fruit of Aetherius and whilst he ate greedily, Nerevar watched him with an affectionate smile.

Voryn didn’t have a memory of falling asleep again, but when he came to his senses and asked for water, Alandro Sul told him that the Hortator left them in a hurry. 

***

After he parted with Voryn, Nerevar demanded from Daro’Zah a guide who would lead him through the sewer to the palace. The Orc knew the web of tunnels like Nerevar knew the streets of Mournhold and soon they climbed out of a dirty, stinking hole onto the back alley and saw amidst the stars the many-tier roofs of the palace towers. It was that uncertain hour of the night when murk is impenetrable and stars begin to lose their luster in Azura’s shadow, but the illusive Serpent was still visible upon the firmament in all its beauty. Why did it come, unbidden? What did it wish to say? Nerevar couldn’t take his eyes off them – the wandering ghostly lights revealed to him with a rush of cold, fresh wind which blew away weightless clouds. Voryn was born when Serpent outshone all other constellations on a day when winter met spring, and everything as though conspired by some whim of fate to remind the Hortator of him. All thoughts of him were sweet, distracting.

But the Hortator sobered up when he saw the plaza dotted with fires and a row of Dwemer warriors with mortars keeping vigil at the palace gate alongside the usual guards.

“Who goes there?” asked a stalwart Dwemer when a dirty, ragged figure approached him, and put his hand on the hilt of his sword.

“Nerevar,” was the impatient reply.

The captain of the palace guard recognized him and spared Nerevar the humiliation of waiting by the gate until someone would call for the queen or one of the Tribunes. He modestly expressed his joy on seeing the king unharmed and added that the ‘esteemed Councilors’ gathered in the throne room, arguing with ‘deplorable obstinacy’, and that the palace was in disarray for which he was prepared to accept punishment. A servant threw a long, warm cloak around Nerevar’s shoulders, but he didn’t notice it, distracted by a startled cry, ‘The king returned! The king is alive!’ which echoed loudly in the empty hallways. Another servant brought a torch, though the palace was alight with brilliant magelights and astir, and to the handmaidens and House nobles alike passed the Hortator’s wild agitation and they aspired to gain favors with him. They talked, interrupting each other brazenly, and from them Nerevar heard one piece of wild news after another until he grew tired of their senseless blabber and ordered them to keep silence.

The throne room was vast and dreary in spite of the tapestries or statues in the niches, or an enormous chandelier from gold and ebony which hung from the ceiling on an almost invisible chain, and the Hortator rarely received guests or petitioners there, explaining his reluctance with lack of affinity to the shrines. On both sides of the elegant thrones for the royal couple stood in eternal greeting two shrines depicting Almalexia’s distinguished ancestors and at their feet were scattered luminous coda flowers. But to Nerevar they were foreign people from a distant time with whom he didn’t have a common ancestry; whose spirits were proud of their superiority and silent in their condemnation of him.

As the doors to the throne room were flung open, bright light burst through the chink and Nerevar saw Almalexia on the throne in gold and black and around her swarmed members of the First Council – all except Voryn and the head of House Dres. The Dres Council sent a gaunt old mer with a roguish face who appeared to pay no heed to the ruckus, but the Hortator couldn’t shake off an impression that nothing escaped the unblinking stare of his dull, watery eyes. Galmis Hlaalu called him, derisively, a ‘gaudy antiquity’.

Almalexia, in compliance with etiquette, rushed towards him with an expression of genuine concern and pressed her lips to his palm, but the reason for her pleasant behavior soon revealed itself. On the wooden chairs aloof from the House nobles, sat Dumac and Kagrenac, quietly conversing amongst themselves. Kagrenac was politely indifferent, but with his pose and manners he expressed what he would not show on his countenance – a feeling of uncontested superiority. Dumac neatly braided his beard and eagerly smiled at one noble and the other, taking delight in suchlike ruses, but beneath his good-humored facade was concealed a ruthless and pragmatic nature. Nerevar often marveled at the fragility of their alliance; till this day he didn’t know whether Dumac considered the question Vivec and he posed to the illustrious assembly of Dwemer Architects or he was amused by the attempts of two barefaced Chimer youths to challenge the foundation of Logic itself and gave in, impulsively, to that amazement.

“Why isn’t our Lord High Councilor with you?” asked the Dwemer king. “And where on earth have you been?”

Nerevar wearily lowered himself on the throne and gave the nobles in the room a heavy look. “Voryn was gravely injured, but he’s alive. That’s all you need to know. And I… it’s unimportant now. We have other matters to discuss. What happened in my absence?”

“We were wrong, Nerevar,” said Almalexia. “Sotha Sil suspected that someone wanted to kill you or me, but we were egregiously wrong. They wanted that pitiful creature and they found her… in her prison in Sil’s dwelling.”

“All that distraction… to take back the creation of Molag Bal’s foul magic? And Azura’s Star… where is the Star? Don’t tell me they stole it, too!”

“Don’t worry about the soul gem, I have it with me,” said Sotha Sil.

“How many are dead?”

“No, my lord, it isn’t what we should be discussing at present. What are we to do about Molag Bal? He boldly opens the gate in Mournhold –”

“And that is why, my lords, I need to hear Almalexia’s story. My queen, if you would go on.”

“After we were separated at the Arena, we hurried to the palace, but on the bridge the Daedra ambushed us. When we reached the plaza, a terrified guard told us that a woman led a dozen xivilai and golden saints through the underground waterways and slaughtered everyone in her path, servants and guards alike. I guessed it was Dinara Dres… We looked for her for an hour or so, but she vanished. We sent a few guards to pursue her, but they turned up nothing. We sent for you, too, but the guard didn’t come back and we assumed he was dead. We held council. Vivec suggested we return to the Arena because he was worried that you were wounded, but instead of you, we found that colossal Daedra faithfully guarding the empty Arena in spite of its severe injuries. I killed it with my Hopesfire.”

“Then Dumac arrived,” added Vivec, “and he helped us hunt down the stray Daedra. But citizens of Mournhold are scared, my king! Therefore, we had gathered together on Almalexia’s initiative to decide how to protect the city from Molag Bal.”

“I told them, Nerevar, that we can’t defend Mournhold without you –”

“And we never considered abandoning Nerevar to his fate.” Vivec made an exasperated gesture. “Esteemed Dumac, we merely suggested that our king is a warrior of great renown and he can take care of himself, but many people would perish if we were to allow such a beast to run rampant in the city.”

“I would appreciate the opportunity to speak without interruptions, young Vivec. You’re in the right to say that the people of Mournhold are frightened, but the absence of their king frightens them more than the legions of Daedra! It goes without saying that the misfortune of my allies pains me no less than any ordeal of my people.”

The Hortator wrapped himself tightly in a cloak, feeling ill at ease, and the wet, filthy attire bothered him least of all. All that was said between him and Voryn preoccupied him wholly, and the heated disagreements among the members of the First Council seemed to him petty beside Voryn’s declaration of candid, passionate devotion.

“Vivec, Dumac, I returned, and we won’t speak another word of it.” Nerevar rose from the throne and, dragging the cloak across the floor, addressed the nobles. “Did anyone order to close the gates of Mournhold?”

“It’s futile,” remarked Almalexia. “The culprits escaped through the old underground tunnels which lead outside the city. Such measures will only invoke displeasure of some Councillors.”

“And the mayhem caused by Molag Bal’s servants who play the master in Mournhold doesn’t displease those Councillors? No matter! Will anyone deny that we have to outlaw the cult of Molag Bal and demand the surrender of his artifacts whose possession from this day onward will be punishable by law?”

“The queen suggested something similar, but some of us find it a bit extreme to punish anyone in possession of a Daedric artifact.”

“The queen can speak for herself, my lords,” said Almalexia proudly. “No one here, being of sound mind, suggests a punishment for scholars or adventurers, or collectors of suchlike curiosities. Only those who have dangerous artifacts which are commonly attributed to Molag Bal will be required to surrender them.”

“And what constitutes a ‘dangerous artifact’, my lady? A sharp quill can be dangerous in the hands of a skilled and ruthless assassin. Will this Council approve of something so distasteful, barbaric and superstitious as seizure of all quills from the population of Mournhold? All Daedric artifacts are inherently dangerous!” Cardea, who to the knowledge of many present in the throne room amassed a sizable collection of Daedric oddities, voiced her objection. “Wabbajack, Goldbrand, Sanguine Rose… with any of these relics you can inflict a mortal injury, but does it mean that everyone will ignorantly use them for so destructive a purpose?”

“And you’re content with delivering our home to the Daedric Princes on a silver platter?” Galmis Hlaalu was outraged.

“I said no such thing! I beg you for a different solution, esteemed lords.”

“Should we believe that your words aren’t motivated by personal interest? It’s common knowledge that all members of House Telvanni dabble in forbidden, sacrilegious magics. Perhaps you even aided the Prince of Rage in his endeavor to invade Mournhold!”

“Silence, my lords!” shouted Nerevar. “I demand silence!” The clamor of aggrieved and discontented voices died down, and Nerevar concluded his speech uninterrupted. “For Azura’s sake, there will be a sitting in a few days. We will thoroughly discuss our predicament again. I expect to hear from you, Cardea, and from Sotha Sil. Prove to me that the traitors didn’t rely on the mace of Molag Bal to open a gate to Coldharbor and I will relent, but in the meantime, I want a herald to announce my decision to the city of Mournhold. All relics of the Daedric Prince of Enslavement must be brought to the palace in two days’ time.”

The guard shut the doors behind him, and the Hortator leaned against a windowsill to recover his breath. He was awfully tired, and he longed for a warm bath and a comfortable bed, but he doubted he would get a good sleep that morning or the following night.

In the milky haze of early winter morning, the skylamps of Mournhold blinked tremulously.

PREVIOUS NEXT

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s