CHAPTER X: THE GREAT ASHKHAN

‘Do you feel the awakening, brother? Those of one flesh and blood with us began to hear its long-forgotten call.’

‘Of course, I felt it, Vemyn,’ thinks Dagoth Ur; and then:

(Nerevar’s body, warm and pliant in his hands, bends like clay for its sculptor, heaves and trembles – a shameless, insatiable thing)

‘Brother?’

‘Their song called me back – they are ready! But it’s too early to act. I’ll send them a sign, explain them how to find me and leave the rest to them.’

The Heart shudders as it shuddered on that day when Kagrenac used his forbidden tools on it and a heartrending, plaintive music is heard as the taut strings of magic strain and burst with a shriek. Then all is silent. He can’t boast of mastering the tonal sorcery of the Dwemer wholly, and the secondary tones are quite unruly, but those who have ears will hear him and those who have eyes will behold his long shadow in the waking world.

‘We wait, brothers. It won’t be long now. As I promised you, we’ll shape the world into its ordained form.’

Dagoth Ur hears love and laughter and those whispers fill him with exultation.

***

A gray pall of rain enveloped the world of man and mer.

It drizzled down in the morning but came noon the wind gained strength and with all its might blew oblique, cold spurts of rain across the vast expanse of Ashlands. Expensive carpets had to be thrown into dirt and tents hastily put up for the splendid suite from House Indoril and Redoran which accompanied the Hortator on his journey from Ald’ruhn and met with the Ashlanders and the solemn procession carrying banners of House Dagoth on the slopes of the Red Mountain not too far from the Dwemer settlement of Kashtungatz.  The scouts chose a wide dale bordering in the north and south upon deep pools of boiling mud and bestrewn with notched tree stumps – hollow, lifelessly white, touched by the sorrow of wilting. From the haze below rose thin towers and steeples of a Dwemer city, and at the mouth of the valley, nestled between barren hills overgrown with thorny trama root, began a steep road leading towards the gates of the Dwemer kingdom and further, to the ash-gray summit of the Red Mountain.

At some distance from the northern mud ponds, the assiduous Ashlanders set up an awning thirty paces long and twenty paces wide and covered the floor with mats from bittergreen plant, carpets and furs so that the Ashkhans and other illustrious persons wouldn’t soil their shoes.  In Velothi language, it was Gaan Dol – the sacred ground – and for as long as the Great Ashkhan and the tribe leaders remained on it, settling their disputes, even the pettiest crime merited a harsh and unusual punishment. On the sacred ground, bitter differences were forgotten, and past offences forgiven out of deference to the Great Ashkhan’s full authority: his judgment, according to the ancestral law and with respect to tradition, was indubitable and tribe leaders never presumed to challenge it. None but the Great Ashkhan could bear weapons on the sacred ground – chap’thil, champions and farseers would keep watch along its invisible yet tangible borders or abandon all tools of bloodshed to remain with their leaders. On such occasions when Nerevar met with the Ashkhans on the sacred ground, he was wasteful, bringing with him a magnificent and fearsome entourage so as to discourage any bold adversary of his or his guest’s from seizing a propitious opportunity to lay an ambush for him.

Whilst the Ashlanders hung the awning with traditional decorations and offerings to their numerous ancestors, Nerevar stood in his tent with a letter in his hands, occasionally reading a few lines from it under his breath. He was garbed in heavy furs which coiled around his neck like a snake and from his shoulders into the thick slush cascaded a fine dark-blue cloak with a golden trim. Golden was his Indoril cuirass adorned with decorative scales from precious metals and golden was his helmet which presently lay on a low stool forgotten; and his entire ceremonial garb shimmered like a tiny sun owing to a simple illusion spell. The Great Ashkhan carried a sword to punish the wicked as was his right, but couldn’t don garments he’d wear into battle lest his subjects would interpret it as a sign of his deep mistrust of them; instead of it, he chose to put on an imposing albeit useless suit of armor to keep up appearances and no one could fault him for it.

It was the month of the Lover and so contrary to its name, one of the coldest months of the year, but neither the dull patter of persistent rain against the guarskin roof of his tent, nor cold distracted the Hortator from reading the letter.

 ‘…I believe it was unwise of us to give in to our careless passions, but wisdom is a poor companion in solitude,’ wrote Voryn in his familiar, florid style. ‘Wisdom cannot leave me breathless with one kiss. Wisdom won’t look at me with your deep, gray eyes until I lose myself in them. I’m unwise, but come dawn or dusk, chance or change, good or ill, to you my sweet friend, I remain unchanged in my affections.’

It was flattering to think that he left an indelible impression on his old friend after their first passionate night together, but Nerevar didn’t deceive himself like that. Voryn loved him for quite some time yet kept a stubborn silence as if it wasn’t important to him to see their companionship grow into a fervent affair. Until now he has never been so bold and this unfamiliar boldness both stirred Nerevar to the innermost depths of his heart and upset him. If so eloquent, so daring a letter fell into the hands of his enemies, it would ruin the both of them – what sordid rumors those slanderers would spread about them! what they would say about his decisions now ‘tainted’ by his weakness for Voryn! how they would injure Voryn to avenge all those injuries they suffered by his hand! Nerevar peeked through the chink in the walls of his tent and looked round himself a few times, harkening to the clamor in the valley. When he was sure that no one was spying on him, he snapped his fingers and lowered the corner of Voryn’s letter into the flame dancing merrily upon his palm. He watched it burn to the last ember and trampled the ashes into dirt.  

“My lord, Voryn Dagoth is here to see you,” tactfully said Alandro Sul behind him.

Nerevar nodded, and in came Voryn, stooping down a bit to pass under the heavy drape which hung over the entrance. He wore a dark fur-lined robe with a richly-embroidered belt girt round his loins and decorative ebony armlets on his forearms, and a few long locks of his impeccable hair were gathered on the back of his head with a bejeweled hairpin, revealing two blood-drops of earrings in all their mesmerizing glitter. There wasn’t a drop of rain on him and his outward appearance suited a man who had just walked out of his bedchambers, refreshed with a drink and fragrant perfume. Voryn’s countenance was calm and earnest, creased a bit at the brow or twisted in a jeering grimace, but when their eyes met, he unsuccessfully tried to repress a tender smile.

“Lord Nerevar -”

“Let me be Nerevar, I ask you. Just this once… let me be Nerevar.”

He flinched, looking aside. “Ah, dear me… Nerevar, why did you call me here? The preparations for the greeting ceremony are almost over.”

“I wanted to hear your thoughts. During our brief talk before chil’a, I had an impression you were quite anxious to put this ordeal with your brother behind you. I heeded your plea, and this is my answer to you. Does it please you?”

“You left Mournhold when the city needs you… for me?”

There was a glint of merriment in Nerevar’s eyes. “Do you think me a sentimental fool? No, I intend to kill three kagouti with one arrow. Both Boethiah and Mephala teach us the art of artifice and surprise. I decided that I had to act as no one would expect of me… I’m fed up with self-willed ashkhans and insolent nobles, to tell you the truth. My meddling in your affairs is a testament of my determination to put an end to their insolence. The Ashkhan will be happy to lay his eyes on me, thinking it a sign of my favor. Let him think that. Your brothers will be confused. They won’t know what to make of me and I hope to make a pleasant impression on them. And you, my friend… I see how this burden torments you and I want to set your mind at ease. I’ll listen to both sides, but if you wish I spare him…” Nerevar took Voryn’s cold hand and greedily pressed those slender fingers to his lips, looking at his face with great attention. He hasn’t seen Voryn or heard from him for many days, barring the ill-fated letter which reached him late, and all the while he met with numerous nobles after the Council sitting, cajoled or threatened them, he longed for his friend’s reassuring presence and shrewd advice. It was an inoffensive gesture, but Voryn’s hand trembled when Nerevar passed his lips across his delicate palm and a weak half-sigh, half-moan escaped him when the Hortator, coming to his senses, let go of it. There was something undeniably and awfully attractive about Voryn’s hands.  

The feeling came over him and passed, and Voryn stood before him composed as before.

“All I ask is that you uphold my family’s honor.”

“Is that your only wish? How modest of you! Well, so be it… Alandro, show lord Dagoth to his seat.”

Under the guarskin awning, the Ashlanders placed three low stools for the tribe leader and his distinguished guests while the rest of the participants gathered round them, seating themselves anywhere so long as the furs and mats underneath were dry. The wicked, biting rain relented, but the sky was in a perpetual frown and hung over them in patches of shaggy clouds and whitish haze which stubbornly refused to dissipate. In some parts of Vvardenfell and on mainland, many considered it a sure sign of the ancestors’ displeasure, but in the Ashlands, the rare rains were met with jubilation and celebration. On such foul days, Nerevar’s oldest wounds ached, waking old wisps and ghosts of memories – his first battles with the Nords, their axes and swords which cut deeper than flesh and bone, the unquenchable anger which dulled with time and became wisdom. Nerevar would wake at night many years after the war, with beads of sweat upon his forehead and fists tightly clenched, wishing with such maddening fervor that it frightened him to rip out Hoag the Merkiller’s heart.  

Dun-Ilu waited for him under the awning, looking oddly appeasable without a spear or an axe to complete his formal attire. They greeted each other, briefly pressing their foreheads together as if sharing a breath, and the Ashkhan’s elaborate headwear, consisting of copper and golden adornments, strings of lucid brightly-colored beads and a fur cap, tilted to the side. Then Dun-Ilu exchanged a similar greeting with Voryn and addressed the gathering briefly yet with great feeling.

“I hope that your presence, oh Great Ashkhan, is a guarantee that justice won’t be perverted,” he told Nerevar in a low voice after his speech.

The Ashlanders didn’t have courts and sentenced their criminals as a whole tribe. Their law was not recorded in the scrolls; it was the collective memory of their people as to their customs which were faithfully passed down through the centuries since the exodus of prophet Veloth. Most formal laws which were the backbone of the First Council were adopted in Mournhold – there, the influential men of law debated them, burnished them, and laid them to rest on the scrolls which crammed the dusty shelves of the palace libraries. The scrolls had lifespans, and so did the laws written on them; they bowed to the whims of mer and winds from the Spiral Skein, and the Ashlanders were deeply mistrustful of them. “Mournhold laws are three-day laws”, they would say.

After everyone was seated, Nerevar called the first witness and the gulakhan led a woman in who introduced herself as Ilmeni, Azura’s priestess. She was of low stature and unremarkable in appearance, though her exact features were difficult to discern under a deep dark-green hood of her simple robe.

“Speak, good woman, tell us what you saw that day,” said Nerevar.

“I was praying to our Mother when I heard a commotion outside the temple. I thought it rude to interrupt my prayer, and when I peeked outside, I saw Grandmaster Dagoth arguing with his brother, Gilvoth.” And Ilmeni, in a few words, described the familiar scene. “After the grandmaster calmed everyone, I took the Ashlander girl to the stables and chose a meek guar for her. She was afraid of something and kept looking back over her shoulder, but I told her not to worry. The Grandmaster’s word is the law. We talked for a while, but her answers were terse. I asked her name and she answered with one word. I asked what had happened after that fetcher kidnapped her, the Three forgive my anger, but she wouldn’t tell me anything… I won’t bore you with the details of our uneventful journey. When we found the camp, I took the girl to see the Wise Woman and she looked after her with great care. Later the Wise Woman told me that the girl was beaten, and her body was violated.” The priestess wrung her hands. “It’s what I’ve been told, sera. I know what you’ll ask. I didn’t see it happen before my eyes and didn’t hear it from the girl with my own ears. But on Azura’s sacred name, I swear to you that it is true.”

“Thank you, Ilmeni, for your testimony,” said Nerevar, glancing to his left. The Ashkhan sat upright and proud, enjoying the impression the priestess’s words made on the gathering. “Does anyone have questions for this witness?”

“I do.” Voryn rose from his seat, irresistible in dark, heavy furs, but his countenance was grim. “Do you recall my first encounter with the Ashkhan? We talked for a bit before I called you to the yurt, but you were aware of what had been said between us. Did you overhear our words? I doubt it. I’m a master of magic arts. I’d sense your artless spells. It appears to me more likely that in a few hours before my arrival, you conspired with the Wise Woman and the Ashkhan to tell a lie. You, a priestess of our Mother… How shameful! My brother Gilvoth is many things – a common scoundrel, a thug, a coward. It won’t do me any good to defend him before this gathering. The fair laws of our lord Hortator mean nothing to him. But he wouldn’t lay a finger on her unless she disobeyed him and tried to run away. So, I ask you again, priestess. How did you come to learn what the Ashkhan and I discussed in his yurt? Or will you deny it?”

“Deny the accusation or answer lord Dagoth’s question,” said Nerevar.

“It was a slip of the tongue!” cried out the priestess. “I didn’t mean to say that I knew about any of it.”

“So, you told a lie. An inadvertent lie, but a lie nevertheless… How can we believe anything you say afterwards? Azura’s punishment will be severe.”

Voryn said it with such dignity, looking wholly convinced of his truth, and his eyes shone with such inner light that it transformed his outward appearance somehow. Nerevar wordlessly admired him. The priestess fell heavily on her knees.

“Azura forgive me, I lied!”

“When did you lie? Tell us the truth now.”

“I lied then, and I lied now… But it’s not what you think.”

“These questions are insulting-”

“No, Ashkhan, I’d like to hear what the priestess says,” objected Nerevar.

“I never spoke to the Wise Woman,” admitted Ilmeni with a weary hang of the head. “The gulakhan invited me to share a meal with him after a long journey. He was friendly and I didn’t want to offend him, so I went with him to the yurt. The Ashkhan came later and he told me that he had spoken with the Wise Woman. The Wise Woman was preoccupied, he said. He promised me I could have a conversation with her later but asked me to tell everyone that I didn’t hear it from him. I understood his misgivings, but I believed him, don’t you see? And I believe him now.”

“Don’t you see what it is, my lord Hortator?” Voryn exclaimed rapturously. “It’s a scheme to mislead us. The priestess is not at fault for any of it. She, too, was deceived by the cunning Ashkhan… I ask the Hortator’s permission to question the girl.”

“I grant my permission.”

“The girl had suffered enough at the hands of the city-dwellers. I won’t allow her to be mocked and further humiliated.” Dun-Ilu was outraged.

“Then I ask your permission to speak with the Wise Woman.”

“I think it’s time we got to the bottom of this shameful affair. Dun-Ilu, I wish to question the Wise Woman.”

Alandro Sul went to find the Wise Woman of Ahemmusa, but he returned empty-handed and explained that the Wise Woman stayed in the camp while the Ashkhan and the gulakhan attended the hearing.

“It’s impermissible, Dun-Ilu,” Nerevar said, loosing forbearance. “In the absence of any compelling evidence, how am I to find a licit precedent? You asked for this hearing, yet you’ve made a mockery of it! Lord Dagoth, I’ll question you myself.”

“I’m at your disposal, my lord.”

 “If I remember it well, you witnessed the whole scene. Did you speak with your brother afterwards?”

“I spoke with him many times. He confessed to everything. He was hunting when he saw the girl and he took her with him by force, intending to make her his slave. He beat her because she disobeyed him, but if he had his way with her against her will, I’d know. He’s not the one to keep such secrets well.”

“Are we to conclude from your answer that something similar happened in the past?”

“Nothing so drastic, my lord, but he was never well-behaved. He whipped a servant who caused no offense or behaved too loosely around another mer’s wife. Perhaps I was too lenient with him, but my failings aren’t being judged today.” The meaningful glance Voryn threw at the Ashkhan didn’t escape Nerevar’s attention.

“It is clear to me that you don’t insist on your brother’s innocence, with the overwhelming evidence to the contrary,” Nerevar said with authority, looking at the bleak sky.

“I’d be mad to deny his guilt. It is the extent of his guilt that I question, as is my right by the Laws of our Land.”

“I don’t have any more questions for you, lord Dagoth. Please, take your seat and await my decision. Ashkhan,” Nerevar turned to Dun-Ilu. “To prove the truthfulness of your words to me, you’ll have to let the girl or the Wise Woman speak on your behalf. I don’t understand your reluctance. Gilvoth isn’t here. He can’t cause her another offense… Thus, I order you to send someone for them. In your refusal to do so, I’ll read the unequivocal admission of guilt.”

After exchanging a few quiet words with the gulakhan, the Ashkhan beckoned one of his farseers, but Nerevar outstretched his hand towards him. “Wait, Ashkhan, I’ll leave it to Alandro Sul to fetch them. Alandro! Accompany these mer to the Ahemmusa camp and make sure they don’t threaten or otherwise influence the Wise Woman.”

“I understand, my lord. What should I do if they disobey your command?”

“You’re to do nothing whatsoever. Return here as fast as you can and tell us what you witnessed. We’re here to decide the sentence of one Dagoth-Gilvoth, not to dictate to the Ashkhan our will.”

After Alandro Sul and the farseers left, Nerevar retired to his tent. He couldn’t be seen talking to Voryn or his brothers after the hearing began not to invite suspicions and he played a game of dice with one of the Redoran kinsman to distract himself. Voryn was on his mind often as of late – at times, he delighted in fleeting or pleasant recollections of something he had said or done, or he was consumed by thoughts which caused him anguish. Nerevar compared Voryn to others, vainly, to grasp what attracted him to his old friend, but others were clever, too, and eager to serve him and loyal to a fault. His attraction to Voryn was elusive, frightening and exhilarating – it was fire in his veins and a sweet forbidden fruit. The mysterious bearded man with an axe was surely laughing at him even as the stars aligned themselves across the heaven’s vault for the advent of the robed Lover.

Such thoughts caused him to lose to the Redoran kinsman and abandon the game of dice altogether. Nerevar left the tent and returned to the seat under the awning. Voryn’s and Dun-Ilu’s seats stood empty and he regretted coming here early, but after he called for the vigilant guard to accompany him back to the tent, he noticed someone hiding behind the draping. It was a young Ashlander girl, large and freckled, in a simple woolen skirt and a matching loose shirt. She fixed her dark, attentive eyes on him and didn’t look away when he asked her to sit by his side in the Ashkhan’s chair – a girl braver than many House nobles.

“Are you the Great Ashkhan?” she asked.  

“And who is this Great Ashkhan?”

She wavered. “He’s someone very important… It’s what my father says. My father’s important, too. He makes everyone happy.”

“And the Great Ashkhan? Does he make everyone happy?”

The girl nodded her curly head. “My father says that the Great Ashkhan came to us when we were starving and weak and he showed us how to be strong. There was a battle a long time ago…” She frowned assiduously. “We fought side by side with the city dwellers and the mechanical giants and their creators… Have you ever seen the mechanical giants?”

“They are taller than any mer and their skin is made of brass and when they walk, the earth trembles,” Nerevar echoed, looking into the distance.

“Then you are the Great Ashkhan!”

“You’re a clever girl.”

The Hortator hailed the Redoran guard arrayed in bonemold armor and a warm brown cloak suitable for long marches under the open sky. “Sera, I need your cloak,” he said. The guard looked at him and at the Ashlander girl and pursed his lips in disapproval, not hurrying to obey his request. “Sera, your cloak,” Nerevar repeated, insistently, and grimaced.

The guard capitulated before the demand in his gaze – not a sign of a weak or a cowardly mer, for many merited statesmen have capitulated before him just the same. Nerevar wrapped the cloak around the girl’s round shoulders and with satisfaction beheld the creation of his hands and the girl’s adoring, toothy smile. She would remember him in a golden halo of illusory light, fighting alongside mechanical giants and her tribesmen – a man of wisdom, kindness and infinite mercy – and she would tell the story a thousand times, with embellishments and exaggerations, until her words would eclipse the true image of him – a captive of unbridled passions, toying with justice and mercy as he saw fit. For the small price of a cloak, the legend of Nerevar continued to grow.   

Alandro Sul, as Nerevar suspected, returned all by himself and after Dun-Ilu with his gulakhans, Voryn and his brothers gathered under the awning, he told them the following:

“My lord Hortator, hai Resdaynia, to my deep regret I was unable to convince the Wise Woman or the girl to accompany me here. I never saw the girl and the Wise Woman told me that her duties were to serve the tribe and not ‘to attend to the whims of the Ashkhan’. I asked her then, as you would want me to ask her, whether the girl was injured by lord Dagoth’s brother to which she said that she would not ‘speak of her injuries as they have become instruments of political strife’.”

“Well, Ashkhan, I’ve reached the decision,” Nerevar said with a light heart. “In the absence of compelling evidence, I proclaim Dagoth Gilvoth innocent of all crimes but one: he attempted to enslave a free and rightful citizen of Resdayn against her will. For that he is to pay a fine and remain in the Kogoruhn dungeon for fifteen years. Let it be recorded that the sentence began the day his brother imprisoned him.”

“But, my lord, you can’t allow that dangerous scoundrel to remain with his family!”

“Dun-Ilu, I’ll hold them responsible for disobeying my will, but Dagoth Gilvoth will stay in Kogoruhn. If I allow Gilvoth to be held elsewhere – in the city belonging to House Redoran or House Hlaalu – I will be causing lord Dagoth a grave and unfair injury. Due to the popularity of the lamentable custom, Dagoth Gilvoth may be treated as a valuable hostage by the rival House. I cannot overlook such possibility… And you, lord Dagoth, do you object to my verdict?”

“No, my Hortator, I find it satisfactory,” said Voryn with a strange smile.

***

“Voryn, what happened?” asked Odros, anxiously pacing up and down the tent. “What have you done?”

 Voryn drank half a glass of Dagoth brandy in a few greedy gulps, not knowing how to answer his brother, and mulled over the Hortator’s more than favorable verdict with a slight feeling of resentment. How more attentive to his ordeals Nerevar had become as soon as he jumped into bed with him! His palm, where Nerevar had kissed it, still remembered the touch of his hot lips and the sweeter was the recollection, the more poignant seemed his present thoughts. And now his bright and shrewd brother felt that something about the verdict was out of place.

‘Don’t do it to yourself,’ thought Voryn. ‘It was the right decision in these circumstances. The Hortator didn’t disrespect tradition and you played your part convincingly.’

“I’ve done nothing shameful to deserve a harsh reprimand, Odros.”

“What have you promised him? Don’t lie to me, brother! I swear on Boethiah’s name, Gilvoth isn’t worth the trouble.”

“I promised him nothing dishonorable,” Voryn defended himself weakly. “I promised him nothing whatsoever. Will you, please, believe me?”

“I’d believe you if you weren’t so wholly taken with him. We entrusted the fate of our House to you. You were the oldest of us, the wisest, the cleverest, and I wish to believe, wholeheartedly, that you still have our best interests in your heart of hearts. But I have my doubts -”

“And this lenient verdict isn’t in our best interests? I remain true to my word. What if I had to fall on my knees and beg the Hortator for it? Will you think any less of me?”

“If you did kneel before him, it wouldn’t be to beg for his lenience. But you wouldn’t tell me, would you? What happened to us?” Odros looked at him pleadingly. “For as long as I’ve known you, I never heard you hint that you’d marry a woman one day.”

“I don’t feel attraction to women. I never made it a secret from you or Vemyn.” Voryn’s head reeled from all the wine he drank. “Do you want to see me with a woman whom I’ll cause only great misery? If you don’t pity me, pity that poor girl who will be bound to me by the laws of our unforgiving ancestors.”

“Happiness isn’t for the likes of you and I.”

“You’re wrong, my brother. There are sacrifices which aren’t worth making. There’s abject misery which will never give any fruit but more misery. And where misery and sickness fester, Sheogorath always finds his prey… But enough of this! We’ve insulted each other enough for one day.”

“You’re right, Voryn, and I ask for your forgiveness. You’ve proven to me that you haven’t forgotten the honor of our House. If you give me your word that you’ve made no unseemly deals with the Hortator, I’ll believe you… Let’s celebrate the conclusion of this unpleasant matter. I can’t wait to go back home to Ralla.”

Odros poured him a glass of brandy, but their merry celebration was interrupted by a sudden intrusion of a Redoran guard.

“Lord Nerevar sent me to warn you that there’s an ash storm on approach.”

It was unbelievable that an ash storm would strike so soon after a downpour, but when Voryn lifted the drapery, he saw the ominous red glow of the calamity on the horizon. The camp resembled a ravaged scrib nest, men and mer running to and fro, abandoning their tents untouched or hastily hoisting their belongings onto the backs of their guars, and loud screams together with the sharp cracking of the whip were often heard in the ado. Voryn gave a few quick orders and covering his face from the gusts of cold wind, headed towards the Hortator’s tent. The sky darkened quickly, as if Nocturnal left her domain on some whim and threw a thick shawl she slipped off her shoulders over the unguarded firmament.

As Voryn approached the Hortator’s tent, he saw Nerevar talking to a Redoran retainer and Alandro Sul saddling his guar; another Redoran retainer knelt at his feet with his hands tied behind his back, with his entire pose expressing utmost humility. The Hortator caught Voryn’s confused glance and explained:

“The Ashkhan, not without gloating delight, let me know that this mer harassed one of the Ashlanders and that it came to a rough fight. A few hours ago, I ordered him to give his cloak to an Ashlander girl… What foolery!” he added angrily. “We’re on the sacred ground. I’ll have him kiss Molag Bal’s feet and then he’ll be flogged in front of an eager crowd.”

“I understand your frustration, my lord,” said Voryn, “but the ash storm will be upon us soon. I advise we wait in Kogoruhn till it’s over.”

“I was on my way to see Dumac, and I accept your invitation… But what foolery, don’t you think! By Azura, I’ll make an example out of him. He won’t soon forget -”

“My lord, it’ll be wiser if I gave you the amulet of recall. Leave the animals and provisions with Alandro Sul.”

“Of course, whatever you think is necessary.”

Voryn heaved a sigh of relief and put a small amulet into the Hortator’s warm palm. “Aren’t you coming, too?” Nerevar asked, hesitant.

“I’m in no danger, my lord,” said Voryn. “If the storm overtakes us, I’ll cast the spell of recall, but I’m needed here.”

“I trust you will take good care of that s’wit.” Nerevar waved his arm angrily and as he slipped the amulet around his neck, he disappeared in a flash of ghostly light.

To the inevitable coming of the storm testified the familiar taste of ash on his tongue and the awful crimson tint of the heavy clouds which hung low and ill-boding over the Ashlands, swelling with fire and madness. Cursing the unpredictable foul weather of the Ashlands, Voryn found Odros and spoke to him briefly before setting out to give last orders to the resplendent suite which now looked quite dejected.  

“Cover the guar’s eyes,” he told them. “It will slow us down and you’ll have to guide and calm the animals with magic, but if ash in the air drives them out of their wits, we won’t make it to Kogoruhn in time.”

The Indoril guard appeared particularly frightened by the ash storm, for many of them rarely left the dependable walls of Mournhold, and a storm of such magnitude in the wilderness was far more eerie than anything they would witness from a window of a cozy guardhouse. But to Voryn such storms weren’t a novelty and from the intensity of the red glow he could with some certainty predict when the trouble would blow over. ‘It’s a nasty one,’ he thought. ‘I give it three days.’

He wasn’t wrong this time: the ash storm lasted three days and three nights like clockwork, and on the dawn of the fourth day, the sky cleared, and the unruly ash was laid to rest.

***

Whilst the ash storm raged to its heart’s content, the Hortator stayed in Kogoruhn and Voryn who always happily gave him shelter and enjoyed his company didn’t think his sudden visit would be drastically different than what he was accustomed to expect from his old friend. Voryn imagined pleasant conversations after dinner and thinly-veiled flirting and long sleepless nights for which he would have to polish his knowledge of illusion magic so as to weave around himself an impenetrable cocoon of invisibility and silence, but to their first dinner with his brothers, his Hortator came out in a dazzling emerald robe with wide, heavy sleeves, adorned with a striking flowery tracery, and a deep neckline embroidered with ebony and silver thread. He awkwardly stood out among his brothers in modest dark attires and drew to himself befuddled and perplexed glances to which he dauntlessly seemed to pay no heed. Voryn who lost two chap’thil and four guars to the ash storm tried to impart to their meal a solemn and mournful character, but the blinding dazzle of Nerevar’s garments and his indiscreet challenge to the prescribed etiquette well-nigh made a mockery of his intentions.

If the Hortator’s sole intention was to make an indelible impression on his brothers, he had succeeded in his endeavors, yet that impression wouldn’t earn him deference among the staunch champions of tradition and artless modesty. Voryn believed that Nerevar understood his disapproval of the Mournhold court and its gaudy fashion, but gazing at his unwelcome brilliance and proud poise, he was no longer certain of it. Nerevar stubbornly avoided looking him in the eye and, with natural ease, struck up a conversation with Vemyn, pretending to be unaware that it was awfully quiet in the hall after his memorable entrance. Voryn began to dread the dinner and all the breakfasts and dinners he would share with his Hortator for the next few days, and he was justified in his misgivings. As Voryn saw it, Nerevar tried too hard to convince everyone that he didn’t fancy him much, yet made it his goal to get to know his brothers whose company he never sought before; his outward appearance conflicted with his intentions and his intentions conflicted with his actions unless it was all a part of some elaborate design whose purpose Voryn couldn’t begin to grasp.  

It frustrated and fascinated the grandmaster of House Dagoth that after many years spent by the Hortator’s side in war and in celebration, ruling Resdayn and defending it from the outlanders, Nerevar could shatter all of his anticipations and preconceived notions with a single harebrained act. Perhaps it was no elaborate scheme at all but one of his ‘harmless frolics’ with which he amused himself now and then and which were perceived as cruel jests by the unsuspecting participants.

After dinner, Voryn overheard a conversation between Nerevar and his brother Araynys.

“I heard you took up alchemy practices with your brother,” said Nerevar. Voryn did remember telling him once about the incident with the Hunger set loose in his bedchamber.

“Did Voryn mention it? I’m flattered serjo, truly. I’m not very good at it, but Voryn is a patient teacher.” And Araynys smiled his absent-minded, dreamy smile.

“Well, I heard alchemy is a bit unpleasant, but as a school of magic, it’s incredibly useful. If you need to appear more attractive in someone’s eyes or more imposing, a potion can be irreplaceable, but you would do well to remember when you wake up next to someone in the morning that all the charm and appeal would wear off by then. I can tell you of a few mishaps…” And Nerevar said it in such a familiar manner and leaned over to him in so intimate a way, as if they had been close of friends for many years, that Araynys who never showed any interest in men blushed and hurried to excuse himself.

Voryn had enough patience for one day.

Dagoth Endus was a sober, sensible mer with a strong-willed wife whom he adored. He allowed her to run all the affairs of his comberry fields while he spent most of his time improving upon the many recipes of ancient Dagoth brandy. Nerevar didn’t try to appear charming or seductive to him, but with feigned curiosity made inquiries into the secrets of wine-making and with feigned enthusiasm listened to the meticulous descriptions of brewing tricks. Endus couldn’t boast of a perspicacious mind and he didn’t notice the expression of boredom on the Hortator’s face, finding himself to be more well-disposed towards Nerevar as the conversation went on. By the end of it, he begged Nerevar to visit his family one day and taste some of the most delicious wines he had the pleasure of trying.

Meanwhile, Voryn sought solitude to devote himself to the study of ancient Velothi scrolls he found in the bowels of his library. The powerful half-forgotten magic which was in use when the Velothi towers stood numerous and proud under the Resdayn sky intrigued him greatly, but there was little hope for him to find peace even in his ancestral home. Odros was suspicious of him since the hearing and soon Voryn was at his wits end.

And so, Voryn went to see his Hortator.

“My lord, your behavior is scandalous,” he said plainly. Those words didn’t come easy to him, but his patience had run dry and he didn’t think it necessary to prettify the truth.

Nerevar scribbled something on a piece of parchment which looked like a map of Molag Amur, but his astringent words gave him pause.

“I wished to impress your brothers and I daresay -”

“They won’t forget your visit, I assure you. But is it the sort of impression you want to leave on them? My lord, do you hold nothing sacred?”

“Sacred? It’s curious that you ask. Do you think they wouldn’t envy you if you told them the truth? Do you think they wouldn’t question your every decision if they knew where you spent your nights?.. Boethiah teaches us that our will and our ambitions are sacred.”

“Nerevar,” he said despairingly. “Do we always live by the precepts of the Daedric Princes? If you deliberately seek faults, you’ll find them aplenty. My brothers… aren’t without grave shortcomings, but I love them dearly and I will lay down my life for my House. I want you to love them, too, and your love will inspire loyalty in them and unite our Houses with bonds which are stronger than ties of marriage or alliance. It pains me to see you treat them with little respect.”

“Well, what should I do?”

“Come with me, I want to show you something… And cover your face. The storm hasn’t slackened yet.”

They put on worn robes and snuck out of Kogoruhn through the kitchens. Under the dark-red sky, they took a narrow path downhill until they reached a pile of stones, with the smaller stones carefully arranged atop the larger stones, and there Voryn dove into a shallow ravine to which clung here and there withered vines of the bittergreen plant. The wind howled and shrieked above them, but in the gorge, it couldn’t break loose and quietened down a bit. Thick ash covered the hard, frozen ground, but it couldn’t conceal a tall three-edged shrine painted in red and ochre hues with a depiction of one of the Three Daedra on each side. Underneath it some generous soul left a few coda flowers, but their luster had long since dimmed and their petals fell prey to cold and fiery storms.

“Who else knows about it?” muttered Voryn under his breath, looking round himself.

Nerevar squatted down by the shrine, casting a simple illumination spell, and examined it thoroughly.

“What do you mean, Voryn?”

“I never left flowers here. It was Araynys, I fancy, but he couldn’t know… I never showed it to anyone. My mother’s spirit guessed its purpose, but I didn’t tell her where I built it. Ah, never mind, I’ll figure it out.”

“You speak in riddles, my old friend. Why are we here?”

“It’s a shrine to which I bound the spirit of my father. You never knew him, but he wouldn’t have listened to your fervent speeches. He surrendered Kogoruhn to the Nedic Jarl, but he wasn’t satisfied with his standing of a defeated and humiliated House lord, he was a slave to senseless ambitions. He offered his services to the king of Skyrim, to Hoaga, behind the Jarl’s back. My older brother found out by chance about his schemes and challenged him for his title of grandmaster. They fought in the Arena… I once told you, didn’t I? I saw him fall… But it was I who encouraged him to issue that challenge! I should have fought father myself, not schemed behind his back!” Voryn clenched his fists. “This shrine where I doomed Navam’s soul to eternal disgrace is my pledge to my House that for as long as I am its grandmaster, I will not rest until our enemies are dust. I never told my brothers… They’ll beg me to release him. Will you?”

“It’s not my place to judge you.”

“And yet I want to hear your thoughts.”

“I was never properly educated in the history of the Great Houses and their endless quarrels. Your bitter strife with your father is no concern of mine. He is the spirit of your ancestor, yet he bent the knee to Hoag Merkiller and for that he won’t have my forgiveness… He wouldn’t approve of me, you said? Well, it’s a pity. As Vivec likes to say, a ruling king who craves approval rules nothing.” Nerevar took a step towards him and enfolded him in his arms. “I think I understand your point, Voryn.”

“I’m glad, my lord.”

“Come, my friend, we ought to talk about something.”

Voryn nodded and glanced over Nerevar’s shoulder at the small shrine. The spirit was angry. He was always angry as of late, raving, screaming, cursing him, flesh of his flesh, blood of his blood.

Did he become a hypocrite, talking of all things sacred and honorable when he couldn’t release his own father and took delight in his senseless, unending torment? Did he become a taleteller, a duplicitous wretch? Did he even delight in his father’s suffering (petty revenge would be understandable, at least)? Or did he bind his father’s spirit to the shrine – to the tri-angled monument of self-delusion – to quell the feeling of helplessness, to keep it from consuming him?

For as long as Nerevar’s head rested on Voryn’s chest, the storm seemed quiet and distant.

PREVIOUS NEXT

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Notes:

Kill three kagouti with one arrow – an Ashlander idiomatic expression equivalent to our ‘kill two birds with one stone’ as invented by yours truly. Its origin can be traced back to late Merethic era when one bold gulakhan decided he wanted to be an Ashkhan after the previous Ashkhan died. He was a prodigious hunter and he boasted that he could kill 10 kagouti with one arrow. No one believed him until they gathered 10 kagouti in a pen and he shot one arrow and killed all 10 of them at once. He was in possession of Daedric artifacts – the arrow and a gauntlet – of Hircine. Later the new Ashkhan, ironically, met his end during a large kagouti hunt. What Hircine gives, he also takes back.

Ever since then no one could repeat the feat of killing 10 kagouti with one arrow and the phrase assumed a more metaphorical meaning of achieving a few goals with one move.

2 thoughts on “CHAPTER X: THE GREAT ASHKHAN

  1. Oh, Nerevar’s peacock garment, I missed you! Well met, old friend xD

    I’m glad to finally catch up with re-edited TFOF – I was afraid to read it when it was still posted on AO3 since it was unclear at first glance which chapters were edited and which weren’t, but I could finally carelessly roam them on this site 😀 Not going to write anything coherent though – I’m just overwhelmed with love for this story, the very first First (heh)) Council fic I fell in love with xD

    I’ve read a lot of fascinating FC-stuff within these years, but this story – these headcanons – this NereVoryn – is something that was a formative experience for me, as a TES fan and as an author both. And I’m happy to announce that TFOF lost zero of its charm, even though I myself changed a lot. A text for all seasons indeed ❤

    Eagerly waiting for what will come next ^^

    (Btw, I have the version I read… 2 years ago I think?.. downloaded on my iPod + the last AO3 version ‘cause I’ve downloaded all your works from there, ekhm, just in case xD If one day you’ll need these texts you know where to find them))

    Liked by 1 person

  2. ❤ ❤ ❤

    Aaah, the genius of the peacock garment. It was born in a conversation with one of my old readers and I am still very fond of it.

    I am glad you're caught up now, I will post another chapter pretty soon, lots of exciting things to come :). It's fine, I was in the process of leaving anyways, just needed to find that final motivation/push to do it. And I'm glad you still love it; it also changed a lot, I would say, matured, and grew and all that. It's coming together quite nicely now.

    Thank you very much for staying all this time, it really means more to me that I can possibly express here ❤

    P.s. Oh, ohhh, now that's a scary thought, I'm genuinely terrified of looking at those older version. 😀 I am touched by you saving them, but I hope I will not need them.

    Liked by 1 person

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