“I wanted to talk about something.”
Nerevar had grown languid after an evening bath and settled into a deep chair upholstered in silk to drink the potion Voryn brewed for him from sweet-scented herbs and fresh trama root – invigorative and heady like a strong wine. His eyes lingered on Voryn, wandering from his narrow hips to the span of his graceful shoulders and the charming curvature of his neck, like a stroke of a painter’s brush from the collarbone to the determined chin, and his full lips in which was concealed all his sternness, all his sweetness. Voryn was tall and lean but not to the extent Nerevar would call frail and his endearing qualities, his occasional gentleness as though softened his angular figure.
“Don’t worry, I won’t ask about your father,” Nerevar added, savoring the drink.
“I don’t mind.” Voryn filled a tiny vial with his wondrous brew and poured clear odorless liquid into another. How did he find anything in the artistic disorder of his dimly-lit bedroom, heaped up with books, artifacts and alchemical accessories? The altar to the Three Daedra was unnoticeable in this mess, hidden behind the low stool upon which Voryn climbed now and then to reach the top shelf of the massive cabinet where he kept empty phials and dried herbs.
“We don’t get to spend a lot of time together. I don’t know when we will see each other again, so, indulge me, my friend, with small talk. Why aren’t you married yet? Don’t tell me that no one… desired you, with all your incontestable delights.”
“Why the sudden interest in my private life? It’s as if you and Odros are in collusion. My father introduced me to a lot of women, all of noble birth, of course, and excellent parentage. Others sought my company for many different reasons, with honest and dishonest intentions. I still cherish the company of a few of those women. Cardea’s knowledge of magics and insight into the Velothi history are worthy of admiration, and in my relationship with her, there was always an unspoken clarity, a refreshing certainty if you know what I mean.”
“That’s not what I’m asking. Call it idle curiosity. But I looked at you a moment ago and it occurred to me that with your wealth and figure, you’d have no end of women.”
“For pity’s sake! There was a woman once, a daughter of a rich Hlaalu Councilor. She was quite persistent, though I think she set her sights on my wealth rather than my… incontestable delights. We met after my brother’s death, and I was grieving, I was deeply confused, and I didn’t discourage her properly. Ah, I never told anyone about it. If Odros knew, he’d never leave it alone.”
“You slept with her.”
“What on earth gave you that idea? I kept company with her because she knew nothing about my poor brother and I could look her in the eye without shame, without despair, without feeling pities or judges. I should have been honest with her, but it would have ruined the attractiveness of the illusion. There was nothing more to it. I’m not like you, Nerevar,” added Voryn, turning poignantly red in the face. “You always joke about such matters. But the weight you’re born with as a scion of Great House Dagoth, the crushing weight of tradition, obligation, and expectation is not a laughing matter. I’ve always lived with the knowledge that my family could forsake me. If Odros was more ambitious or Gilvoth had more sense than a feral nix hound… Oh, Mephala, what am I saying? That’s the danger of idle talk.”
Nerevar came up to Voryn, put his hand on his hip in such a way that the invitation and insistence in the gesture would be unmistakable, found a spot on his neck in the tangled mess of his hair and kissed it gently, unhurriedly, with barely an intimation of passion.
“Forgive me if I said something insensitive. You know that I’ve only had great affection for you.”
Voryn twitched his shoulder and stepped aside into the brilliance of magelight.
“Say what you will, Nerevar, but if it were true, you would have followed your inclinations long ago. You of all mer never struck me as the fumbling, lovesick type.”
“It’s hard to argue with you,” admitted Nerevar, laughing. “I deserve the harshness. But why look back, Voryn? Now, of all times! The future finally belongs to us, and I’d like to think that the capricious mistress victory will be ours in the end. Let the ghosts of the past be put to rest. The old dreams, old memories, sweet though they may be, are empty of promises.” The answer didn’t satisfy him, and he went on, “I was young and impulsive when we first met, and I couldn’t let my passions contest with each other.”
“I’d never ask you to forsake the Land for me-”
“It wouldn’t change a thing if you never asked! It’s easy for you, with that damnable disposition to self-abnegation, to say that I was capable of choosing wisely and nobly. I had to prevent another war at any cost, and I had to do it with a clear head and an untroubled heart.” Nerevar fell silent, succumbing to inexplicable frustration.
Voryn continued to arrange the manifold of flasks and vials on the shelves in some cryptic order, and Nerevar, growing weary of the awkward silence, watched him closely. He didn’t arrange them by the color of glass, and none of the bottles had any inscriptions on them, but they were of different shapes – thin, tall, paunchy, and angular, with corks painted in red, purple or blue.
“What’s the deal with the bottles?” he asked at last, reaching for a thin, angular flask with a blue cork.
Voryn gave him a withering look. “Please, don’t touch anything. Araynys caused me enough grief for a lifetime. I had to replace a lot of priceless ingredients and brew many potions anew. It cost me a fortune. My youngest brother means well, but his meddling has been quite troublesome lately.” He heaved a sigh and added softly. “The vials with the blue corks are poisons, the rest are salubrious potions and magical potions such as levitation, recall, and invisibility. The shapes signify the dominant ingredient. An extract from bittergreen petals, for instance, is poisonous unless distilled properly and combined with other ingredients, but it also serves well in an invisibility potion.”
“Why don’t you label your bottles accordingly?”
“It’s a simple but effective measure against thieves. The last fool who tried to steal from my alchemical cabinet turned up dead at the stables less than an hour afterwards.”
Nerevar was relieved to find a topic for a light-hearted conversation which would not disturb the old wounds.
“What sort of poison am I holding?”
“A paralysis poison made from ghoul’s heart. It’s challenging to prepare even for an experienced alchemist. A drop of it on your skin can cause temporary paralysis or severe numbness.”
Nerevar hurried to put the bottle back on the shelf, as if its contents could somehow percolate through the enchanted glass, and Voryn moved it into its proper place.
“Will you ride to Galom Daeus with me tomorrow to meet with Dumac?”
“Why not? I’ll never miss an opportunity to talk your ear off about poisons.”
“Oh, Voryn, I’ve heard enough about poisons. I think I much prefer flying.”
“I can take you there one day,” Voryn waved his arm in the direction of the sky. “Imagine nothing but endless night all around you, and all is silence. There is a road, it’s straight, without turning. You feel a breath of wind on your cheek. The world is waking. Your body aches, aflame with magic.”
The sound of Voryn’s voice lulled him; he could talk about anything, and Nerevar would listen just the same, in breathless suspense, even if he understood nothing. He couldn’t pretend to understand anything about poisons or flying, or wielding magic for any purpose other than destruction, but Voryn described it as a wonderful thing and Nerevar believed him. And then he kissed Voryn’s lips which were unforgettably, forbiddingly sweet just as his promises; and into those lips Nerevar muttered: “I want to give myself to you tonight.”
There was an awkward pause which was more eloquent than any words before Voryn spoke. “Isn’t there an unwritten rule that the kings don’t spread their legs before anyone?”
“Where have you heard such nonsense? We’re in Mephala’s kingdom. Here there are no kings or their subjects and one rightful queen.”
Mephala (the full-bosomed, broad-hipped Mephala) told prophet Veloth:
“Worship me with a dagger coated in venom and worship me on the bed sheets between your lover’s legs. Eight are the ways of man, eight are the doors to my house, but you’ll come to me through the Third and Sixth. Don’t seek me out, for you’ll never find me. Embody splendor in your name. Be made and unmade in my image.”
Voryn was so obliging and tender that he seemed frightened, but to see that strained uncertain grimace on Voryn’s face vanish when he was inside of him, and to hear Voryn’s ragged breath and whisper ‘Did I satisfy you?’ was more worthwhile than Nerevar imagined.
Voryn and Nerevar left Kogoruhn on the following bleak morning and met with Dumac in Galom Daeus – an Observatory the Dwemer were building in the heart of Molag Amur where, Kagrenac boasted, his engineers would study and predict weather; but when they passed a sharp bend in the road, only a threadbare cupola with large holes in its roof came into view and another city outside of it made up of nets and wooden scaffolding. Dumac took after Nerevar and visited his colonies once in every few years, seeing that it was sensible to remind the haughty Protectors and Generals that their loyalties lay with him. The Dwemer colonies were independent at large, enjoying the privileges Chimer cities didn’t have, and it was difficult for Dumac to assert his authority in the Dwemer Council, though outwardly he didn’t seem concerned with the fragility of his power.
Dumac had locked himself in the meditation chamber before their arrival. The life of a Dwemer was unhurried and orderly and his tasks required utmost concentration, whether magic or smithcraft, or martial art, or lawmaking. They spent many hours a day in contemplation, for in their underground cities, time stood still; without the sun, without the changing seasons, a Dwemer child was born into the never-ending darkness – a grim companion from the first moment he took his first breath. And in that perfect stillness, in that gloom of unimaginable boredom, in that stifling monotony of ephemeral hours, of days verging on years, a spark of curiosity became their guiding light.
In his free hours, Dumac – a warrior and a leader to the marrow of his bones – enjoyed racking his brain over various logical riddles. Only Dwemer understood the attractiveness of such habit. Dumac preferred to all riddles a large cube with a different letter inscribed on each of its six sides which formed the word “ENIGMA”. After he completed the puzzle, Dumac would mix up the letters by rotating the small corner cubes which were held together with tiny magnets and put them back in proper order.
After the Hortator dismounted, a handsome Dwemer with a lush red beard which, unbraided, cascaded onto his expensive robe and massive stomach, hurried to greet them. He introduced himself as Lord Leftunch, the future Protector of Galom Daeus.
“We didn’t expect you so soon,” he said, drawling in a dignified manner, as if it gave him pleasure to hear himself speak. “The king meditates upon important matters and he wishes to be left alone for a while. But don’t worry, our lord is farsighted. He ordered me to show you the Observatory. He hopes it will please you.”
Following lord Leftunch upon his heels, they reached the inner walls and a round iron gate in front of which stood an enormous crossbow taller than the tallest of mer. The gate was ajar and round the crossbow gathered an impressive crowd of Dwemer in dark robes upon which were thrown ornamental shawls of a lighter color. The ornamental headwear shimmered in a kaleidoscope of color, the golden decorations in braided beards jangled with the abrupt movement of many heads. The Dwemer made way for them, and Nerevar heard fragments of a heated argument.
“…I am telling you, distinguished Architect Razak, that the proportions are all wrong. An egregious error crept up in your calculations! The entire structure will collapse upon itself if we-”
“Engineer Naris, with all due respect to your gray hairs, I checked my notes twice – nay, thrice! – and there was no error. Do you suggest that the mistake is in the design? The Chief Tonal Architect himself looked over it!”
“Are you no different than those lickspittles in Kherakah who believe that Kagrenac is infallible? Have you no mind of your own?”
Voryn and Nerevar exchanged amazed glances and dove under the arch which marked the entrance to the Observatory. The future Protector, groaning and complaining about something under his breath, climbed the steep stairs and Nerevar had the time to scrutinize a strange device which was mounted atop a tripod in the midst of the room. It had a shape of a long tube inclined so that the wider end of it was farthest from the ground and to its narrow end was fastened an azimuth disk. Nerevar wasn’t well-versed in the Dwemer magecraft and he couldn’t guess the purpose of the device on the tripod, but he had often seen azimuth disks among the possessions of chief engineers and Tonal Architects.
“We call it a Scope,” eagerly explained Leftunch. “Six hundred years ago Bhumunz Zanchu invented a lens, and engineer Kagrenac perfected it soon after he became Tonal Architect. Don’t listen to the ignoramuses who smear his good name out of jealousy… With it we saw far into the Void.” He fell silent, fondly stroking his lush beard. “But it isn’t my intention to bore you with abstruse theories. If you’d rather talk about anything else, I’m at your disposal.”
“Please, do go on, I insist,” objected Voryn.
Nerevar winced at the thought of listening to these pundits talk profusely about magic and the nature of all things, and other matters which were incomprehensible to him. Azura’s priests taught young Nerevar to read and write, but the art of war he learned from men and lawmaking from the haughty Altmer, and swordsmanship from Redguards, and books he devoured under the dim light of an illusion spell were his only teachers. He couldn’t learn magic all on his own, though not for lack of want; even Voryn with his remarkable tenacity, talent, and self-mastery studied it under the care and tutelage of the best teachers in the realm.
“I’m surprised to say the least! Your kind rarely expresses interest in the works of Architect Zanchu.”
“Architect Zanchu studied the Earth Bones and I learned illusion magic from a Telvanni wizard. He constructed a device which changed the flow of illusive energies and made magic accessible to anyone. But the ruling principles are the same.”
“What did your magical formulas reveal?”
“Magic knows no boundaries, but not every sorcerer can cast intricate spells or command the unruly energies.”
“Do you admit, hence, that our devices are superior to your craft as we’re not required to cast spells each time we use them?”
“No, lord Leftunch,” said Voryn with an outraged look, “you’re forgetting the principal law of magic. You expend your magicka or you resort to storing it in soul gems and enchanted items. But the power necessary to cast a spell doesn’t come from nowhere and doesn’t vanish into nothingness. I theorize that you make use of the Red Mountain as the boundless source of energy and perhaps one day you’ll drain it like a soul gem.”
“A curious albeit erroneous conclusion,” said Leftunch, smiling into his beard.
Voryn seemed captivated by the discussion, feigning anger and sullenness out of habit. From a few old scrolls and stories, Nerevar learned that before the Nords invaded Resdayn, Voryn’s ancestors and their Dwemer neighbors were at odds with each other. Voryn’s grandparents were slain in a skirmish with the Dwemer, and his father asked House Redoran for help to fend them off. After a brief and bloody confrontation, fragile peace prevailed for a few decades. Voryn didn’t nurse a bitter grudge, but he wasn’t willing to put his trust in Dumac, keeping aloof from the struggle which was moved from the battlefield to the Council chambers. But Voryn oftentimes didn’t know what was good for him and to set him straight, he needed Nerevar. Such was the role Nerevar envisioned himself playing in Voryn’s life.
They reached the top of the stairs, and Leftunch showed them into a room with a low ceiling which was allotted to a library. There were pipes running along the walls and alongside them were placed small oblong luminaries which emanated soft yellowish light. The door opened and closed with an elaborate mechanism consisting of counterweights and cogwheels, and once it was tightly shut, it wouldn’t be possible to breach it from the other side without a battering ram.
They seated themselves around a table and through the barely visible door on the other side entered Dumac, wearing a heavy gilded robe and a wide smile which didn’t match it in solemnity. Nerevar greeted him with a warm embrace and Voryn couldn’t refrain from an awkward albeit cordial clasp of hands. The Dwemer king snapped his fingers and Leftunch soundlessly vanished from sight but not before he touched two Dwarven spheres – two unseeing, unhearing, unquestioning guards.
“Nerevar, to tell you the truth, I thought you’d come alone,” said Dumac when Leftunch was out of earshot.
Voryn twisted his lips and there would have been another heated argument if Nerevar didn’t step on his foot under the table.
“Dumac, he came of his own will. And I never knew you to be a rude host.”
“Ah, zatlag kngth. Almalexia didn’t change her mind, I take it. And that’s why you’re here.”
“The trading outpost outside of Ald’ruhn is finished I hear. So, I want to give her a peace offering. She wanted to find the lair of the cultists, and I’ll make sure we find it.”
“I was under the impression that we’d be discussing our common interests in Molag Amur, but I see you’re wholly taken up with this new enterprise.”
“Not at all, Dumac,” objected Nerevar, spreading a map on the table. “I never abandoned my dream to conquer this land from the inhospitable shores of Solstheim to the borders of Shadowfen – and not only its people! No, I want to subjugate the land itself, with its barren wastelands and impassable swamps. There’s nothing more important to me than that dream.” He came to his senses and added with less animation, “I marked a few spots on this map where we can build a village and a plantation. The first settlement where Chimer and Dwemer people will live side by side… I’d never give up on that dream. Show them to Kagrenac or one of his Architects. The soil is rocky and infertile, but if your irrigation marvel is half as good as your engineers describe it, we’ll succeed.”
“I wasn’t aware, my lord, that you had such aspirations,” Voryn muttered with uncharacteristic humbleness.
“I believe I can speak my mind freely, since I’m among friends.”
“Of course, of course, I didn’t mean to imply anything to the contrary.”
Nerevar glanced at Dumac, but his face showed no expression. “The Council is in a stalemate. To tell you the truth, it’s nothing but ennui. I fear that even if we find the cultists’ lair, I will have a hard time convincing them to muster up their loyal mer at arms for an attack. I think there’s no avoiding it. I will have to get rid of the perpetual thorn in my side, Galmis.”
“I never understood this about you, Nerevar,” said Voryn. “Why can’t you hire an assassin? There’s Morag Tong or if you prefer, I can find you a few trusted and capable swords for hire. Or you can kidnap one of his daughters… He has many daughters he dreams to marry off to the nobles of other Great Houses. He came to me once, offering his daughter’s hand to Araynys with only ten thousand gold pieces as a dowry. What effrontery!”
“It’s a neat solution for an upstart from a Great House, Voryn of House Dagoth,” said Dumac coldly. “But it’s a terrible alternative for a king who must have the utmost confidence of his subjects. A king who is feared but not respected or a king who is deemed weak invites treason, discord, and rebellion into his realm.”
“Dumac is right. In these trying times, I can’t lose their confidence. It’ll be disastrous. What I need is subtlety and a bit of luck. If Galmis dies suddenly and it’s deemed a tragic fortuity, and if someone finds on his body an incriminating letter which implicates him in some sordid scheme, in the confusion few will think to accuse me.”
“It’s too risky. You’ll need to forge evidence,” Voryn objected dryly.
“It will be a shame to waste this opportunity.” In spite of Voryn’s gloomy warning, Nerevar felt a tiny spark of excitement. “Before chil’a I briefly met with Dinara. I favored her to win and it appears I wasn’t wrong about her strength of mind. On that day, I saw Galmis in Dinara’s private rooms and we exchanged a few unflattering remarks. I didn’t think it odd before, but what if -”
“What of it? He may be a false friend, but he’d never side with anyone who openly serves the House of Troubles.”
“He’s slippery as a slaughterfish with many a great ambition. And if he didn’t conspire with Dinara, we’ll make it appear that he did. I’m sure that a letter written with his hand, folded, and sealed with his seal would convince the most hardened of skeptics.”
“And I’m sure that your scheme is dangerous. A traditional vial of poison would do the trick.” Voryn’s dark, expressive eyes showed sincere apprehension.
“I don’t understand my role in this scheme. My Tonal Architects can craft many wondrous items, but we don’t forge letters. And I don’t consider it appropriate to openly interfere in Chimeri political strife.”
Nerevar shook his head. “No, Dumac, I ask something else of you. These long journeys helped me more than months of confinement in the palace. I think a change of scenery is wholesome to my mind… A name surfaced in my memory. There’s a shrine dedicated to Molag Bal in the vicinity of the Red Mountain. It’s an enormous site of worship with dozens of priests lifting up their prayers to appease the King of Brutality. I want to begin looking for the Daedric cult there.”
“Bal Ur,” echoed Dumac. “But you don’t know for certain. Using the expression I picked up from your people, I can’t send my mer on a wild guar chase. Besides, this incursion is largely a Chimer affair. I’ll gladly lend you a dozen mortars from Nchuleftingth and a smith or two when you’re ready to attack, but please understand that I won’t get the Dwemeri Council’s approval for a more extensive involvement.”
“It is disappointing to hear, I won’t lie.”
“If my lord wishes it, we’ll burn Bal Ur to ash without his help,” proudly remarked Voryn.
“I’ve already agreed to send help! By fifteen-and-one tones, Nerevar, why does your Councilor think it necessary to contradict my every word?”
Nerevar stepped on Voryn’s foot yet again. “I’m sure his intentions were noble, and he regrets his rash words deeply.”
“I apologize for my unintended rudeness,” Voryn said with the same strange humbleness which verged on mockery, but Dumac seemed to notice nothing and Nerevar was thankful to all Daedric Princes for it.
“Well, I have some news, too. I asked Kagrenac about the nix hounds.”
“Nix hounds? Ah, I nearly forgot.” Voryn smiled incredulously and him, and Nerevar thought fit to explain about the sudden sickness of Ashkhan Tamal’s daughter.
“Actually, there is more to it than we thought at the time. Kagrenac dismissed it as nonsense at first, but later he told me that the question bothered him for days and he gave in to curiosity. He doesn’t know how the nix hounds came to mainland. He supposes they had sneaked onto a merchant boat. But he is certain that fear drove them to seek refuge in Grazelands and on the Bitter Coast, far away from Molag Amur.” Dumac drummed his fingers on the tabletop, gathering his thoughts. “The Red Mountain is unstable and unpredictable, that’s the truth. It’s asleep one day and on the next day it sputters fire like a temperamental wife. Kagrenac thinks these animals sense the tremors and leave the Ashlands in fear of an eruption.”
“Will it erupt?”
“It’s inevitable, Lord High Councilor, but it can happen tomorrow or hundreds of years after you and I are dead.”
They sat in silence for a while, brooding over burdensome matters; Dumac perused the map of Molag Amur, Voryn idly studied the ceiling, and Nerevar counted the immovable Dwemer spheres in the niches between the empty shelves.
“I propose we discuss the issues at present,” Dumac said at last. “We can’t worry about an eruption which may not even occur in our lifetime, so let’s forget about it for now. What will you do now? I’ll confer with Kagrenac and his engineers and I’ll give you an answer about the settlement a fortnight today.”
“I’ll have to speak with my queen and Council, but I expect to find the lair by the end of spring if weather permits us and if Boethiah wills it. I’ll need those mortars, Dumac.”
“I’ll see what I can spare. Lord Protector of Nchuleftingth owes me a debt after her faulty steam centurions wreaked havoc in one of my mining colonies.” Dumac bowed his head and rose to conclude their conversation. “But here comes Leftunch’s apprentice with refreshments. Take some food and Dwemeri wine before the long road.”
Voryn’s journey from Galom Daeus to Kogoruhn was uneventful but tedious without Nerevar to keep him company and entertain him with his dry wit. Their parting was inevitable, but no sooner had the Hortator’s retinue disappeared amidst the stony hills than Voryn was overcome with ennui. As they said their farewells, Nerevar suddenly asked him:
“Why did you accompany me to Galom Daeus?”
Voryn couldn’t find the right words to say. “I didn’t change my mind,” he mumbled. “I don’t consider Dumac worthy of my trust, but when I asked you to treat my brothers with respect and talked on and on about love and loyalty, you understood. And I… I couldn’t show you the same courtesy. I suppose it’s a poor explanation.”
And then Nerevar asked him, selfishly, to accompany him to Mournhold, and though Voryn had to refuse, he had not anticipated that it would cause him such inner turmoil.
Voryn took the long way back to Kogoruhn to clear his head. By the time he reached his clanstead, forging a letter from Galmis seemed to him a mere nothing.
When Voryn was back in the familiar comfort of his room, he sat down at the table and wrote a vague, meaningless letter to Galmis, offering to buy three hundred guar from him for a miserably low price. If Galmis wrote him a short response and impressed his personal seal on it, Voryn would bring it to a trustworthy forger who’d make a fabrication indistinguishable from the real letter. And if Nerevar came to his senses and decided that poisoning Galmis was more attractive than a complicated scheme with forging letters and fabricated conspiracies, he had just the rare poison in mind that would do the trick. It required a rare ingredient, wolfsbane petals, from a flower native to Solstheim.
After Voryn gave the message to a guar rider, he visited Vemyn who was notable for his piety and spent many hours at the Temple, contemplating the nature of the Daedra Lords or rewriting old books with his notations on the margins. He recalled that Vemyn wanted to travel to Solstheim to buy furs which he would later trade to the Ashlanders for tanned guar hides.
“Vemyn, may I ask a favor of you?” he asked, entering a dark room where Vemyn pored over the dusty tomes. It was a small Temple library with a few shelves set against the walls and a single table by the window through which in such late hour shone pale sunlight, casting an eerie reddish glow across the polished surface. On the table lay a manuscript surrounded by paunchy bottles with many-colored inks and separated them a pile of brushes of different sizes and thickness. Vemyn sat at the table, as usual, with a vacant look upon his face and twiddled a tiny brush about his fingers.
“Voryn, it’s good to see you. What’s on your mind?”
“I see you still prefer illusion spells to magelights or candles,” Voryn said fondly.
“You fall into a habit when you work at night… But I’m glad you came by. We couldn’t comprehend the Hortator’s sudden interest in our affairs, his odd behavior, but I think I finally arrived at a satisfactory conclusion.”
“Vemyn, I appreciate your concern -”
“I know you have a high opinion of him, but I thought it necessary to warn you. He wants to cheat us. Why else would he be so amiable with us? We’re barely acquainted, but he asked me if I wanted to join him for a guar ride in Mournhold. I think he had set his sights on our ebony and glass mines.”
Voryn who was ready to acquiesce and admit his attraction to Nerevar if only to avoid torturous arguments stared at Vemyn in perplexity.
“You don’t believe me?” his brother went on. “Your expression tells me that such thought never occurred to you. You were in the Council chambers when we discussed new fortifications and Daedric cults. He needs money for his martial pursuits, and his army needs swords, shields, armor. We can give him what he wants, so he comes to us, armed with flattery and pleasantries.”
Voryn couldn’t contain his laughter, wishing that Nerevar could hear Vemyn’s speech. “We’re the king’s allies, and we swore an oath to him to defend our Land. It would be unwise to refuse him, don’t you think? But enough of it. Can you find an herb for me while you are in Solstheim? Wolsfbane petals, to be precise.”
His brother sank into the chair and dropped his head onto his chest. “You don’t suggest there are werewolves in Vvardenfell,” he said amicably. It wasn’t in Vemyn’s nature to insist upon a conversation which his interlocutors weren’t eager to hold.
“No, I need it for my alchemical studies. It’s rare and I doubt I can buy it from alchemists on mainland. Or they’ll charge me a fortune… You’ve been to Solstheim on many occasions. I heard the plant’s quite common there.”
“I’ve seen it once or twice. It’s sold in small bags.”
“Bring me two bags of wolfsbane petals and a bag of vampire dust. My supply of it is low and in some potions it’s irreplaceable.”
“Do you remember we had the time of our life, robbing old Daedric shrines together?” A mischievous smile played upon Vemyn’s lips. “It was before you became the Grandmaster, before the rise of the Hortator. We’d go on an expedition together and come back with amazing loot.”
“How can I forget? Odros hardly knew any magic, but he insisted on accompanying us because he was afraid he’d never measure up to us. And he’d come home with singed hair or deep gashes across his chest, and mother worried a lot… We didn’t know some of those chests and items were cursed and didn’t take precautions. Fortune favors the young and the bold.”
Vemyn dipped the brush into the ink bottle and painstakingly traced out a fanciful letter on the parchment with long curlicues at the end of it so that it resembled some twisted living thing crawling towards the edge of the sheet.
The door creaked and Araynys came in, gingerly carrying a magelight upon his palm. He wrapped himself in two warm cloaks, but his teeth chattered from cold and he looked miserable.
“Brother Voryn,” he said, sniffling (his name sounded awfully like ‘Boryn’). “I’m making a potion to cure my sickness, but I don’t remember which ingredients I should use.”
“Willow anther and chokeweed or daedra skin… Don’t fuss over it, I’ll show you again.”
Voryn put his arm on his brother’s shoulder and walked with him towards the door.
On his way to Mournhold, Nerevar stopped at Nerano Sarethi’s manor which stood lonesome and proud outside of Ald’ruhn between the grass hills which abruptly descended into the swales of the Bitter Coast. When the Hortator was known simply as Nerevar the Captain, these used to be the disputed lands, and the village of Noormoc was the only settlement between Ald’ruhn and Hlormaren, but the world changed and House Redoran laid claim to the wetlands, and its lords built their mansions and watchtowers where once there was nothing but swamps and fields of wild coda flowers.
Boethiah was on Nerevar’s side: the owner was at home and eagerly invited him inside together with his retinue of guar riders and House Guards.
Nerano Sarethi was a stately, sinewy warrior with a noble bearing and a scarred face. He conquered the hearts of many Mournhold citizens with his impressive victories in the Arena – he never spared a fallen foe or tasted defeat, embodying the Redoran ideal of a pious warrior who valued his duty, honored his ancestors, fought courageously, and reflected upon the hardships of life with due earnestness. He was immensely popular with the people, and without his tacit consent, House Redoran would not commit its forces to any martial endeavor.
Nerano wore dusty netch leather armor when his servant let them inside the manor which outside looked like a miniature shell of an Emperor Crab, and he apologized for ‘looking quite grisly’, though his apology rang hollow. It was rumored that he trained with the sword day and night and barely slept. Such was his dedication to Boethiah.
While the rest of his retinue ate and rested, Nerano took Nerevar and Alandro Sul to the smithy. All Redoran smithies amazed even the most faultfinding fancier of weapons both traditional and exotic – here were laid out fine daggers from ebony and steel, here glimmered enchanted blades of glass and Daedric broadswords, and here fine hammers and maces with sturdy handles from finest wood gladdened the eye. Behind weapon stands, the visitor would find rows of dummies which were used as frames for hoisting up various pieces of light and heavy armor – breastplates, pauldrons, helmets, chainmails, and cuirasses from glass, ebony and Daedric metals. Some were plain and others were painted in bright colors, decorated with plumes and intricate heraldry, and inlaid with silver and gold tracery. Followers of Veloth didn’t know how to make heavy armor; they adopted Dwemer practices and secrets in late Merethic era, long after the first Velothi towers fell into decay and their magic couldn’t protect them.
“Would you be so kind to this old warrior as to choose a sword?” Nerano said, gesturing towards the rack with fine swords and daggers. “It would please me immensely to gift it to you, as I consider few so capable of appreciating the art of a good sword. Here are ebony swords made by my personal smith, Guradai. He is a Redguard, proud and stubborn, and his designs reflect his character. His swords are scarce in adornments, with firm grips, wide fullers which run almost the length of the whole blade, and acute points, but I assure you that you won’t find a more faithful companion in battle.
“If you prefer something fancier, I’d choose glass. Ornate cross-guards, elegant, long blades which narrow sharply to an acute point, light but sturdy.” Nerano picked out a sword from the rack and gave it a gentle swing. “A bit less balanced than Guradai’s masterpieces, but sometimes you have to make sacrifices to appease a capricious spectator… Would you perhaps care for a match, my lord?”
“I appreciate your offer, serjo, but I didn’t come here for personal amusement.”
“I never suggested it.” There was a roguish smile on Nerano’s lips, but his eyes were cold, unfathomable. “It would be a great honor to cross swords with someone of your renown.”
“Perhaps another time.”
“Another time it is, my lord. How may I be of service today? Is it about that coded message?”
“What coded message? Serjo Sarethi, I’m afraid I am as clueless as they come sometimes.”
“I warned you about Favela’s death. I’ve always been your staunch ally.”
The smithy was empty and eerily quiet without its usual inhabitants – on Nerano’s orders, the smith and his apprentices left, and the forge was cold and unlit, but the room still smelled of tanned leathers, coal smoke, and dreugh wax.
“So, it was you. I have to thank you for the timely news… Tell me, why is it that in spite of your popularity, you’re not a part of the First Council? I can use more allies there.”
“Politics never attracted me,” answered Nerano with a somber expression on his scarred face. “Unlike my greedier kin who plot and play games, I always wanted to use my influence to do more straightforward good. Forgive my apparent innocence, but all this scheming doesn’t attract me in the slightest. If my Land is besieged by evils, I will draw my sword to protect it. If my people need food or shelter, I will share my bread with them and welcome them under my roof.”
“And you didn’t intend to scheme when you sent me coded messages in secret?”
“Amuse yourself at my naiveté if you must, my lord, but my intentions are pure. I have voiced my objections in the Redoran Council many times, but some of my stubborn kinsmen refuse to listen to me. Our interpretations of ‘duty’ in the most sacred sense differ, and it saddens me… When I sent you that message in secret, I was worried about your reputation, not mine.”
“I’ve lost count how many times I’ve heard these words. Everyone is terribly worried about my reputation these days,” Nerevar grumbled under his breath.
“I’ve gained some notoriety over the last few decades. My illustrious leader, duke Vilvan Melen, purchased a writ for my executions three times,” Nerano began contemptuously.
“Why didn’t I know about this? You could have sought protection with the Council. My authority -“
“I appreciate your concern, my lord. But I must politely decline. We may be dust in the eyes of Boethiah, but the god of luck favors me and not the Morag Tong assassins I’ve slain. Once the assassins have found me in my bed, asleep, helpless, but something awoke me moments before they snuck into my bedroom. I saw a figure in the shadows, of a caped warrior – not a transparent ghost, but a woman of flesh and blood, with scaly arms and eyes of a snake. When she entered, the flame in the hour-candles turned bright-blue.” The expression of contempt on the warrior’s scarred face gave way to ecstatic reverence. “Every time I fight in the Arena, I shed blood in Boethiah’s name. And Boethiah saved my life, intending to use me as an instrument. Perhaps that day has come.”
“Perhaps that day is upon us,” Nerevar agreed eagerly. “Our Land is in desperate need of your skills. There is a lair of great evil to the east and south of here. Molag Bal is Boethiah’s arch-rival, and it’ll be a good chance to prove yourself worthy in her eyes.”
“What do you mean?”
“I suspect that Bal Ur became the lair of the same Daedric cult that attacked Mournhold on chil’a. I assume you’ve heard about it by now… I need someone like you, a man of honor and unshakable devotion to our Land, to investigate the shrine and confirm my suspicions. It’s a dangerous task, but you live close to the shrine and your scouts are capable warriors.”
“To fulfill Boethiah’s will, I’ll gladly serve you, my lord. Please, give me an hour to consult with my advisers and pray. In the meantime, make yourself at home. And take one of master Guradai’s ebony swords as a gift. I am sure it will be of some use to you one day.”
Nerevar gave the sword to Alandro Sul who accepted it with genuine joy, and in an hour, he met Nerano in his prayer-rooms. There was a heavy odor of incense in the air, and a single blue candle was lit by the prayer mat in front of the tri-angled ochre shrine to Boethiah, the Deceiver of Nations. Nerano sat on the prayer mat in a meditative pose, with his palms on his knees and his back upright, and there was an expression of serene certainty on his face.
“As Boethiah wills it and my lord commands it,” he said, “I will aid my people in the destruction of Molag Bal’s evil in any way I can. My scouts will ride to Bal Ur at dawn.”
** zatlag kngth – approx. “blighted kwama forager” (Dwemeri expression of frustration)