Almalexia lay in her bed of fur, dreaming. Not until the sun burned through her window, infusing the light wood and flesh colors of her chamber in a milky glow did she open her eyes. It was quiet and serene, a stunning reverse of the flavor of her dreams, so full of blood and celebration. For a few moments, she simply stared at the ceiling, trying to sort through her visions.
In the courtyard of her palace was a boiling pool which steamed in the coolness of the winter morning. At the wave of her hand, it cleared and she saw the face and form of her lover Vivec in his study to the north. She did not want to speak right away: he looked so handsome in his dark red robes, writing his poetry as he did every morning.
“Vivec,” she said, and he raised his head in a smile, looking at her face across thousands of miles. “I have seen a vision of the end of the war.”
“After eighty years, I don't think anyone can imagine an end,” said Vivec with a smile, but he grew serious, trusting Almalexia's prophecies. “Who will win? Morrowind or the Cyrodilic Empire?”
“Without Sotha Sil in Morrowind, we will lose,” she replied.
“My intelligence tells me the Empire will strike us to the north in early springtide, by First Seed at the latest. Could you go to Artaeum and convince him to return?”
“I'll leave today,” she said, simply.
The Empress paced around her cell. Wintertide gave her wasteful energy, while in the summer she would merely sit by her window and be grateful for each breath of stale swamp wind that came to cool her. Across the room, her unfinished tapestry of a dance at the Imperial Court seemed to mock her. She ripped it from its frame, tearing the pieces apart as they drifted to the floor.
Then she laughed at her own useless gesture of defiance. She would have plenty of time to repair it and craft a hundred more. The Emperor had locked her up in Castle Giovesse seven years ago, and would likely keep her here until he or she died.
With a sigh, she pulled the cord to call her knight, Zuuk. He appeared at the door within minutes, fully uniformed as befitted an Imperial Guard. Most of the native Kothringi tribesmen of Black Marsh preferred to go about naked, but Zuuk had taken a positive delight to fashion. His silver, reflective skin was scarcely visible, only on his face, neck, and hands.
“Your Imperial Highness,” he said with a bow.
“Zuuk,” said Empress Tavia. “I'm bored.discuss methods of assassinating my husband today.”
The chimes proclaiming South Wind's Prayer echoed through the wide boulevards and gardens of the Imperial City, calling all to their temples. The Emperor Reman III always attended a service at the Temple of the One, while his son and heir Prince Juilek found it more political to attend a service at a different temple for each religious holiday. This year, it was at the cathedral Benevolence of Mara.
The Benevolence's services were mercifully short, but it was not until well after noon that the Emperor was able to return to the palace. By then, the arena combatants were impatiently waiting for the start of the ceremony. The crowd was far less restless, as the Potentate Versidue-Shaie had arranged for a demonstration from a troupe of Khajiiti acrobats.
“Your religion is so much more convenient than mine,” said the Emperor to his Potentate by way of an apology. “What is the first game?”
“A one-on-one battle between two able warriors,” said the Potentate, his scaly skin catching the sun as he rose. “Armed befitting their culture.”
“Sounds good,” said the Emperor and clapped his hands. “Let the sport commence!”
As soon as he saw the two warriors enter the arena to the roar of the crowd, Emperor Reman III remembered that he had agreed to this several months before and forgotten about it. One combatant was the Potentate's son, Savirien-Chorak, a glistening ivory-yellow eel, gripping his katana and wakizashi with his thin, deceptively weak looking arms. The other was the Emperor's son, Prince Juilek, in ebony armor with a savage Orcish helm, shield and longsword at his side.
“This will be fascinating to watch,” hissed the Potentate, a wide grin across his narrow face. “I don't know if I've even seen a Cyrodiil fight an Akavir like this. Usually it's army against army. At last we can settle which philosophy is better -- to create armor to combat swords as your people do, or to create swords to combat armor as mine do.”
No one in the crowd, aside from a few scattered Akaviri counselors and the Potentate himself wanted Savirien-Chorak to win, but there was a collective intake of breath at the sight of his graceful movements. His swords seemed to be a part of him, a tail coming from his arms to match the one behind him. It was a trick of counterbalance, allowing the young serpent man to roll up into a circle and spin into the center of the ring in offensive position. The Prince had to plod forward the less impressive traditional way.
As they sprang at each other, the crowd bellowed with delight. The Akaviri was like a moon in orbit around the Prince, effortlessly springing over his shoulder to attempt a blow from behind, but the Prince whirled around quickly to block with his shield. His counter-strike met only air as his foe fell flat to the ground and slithered between his legs, tripping him. The Prince fell to the ground with a resounding crash.
Metal and air melted together as Savirien-Chorak rained strike after strike upon the Prince, who blocked every one with his shield.
“We don't have shields in our culture,” murmured Versidue-Shaie to the Emperor. “It seems strange to my boy, I imagine. In our country, if you don't want to get hit, you move out of the way.”
When Savirien-Chorak was rearing back to begin another series of blinding attacks, the Prince kicked at his tail, sending him falling back momentarily. In an instant, he had rebounded, but the Prince was also back on his feet. The two circled one another, until the snake man spun forward, katana extended. The Prince saw his foe's plan, and blocked the katana with his longsword and the wakizashi with his shield. Its short punching blade impaled itself in the metal, and Savirien-Chorak was thrown off balance.
The Prince's longblade slashed across the Akavir's chest and the sudden, intense pain caused him to drop both his weapons.a moment, it was over. Savirien-Chorak was in the dust with the Prince's longsword at his throat.
“The game's over!” shouted the Emperor, barely heard over the applause from the stadium.
The Prince grinned and helped Savirien-Chorak up and over to a healer. The Emperor clapped his Potentate on the back, feeling relieved. He had not realized when the fight had begun how little chance he had given his son at victory.
“He will make a fine warrior,” said Versidue-Shaie. “And a great emperor.”
“Just remember,” laughed the Emperor. “You Akaviri have a lot of showy moves, but if just one of our strikes comes through, it's all over for you.”
“Oh, I'll remember that,” nodded the Potentate.
Reman thought about that comment for the rest of the games, and had trouble fully enjoying himself. Could the Potentate be another enemy, just as the Empress had turned out to be? The matter would bear watching.
“Why don't you wear that green gown I gave you?” asked the Duke of Mournhold, watching the young maiden put on her clothes.
“It doesn't fit,” smiled Turala. “And you know I like red.”
“It doesn't fit because you're getting fat,” laughed the Duke, pulling her down on the bed, kissing her breasts and the pouch of her stomach. She laughed at the tickles, but pulled herself up, wrapping her red robe around her.
“I'm round like a woman should be,” said Turala. “Will I see you tomorrow?”
“No,” said the Duke. “I must entertain Vivec tomorrow, and the next day the Duke of Ebonheart is coming. Do you know, I never really appreciated Almalexia and her political skills until she left?”
“It is the same with me,” smiled Turala. “You will only appreciate me when I'm gone.”
“That's not true at all,” snorted the Duke. “I appreciate you now.”
Turala allowed the Duke one last kiss before she was out the door. She kept thinking about what he said. Would he appreciate her more or less when he knew that she was getting fat because she was carrying his child? Would he appreciate her enough to marry her?
The Year Continues in Sun's Dawn
Sotha Sil watched the initiates float one by one up to the oassom tree, taking a fruit or a flower from its high branches before dropping back to the ground with varying degrees of grace. He took a moment while nodding his head in approval to admire the day. The whitewashed statue of Syrabane, which the great mage was said to have posed for in ancient days, stood at the precipice of the cliff overlooking the bay. Pale purple proscato flowers waves to and fro in the gentle breeze. Beyond, ocean, and the misty border between Artaeum and the main island of Summurset.
“By and large, acceptable,” he proclaimed as the last student dropped her fruit in his hand. With a wave of his hand, the fruit and flowers were back in the tree. With another wave, the students had formed into position in a semicircle around the sorcerer. He pulled a small fibrous ball, about a foot in diameter from his white robes.
“What is this?”
The students understood this test. It asked them to cast a spell of identification on the mysterious object. Each initiate closed his or her eyes and imagined the ball in the realm of the universal Truth. Its energy had a unique resonance as all physical and spiritual matter does, a negative aspect, a duplicate version, relative paths, true meaning, a song in the cosmos, a texture in the fabric of space, a facet of being that has always existed and always will exist.
“A ball,” said a young Nord named Welleg, which brought giggles from some of the younger initiates, but a frown from most, including Sotha Sil.
“If you must be stupid, at least be amusing,” growled the sorcerer, and then looked at a young, dark-haired Altmer lass who looked confused. “Lilatha, do you know?”
“It's grom,” said Lilatha, uncertainly. “What the dreugh meff after they've k-k-kr-krevinasim.”
“Karvinasim, but very good, nonetheless,” said Sotha Sil. “Now, tell me, what does that mean?”
“I don't know,” admitted Lilatha. The rest of the students also shook their heads.
“There are layers to understanding all things,” said Sotha Sil. “The common man looks at an object and fits it into a place in his way of thinking. Those skilled in the Old Ways, in the way of the Psijic, in Mysticism, can see an object and identify it by its proper role. But one more layer is needed to be peeled back to achieve understanding. You must identify the object by its role and its truth and interpret that meaning. In this case, this ball is indeed grom, which is a substance created by the dreugh, an underwater race in the north and western parts of the continent. For one year of their life, they undergo karvinasim when they walk upon the land. Following that, they return to the water and meff, or devour the skin and organs they needed for land-dwelling. Then they vomit it up into little balls like this. Grom. Dreugh vomit.”
The students looked at the ball a little queasily. Sotha Sil always loved this lesson.
“Spies,” muttered the Emperor, sitting in his bath, staring at a lump on his foot. “All around me, traitors and spies.”
His mistress Rijja washed his back, her legs wrapped around his waist. She knew after all these many years when to be sensual and when to be sexual. When he was in a mood like this, it was best to be calmly, soothingly, seductively sensual. And not to say a word unless he asked her a direct question.
Which he did: “What do you think when a fellow steps on his Imperial Majesty's foot and says 'I'm sorry, Your Imperial Majesty'? Don't you think 'Pardon me, Your Imperial Majesty' is more appropriate? 'I'm sorry,' well that almost sounds like the bastard Argonian was sorry I am his Imperial Majesty. That he hopes we lose the war with Morrowind, that's what it sounds like.”
“What would make you feel better?” asked Rijja. “Would you like him flogged? He is only, as you say, the Battlechief of Soulrest. It would teach him to mind where he's stepping.”
“My father would have flogged him. My grandfather would have had him killed,” the Emperor grumbled. “But I don't mind if they all step on my feet, provided they respect me. And don't plot against me.”
“You must trust someone.”
“Only you,” smiled the Emperor, turning slightly to give Rijja a kiss. “And my son Juilek, I suppose, though I wish he were a little more cautious.”
“And your council, and the Potentate?” asked Rijja.
“A pack of spies and a snake,” laughed the Emperor, kissing his mistress again. As they began to make love, he whispered, “As long as you're true, I can handle the world.”
Turala stood at the black, bejeweled city gates. A wind howled around her, but she felt nothing.
The Duke had been furious upon hearing his favorite mistress was pregnant and cast her from his sight. She tried again and again to see him, but his guards turned her away. Finally, she returned to her family and told them the truth. If only she had lied and told them she did not know who the father was. A soldier, a wandering adventurer, anyone. But she told them that the father was the Duke, a member of the House Indoril. And they did what she knew they would have to do, as proud members of the House Redoran.
Upon her hand was burned the sign of Expulsion her weeping father had branded on her. But the Duke's cruelty hurt her far more. She looked out the gate and into the wide winter plains. Twisted, sleeping trees and skies without birds. No one in Morrowind would take her in now. She must go far away.
With slow, sad steps, she began her journey.
“What troubles you?” asked Queen Hasaama, noticing her husband's sour mood. At the end of most Lovers' Days he was in an excellent mood, dancing in the ballroom with all the guests, but tonight he retired early. When she found him, he was curled in the bed, frowning.
“That blasted bard's tale about Polydor and Eloisa put me in a rotten state,” he growled. “Why did he have to be so depressing?”
“But isn't that the truth of the tale, my dear? Weren't they doomed because of the cruel nature of the world?”
“It doesn't matter what the truth is, he did a rotten job of telling a rotten tale, and I'm not going to let him do it anymore,” King Dro'Zel sprang from the bed. His eyes were rheumy with tears. “Where did they say he was from again?”
Dro'Zel was out of the room in a single spring, bounding up the stairs to his tower. If Queen Hasaama knew what her husband was going to do, she did not try to stop him. He had been erratic of late, prone to fits and even occasional seizures. But she never suspected the depths of his madness, and his loathing for the bard and his tale of the wickedness and perversity found in mortal man.
“Listen to me again,” said the old carpenter. “If cell three holds worthless brass, then cell two holds the gold key. If cell one holds the gold key, then cell three hold worthless brass. If cell two holds worthless brass, then cell one holds the gold key.”
“I understand,” said the lady. “You told me. And so cell one holds the gold key, right?”
“No,” said the carpenter. “Let me start from the top.”
“Mama?” said the little boy, pulling on his mother's sleeve.
“Just one moment, dear, mother's talking,” she said, concentrating on the riddle. “You said 'cell three holds the golden key if cell two holds worthless brass,' right?”
“No,” said the carpenter patiently. “Cell three holds worthless brass, if cell two --”
“Mama!” cried the boy. His mother finally looked.
Almalexia stopped her steed in the vast moor of mud to let him drink from the river. He refused to, even seemed repelled by the water. It struck her as odd: they had been making excellent time from Mournhold, and surely he must be thirsty. She dismounted and joined her retinue.
“Where are we now?” she asked.
One of her ladies pulled out a map. “I thought we were approaching a town called Gilverdale.”
Almalexia closed her eyes and opened them again quickly. The vision was too much to bear. As her followers watched, she picked up a piece of brick and a fragment of bone, and clutched them to her heart.
“We must continue on to Artaeum,” she said quietly.
The Year continues in First Seed.
From their vantage point high in the hills, the Emperor Reman III could still see the spires of the Imperial City, but he knew he was far away from hearth and home. Lord Glavius had a luxurious villa, but it was not close to being large enough to house the entire army within its walls. Tents lined the hillsides, and the soldiers were flocking to enjoy his lordship's famous hot springs. Little wonder: winter chill still hung in the air.
“Prince Juilek, your son, is not feeling well.”
“Poisoned, I'd wager,” grumbled Reman. “See to it he gets a healer. I told him to hire a taster like I have, but the boy's headstrong. There are spies all around us, I know it.”
“I believe you're right, your imperial majesty,” said Versidue-Shaie. “These are treacherous times, and we must take precautions to see that Morrowind does not win this war, either on the field or by more insidious means. That is why I would suggest that you not lead the vanguard into battle. I know you would want to, as your illustrious ancestors Reman I, Brazollus Dor, and Reman II did, but I fear it would be foolhardy. I hope you do not mind me speaking frankly like this.”
“No,” nodded Reman. “I think you're right. Who would lead the vanguard then?”
“I would say Prince Juilek, if he were feeling better,” replied the Akavir. “Failing that, Storig of Farrun, with Queen Naghea of Riverhold at left flank, and Warchief Ulaqth of Lilmoth at right flank.”
The Potentate took no offense. He knew that “beastfolk” referred to the natives of Tamriel, not to the Tsaesci of Akavir like himself. “I quite agree your imperial majesty, but you must agree that they hate the Dunmer. Ulaqth has a particular grudge after all the slave-raids on his lands by the Duke of Mournhold.”
The Emperor conceded it was so, and the Potentate retired. It was surprising, thought Reman, but for the first time, the Potentate seemed trustworthy. He was a good man to have on one's side.
- 18 First Seed, 2920
- Ald Erfoud, Morrowind
“Two days' march,” replied his lieutenant. “If we march all night tonight, we can get higher ground at the Pryai tomorrow morning. Our intelligence tells us the Emperor will be commanding the rear, Storig of Farrun has the vanguard, Naghea of Riverhold at left flank, and Ulaqth of Lilmoth at right flank.”
“Ulaqth,” whispered Vivec, an idea forming. “Is this intelligence reliable? Who brought it to us?”
“A Breton spy in the Imperial Army,” said the lieutenant and gestured towards a young, sandy-haired man who stepped forward and bowed to Vivec.
“What is your name and why is a Breton working for us against the Cyrodiils?” asked Vivec, smiling.
“My name is Cassyr Whitley of Dwynnen,” said the man. “And I am working for you because not everyone can say he spied for a god. And I understood it would be, well, profitable.”
Vivec laughed, “It will be, if your information is accurate.”
- 19 First Seed, 2920
- Bodrums, Morrowind
The quiet hamlet of Bodrum looked down on the meandering river, the Pryai. It was an idyllic site, lightly wooded where the water took the bend around a steep bluff to the east with a gorgeous wildflower meadow to the west. The strange flora of Morrowind met the strange flora of Cyrodiil on the border and commingled gloriously.
“There will be time to sleep when you've finished!”
The soldiers had been hearing that all morning. It was not enough that they had been marching all night, now they were chopping down trees on the bluff and damming the river so its waters spilled over. Most of them had reached the point where they were too tired to complain about being tired.
“Let me be certain I understand, my lord,” said Vivec's lieutenant. “We take the bluff so we can fire arrows and spells down on them from above. That's why we need all the trees cleared out. Damming the river floods the plain below so they'll be trudging through mud, which should hamper their movement.”
“That's exactly half of it,” said Vivec approvingly. He grabbed a nearby soldier who was hauling off the trees. “Wait, I need you to break off the straightest, strongest branches of the trees and whittle them into spears. If you recruit a hundred or so others, it won't take you more than a few hours to make all we need.”
The soldier wearily did as he was bade. The men and women got to work, fashioning spears from the trees.
“If you don't mind me asking,” said the lieutenant. “The soldiers don't need any more weapons. They're too tired to hold the ones they've got.”
“These spears aren't for holding,” said Vivec and whispered, “If we tired them out today, they'll get a good night's sleep tonight” before he got to work supervising their work.
It was essential that they be sharp, of course, but equally important that they be well balanced and tapered proportionally. The perfect point for stability was a pyramid, not the conical point of some lances and spears. He had the men hurl the spears they had completed to test their strength, sharpness, and balance, forcing them to begin on a new one if they broke. Gradually, out of sheer exhaustion from doing it wrong, the men learned how to create the perfect wooden spears. Once they were through, he showed them how they were to be arranged and where.
That night, there was no drunken pre-battle carousing, and no nervous neophytes stayed up worrying about the battle to come. As soon as the sun sank beneath the wooded hills, the camp was at rest, but for the sentries.
- 20 First Seed, 2920
- Bodrum, Morrowind
Miramor was exhausted. For last six days, he had gambled and whored all night and then marched all day. He was looking forward to the battle, but even more than that, he was looking forward to some rest afterwards. He was in the Emperor's command at the rear flank, which was good because it seemed unlikely that he would be killed. On the other hand, it meant traveling over the mud and waste the army ahead left in their wake.
As they began the trek through the wildflower field, Miramor and all the soldiers around him sank ankle-deep in cold mud. It was an effort to even keep moving. Far, far up ahead, he could see the vanguard of the army led by Lord Storig emerging from the meadow at the base of a bluff.
That was when it all happened.
An army of Dunmer appeared above the bluff like rising Daedra, pouring fire and floods of arrows down on the vanguard. Simultaneously, a company of men bearing the flag of the Duke of Mournhold galloped around the shore, disappearing along the shallow river's edge where it dipped to a timbered glen to the east. Warchief Ulaqth nearby on the right flank let out a bellow of revenge at the sight and gave chase. Queen Naghea sent her flank towards the embankment to the west to intercept the army on the bluff.
The Emperor could think of nothing to do. His troops were too bogged down to move forward quickly and join the battle. He ordered them to face east towards the timber, in case Mournhold's company was trying to circle around through the woods. They never came out, but many men, facing west, missed the battle entirely. Miramor kept his eyes on the bluff.
A tall Dunmer he supposed must have been Vivec gave a signal, and the battlemages cast their spells at something to the west. From what transpired, Miramor deduced it was a dam. A great torrent of water spilled out, washing Naghea's left flank into the remains of the vanguard and the two together down river to the east.
The Emperor paused, as if waiting for his vanquished army to return, and then called a retreat. Miramor hid in the rushes until they had passed by and then waded as quietly as he could to the bluff.
The Morrowind army was retiring as well back to their camp. He could hear them celebrating above him as he padded along the shore. To the east, he saw the Imperial Army. They had been washed into a net of spears strung across the river, Naghea's left flank on Storig's vanguard on Ulaqth's right flank, bodies of hundreds of soldiers strung together like beads.
Miramor took whatever valuables he could carry from the corpses and then ran down the river. He had to go many miles before the water was clear again, unpolluted by blood.
"You have a letter from the Imperial City,” said the chief priestess, handing the parchment to Corda. All the young priestesses smiled and made faces of astonishment, but the truth was that Corda's sister Rijja wrote very often, at least once a month.
Corda took the letter to the garden to read it, her favorite place, an oasis in the monochromatic sand-colored world of the conservatorium The letter itself was nothing unusual: filled with court gossip, the latest fashions which were tending to winedark velvets, and reports of the Emperor's ever-growing paranoia.
“You are so lucky to be away from all of this,” wrote Rijja. “The Emperor is convinced that his latest battlefield fiasco is all a result of spies in the palace. He has even taken to questioning me. Ruptga keep it so you never have a life as interesting as mine.”
Corda listened to the sounds of the desert and prayed to Ruptga the exact opposite wish.
The Year is Continued in Rain's Hand.
Sotha Sil proceeded as quickly as he could through the blackened halls of the palace, half-submerged in brackish water. All around him, nasty gelatinous creatures scurried into the reeds, bursts of white fire lit up the upper arches of the hall before disappearing, and smells assaulted him, rancid death one moment, sweet flowered perfume the next. Several times he had visited the Daedra princes in their Oblivion, but every time, something different awaited him.
He knew his purpose, and refused to be distracted.
Eight of the more prominent Daedra princes were awaiting him in the half-melted, domed room. Azura, Prince of Dusk and Dawn; Boethiah, Prince of Plots; Herma-Mora, Daedra of Knowledge; Hircine, the Hunter; Malacath, God of Curses; Mehrunes Dagon, Prince of Disaster; Molag Bal, Prince of Rage; Sheogorath, the Mad One.
Above them, the sky cast tormented shadows upon the meeting.
Sotha Sil's voice cried out, echoing from the cave, “Move the rock!”
Immediately, the initiates obeyed, rolling aside the great boulder that blocked the entrance to the Dreaming Cavern. Sotha Sil emerged, his face smeared with ash, weary. He felt he had been away for months, years, but only a few days had transpired. Lilatha took his arm to help him walk, but he refused her help with a kind smile and a shake of his head.
“Were you ... successful?” she asked.
“The Daedra princes I spoke with have agreed to our terms,” he said flatly. “Disasters such as befell Gilverdale should be averted. Only through certain intermediaries such as witches or sorcerers will they answer the call of man and mer.”
“And what did you promise them in return?” asked the Nord boy Welleg.
A storm billeted the windows of the Prince's bedchamber, bringing a smell of moist air to mix with thefilled with burning incense and herbs.
“A letter has arrived from the Empress, your mother,” said the courier. “Anxiously inquiring after your health.”
“What frightened parents I have!” laughed Prince Juilek from his bed.
“It is only natural for a mother to worry,” said Savirien-Chorak, the Potentate's son.
“There is everything unnatural about my family, Akavir. My exiled mother fears that my father will imagine me of being a traitor, covetous of the crown, and is having me poisoned,” the Prince sank back into his pillow, annoyed. “The Emperor has insisted on me having a taster for all my meals as he does.”
“There are many plots,” agreed the Akavir. “You have been abed for nearly three weeks with every healer in the empire shuffling through like a slow ballroom dance. At least, all can see that you're getting stronger.”
“Strong enough to lead the vanguard against Morrowind soon, I hope,” said Juilek.
The initiates stood quietly in a row along the arbor loggia, watching the long, deep, marble-lined trench ahead of them flash with fire. The air above it vibrated with the waves of heat. Though each student kept his or her face sturdy and emotionless, as a true Psijic should, their terror was nearly as palpable as the heat. Sotha Sil closed his eyes and uttered the charm of fire resistance. Slowly, he walked across the basin of leaping flames, climbing to the other side, unscathed. Not even his white robe had been burned.
“The charm is intensified by the energy you bring to it, by your own skills, just as all spells are,” he said. “Your imagination and your willpower are the keys. There is no need for a spell to give you a resistance to air, or a resistance to flowers, and after you cast the charm, you must forget there is even a need for a spell to give you resistance to fire. Do not confuse what I am saying: resistance is not about ignoring the fire's reality. You will feel the substance of flame, the texture of it, its hunger, and even the heat of it, but you will know that it will not hurt or injure you.”
The students nodded and one by one, they cast the spell and made the walk through the fire. Some even went so far as to bend over and scoop up a handful of fire and feed it air, so it expanded like a bubble and melted through their fingers. Sotha Sil smiled. They were fighting their fear admirably.
The Chief Proctor Thargallith came running from the arbor arches, “Sotha Sil! Almalexia has arrived on Artaeum. Iachesis told me to fetch you.”
Sotha Sil turned to Thargallith for only a moment, but he knew instantly from the screams what had transpired. The Nord lad Wellig had not cast the spell properly and was burning. The smell of scorched hair and flesh panicked the other students who were struggling to get out of the basin, pulling him with them, but the incline was too steep away from the entry points. With a wave of his hand, Sotha Sil extinguished the flame.
Wellig and several other students were burned, but not badly. The sorcerer cast a healing spell on them, before turning back to Thargallith.
“I'll be with you in a moment, and give Almalexia the time to shake the road dust from her train,” Sotha Sil turned back to the students, his voice flat. “Fear does not break spells, but doubt and incompetence are the great enemies of any spellcaster. Master Welleg, you will pack your bags. I'll arrange for a boat to bring you to the mainland tomorrow morning.”
The sorcerer found Almalexia and Iachesis in the study, drinking hot tea, and laughing. She was more beautiful than he had remembered, though he had never before seen her so disheveled, wrapped in a blanket, dangling her damp long black tresses before the fire to dry. At Sotha Sil's approach, she leapt to her feet and embraced him.
“Did you swim all the way from Morrowind?” he smiled.
“It's pouring rain from Skywatch down to the coast,” she explained, returning his smile.
“Only a half a league away, and it never rains here,” said Iachesis proudly. “Of course, I sometimes miss the excitement of Summurset, and sometimes even the mainland itself. Still, I'm always very impressed by anyone out there who gets anything accomplished. It is a world of distractions. Speaking of distractions, what's all this I hear about a war?”
“You mean the one that's been bloodying the continent for the last eighty years, Master?” asked Sotha Sil, amused.
“I suppose that's the one I mean,” said Iachesis with a shrug of his shoulders. “How is that war going?”
“We will lose it, unless I can convince Sotha Sil to leave Artaeum,” said Almalexia, losing her smile. She had meant to wait and talk to her friend in private, but the old Altmer gave her courage to press on. “I have had visions; I know it to be true.”
Sotha Sil was silent for a moment, and then looked at Iachesis, “I must return to Morrowind.”
“Knowing you, if you must do something, you will,” sighed the old Master. “The Psijics' way is not to be distracted. Wars are fought, Empires rise and fall. You must go, and so must we.”
“What do you mean, Iachesis? You're leaving the island?”
“No, the island will be leaving the sea,” said Iachesis, his voice taking on a dreamy quality. “In a few years, the mists will move over Artaeum and we will be gone. We are counselors by nature, and there are too many counselors in Tamriel as it is. No, we will go, and return when the land needs us again, perhaps in another age.”
The old Altmer struggles to his feet, and drained the last sip of his drink before leaving Sotha Sil and Almalexia alone: “Don't miss the last boat.”
The Year Continues in Second Seed.
“Your Imperial Majesty,” said the Potentate Versidue-Shaie, opening the door to his chamber with a smile. “I have not seen you lately. I thought perhaps you were ... indisposed with the lovely Rijja.”
“She's taking the baths at Mir Corrup,” the Emperor Reman III said miserably.
“Please, come in.”
“I've reached the stage where I can only trust three people: you, my son the Prince, and Rijja,” said the Emperor petulantly. “My entire council is nothing but a pack of spies.”
“What seems to be the matter, your imperial majesty?” asked the Potentate Versidue-Shaie sympathetically, drawing closed the thick curtain in his chamber. Instantly all sound outside the room was extinguished, echoing footsteps in the marble halls and birds in the springtide gardens.
“I've discovered that a notorious poisoner, an Orma tribeswoman from Black Marsh called Catchica, was with the army at Caer Suvio while we were encamped there when my son was poisoned, before the battle at Bodrum. I'm sure she would have preferred to kill me, but the opportunity didn't present itself,” The Emperor fumed. “The Council suggests that we need evidence of her involvement before we prosecute.”
“Of course they would,” said the Potentate thoughtfully. “Particularly if one or more of them was in on the plot. I have a thought, your imperial majesty.”
“Yes?” said Reman impatiently. “Out with it!”
“Tell the Council you're dropping the matter, and I will send out the Guard to track this Catchica down and follow her. We will see who her friends are, and perhaps get an idea of the scope of this plot on your imperial majesty's life.”
“Yes,” said Reman with a satisfied frown. “That's a capital plan. We will track this scheme to whomever it leads to.”
“Decidedly, your imperial majesty,” smiled the Potentate, parting the curtain so the Emperor could leave. In the hallway outside was Versidue-Shaie's son, Savirien-Chorak. The boy bowed to the Emperor before entering the Potentate's chamber.
“Are you in trouble, father?” whispered the Akaviri lad. “I heard the Emperor found out about whatshername, the poisoner.”
“The great art of speechcraft, my boy,” said Versidue-Shaie to his son. “Is to tell them what they want to hear in a way that gets them to do what you want them to do. I need you to get a letter to Catchica, and make certain that she understands that if she does not follow the instructions perfectly, she is risking her own life more than ours.”
- 13 Second Seed, 2920
- Mir Corrup, Cyrodiil
Rijja sank luxuriantly into the burbling hot spring, feeling her skin tingle like it was being rubbed by millions of little stones. The rock shelf over her head sheltered her from the misting rain, but let all the sunshine in, streaming in layers through the branches of the trees. It was an idyllic moment in an idyllic life, and when she was finished she knew that her beauty would be entirely restored. The only thing she needed was a drink of water. The bath itself, while wonderfully fragrant, tasted always of chalk.
“Water!” she cried to her servants. “Water, please!”
A gaunt woman with rags tied over her eyes ran to her side and dropped a goatskin of water. Rijja was about to laugh at the woman's prudery -- she herself was not ashamed of her naked body -- but then she noticed through a crease in the rags that the old woman had no eyes at all. She was like one of those Orma tribesmen Rijja had heard about, but never met. Born without eyes, they were masters of their other senses. The Lord of Mir Corrup hired very exotic servants, she thought to herself.
In a moment, the woman was gone and forgotten. Rijja found it very hard to concentrate on anything but the sun and the water. She opened the cork, but the liquid within had a strange, metallic smell to it. Suddenly, she was aware that she was not alone.
“Lady Rijja,” said the captain of the Imperial Guard. “You are, I see, acquainted with Catchica?”
“I've never heard of her,” stammered Rijja before becoming indignant. “What are you doing here? This body is not for your leering eyes.”
“Never heard of her, when we saw her with you not a minute ago,” said the captain, picking up the goatskin and smelling it. “Brought you neivous ichor, did she? To poison the Emperor with?”
“Captain,” said one of the guards, running up to him quickly. “We cannot find the Argonian. It is as if she disappeared into the woods.”
“Yes, they're good at that,” said the captain. “No matter though. We've got her contact at court. That should please his Imperial Majesty. Seize her.”
As the guards pulled the writhing naked woman from the pool, she screamed, “I'm innocent! I don't know what this is all about, but I've done nothing! The Emperor will have your heads for this!”
“Yes, I imagine he will,” smiled the captain. “If he trusts you.”
The Sow and Vulture tavern was the sort of out-of-the-way place that Zuuk favored for these sorts of interviews. Besides himself and his companion, there were only a couple of old seadogs in the shadowy room, and they were more unconscious from drink than aware. The grime of the unwashed floor was something you felt rather than saw. Copious dust hung in the air unmoving in the sparse rays of dying sunlight.
“You have experience in heavy combat?” asked Zuuk. “The reward is good for this assignment, but the risks are great as well.”
“Certainly I have combat experience,” replied Miramor haughtily. “I was at the Battle of Bodrum just two months ago. If you do your part and get the Emperor to ride through Dozsa Pass with a minimal escort on the day and the time we've discussed, I'll do my part. Just be certain that he's not traveling in disguise. I'm not going to slaughter every caravan that passes through in the hopes that it contains Emperor Reman.”
Zuuk smiled, and Miramor looked at himself in the Kothringi's reflective face. He liked the way he looked: the consummate confident professional.
“Agreed,” said Zuuk. “And then you shall have the rest of your gold.”
Zuuk placed the large chest onto the table between them. He stood up.
“Wait a few minutes before leaving,” said Zuuk. “I don't want you following me. Your employers wish to maintain their anonymity, if by chance you are caught and tortured.”
“Fine by me,” said Miramor, ordering more grog.
Zuuk rode his mount through the cramped labyrinthine streets of Gideon, and both he and his horse were happy to pass through the gates into the country. The main road to Castle Giovese was flooded as it was every year in springtide, but Zuuk knew a shorter way over the hills. Riding fast under trees drooping with moss and treacherous slime-coated rocks, he arrived at the castle gates in two hours' time. He wasted no time in climbing to Tavia's cell at the top of the highest tower.
“What did you think of him?” asked the Empress.
“He's a fool,” replied Zuuk. “But that's what we want for this sort of assignment.”
- 30 Second Seed, 2920
- Thurzo Fortress, Cyrodiil
Rijja screamed and screamed and screamed. Within her cell, her only audience was the giant gray stones, crusted with moss but still sturdy. The guards outside were deaf to her as they were deaf to all prisoners. The Emperor, miles away in the Imperial City, had likewise been deaf to her cries of innocence.
She screamed knowing well that no one would likely hear her ever again.
- 31 Second Seed, 2920
- Kavas Rim Pass, Cyrodiil
It had been days, weeks since Turala had seen another human face, Cyrodiil or Dunmer. As she trod the road, she thought to herself how strange it was that such an uninhabited place as Cyrodiil had become the Imperial Province, seat of an Empire. Even the Bosmer in Valenwood must have more populated forests than this Heartland wood.
She thought back. Was it a month ago, two, when she crossed the border from Morrowind into Cyrodiil? It had been much colder then, but other than that, she had no sense of time. The guards had been brusque, but as she was carrying no weaponry, they elected to let her through. Since then, she had seen a few caravans, even shared a meal with some adventurers camping for the night, but met no one who would give her a ride to a town.
Turala stripped off her shawl and dragged it behind her. For a moment, she thought she heard someone behind her and spun around. No one was there. Just a bird perched on a branch making a sound like laughter.
She walked on, and then stopped. Something was happening. The child had been kicking in her belly for some time now, but this was a different kind of spasm. With a groan, she lurched over to the side of the path, collapsing into the grass. Her child was coming.
She lay on her back and pushed, but she could barely see with her tears of pain and frustration. How had it come to this? Giving birth in the wilderness, all by herself, to a child whose father was the Duke of Mournhold? Her scream of rage and agony shook the birds from the trees.
The bird that had been laughing at her earlier flew down to the road. She blinked, and the bird was gone and in its place, a naked Elf man stood, not as dark as a Dunmer, but not as pale as the Altmer. She knew at once it was an Ayleid, a Wild Elf. Turala screamed, but the man held her down. After a few minutes of struggle, she felt a release, and then fainted away.
When she awoke, it was to the sound of a baby crying. The child had been cleaned and was lying by her side. Turala picked up her baby girl, and for the first time that year, felt tears of happiness stream down her face.
She whispered to the trees, “Thank you” and began walking with babe in her arms down the road to the west.
The Year Is Continued in Mid Year.
“The Imperial army is gathered to the south,” said Cassyr. “They are a two weeks march from Ald Iuval and Lake Coronati, heavily armored.”
Vivec nodded. Ald Iuval and its sister city on the other side of the lake Ald Malak were strategically important fortresses. He had been expecting a move against them for some time. His captain pulled down a map of southwestern Morrowind from the wall and smoothed it out, fighting a gentle summer sea breeze wafting in from the open window.
“They were heavily armored, you say?” asked the captain.
“How about spellcasters and boats?” asked Vivec.
“A horde of battlemages,” replied Cassyr. “But no boats.”
“As heavily armored as they are, it will take them at least two weeks, like you said, to get from Bethal Gray to Lake Coronati,” Vivec studied the map carefully. “They'd be dragged down in the bogs if they then tried to circle around to Ald Marak from the north, so they must be planning to cross the straits here and take Ald Iuval. Then they'd proceed around the lake to the east and take Ald Marak from the south.”
“They'll be vulnerable along the straits,” said the captain. “Provided we strike when they are more than halfway across and can't retreat back to the Heartland.”
“Your intelligence has once again served us well,” said Vivec, smiling to Cassyr. “We will beat back the Imperial aggressors yet again.”
- 3 Mid Year, 2920
- Bethal Gray, Cyrodiil
“Will you be returning back this way after your victory?” asked Lord Bethal.
Prince Juilek barely paid the man any attention. He was focused on the army packing its camp. It was a cool morning in the forest, but there were no clouds. All the makings of a hot afternoon march, particularly in such heavy armor.
“If we return shortly, it will be because of defeat,” said the Prince. He could see down in the meadow, the Potentate Versidue-Shaie paying his lordship's steward for the use of the village's food, wine, and whores. An army was an expensive thing, for certes.
“My Prince,” said Lord Bethal with concern. “Is your army beginning a march due east? That will just lead you to the shores of Lake Coronati. You'll want to go south-east to get to the straits.”
“You just make certain your merchants get their share of our gold,” said the Prince with a grin. “Let me worry about my army's direction.”
- 16 Mid Year, 2920
- Lake Coronati, Morrowind
Vivec stared across the blue expanse of the lake, seeing his reflection and the reflection of his army in the cool blue waters. What he did not see was the Imperial Army's reflection. They must have reached the straits by now, barring any mishaps in the forest. Tall feather-thin lake trees blocked much of his view of the straits, but an army, particularly onein slow-moving heavy armor could not move invisibly, silently.
“Let me see the map again,” he called to his captain. “Is there no other way they could approach?”
“We have sentries posted in the swamps to the north in case they're fool enough to go there and be bogged under,” said the captain. “We would at least hear about it. But there is no other way across the lake except through the straits.”
Vivec looked down again at his reflection, which seemed to be distorting his image, mocking him. Then he looked back on the map.
“Spy,” said Vivec, calling Cassyr over. “When you said the army had a horde of battlemages, what made you so certain they were battlemages?”
“They were wearing gray robes with mystical insignia on them,” explained Cassyr. “I figured they were mages, and why else would such a vast number travel with the army? They couldn't have all been healers.”
“You fool!” roared Vivec. “They're mystics schooled in the art of Alteration. They've cast a spell of water breathing on the entire army.”
Vivec ran to a new vantage point where he could see the north. Across the lake, though it was but a small shadow on the horizon, they could see gouts of flame from the assault on Ald Marak. Vivec bellowed with fury and his captain got to work at once redirecting the army to circle the lake and defend the castle.
“Return to Dwynnen,” said Vivec flatly to Cassyr before he rode off to join the battle. “Your services are no longer needed nor wanted.”
It was already too late when the Morrowind army neared Ald Marak. It had been taken by the Imperial Army.
The Potentate arrived in the Imperial City amid great fanfare, the streets lined with men and women cheering him as the symbol of the taking of Ald Marak. Truth be told, a greater number would have turned out had the Prince returned, and the Versidue-Shaie knew it. Still, it pleased him to no end. Never before had citizens of Tamriel cheered the arrival of an Akaviri into their land.
The Emperor Reman III greeted him with a warm embrace, and then tore into the letter he had brought from the Prince.
“I don't understand,” he said at last, still joyous but equally confused. “You went under the lake?”
“Ald Marak is a very well-fortified fortress,” explained the Potentate. “As, I might add, the army of Morrowind has rediscovered, now that they are on the outside. To take it, we had to attack by surprise and with our soldiery in the sturdiest of armor. By casting the spell that allowed us to breathe underwater, we were able to travel faster than Vivec would have guessed, the weight of the armor made less by the aquatic surroundings, and attack from the waterbound west side of the fortress where their defenses were at their weakest.”
“Brilliant!” the Emperor crowed. “You are a wonderous tactician, Versidue-Shaie! If your fathers had been as good at this as you are, Tamriel would be Akaviri domain!”
The Potentate had not planned to take credit for Prince Juilek's design, but on the Emperor's reference to his people's fiasco of an invasion two hundred and sixteen years ago, he made up his mind. He smiled modestly and soaked up the praise.
- 21 Mid Year, 2920
- Ald Marak, Morrowind
Savirien-Chorak slithered to the wall and watched through the arrow slit the Morrowind army retreating back to the forestland between the swamps and the castle grounds. It seemed like the idea opportunity to strike. Perhaps the forests could be burned and the army within them. Perhaps with Vivec in their enemies' hands, the army would allow them possession of Ald Iuval as well. He suggested these ideas to the Prince.
“What you seem to be forgetting,” laughed Prince Juilek. “Is that I gave my word that no harm to the army or to their commanders during the truce negotiations. Do you not have honor during warfare on Akavir?”
“My Prince, I was born here in Tamriel, I have never been to my people's home,” replied the snake man. “But even so, your ways are strange to me. You expected no quarter and I gave you none when we fought in the Imperial Arena five months ago.”
“That was a game,” replied the Prince, before nodding to his steward to let the Dunmer battle chief in.
Juilek had never seen Vivec before, but he had heard he was a living god. What came before him was but a man. A powerfully built man, handsome, with an intelligent face, but a man nonetheless. The Prince was pleased: a man he could speak with, but not a god.
“Greetings, my worthy adversary,” said Vivec. “We seem to be at an impasse.”
“Not necessarily,” said the Prince. “You don't want to give us Morrowind, and I can't fault you for that. But I must have your coastline to protect the Empire from overseas aggressions, and certain key strategic border castles, such as this one, as well as Ald Umbeil, Tel Aruhn, Ald Lambasi, and Tel Mothrivra.”
“And in return?” asked Vivec.
“In return?” laughed Savirien-Chorak. “You forget we are the victors here, not you.”
“In return,” said Prince Juilek carefully. “There will be no Imperial attacks on Morrowind, unless in return to an attack by you. You will be protected from invaders by the Imperial navy. And your land may expand by taking certain estates in Black Marsh, whichever you choose, provided they are not needed by the Empire.”
“A reasonable offer,” said Vivec after a pause. “You must forgive me, I am unused to Cyrodiils who offer something in return for what they take. May I have a few days to decide?”
“We will meet again in a week's time,” said the Prince, smiling. “In the meantime, if your army provokes no attacks on mine, we are at peace.”
Vivec left the Prince's chamber, feeling that Almalexia was right. The war was at an end. This Prince would make an excellent Emperor.
The Year is Continued in Sun's Height.
The Emperor Reman III and his Potentate Versidue-Shaie took a stroll around the Imperial Gardens. Studded with statuary and fountains, the north gardens fit the Emperor's mood, as well as being the coolest acreage in the City during the heat of summertide. Austere, tiered flowerbeds of blue-gray and green towered all around them as they walked.
“Vivec has agreed to the Prince's terms for peace,” said Reman. “My son will be returning in two weeks' time.”
“This is excellent news,” said the Potentate carefully. “I hope the Dunmer will honor the terms. We might have asked for more. The fortress at Black Gate, for example. But I suppose the Prince knows what is reasonable. He would not cripple the Empire just for peace.”
“I have been thinking lately of Rijja and what caused her to plot against my life,” said the Emperor, pausing to admire a statue of the Slave Queen Alessia before continuing. “The only thing I can think of to account for it is that she admired my son too much. She may have loved me for my power and my personality, but he, after all, is young and handsome and will one day inherit my throne. She must have thought that if I were dead, she could have an Emperor who had both youth and power.”
“The Prince ... was in on this plot?” asked Versidue-Shaie. It was a difficult game to play, anticipating where the Emperor's paranoia would strike next.
“Oh, I don't think so,” said Reman, smiling. “No, my son loves me well.”
“Morwha?” asked the Emperor. “I've forgotten: which god is that?”
“I am through with lusty women. The Empress, Rijja, all too lusty, a lust for love leads to a lust for power,” the Emperor shrugged his shoulders. “But a priestess-in-training with a certain healthy appetite sounds ideal. Now what were you saying about the Black Gate?”
- 6 Sun's Height, 2920
- Thurzo Fortress, Cyrodiil
Rijja stood quietly looking at the cold stone floor while the Emperor spoke. He had never before seen her so pale and joyless. She might at least be pleased that she was being freed, being returned to her homeland. Why, if she left now, she could be in Hammerfell by the Merchant's Festival. Nothing he said seemed to register any reaction from her. A month and a half's stay in Thurzo Fortress seemed to have killed her spirit.
“I was thinking,” said the Emperor at last. “Of having your younger sister Corda up to the palace for a time. I think she would prefer it over the conservatorium in Hegathe, don't you?”
Reaction, at last. Rijja looked at the Emperor with animal hatred, flinging herself at him in a rage. Her fingernails had grown long since her imprisonment and she raked them across his face, into his eyes. He howled with pain, and his guards pulled her off, pummeling her with blows from the back of their swords, until she was knocked unconscious.
A healer was called at once, but the Emperor Reman III had lost his right eye.
Vivec pulled himself from the water, feeling the heat of the day washed from his skin, taking a towel from one of his servants. Sotha Sil watched his old friend from the balcony.
“It looks like you've picked up a few more scars since I last saw you,” said the sorcerer.
“Azura grant it that I have no more for a while,” laughed Vivec. “When did you arrive?”
“A little over an hour ago,” said Sotha Sil, walking down the stairs to the water's edge. “I thought I was coming to end a war, but it seems you've done it without me.”
“Yes, eighty years is long enough for ceaseless battle,” replied Vivec, embracing Sotha Sil. “We made concessions, but so did they. When the old Emperor is dead, we may be entering a golden age. Prince Juilek is very wise for his age. Where is Almalexia?”
“Collecting the Duke of Mournhold. They should be here tomorrow afternoon.”
The men were distracted at a sight from around the corner of the palace - a rider was approaching through the town, heading for the front steps. It was evident that the woman had been riding hard for some time. They met her in the study, where she burst in, breathing hard.
“We have been betrayed,” she gasped. “The Imperial Army has seized the Black Gate.”
It was the first time in seventeen years that the three members of the Morrowind Tribunal had met in the same place, since Sotha Sil had left for Artaeum. All three wished that the circumstances of their reunion were different.
“From what we've learned, while the Prince was returning to Cyrodiil to the south, a second Imperial Army came down from the north,” said to his stony-faced compatriots. “It is reasonable to assume Juilek didn't know about the attack.”
“But neither would it be unreasonable to suppose that he planned on being a distraction while the Emperor launched the attack on Black Gate,” said Sotha Sil. “This must be considered a break of the truce.”
“Where is the Duke of Mournhold?” asked Vivec. “I would hear his thoughts on the matter.”
“He would involve the Morag Tong? In outside affairs?” Vivec shook his head, and looked to Sotha Sil: “Please, do what you can. Assassination will only move us backwards. This matter must be settled with diplomacy or battle.”
The Night Mother met Sotha Sil in her salon, lit only by the moon. She was cruelly beautiful dressed in a simple silk black robe, lounging across her divan. With a gesture, she dismissed her red-cloaked guards and offered the sorcerer some wine.
“You've only just missed your friend, the Duke,” she whispered. “He was very unhappy, but I think we will solve his problem for him.”
“Did he hire the Morag Tong to assassinate the Emperor?” asked Sotha Sil.
“You are straight-forward, aren't you? That's good. I love plain-speaking men: it saves so much time. Of course, I cannot discuss with you what the Duke and I talked about,” she smiled. “It would be bad for business.”
“What if I were to offer you an equal amount of gold for you not to assassinate the Emperor?”
“The Morag Tong murders for the glory of Mephala and for profit,” she said, speaking into her glass of wine. “We do not merely kill. That would be sacrilege. Once the Duke's gold has arrived in three days time, we will do our end of the business. And I'm afraid we would not dream of entertaining a counter offer. Though we are a business as well as a religious order, we do not bow to supply and demand, Sotha Sil.”
Sotha Sil had been watching the waters for two days now, waiting for a particular vessel, and now he saw it. A heavy ship with the flag of Mournhold. The sorcerer took the air and intercepted it before it reached harbor. A caul of flame erupted over his figure, disguising his voice and form into that of a Daedra.
“Abandon your ship!” he bellowed. “If you would not sink with it!”
In truth, Sotha Sil could have exploded the vessel with but a single ball of fire, but he chose to take his time, to give the crew a chance to dive off into the warm water. When he was certain there was no one living aboard, he focused his energy into a destructive wave that shook the air and water as it discharged. The ship and the Duke's payment to the Morag Tong sunk to the bottom of the Inner Sea.
“Night Mother,” thought Sotha Sil, as he floated towards shore to alert the harbormaster that some sailors were in need of rescue. “Everyone bows to supply and demand.”
The Year is Continued in Last Seed.
They were gathered in the Duke's courtyard at twilight, enjoying the smell and warmth of a fire of dry branches and bittergreen leaves. Tiny embers flew into the sky, hanging for a few moments before vanishing.
“I was rash,” agreed the Duke, soberly. “But Lorkhan had his laugh, and all is well. The Morag Tong will not assassinate the Emperor now that my payment to them is at the bottom of the Inner Sea. I thought you had made some sort of a truce with the Daedra princes.”
“What your sailors called a daedra may not have been one,” said Sotha Sil. “Perhaps it was a rogue battlemage or even a lightning bolt that destroyed your ship.”
“The Prince and the Emperor are en route to take possession of Ald Lambasi as our truce agreed. It is certainly typical of the Cyrodiil to assume that their concessions are negotiable, while ours are not,” Vivec pulled out a map. “We can meet them here, in this village to the north-west of Ald Lambasi, Fervinthil.”
“But will we meet them to talk,” ask Almalexia. “Or to make war?”
No one had an answer to that.
- 15 Last Seed, 2920
- Fervinthil, Morrowind
A late summer squall blew through the small village, darkening the sky except for flashes of lightning which leapt from cloud to cloud like acrobats. Water rushed down the narrow streets ankle-deep, and the Prince had to shout to be heard by his captains but a few feet away from him.
“There's an inn up ahead! We'll wait there for the storm to pass before pressing on to Ald Lambasi!”
The inn was warm and dry, and bustling with business. Barmaids were rushing back and forth, bringing greef and wine to a back room, evidently excited about a famous visitor. Someone who was attracting more attention than the mere heir to the Empire of Tamriel. Amused, Juilek watched them run until he overheard the name of “Vivec.”
“My Lord Vivec,” he said, bursting into the back room. “You must believe me, I knew nothing about the attack on Black Gate until after it happened. We will, of course, be returning it to your care forthwith. I wrote you a letter to that effect at your palace in Balmora, but obviously you're not there,” he paused, taking in the many new faces in the room. “I'm sorry, let me introduce myself. I'm Juilek Cyrodiil.”
“My name is Almalexia,” said the most beautiful woman the Prince had ever seen. “Won't you join us?”
“Sotha Sil,” said a serious-looking Dunmer in a white cloak, shaking the Prince's hand and showing him to a seat.
“Indoril Brindisi Dorom, Duke-Prince of Mournhold,” said the massively-built man next to him as he sat down.
“I recognize that the events of the last month suggest, at best, that the Imperial Army is not under my control,” said the Prince after ordering some wine. “This is true. The army is my father's.”
“I understood that the Emperor was going to be coming to Ald Lambasi as well,” said Almalexia.
“Officially, he is,” said the Prince cautiously. “Unofficially, he's still back in the Imperial City. He's met with an unfortunate accident.”
Vivec glanced at the Duke quickly before looking at the Prince
- “An accident?”
“He's fine,” said the Prince quickly. “He'll live, but it looks like he'll lose an eye. It was an altercation that has nothing to do with the war. The only good news is that while he recovers, I have the use of his seal. Any agreement we make here and now will be binding to the Empire, both in my father's reign and in mine.”
“Then let's start agreeing,” smiled Almalexia.
- 16 Last Seed, 2920
- Wroth Naga, Cyrodiil
The tiny hamlet of Wroth Naga greeted Cassyr with its colorful houses perched on a promontory overlooking the stretch of the Wrothgarian mountain plain and High Rock beyond. Had he been in a better mood, the sight would have been breathtaking. As it was, he could only think that in practical terms, a small village like this would have meager provisions for himself and his horse.
He rode down into the main square, where an inn called the Eagle's Cry stood. Directing the stable boy to house and feed his horse, Cassyr walked into the inn and was surprised by its ambience. A minstrel he had heard play once in Gilverdale was performing a jaunty old tune to the clapping of the mountain men. Such forced merriment was not what Cassyr wanted at that moment. A glum Dunmer woman was seated at the only table far from the noise, so he took his drink there and sat down without invitation. It was only when he did so that he noticed that she was holding a newborn baby.
“I've just come from Morrowind,” he said rather awkwardly, lowering his voice. “I've been fighting for Vivec and the Duke of Mournhold against the Imperial army. A traitor to my people, I guess you'd call me.”
“I am also a traitor to my people,” said the woman, holding up her hand which was scarred with a branded symbol. “It means that I can never go back to my homeland.”
“Well, you're not thinking of staying here, are you?” laughed Cassyr. “It's certainly quaint, but come wintertide, there's going to be snow up to your eyelashes. It's no place for a new baby. What is her name?”
“Bosriel. It means 'Beauty of the Forest.' Where are you going?”
“Dwynnen, on the bay in High Rock. You're welcome to join me, I could use the company.” He held out his hand. “Cassyr Whitley.”
“Turala,” said the woman after a pause. She was going to use her family's name first, as is tradition, but she realized that it was no longer her name. “I would love to accompany you, thank you.”
- 19 Last Seed, 2920
- Ald Lambasi, Morrowind
Five men and two women stood in the silence of the Great Room of the castle, the only sound the scrawl of quill on parchment and the gentle tapping of rain on the large picture window. As the Prince set the seal of Cyrodiil on the document, the peace was made official. The Duke of Mournhold broke out in a roar of delight, ordering wine brought in to commemorate the end of eighty years of war.
Only Sotha Sil stood apart from the group. His face betrayed no emotion. Those who knew him best knew he did not believe in endings or beginnings, but in the continuous cycle of which this was but a small part.
“My Prince,” said the castle steward, unhappy at breaking the celebration. “There is a messenger here from your mother, the Empress. He asked to see your father, but as he did not arrive --”
Juilek excused himself and went to speak with the messenger.
“The Empress does not live in the Imperial City?” asked Vivec.
“No,” said Almalexia, shaking her head sadly. “Her husband has imprisoned her in Black Marsh, fearing that she was plotting a revolution against him. She is extremely wealthy and has powerful allies in the western Colovian estates so he could not marry another or have her executed. They've been at an impasse for the last seventeen years since Juilek was a child.”
The Prince returned a few minutes later. His face betrayed his anxiety, though he took troubles to hide it.
“My mother needs me,” he said simply. “I'm afraid I must leave at once. If I may have a copy of the treaty, I will bring it with me to show the Empress the good we have done today, and then I will carry it on to the Imperial City so it may be made official.”
Prince Juilek left with the fond farewells of the Three of Morrowind. As they watched him ride out into the rainswept night south towards Black Marsh, Vivec said, “Tamriel will be much healed when he has the throne.”
- 31 Last Seed, 2920
- Dorsza Pass, Black Marsh
The moon was rising over the desolate quarry, steaming with swamp gas from a particularly hot summer as the Prince and his two guard escort rode out of the forest. The massive piles of earth and dung had been piled high in antiquity by some primitive, long-dead tribe of Black Marsh, hoping to keep out some evil from the north. Evidently, the evil had broken through at Dorsza Pass, the large crack in the sad, lonely rampart that stretched for miles.
The black twisted trees that grew on the barrier cast strange shadows down, like a net tangling. The Prince's mind was on his mother's cryptic letter, hinting at the threat of an invasion. He could not, of course, tell the Dunmer about it, at the very least until he knew more and had notified his father. After all, the letter was meant for him. It was its urgent tone that made him decide to go directly to Gideon.
The Empress had also warned him about a band of former slaves who attacked caravans going into Dorsza Pass. She advised him to be certain to make his Imperial shield visible, so they would know he was not one of the hated Dunmer slavers. Upon riding into the tall weeds that flooded through the pass like a noxious river, the Prince ordered that his shield be displayed.
“I can see why the slaves use this,” said the Prince's captain. “It's an excellent location for an ambush.”
Juilek nodded his head, but his thoughts were elsewhere. What threat of invasion could the Empress have discovered? Were the Akaviri on the seas again? If so, how could his mother from her cell in Castle Giovese know of it? A rustle in the weeds and a single sharp human cry behind him interrupted his ponderings.
Turning around, the Prince discovered that he was alone. His escort had vanished.
The Prince peered over the stretch of the moonlit sea of grass which waved in almost hypnotic patterns to the ebb and flow of the night wind billowing through the pass. It was impossible to tell if a struggling soldier was beneath this system of vibrations, a dying horse behind another. A high, whistling wind drowned out any sound the victims of the ambush might be making.
Juilek drew his sword, and thought about what to do, his mind willing his heart not to panic. He was closer to the exit of the pass than the entrance. Whatever had slain his escort must have been behind him. If he rode fast enough, perhaps he could outrun it. Spurring his horse to gallop, he charged for the hills ahead, framed by the mighty black piles of dirt.
When he was thrown, it happened so suddenly, he was hurdling forward before he was truly conscious of the fact. He landed several yards beyond where his horse had fallen, breaking his shoulder and his back on impact. A numbness washed over him as he stared at his poor, dying steed, its belly sliced open by one of several spears jutting up just below the surface of the grass.
Prince Juilek was not able to turn and face the figure that emerged from the grass, nor able to move to defend himself. His throat was cut without ceremony.
Miramor cursed when he saw the face of his victim more clearly in the moonlight. He had seen the Emperor at the Battle of Bodrum when he had fought in His Imperial Majesty's command, and this was clearly not the Emperor. Searching the body, he found the letter and a treaty signed by Vivec, Almalexia, Sotha Sil, and the Duke of Mournhold representing Morrowind and the Prince Juilek Cyrodiil, representing the Cyrodiil Empire.
“Curse my luck,” muttered Miramor to himself and the whispering grass. “I've only killed a Prince. Where's the reward in that?”
Miramor destroyed the letter, as Zuuk had instructed him to do, and pocketed the treaty. At the very least, such a curiosity would have some market value. He disassembled the traps as he pondered his next step. Return to Gideon and ask his employer for a lesser reward for killing the heir? Move on to other lands? At the very least, he considered, he had picked up two useful skills from the Battle of Bodrum. From the Dunmer, he had learned the excellent spear trap. And abandoning the Imperial army, he had learned how to skulk in the grass.
The Year is Continued in Hearth Fire.
The Empress Tavia lay across her bed, a hot late summer wind she could not feel banging the shutters of her cell to and fro against the iron bars. Her throat felt like it was on fire but still she sobbed, uncontrollably, wringing her last tapestry in her hands. Her wailing echoed throughout the hollow halls of Castle Giovese, stopping maids in their washing and guards in their conversation. One of her women came up the narrow stairs to see her mistress, but her chief guard Zuuk stood at the doorway and shook his head.
“She's just heard that her son is dead,” he said quietly.
“Your Imperial Majesty,” said the Potentate Versidue-Shaie through the door. “You can open the door. I assure you, you're perfectly safe. No one wants to kill you.”
“You're certainly correct, your Imperial Majesty,” replied the Potentate, expunging any mocking qualities from his voice while his black-slitted eyes rolled contemptuously. “And we must find and punish the evildoer responsible for your son's death. But we cannot do it without you. You must be brave for your Empire.”
There was no reply.
“At the very least, come out and sign the order for Lady Rijja's execution,” called the Potentate. “Let us dispose of the one traitor and assassin we know of.”
A brief pause, and then the sound of furniture scraping across the floor. Reman opened the door just a crack, but the Potentate could see his angry, fearful face, and the terrible mound of ripped tissue that used to be his right eye. Despite the best healers in the Empire, it was still a ghastly souvenir of the Lady Rijja's work in Thurzo Fortress.
“Hand me the order,” the Emperor snarled. “I'll sign it with pleasure.”
- 6 Hearth Fire, 2920
The strange blue glow of the will o' the wisps, a combination, so she'd be told, of swamp gas and spiritual energy, had always frightened Tavia as she looked out her window. Now it seemed strangely comforting. Beyond the bog lay the city of Gideon. It was funny, she thought, that she had never stepped foot in its streets, though she had watched it every day for seventeen years.
“Can you think of anything I've forgotten?” she asked, turning to look back on the loyal Kothringi Zuuk.
“I know exactly what to do,” he said simply. He seemed to smile, but the Empress realized that it was only her own face reflected in his silvery skin. She was smiling, and she didn't even realize it.
“Make certain you aren't followed,” she warned. “I don't want my husband to know where my gold's been hiding all these years. And do take your share of it. You've been a good friend.”
The Empress Tavia stepped forward and dropped from sight into the mists. Zuuk replaced the bars on the tower window, and threw a blanket over some pillows on her bed. With any luck, they would not discover her body on the lawn until morning, at which time he hoped to be halfway to Morrowind.
The strange trees on all sides resembled knobby piles crowned with great bursts of reds, yellows, and oranges, like insect mounds caught fire. The Wrothgarian mountains were fading into the misty afternoon. Turala marveled at the sight, so alien, so different from Morrowind, as she plodded the horse forward into an open pasture. Behind her, head nodding against his chest, Cassyr slept, cradling Bosriel. For a moment, Turala considered jumping the low painted fence that crossed the field, but she thought better of it. Let Cassyr sleep for a few more hours before giving him the reins.
As the horse passed into the field, Turala saw the small green house on the next hill, half-hidden in forest. So picturesque was the image, she felt herself lull into a pleasant half-sleeping state. A blast of a horn brought her back to reality with a shudder. Cassyr opened his eyes.
“Where are we?” he hissed.
“I don't know,” Turala stammered, wide-eyed. “What is that sound?”
“Orcs,” he whispered. “A hunting party. Head for the thicket quickly.”
Turala trotted the horse into the small collection of trees. Cassyr handed her the child and dismounted. He began pulling their bags off next, throwing them into the bushes. A sound started then, a distant rumbling of footfall, growing louder and closer. Turala climbed off carefully and helped Cassyr unburden the horse. All the while, Bosriel watched open-eyed. Turala sometimes worried that her baby never cried. Now she was grateful for it. With the last of the luggage off, Cassyr slapped the horse's rear, sending it galloping into the field. Taking Turala's hand, he hunkered down in the bushes.
“With luck,” he murmured. “They'll think she's wild or belongs to the farm and won't go looking for the rider.”
As he spoke, a horde of orcs surged into the field, blasting their horns. Turala had seen orcs before, but never in such abundance, never with such bestial confidence. Roaring with delight at the horse and its confused state, they hastened past the timber where Cassyr, Turala, and Bosriel hid. The wildflowers flew into the air at their stampede, powdering the air with seeds. Turala tried to hold back a sneeze, and thought she succeeded. One of the orcs heard something though, and brought another with him to investigate.
Cassyr quietly unsheathed his sword, mustering all the confidence he could. His skills, such as they were, were in spying, not combat, but he vowed to protect Turala and her babe for as long as he could. Perhaps he would slay these two, he reasoned, but not before they cried out and brought the rest of the horde.
Suddenly, something invisible swept through the bushes like a wind. The orcs flew backwards, falling dead on their backs. Turala turned and saw a wrinkled crone with bright red hair emerge from a nearby bush.
“I thought you were going to bring 'em right to me,” she whispered, smiling. “Best come with me.”
The three followed the old woman through a deep crevasse of bramble bushes that ran through the field toward the house on the hill. As they emerged on the other side, the woman turned to look at the orcs feasting on the remains of the horse, a blood-soaked orgy to the beat of multiple horns.
“That horse yours?” she asked. When Cassyr nodded, she laughed loudly. “That's rich meat, that is. Those monsters'll have bellyaches and flatulence in the morning. Serves 'em right.”
“Shouldn't we keep moving?” whispered Turala, unnerved by the woman's laughter.
“They won't come up here,” she grinned, looking at Bosriel who smiled back. “They're too afraid of us.”
Turala turned to Cassyr, who shook his head. “Witches. Am I correct in assuming that this is Old Barbyn's Farm, the home of the Skeffington Coven?”
“You are, pet,” the old woman giggled girlishly, pleased to be so infamous. “I am Mynista Skeffington.”
“What did you do to those orcs?” asked Turala. “Back there in the thicket?”
“Spirit fist right side the head,” Mynista said, continuing the climb up the hill. Ahead of them was the farmhouse grounds, a well, a chicken coop, a pond, women of all ages doing chores, the laughter of children at play. The old woman turned and saw that Turala did not understand. “Don't you have witches where you come from, child?”
“None that I know of,” she said.
“There are all sorts of wielders of magic in Tamriel,” she explained. “The Psijics study magic like it's their painful duty. The battlemages in the army on the other end of the scale hurl spells like arrows. We witches commune and conjure and celebrate. To fell those orcs, I merely whispered to the spirits of the air, Amaro, Pina, Tallatha, the fingers of Kynareth, and the breath of the world, with whom I have an intimate acquaintance, to smack those bastards dead. You see, conjuration is not about might, or solving riddles, or agonizing over musty old scrolls. It's about fostering relations. Being friendly, you might say.”
“Well, we certainly appreciate you being friendly with us,” said Cassyr.
“As well you might,” coughed Mynista. “Your kind destroyed the orc homeland two thousand years ago. Before that, they never came all the way up here and bothered us. Now let's get you cleaned up and fed.”
With that, Mynista led them into the farm, and Turala met the family of the Skeffington Coven.
- 11 Hearth Fire, 2920
- The Imperial City, Cyrodiil
Rijja had not even tried to sleep the night before, and she found the somber music played during her execution to have a soporific effect. It was as if she was willing herself to be unconscious before the ax stroke. Her eyes were bound so she could not see her former lover, the Emperor, seated before her, glaring with his one good eye. She could not see the Potentate Versidue-Shaie, his coil neatly wrapped beneath him, a look of triumph in his golden face. She could feel, numbly, the executioner's hand touch her back to steady her. She flinched like a dreamer trying to awake.
The first blow caught the back of her head and she screamed. The next hacked through her neck, and she was dead.
The Emperor turned to the Potentate wearily, “Now that's done. You said she had a pretty sister in Hammerfell named Corda?”
- 18 Hearth Fire, 2920
- Dwynnen, High Rock
The horse the witches had sold him was not as good as his old one, Cassyr considered. Spirit worship and sacrifice and sisterhood might be all well and good for conjuring spirits, but it tends to spoil beasts of burden. Still, there was little to complain about. With the Dunmer woman and her child gone, he had made excellent time. Ahead were the walls surrounding the city of his homeland. Almost at once, he was set upon by his old friends and family.
“How went the war?” cried his cousin, running to the road. “Is it true that Vivec signed a peace with the Prince, but the Emperor refuses to honor it?”
“That's not how it was, was it?” asked a friend, joining them. “I heard that the Dunmer had the Prince murdered and then made up a story about a treaty, but there's no evidence for it.”
“Isn't there anything interesting happening here?” Cassyr laughed. “I really don't have the least interest in discussing the war or Vivec.”
“You missed the procession of the Lady Corda,” said his friend. “She came across the bay with full entourage and then east to the Imperial City.”
“But that's nothing. What was Vivec like?” asked his cousin eagerly. “He supposed to be a living god.”
“If Sheogorath steps down and they need another God of Madness, he'll do,” said Cassyr haughtily.
“And the women?” asked the lad, who had only seen Dunmer ladies on very rare occasions.
Cassyr merely smiled. Turala Skeffington flashed into his mind for an instant before fading away. She would be happy with the coven, and her child would be well cared for. But they were part of the past now, a place and a war he wanted to forget forever. Dismounting his horse, he walked it into the city, chatting of trivial gossip of life on the Iliac Bay.
The creature before them blinked, senseless, its eyes glazed, mouth opening and closing as if relearning its function. A thin glob of saliva burbled down between its fangs, and hung suspended. Turala had never seen anything of its kind before, reptilian and massive, perched on its hind legs like a man. Mynistera applauded enthusiastically.
“My child,” she crowed. “You have come so far in so short a time. What were you thinking when you summoned this daedroth?”
It took Turala a moment to recall whether she was thinking anything at all. She was merely overwhelmed that she had reached out across the fabric of reality into the realm of Oblivion, and plucked forth this loathsome creature, conjuring it into the world by the power of her mind.
“I was thinking of the color red,” Turala said, concentrating. “The simplicity and clarity of it. And then -- I desired, and spoke the charm. And this is what I conjured up.”
“Desire is a powerful force for a young witch,” said Mynistera. “And it is well matched in this instance. For this daedroth is nothing if not a simple force of the spirits. Can you release your desire as easily?”
Turala closed her eyes and spoke the dismissal invocation. The monster faded away like a painting in sunlight, still blinking confusedly. Mynistera embraced her Dark Elf pupil, laughing with delight.
“I never would have believed it, a month and a day you've been with the coven, and you're already far more advanced than most of the women here. There is powerful blood in you, Turala, you touch spirits like you were touching a lover. You'll be leading this coven one day -- I have seen it!”
Turala smiled. It was good to be complimented. The Duke of Mournhold had praised her pretty face; and her family, before she had dishonored them, praised her manners. Cassyr had been nothing more than a companion: his compliments meant nothing. But with Mynistera, she felt she was home.
“You'll be leading the coven for many years yet, great sister,” said Turala.
“I certainly intend to. But the spirits, while marvelous companions and faultless tellers of truth, are often hazy about the when and hows. You can't blame them really. When and how mean so little to them,” Mynistera opened the door to the shed, allowing the brisk autumn breeze in to dispel the bitter and fetid smells of the daedroth. “Now, I need you to run an errand to Wayrest. It's only a week's ride there, and a week's ride back. Bring Doryatha and Celephyna with you. As much as we try to be self-sufficient, there are herbs we can't grow here, and we seem to run through an enormous quantity of gems in no time at all. It's important that the people of the city learn to recognize you as one of the wise women of Skeffington coven. You'll find the benefits of being notorious far outweigh the inconveniences.”
Turala did as she was bade. As she and her sisters climbed aboard their horses, Mynistera brought her child, little five-month-old Bosriel to kiss her mother good-bye. The witches were in love with the little Dunmer infant, fathered by a wicked Duke, birthed by wild Ayleid elves in the forest heart of the Empire. Turala knew her nursemaids would protect her child with their lives. After many kisses and a farewell wave, the three young witches rode off into the bright woods, under a covering of red, yellow, and orange.
- 12 Frostfall, 2920
- Dwynnen, High Rock
For a Middas evening, the Least Loved Porcupine tavern was wildly crowded. A roaring fire in the pit in the center of the room cast an almost sinister glow on all the regulars, and made the abundance of bodies look like a punishment tapestry inspired by the Arcturian Heresies. Cassyr took his usual place with his cousin and ordered a flagon of ale.
“Have you been to see the Baron?” asked Palyth.
“Yes, he may have work for me in the palace of Urvaius,” said Cassyr proudly. “But more than that I can't say. You understand, secrets of state and all that. Why are there so many damned people here tonight?”
“A shipload of Dark Elves just came in to harbor. They've come from the war. I was just waiting until you got here to introduce you as another veteran.”
Cassyr blushed, but regained his composure enough to ask: “What are they doing here? Has there been a truce?”
“I don't know the full story,” said Palyth. “But apparently, the Emperor and Vivec are in negotiations again. These fellas here have investments they were keen to check on, and they figured things on the Bay were quiet enough. But the only way we can get the full story is to talk to the chaps.”
With that, Palyth gripped his cousin's arm and pulled him to the other side of the bar so suddenly, Cassyr would have had to struggle violently to resist. The Dunmer travelers were spread out across four of the tables, laughing with the locals. They were largely amiable young men, well-dressed, befitting merchants, animated in gesture made more extravagant by liquor.
“Excuse me,” said Palyth, intruding on the conversation. “My shy cousin Cassyr was in the war as well, fighting for the living god, Vivec.”
“The only Cassyr I ever heard of,” said one of the Dunmer drunkenly with a wide, friendly smile, shaking Cassyr's free hand. “Was a Cassyr Whitley, who Vivec said was the worst spy in history. We lost Ald Marak due to his bungling intelligence work. For your sake, friend, I hope the two of you were never confused.”
Cassyr smiled and listened as the lout told the story of his failure with bountiful exaggerations which caused the table to roar with laughter. Several eyes looked his way, but none of the locals sought to explain that the fool of the tale was standing at attention. The eyes that stung the most were his cousin's, the young man who had believed that he had returned to Dwynnen a great hero. At some point, certainly, the Baron would hear about it, his idiocy increasing manifold with each retelling.
With every fiber in his soul, Cassyr cursed the living god Vivec.
Corda, in a robe of blinding whiteness, a uniform of the priestesses of the Hegathe Morwha conservatorium, arrived in the City just as the first winter storm was passing. The clouds broke with sunlight, and the beauteous teenaged Redguard girl appeared in the wide avenue with escort, riding toward the Palace. While her sister was tall, thin, angular, and haughty, Corda was a small, round-faced lass with wide brown eyes. The locals were quick to draw comparisons.
“Not a month after Lady Rijja's execution,” muttered a housemaid, peering out the window, and winking to her neighbor.
“And not a month out of the nunnery neither,” the other woman agreed, reveling in the scandal. “This one's in for a ride. Her sister weren't no innocent, and look where she ended up.”
- 24 Frostfall, 2920
- Dwynnen, High Rock
Cassyr stood on the harbor and watched the early sleet fall on the water. It was a pity, he thought, that he was prone to sea-sickness. There was nothing for him now in Tamriel to the east or to the west. Vivec's tale of his poor spycraft had spread to taverns everywhere. The Baron of Dwynnen had released him from his contract. No doubt they were laughing about him in Daggerfall, too, and Dawnstar, Lilmoth, Rimmen, Greenheart, probably in Akavir and Yokuda for that matter. Perhaps it would be best to drop into the waves and sink. The thought, however, did not stay long in his mind: it was not despair that haunted him, but rage. Impotent fury that he could not assuage.
“Excuse me, sir,” said a voice behind him, making him jump. “I'm sorry to disturb you, but I was wondering whether you could recommend an inexpensive tavern for me to spend the night.”
It was a young man, a Nord, with a sack over his shoulder. Obviously, he had just disembarked from one of the boats. For the first time in weeks, someone was looking at Cassyr as something other than a colossal, famous idiot. He could not help, black as his mood was, but be friendly.
“You've just arrived from Skyrim?” asked Cassyr.
“No, sir, that's where I'm going,” said the fellow. “I'm working my way home. I've come up from Sentinel, and before that , and before that Woodhearth in Valenwood, and before that Artaeum in Summurset. Welleg's my name.”
Cassyr introduced himself and shook Welleg's hand. “Did you say you came from Artaeum? Are you a Psijic?”
“No, sir, not anymore,” the fellow shrugged. “I was expelled.”
“Do you know anything about summoning daedra? You see, I want to cast a curse against a particularly powerful person, one might say a living god, and I haven't had any luck. The Baron won't allow me in his sight, but the Baroness has sympathy for me and allowed me the use of their Summoning Chambers.” Cassyr spat. “I did all the rituals, made sacrifices, but nothing came of it.”
“That'd be because of Sotha Sil, my old master,” replied Welleg with some bitterness. “The Daedra princes have agreed not to be summoned by any amateurs at least until the war ends. Only the Psijics may counsel with the daedra, and a few nomadic sorcerers and witches.”
“Witches, did you say?”
- 29 Frostfall, 2920
- Phrygias, High Rock
Pale sunlight flickered behind the mist bathing the forest as Turala, Doryatha, and Celephyna drove their horses on. The ground was wet with a thin layer of frost, and laden down with goods, it was a slippery way over unpaved hills. Turala tried to contain her excitement about coming back to the coven. Wayrest had been an adventure, and she adored the looks of fear and respect the cityfolk gave her. But for the last few days, all she could think of was returning to her sisters and her child.
A bitter wind whipped her hair forward so she could see nothing but the path ahead. She did not hear the rider approach to her side until he was almost upon her. When she turned and saw Cassyr, she shouted with as much surprise as pleasure at meeting an old friend. His face was pale and drawn, but she took it to be merely from travel.
“What brings you back to Phrygias?” she smiled. “Were you not treated well in Dwynnen?”
“Well enough,” said Cassyr. “I have need of the Skeffington coven.”
“Ride with us,” said Turala. “I'll bring you to Mynistera.”
The four continued on, and the witches regaled Cassyr with tales of Wayrest. It was evident that it was also a rare treat for Doryatha and Celephyna to leave Old Barbyn's Farm. They had been born there, as daughters and grand-daughters of Skeffington witches. Ordinary High Rock city life was exotic to them as it was to Turala. Cassyr said little, but smiled and nodded his head, which was encouragement enough. Thankfully, none of the stories they had heard were about his own stupidity. Or at the very least, they did not tell him.
Doryatha was in the midst of a tale she had heard in a tavern about a thief who had been locked overnight in a pawnshop when they crossed over a familiar hill. Suddenly, she halted in her story. The barn was supposed to be visible, but it was not. The other three followed her gaze into the fog, and a moment later, they rode as fast as they could towards what was once the site of the Skeffington coven.
The fire had long since burned out. Nothing but ashes, skeletons, and broken weaponry remained. Cassyr recognized at once the signs of an orc raid.
The witches fell from their horses, racing through the remains, wailing. Celephyna found a tattered, bloody piece of cloth that she recognized from Mynistera's cloak. She held it to her ashen face, sobbing. Turala screamed for Bosriel, but the only reply was the high whistling wind through the ashes.
“Who did this?” she cried, tears streaking down her face. “I swear I'll conjure up the very flames of Oblivion! What have they done with my baby?”
“I know who did it,” said Cassyr quietly, dropping from his horse and walking towards her. “I've seen these weapons before. I fear I met the very fiends responsible in Dwynnen, but I never thought they'd find you. This is the work of assassins hired by the Duke of Mournhold.”
He paused. The lie came easily. Adopt and improvise. What's more, he could tell instantly that she believed it. Her resentment over the cruelty the Duke had shown her had quieted, but never disappeared. One look at her burning eyes told him that she would summon the daedra and wreak his, and her, revenge upon Morrowind. And what's more, he knew they'd listen.
And listen they did. For the power that is greater than desire is rage. Even rage misplaced.
"What makes you think I'd have even the slightest possible interest in seeing him?" asked the Night Mother with venomous sweetness.
"He brings a letter from the late Empress of the Cyrodilic Empire."
"We are having a busy day," she smiled, clapping her hands together with delight. "Show him in."
Zuuk entered the chamber. His metallic skin, though exposed only at his face and hands, caught the light of the fireplace and the lightning of the stormy night from the window. The Night Mother noted also that she could see herself as he saw her: serene, beautiful, fear-inspiring. He handed her his letter from the Empress without a word. Sipping her wine, she read it.
"The Duke of Morrowind also offered me an appreciable sum to have the Emperor murdered earlier this year," she said, folding the letter. "His payment sunk, and never was delivered. It was a considerable annoyance, particularly as I had already gone to the trouble of putting one of my agents in the palace. Why should I assume that your more-than-generous payment, from a dead woman, will arrive?"
"I brought it with me," said Zuuk simply. "It is in the carriage outside."
"Then bring it in and our business is complete," smiled the Night Mother. "The Emperor will be dead by year's end. You may leave the gold with Apaladith. Unless you'd care for some wine?"
Zuuk declined the offer and withdrew. The moment he left the room, Miramor slipped noiselessly back from behind the dark tapestry. The Night Mother offered him a glass of wine, and he accepted it.
"I know that fellow, Zuuk," said Miramor carefully. "I didn't know he worked for the old Empress though."
"Let's talk about you some more, if you don't mind," she said, knowing he would, in fact, not mind.
"Let me show you my worth," said Miramor. "Let me be the one to do the Emperor in. I've already killed his son, and you saw there how well I can hide myself away. Tell me you saw one ripple in the tapestry."
The Night Mother smiled. Things were falling into place rather nicely.
"If you know how to use a dagger, you will find him at Bodrum," she said, and described to him what he must do.
- 3 Sun's Dusk, 2920
- Mournhold, Morrowind
The Duke stared out the window. It was early morning, and for the fourth straight day, a red mist hung over the city, flashing lightning. A freakish wind blew through the streets, ripping his flags from the castle battlements, forcing all his people to close their shudders tightly. Something terrible was coming to his land. He was not a greatly learned man, but he knew the signs. So too did his subjects.
"When will my messengers reach the Three?" he growled, turning to his castellan.
"Vivec is far to the north, negotiating the treaty with the Emperor," the man said, his face and voice trembling with fear. "Almalexia and Sotha Sil are in Necrom. Perhaps they can be reached in a few days time."
The Duke nodded. He knew his messengers were fast, but so too was the hand of Oblivion.
- 6 Sun's Dusk, 2920
- Bodrum, Morrowind
Torchlight caught in the misting snow gave the place an otherworldly quality. The soldiers from both camps found themselves huddled together around the largest of the bonfires: winter bringing enemies of four score of warring close together. While only a few of the Dunmer guard could speak Cyrodilic, they found common ground battling for warmth. When a pretty Redguard maiden passed into their midst to warm herself before moving back to the treaty tent, many a man from both army raised their eyes in approval.
The Emperor Reman III was eager to leave negotiations before they had ever begun. A month earlier, he thought it would be a sign of good will to meet at the site of his defeat to Vivec's army, but the place brought back more bad memories than he thought it would. Despite the protestations of Potentate Versidue-Shaie that the rocks of the river were naturally red, he could swear he saw splatters of his soldier's blood.
"We have all the particulars of the treaty," he said, taking a glass of hot yuelle from his mistress Corda. "But here and now is not the place for signing. We should do it at the Imperial Palace, with all the pomp and splendor this historic occasion demands. You must bring Almalexia with you too. And that wizard fellow."
"Sotha Sil," whispered the Potentate.
"When?" asked Vivec with infinite patience.
"In exactly a month's time," said the Emperor, smiling munificently and clambering awkwardly to his feet. "We will hold a grand ball to commemorate. Now I must take a walk. My legs are all cramped up with the weather. Corda, my dear, will you walk with me?"
"Of course, your Imperial Majesty," she said, helping him toward the tent's entrance.
"Would you like me to come with you as well, your Imperial Majesty?" asked Versidue-Shaie.
"Or I?" asked King Dro'Zel of Senchal, a newly appointed advisor to the court.
"That won't be necessary, I won't be gone a minute," said Reman.
Miramor crouched in the same rushes he had hidden in nearly eight months before. Now the ground was hard and snow-covered, and the rushes slick with ice. Every slight movement he made issued forth a crunch. If it were not for the raucous songs of the combined Morrowind and Imperial army gathered about the bonfire, he would not have dared creep as close to the Emperor and his concubine. They were standing at the curve in the frozen creek below the bluff, surrounded by trees sparkling with ice.
Carefully, Miramor removed the dagger from its sheath. He had slightly exaggerated his abilities with a short blade to the Night Mother. True, he had used one to cut the throat of Prince Juilek, but the lad was not in any position to fight back at the time. Still, how difficult could it be to stab an old man with one eye? What sort of blade skill would such an easy assassination require?
His ideal moment presented itself before his eyes. The woman saw something deeper in the woods, an icicle of an unusual shape she said, and darted off to get it. The Emperor remained behind, laughing. He turned to the face of the bluff to see his soldiers singing their song's refrain, his back to his assassin. Miramor knew the moment had come. Mindful of the sound of his footfall on the icy ground, he stepped forward and struck. Very nearly.
Almost simultaneously, he was aware of a strong arm holding back his striking arm and another one punching a dagger into his throat. He could not scream. The Emperor, still looking up at the soldiers, never saw Miramor pulled back into the brush and a hand much more skilled than his slicing into his back, paralyzing him.
His blood pooling out and already crystallizing on the frozen ground, Miramor watched, dying, as the Emperor and his courtesan returned to join the camp up on the bluff.
- 12 Sun's Dusk, 2920
- Mournhold, Morrowind
A gout of ever-erupting flame was all that remained of the central courtyard of Castle Mournhold, blasting skyward into the boiling clouds. A thick, tarry smoke rolled through the streets, igniting everything that was wood or paper on fire. Winged bat-like creatures harried the citizens from their hiding places out into the open, where they were met by the real army. The only thing that kept all of Mournhold from burning to the ground was the wet, sputtering blood of its people.
Mehrunes Dagon smiled as he surveyed the castle crumbling.
"To think I nearly didn't come," he said aloud, his voice booming over the chaos. "Imagine missing all this fun."
His attention was arrested by a needle-thin shaft of light piercing through his black and red shadowed sky. He followed it to its source, two figures, a man and a woman standing on the hill above town. The man in the white robe he recognized immediately as Sotha Sil, the sorcerer who had talked all the Princes of Oblivion into that meaningless truce.
"If you've come for the Duke of Mournhold, he isn't here," laughed Mehrunes Dagon. "But you might find pieces of him the next time it rains."
"Daedra, we cannot kill you," said Almalexia, her face hard and resolute. "But that you will soon regret."
With that, two living gods and a prince of Oblivion engaged in battle on the ruins of Mournhold.
- 17 Sun's Dusk, 2920
- Tel Aruhn, Morrowind
"Night Mother," said the guard. "Correspondence from your agent in the Imperial Palace."
The Night Mother read the note carefully. The test had been a success: Miramor had been successfully detected and slain. The Emperor was in very unsafe hands. The Night Mother responded immediately.
- 18 Sun's Dusk, 2920
- Balmora, Morrowind
Sotha Sil, face solemn and unreadable, greeted Vivec at the grand plaza in front of his palace. Vivec had ridden day and night after hearing about the battle in his tent in Bodrum, crossing mile after mile, cutting through the dangerous ground at Dagoth-Ur at blinding speed. To the south, during all the course of the voyage, he could see the whirling red clouds and knew that the battle was continuing, day after day. In Gnisis, he met a messenger from Sotha Sil, asking him to meet at Balmora.
"Where is Almalexia?"
"Inside," said Sotha Sil wearily. There was a long, ugly gash running across his jaw. "She's gravely injured, but Mehrunes Dagon will not return from Oblivion for many a moon."
Almalexia lay on a bed of silk, tended to by Vivec's own healers. Her face, even her lips, was gray as stone, and blood stained through the gauze of her bandages. Vivec took her cold hand. Almalexia's mouth moved wordlessly. She was dreaming.
She was battling Mehrunes Dagon again amid a firestorm. All around her, the blackened husk of a castle crumbled, splashing sparks into the night sky. The Daedra's claws dug into her belly, spreading poison through her veins while Almalexia throttled him. As she sank to the ground beside her defeated foe, she saw that the castle consumed by fire was not Castle Mournhold. It was the Imperial Palace.
A winter gale blew over the city, splashing the windows and glass domes of the Imperial Palace. Quivering light rays illuminated the figures within in surreal patterns.
The Emperor barked orders to his staff in preparations for the banquet and ball. This was what he enjoyed best, more than battle. King Dro'Zel was supervising the entertainment, having strong opinions on the matter. The Emperor himself was arranging the details of the dinner. Roast nebfish, vegetable marrow, cream soups, buttered helerac, codscrumb, tongue in aspic. Potentate Versidue-Shaie had made a few suggestions of his own, but the tastes of the Akaviri were very peculiar.
The Lady Corda accompanied the Emperor to his chambers as night fell.
The Year is Concluded in Evening Star.
The winter morning sun glinted through the cobweb of frost on the window, and Almalexia opened her eyes. An ancient healer mopped a wet cloth across her head, smiling with relief. Asleep in the chair next to her bed was Vivec. The healer rushed to a side cabinet and returned with a flagon of water.
“How are you feeling, goddess?” asked the healer.
“Like I've been asleep for a very long time,” said Almalexia.
“So you have. Fifteen days,” said the healer, and touched Vivec's arm. “Master, wake up. She speaks.”
Vivec rose with a start, and seeing Almalexia alive and awake, his face broke into a wide grin. He kissed her forehead, and took her hand. At last, there was warmth again in her flesh.
Almalexia's peaceful repose suddenly snapped: “Sotha Sil --”
“He's alive and well,” replied Vivec. “Working on one of his machines again somewhere. He would have stayed here too, but he realized he could do you more good working that peculiar sorcery of his.”
The castellan appeared in the doorway. “Sorry to interrupt you, master, but I wanted to tell you that your fastest messenger left late last night for the Imperial City.”
“Messenger?” asked Almalexia. “Vivec, what has happened?”
“I was to go and sign a truce with the Emperor on the sixth, so I sent him word that it had to be postponed.”
“You can't do me any good here,” said Almalexia, pulling herself up with effort. “But if you don't sign that truce, you'll put Morrowind back to war, maybe for another eighty years. If you leave today with an escort and hurry, perhaps you can get to the Imperial City only a day or two late.”
“Are you certain you don't need me here?” asked Vivec.
“I know that Morrowind needs you more.”
The Emperor Reman III sat on his throne, surveying the audience chamber. It was a spectacular sight: silver ribbons dangled from the rafters, burning cauldrons of sweet herbs simmered in every corner, Pyandonean swallowtails sweeping through the air, singing their songs. When the torches were lit and servants began fanning, the room would be transfigured into a shimmering fantasy land. He could smell the kitchen already, spices and roasts.
The Potentate Versidue-Shaie and his son Savirien-Chorak slithered into the room, both bedecked in the headdress and jewelry of the Tsaesci. There was no smile on their golden face, but there seldom was one. The Emperor still greeted his trusted advisor with enthusiasm.
“This ought to impress those savage Dark Elves,” he laughed. “When are they supposed to arrive?”
“A messenger's just arrived from Vivec,” said the Potentate solemnly. “I think it would be best if your Imperial Majesty met him alone.”
The Emperor lost his laughter, but nodded to his servants to withdraw. The door then opened and the Lady Corda walked into the room, with a parchment in her hand. She shut the door behind her, but did not look up to meet the Emperor's face.
“The messenger gave his letter to my mistress?” said Reman, incredulous, rising to take the note. “That's a highly unorthodox way of delivering a message.”
“But the message itself is very orthodox,” said Corda, looking up into his one good eye. With a single blinding motion, she brought the letter up under the Emperor's chin. His eyes widened and blood poured down the blank parchment. Blank that is, except for a small black mark, the sign of the Morag Tong. It fell to the floor, revealing the small dagger hidden behind it, which she now twisted, severing his throat to the bone. The Emperor collapsed to the floor, gasping soundlessly.
“How long do you need?” asked Savirien-Chorak.
“Five minutes,” said Corda, wiping the blood from her hands. “If you can give me ten, though, I'll be doubly grateful.”
“Very well,” said the Potentate to Corda's back as she raced from the audience chamber. “She ought to have been an Akaviri, the way the girl handles a blade is truly remarkable.”
“I must go and establish our alibi,” said Savirien-Chorak, disappearing behind one of the secret passages that only the Emperor's most trusted knew about.
“Do you remember, close to a year ago, your Imperial Majesty,” the Potentate smiled, looking down at the dying man. “When you told me to remember 'You Akaviri have a lot of showy moves, but if just one of our strikes comes through, it's all over for you.' I remembered that, you see.”
The Emperor spat up blood and somehow said the word: “Snake.”
“I am a snake, your Imperial Majesty, inside and out. But I didn't lie. There was a messenger from Vivec. It seems he'll be a little late in arriving,” the Potentate shrugged before disappearing behind the secret passage. “Don't worry yourself. I'm sure the food won't go bad.”
The Emperor of Tamriel died in a pool of his own blood in his empty audience chamber decorated for a grand ball. He was found by his bodyguard fifteen minutes later. Corda was nowhere to be found.
- 8 Evening Star, 2920
- Caer Suvio, Cyrodiil
Lord Glavius, apologizing profusely for the quality of the road through the forest, was the first emissary to greet Vivec and his escort as they arrived. A string of burning globes decorated the leafless trees surrounding the villa, bobbing in the gentle but frigid night breeze. From within, Vivec could smell the simple feast and a high sad melody. It was a traditional Akaviri wintertide carol.
Versidue-Shaie greeted Vivec at the front door.
“I'm glad you received the message before you got all the way to the City,” said the Potentate, guiding his guest into the large, warm drawing room. “We are in a difficult transition time, and for the moment, it is best not to conduct our business at the capitol.”
“There is no heir?” asked Vivec.
“No official one, though there are distant cousins vying for the throne. While we sort the matter out, at least temporarily the nobles have decided that I may act in the office of my late master,” Versidue-Shaie signaled for the servants to draw two comfortable chairs in front of the fireplace. “Would you feel most comfortable if we signed the treaty officially right now, or would you like to eat something first?”
“You intend to honor the Emperor's treaty?”
“I intend to do everything as the Emperor,” said the Potentate.
- 14 Evening Star, 2920
- Tel Aruhn, Morrowind
Corda, dusty from the road, flew into the Night Mother's arms. For a moment, they stayed locked together, the Night Mother stroking her daughter's hair, kissing her forehead. Finally, she reached into her sleeve and handed Corda a letter.
“What is it?” asked Corda.
“A letter from the Potentate, expressing his delight at your expertise,” replied the Night Mother. “He's promised to send us payment, but I've already sent him back a reply. The late Empress paid us enough for her husband's death. Mephala would not have us be greedy beyond our needs. You should not be paid twice for the same murder, so it is written.”
“He killed Rijja, my sister,” said Corda quietly.
“And so it should be that you struck the blow.”
“Where will I go now?”
“Whenever any of our holy workers becomes too famous to continue the crusade, we send them to an island called Vounoura. It's not more than a month's voyage by boat, and I've arranged for a delightful estate for your sanctuary,” the Night Mother kissed the girl's tears. “You meet many friends there, and I know you will find peace and happiness at last, my child.”
- 19 Evening Star, 2920
- Mournhold, Morrowind
Almalexia surveyed the rebuilding of the town. The spirit of the citizens was truly inspirational, she thought, as she walked among the skeletons of new buildings standing in the blackened, shattered remains of the old. Even the plantlife showed a remarkable resilience. There was life yet in the blasted remains of the comberry and roobrush shrubs that once lined the main avenue. She could feel the pulse. Come springtide, green would bolt through the black.
The Duke's heir, a lad of considerable intelligence and sturdy Dunmer courage, was coming down from the north to take his father's place. The land would do more than survive: it would strengthen and expand. She felt the future much more strongly than she saw the present.
Of all the things she was most certain of, she knew that Mournhold was forever home to at least one goddess.
- 22 Evening Star, 2920
- The Imperial City, Cyrodiil
"The Cyrodiil line is dead,” announced the Potentate to the crowd gathered beneath the Speaker's Balcony of the Imperial Palace. “But the Empire lives. The distant relatives of our beloved Emperor have been judged unworthy of the throne by the trusted nobility who advised his Imperial Majesty throughout his long and illustrious reign. It has been decided that as an impartial and faithful friend of Reman III, I will have the responsibility of continuing on in his name.”
The Akaviri paused, allowing his words to echo and translate into the ears of the populace. They merely stared up at him in silence. The rain had washed through the streets of the city, but the sun, for a brief time, appeared to be offering a respite from the winter storms.
“I want to make it clear that I am not taking the title Emperor,” he continued. “I have been and will continue to be Potentate Versidue-Shaie, an alien welcomed kindly to your shores. It will be my duty to protect my adopted homeland, and I pledge to work tirelessly at this task until someone more worthy takes the burden from me. As my first act, I declare that in commemoration of this historical moment, beginning on the first of Morning Star, we will enter year one of the Second Era as time will be reckoned. Thus, we mourn the loss of our Imperial family, and look forward to the future.”
Only one man clapped at these words. King Dro'Zel of Senchal truly believed that this would be the finest thing to happen to Tamriel in history. Of course, he was quite mad.
- 31 Evening Star, 2920
- Ebonheart, Morrowind
In the smoky catacombs beneath the city where Sotha Sil forged the future with his arcane clockwork apparatus, something unforeseen happened. An oily bubble seeped from a long trusted gear and popped. Immediately, the wizard's attention was drawn to it and to the chain that tiny action triggered. A pipe shifted half an inch to the left. A tread skipped. A coil rewound itself and began spinning in a counter direction. A piston that had been thrusting left-right, left-right, for millennia suddenly began shifting right-left. Nothing broke, but everything changed.
“It cannot be fixed now,” said the sorcerer quietly.
He looked up through a crick in the ceiling into the night sky. It was midnight. The second era, the age of chaos, had begun.