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Saturday, February 19, 2011

XVIII - Shani (part 1)

Slipping these books into her bag, Fen slammed the chest shut and nearly sprinted outside. It was late in the afternoon and Julan would come looking for her soon, but she was too intent on finding answers to care. She cast water-walking on herself and jogged around the craggy islands to Tel Fyr, then retraced her steps back down to the Corprusarium. Vistha-Kai surveyed her critically.
“Back again? I thought you had the disease.”
“Lord Fyr cured me of it. I’m immune now. May I enter? I wish to speak with Yagrum Bagarn.”
“It makes no difference to me,” the Argonian hissed. “Just do not harm the inmates.” He let Fen pass, and she pulled the books out of her bag as she went back through the yellowish, sickly-smelling corridors to the little wooden platform where Yagrum Bagarn stood on his strange, spindly brass legs. The Dunmer woman, Uupse Fyr, was gone.
“Ah! My scholar friend again! Does Lord Fyr need something else looked at?”
“No, actually,” Fen said, holding the first book, Hanging Gardens, out to him. “I do.” Yagrum Bagarn took the book and opened it. He read a few lines, then chuckled a bit.
“Yes, this book is written in both Aldmeris and in Dwemer. Many books were written in both languages in the days of Resdayn when Dunmer and Dwemer ruled together peacefully. I’d offer to translate,” he said, closing the book and holding it out to her, “but this is really just a boring travel guide.” Fen took it, her heart sinking. What if the rest of the books were useless as well? “If you find any other books in Dwemer, I could translate them for you.”
“Yes,” she said, handing him Divine Metaphysics, the one with the complicated diagrams. He flipped through this one a few times, and his merry expression darkened into something grimmer.
“This book is just an explanation of some of Kagrenac’s theories. I could spend hours explaining them to you, but Kagrenac is dead, and I believe his theories must die with him.” Hoping that The Egg of Time would yield more information from him, Fen gave him the last book, taking Divine Metaphysics back into her arms. Yagrum Bagarn read a few pages, then flipped straight to the illustrations at the back as if he knew they were there.
“By refreshing my memory with Divine Metaphysics, I believe I can explain,” he said, studying the picture curiously. “The Dwemer were not unified in their thinking. Kagrenac and his tonal architects, among them Bthuand Mzahnch, who wrote this book, believed they could improve the Dwemer race. Others argued that the attempt would be too great a risk. The war with Nerevar and the Dunmer may have led Kagrenac to carry out his experiments prematurely. Although this book argues that nothing disastrous could result, the disappearance of my race argues otherwise.”
“That’s it?” Fen asked, taking the book as he handed it back to her. “What about the hammer and the dagger? Are they Sunder and Keening?” A dark look crossed the Dwarf’s face.
“How do you know about those?”
“I’m a scholar, remember?” Fen said, hoping to lighten the mood, but Bagarn just narrowed his eyes.
“This book mentions Sunder and Keening, if briefly. Perhaps it was wrong of Lord Kagrenac to attempt to tap from the Heart of Lorkhan. Perhaps it was right. I was not there at the time, and have no opinion.”
“Thank you,” Fen said, seeing the Dwarf was tired and he would yield no more information. “Very much.”
“I hope you’ll come back and visit me, scholar,” he called after her as she left. “It gets terribly lonely down here with bloated monsters as your only company.”
She water-walked back to Sadrith Mora and locked the books in her trunk, feeling disappointed at the lack of information Bagarn had given her. Fen felt the ring on her finger growing warm just as she teleported back to Balmora.
“Julan?” she inquired as she walked out of the guildhall.
“Yes,” he replied testily. “I went to the Eight Plates, but you weren’t there.”
“I had to stop in…Sadrith Mora. For something.” Julan was already irritated that she was pursuing the prophecies – she didn’t think it would be a good idea to mention that she had gone back to the Corprusarium to ask Yagrum Bagarn about them. “Where are you?”
“In the Eight Plates. Fen, I’m not feeling well. Can you teleport to my mother’s and pick something up for me? She’ll know what to give you.”
“What?” Fen said incredulously. “Just go to the Temple, Julan, it’s ten feet away from where you are now!”
“I can’t,” he persisted. “I told you, I feel awful.”
“Then I’ll bring you a potion.”
“My mother makes the best ones,” he said. “Please, Fen? You have a mark set in Balmora, it’ll take you all of five minutes.”
“Fine,” she said with a sigh. “I’ll be there in a minute.” The ring darkened and she teleported to the three yurts on the beach with the telepathy ring, nervously going forward to fold back the flap of Mashti’s yurt. Her last encounter with Julan’s mother had been, if anything, uncomfortable. She was alarmed, however, to see the woman crouched by the fire, tears pouring down the front of her face. Fen was about to leave when Mashti spoke harshly, her voice grating and sharp.
“What now, outlander? I can tell you nothing more you would wish to know. What would such a one as you care about the story of an outcast?” Fen paused, then slowly lowered her hand from the yurt flap.
“I would care if you would tell me.”
“Sit then, and I will.” Fen sat down on the other side of the fire, still puzzled, and Mashti started to speak, not bothering to stem the flow of her crying. “I was born to the Urshilaku Ashlanders, and I was respected there, for my father was chief of the tribe, and my mother was a high-born Redoran lady he took as slave-bride in a raid on some travelers. But when men of the Ahemmusa came to our camp on a trading mission, the spirits whispered to me that my destiny lay with their tribe, and when they left, I went with them.
“When he discovered I had gone without his permission, my father was very angry, for I was barely eighteen, and he had pledged me as bride to one of his gulakahns. He disowned me as daughter, and I never saw him, my home or my mother again. I hear he is dead now. Good. He was a harsh, cruel man,” she said angrily, “and I never missed him. I became one of the Ahemmusa, and studied the ways of their wise women. I was skilled in the craft, too skilled. The petty jealousies of others made me an exile in the end.”
“An exile?”
“I do not like to speak of this. It was long ago, but wounds to the heart and the honor do not heal. There are those I can never forgive, and those whom I would have forgiven in an instant, had they but asked for it. And now it is too late.” She buried her face in her hands. “Ai...leave me now, outlander. I wish to be alone.” Fen obliged and left the yurt, letting the flap fall closed behind her. She had not expected Mashti to speak to her at all…but her interest had been piqued. She made a mental note to ask Nibani Maesa about Mashti when she went to deliver the lost prophecies.
Fen teleported back to Balmora and gave Julan one of her own healing potions, promising that it was from his mother. He grumpily joined her for a quick dinner, then they both went to bed for the night.
The next morning, Fen recalled them both to the Urshilaku camp. Prophecies in hand, Fen pushed open the flap of Nibani Maesa’s yurt and bowed as the wise woman greeted her.
“Welcome, Clanfriend Fen. Do you bring me news of the lost prophecies?”
“Yes,” Fen said, holding the papers aloft.
“You have these lost prophecies? You will tell me these things, over and over, until I have them by heart. And then you will tell me what these priests say, what they see in these words.” Fen nodded, and they sat down. She began to speak the words of the prophecies, over and over, until she had memorized them just as well as Nibani. At some point Julan stood and left without bothering to excuse himself, a cross look on his face, but neither Fen nor Nibani paid him any mind. When they had finished, Nibani smiled and rested a firm hand on Fen’s shoulder. “And now, you must leave me. Hunt. Sleep. Train. Feed. Learn the land. I must bring these things into me, and place them before my ancestors, and listen to them, and to the skies and stars of my dreams. And then, when the moons have come and gone, return, and I will give you my judgment.” She raised one elegant hand to the flap of the yurt, and Fen stood, preparing to leave.
“Nibani,” she said suddenly, remembering. “Do you know a woman called Mashti Kaushibael?”
“Do I know anyone named Mashti Kaushibael?” she repeated, looking dazed. “Why...yes, I do, but I have not heard of her for many years now. She was the daughter of our previous ashkhan, but she left us to marry a man from the Ahemmusa. Is she still with them?”
“She married? A man from the Ahemmusa?”
“That’s what she told her sister, the night she left. So her sister claimed, anyway.”
“Thank you,” Fen said, and she left to find Julan circuiting around the camp, a sour look on his face. “Julan.” He looked up.
“This is a big waste of time, Fen.”
“What do you mean?”
“This isn’t getting me anywhere. How am I supposed to carry out my mission if we’re getting all sidetracked with a stupid prophecy that isn’t even right?”
“Do you have a better idea?”
“You know I don’t,” he snapped. “But I don’t like this. It’s all heading in the wrong direction. They should have realized you’re not the one by now.” Julan lowered his voice as a man holding a bow walked past, gazing at them curiously. “Something’s not right here.”
“We need to give Nibani time to think,” Fen said. “Actually, I have some…um…checking up to do. For the Blades.”
“Oh. The Imperials.”
“Yes. So if you want to teleport to Ald’ruhn, I’ll meet you there in a bit.”
“Fine,” Julan said curtly, and he recalled. Surprised her ruse had worked, Fen recalled back to Sadrith Mora and paid for passage to Tel Vos. The sky had just grown dark when she arrived, and she walked quickly to the Ahemmusa camp, just past Vos. The camp seemed to have settled down for the night, but Fen managed to catch one woman rolling up guar hides outside her yurt and asked her about Mashti.
“Mashti Kaushibael? Married? That’s not how it was, outlander,” the woman said, picking up the hides. “But this is private tribal business, and none of your concern. And by Boethiah, don’t mention such a thing to Ahmabi!”
“She’s the old ashkahn’s widow. She’s always been unstable, but especially so since her husband died. Still, she’s very respected, and so we try to keep her happy. For example, we don't talk about certain people if we can help it,” she added pointedly. “Good day.” The woman turned and ducked into her yurt.
“Maybe talking to certain people is exactly what I need,” Fen murmured, and she found and entered the ashkahn’s yurt without ceremony.
“What are you doing here?” a cold voice demanded when the tent flap fell closed behind her. A frail-looking Dunmer woman wearing a faded blue robe sat cross-legged before the empty firepit, glaring at her. Fen took a deep breath.
“Did you know that Mashti Kaushibael was married?” she said bluntly.
WHAT DID YOU SAY!?” Ahmabi shrieked, flying to her feet. “Han-Sashael was only ever married to ONE woman, and that was ME!” She thrust her finger into Fen’s face. “How DARE you suggest that what that evil murderous WITCH did to him had any connection to a marriage before the gods?! He was MINE! He loved ME! And when she couldn’t have him, she KILLED him!” Tears started to pour from the old woman’s eyes. “Get out…GET OUT!” She flew at Fen, aiming to pummel her, and Fen quickly ducked out of the yurt. Not yet satisfied with this information, Fen went to find another Ahemmusa to talk to and met a man just coming in from hunting, it appeared, carrying a dead rat over his shoulder.
“Pardon, serjo,” Fen said, catching him before he entered his yurt. “Can you tell me anything about Mashti Kaushibael?”
“She is a murderous witch,” he said darkly.
“Why?” He surveyed her critically.
“Why would you know the story, outlander?” Fen felt Julan’s telepathy ring growing hot on her finger and laid her other hand over it. The metal cooled.
“Because I have heard many different accounts of it, and I wish to know the truth.” He glared at her for a moment more, then sighed.
“I was there when she worked her evil magic upon our strongest warriors. It was bad, very bad. I alone survived, and I wish I was dead with them. There is no honor left for our people now.” Fen said nothing, waiting for him to continue.
“It was three summers ago. Han-Sashael chose me to join his hunting party. We would roam the Grazelands, bring food home, protect the camp. We were proud, the best warriors of the tribe. That day, we come upon Daedra – four of them. Hungers, you call them. Ugly creatures with the long claws. To see four at once, this was strange. They stood as if they were waiting for us. So we attacked. We are warriors.
“When the Daedra began to flee, we followed. They ran into a cave in the hills. They are afraid, our ashkahn said. We shall slaughter them all, and carry their skins home in glory. He tells one man to stand watch at the cave mouth, and tells me to run back to the camp and bring the pack guar, for the carrying of the prizes. As I ran, I saw her. She was moving fast between the rocks, straight to the cave. I did not see her face, too far, but I saw the sun shine off her dagger.
“I was afraid, then, for I know of the witch-women, and what they do to men with their ghost-snake. She summoned her evil magicks, killed the man at the cave mouth, Ainab. He was a big man, but she dropped him down like he was a rat. Then she went inside. I heard the screaming then, and I move, and I ran to the camp, fetched everyone who can hold a weapon. We came back, but it was late, too late.” He shook his head.
“In the cave, dead warriors. Dead Daedra, every kind of Daedra. Many, many daedra she had put there, waiting for the men. But Han-Sashael, he not there among the dead, and no witch either. She lured him into the deep tunnels, where she catch him unawares, for she never could beat him in fair fighting, even with Daedra. We heard his death scream, but we never found the body.
“When we heard our strong ashkhan is dead, we were very much afraid. When we got far from the cave, we looked, and again we saw the witch-woman. She came out that cave with no drop of blood on her – those Daedra, they did not touch her at all. But we are too frightened to seek vengeance upon her for our dead. She has strong and evil magicks.” He sighed heavily again.
“I’m sorry, serjo,” Fen said slowly when it was clear his story was finished. “But…why are you telling me this? I am a stranger to you.”
“Because it is like you said. Many people tell many different stories, and all people deserve to know the truth about that wicked woman. Is that all you wish to know, outlander?”
“Yes,” Fen said. “Thank you.” The Ashlander passed her and entered one of the yurts, leaving Fen standing alone in the middle of the dark camp. Was Mashti capable of slaying an entire party of hunters? It seemed ridiculous when she thought of Mashti, crumpled on the floor of her yurt in tears. Then, suddenly, a bright flash appeared before her and Julan stood there, about to speak. Then he stopped and looked around, puzzled.
“Why are you here?” he asked. “This is the Ahemmusa camp.”
“Skink asked me to deliver a potion –” she started, but she was cut off by a high-pitched, incredulous voice behind them.
Julan?” They turned, and Fen saw the one who had spoken was a young Dunmer woman with vividly bright red hair tied out of her face in two sloppy braids. Julan rubbed the back of his neck.
“Hello, Shani,” he said in a resigned voice. Fen glanced at the girl again. Her skin was ruddy and criss-crossed with scars in places, though her eyes were vividly cherry-coloured, her hair likewise. Her nose was small and sloped down and then quickly up again, and she wore simple hide-sewn clothes with a blade on her hip and a shield across her back.
“They told me you’d gone to Red Mountain!” she almost shrieked, the many earrings dangling from her pointed ears clicking together as she moved. “I see you’ve changed your mind!” Shani paused, looked him up and down quickly, then crossed her surprisingly muscular arms over her chest. “You have changed your mind, haven’t you? Please tell me you’re not still a complete idiot.”
“I haven’t changed my mind, I’m just doing some training first!” Julan snapped, and she narrowed her eyes at him. “Don’t look at me like that!” He turned sharply to Fen. “Did you deliver that potion? I want to get out of here.”
“Not yet,” Fen said quickly, aware that Shani was still glaring at them. “Why don’t you go back to Ald’ruhn? I’ll meet you in the Inn when I’m finished.” Julan gave Shani a curt look, then teleported and disappeared, leaving an awkward silence behind him.
“So you’re traveling with Julan?” Shani said.
“Um…yes, I am.” She snorted.
“So he’s told you all about me, hasn’t he? Hah. I bet he has. I’m sure he said I was clingy and demanding and argued with him all the time. And that I compared his dear mother to a Hunger, only without the charm and good looks. Oh, and that I was a cheat, a liar, a thief and a troublemaker.”
“He didn’t say anything like that,” Fen replied, and her face softened.
“Didn’t he? Oh...I’m surprised. You should hear some of the things he’s said to me! It’s just so sad – what’s your name?”
“It’s just so sad, Fen! We were best friends, you know? And then lovers...” she drifted off, staring out at the dark Grazelands. “Perhaps that was the mistake. Maybe if we had only been friends, he wouldn't hate me now. But it’s too late, everything is broken. I’m a fool to still...to still be here.”
“Why are you here, then?” Fen asked.
“I’m still here because of him!” she shouted, and Fen was sure someone in the surrounding yurts would wake. “Because he’s making a terrible mistake! His mother is a lunatic, and she’s going to make him do something incredibly suicidally insane, but it’s all lies! He won’t believe me…” She sniffed loudly and Fen was horrified to see her eyes were glistening with tears. “…and he barely even looks at me these days, but…I have to try. Because even if he acts like a complete idiot, and is horrible to me...he’s still my best friend…” The tears were pouring freely now. “…and I miss him!” She let out a terrible wail and threw herself into Fen’s arms. Somewhat shocked, Fen awkwardly patted Shani’s back.
“Um…please don’t cry.”
“I’m sorry,” she sniffed, pulling back. “I’m fine, really. And please, you mustn’t repeat any of this to Julan. He’d only get angry with me again. Anyway, I don’t want him to think I still care about him.” She straightened up. “I do have some pride left. And... thank you. For listening, I mean. There’s really no one I can talk to about this. And...you will look after Julan, won’t you? I’m scared for him, he really is making a terrible mistake. I’m glad he has a friend.”
“Of course,” Fen said, touched by her worry. “But…if I could ask…what mistake is he making?”
“So he’s told you, has he? About being the Nerevarine, I mean?” Fen nodded. “And all that stuff about his mother finding him in the wilderness as a baby? Ha...babies don’t come from rocks, you know, whatever Mashti says!”
“You don’t believe her?”
“Of course not! Because I know what really happened. And Mashti knows I know – that’s why she made Julan break off our relationship, when she realized that I had found out. She was afraid that I would manage to convince Julan.” She sighed. “I never did, though. That idiot believes anything she tells him.”
“What did really happen?”
“I can’t tell you here!” she hissed, glancing around. Fen decided that this was a useless gesture, because if someone wanted to listen in, they easily would have heard Shani before now. “I shouldn’t even be talking to you now...if Ahmabi were to hear us, she’d go mad. Anyway, I have to go hunting tomorrow morning. I’m not sure when I’ll be back, but I’ll try and send word to you somehow. When you meet me back here later, I’ll take you somewhere we can talk properly.” She straightened up. “It was nice to meet you, though.”
“Um…yes,” Fen said, smiling slightly. Shani grinned. “I’ll see you later.” Fen teleported back to the Ald Skar Inn, her mind filling with questions. If Mashti really was Julan’s mother…
“There you are,” Julan said as she appeared. “Gods, I hope Shani didn’t talk to you for too long. She hasn’t changed at all.”
“She’s all right,” Fen said, but Julan just rolled his eyes.

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