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Saturday, April 23, 2011

XXV - The Eribenimsun Camp

Though Fen was comforted by the fact that three Ashlander tribes put their wholehearted trust in her, apprehension still hung around her like a storm cloud. She knew they believed she could do it, and she knew Julan and Shani shared the same sentiment – but she was the one that wasn’t sure. Every time she glanced down and saw Moon-and-Star glimmering on her finger, she felt a shudder of unease in the pit of her stomach at the thought of what she would eventually have to do.
They packed up the tent early the next morning and began the long walk south through the Grazelands. She let Julan and Shani fill the silence with their chatter as she aimlessly watched the cloud-scudded blue sky. There was a faint breeze, and the tall grasses waved serenely over the hard-packed dirt path. Occasionally they would pass a merchant and pack guar or another small group of travelers, but for the most part they seemed quite alone under the vast sky.
They stopped for lunch as the sun reached its zenith, white and glaring at the top of the sky. Fen found a loaf of bread in her bag and tossed it to Julan, sitting down on a flat rock and pulling her map out from her bag. She carefully recalled the curves and twists of the road and moved her quill along the map, shifting it to get a better angle.
“So after we get the Erabeninsum,” Julan was saying as he struggled to tear the bread apart.
“Julan, it’s Erabenimsun, not Erabeninsum,” Shani corrected him, reaching over and grabbing the bread. She tore it easily into thirds and held one out to Fen. “And you can’t just assume that they’re going to be all for Fen being the Nerevarine. Don’t you remember that time the Zainab hunters ran into our camp yelling that the Erabenimsun were attacking their camp?”
“That doesn’t mean anything,” Julan said dismissively, waving his chunk of bread at Shani before tearing off a bite. He sat down on a splintered log beside the path. “Tha Erienium’ll dove Fan.”
“What?” Shani asked, turning around to stare at him. He swallowed. “The Erabeninsum will love Fen. Everybody does.”
“Erabenimsun, Julan!” Shani exclaimed, throwing her bread at him. It hit him in the head and rolled onto his lap. She sat down on the rock and peered over Fen’s shoulder at the map.
“How close are we, Fen?” Julan asked, shoving Shani’s bread into his mouth.
“I’d say another three hours,” Fen said distractedly, adding a few arcs alongside the trail on her map to represent the hills as Shani smacked Julan upside the head.
“You’re pretty good at that,” she remarked after a pause. “The map, I mean.” Fen decided against telling her that that was because she had been made to sketch maps of Morrowind and Tamriel from memory since the age of twelve and remained silent.
Anyway,” Julan said, glowering at Shani and massaging the back of his head. “After we get the Erabenimsun, we have the Fourth Trial down.”
“The Fifth,” Fen said. “The Fourth Trial is the Great Houses, which is what I’m worried about.” Fen finished drawing the path and folded the map, slipping it back into her bag.
“Why?” Shani asked.
“Because the Ashlanders have been waiting for the Nerevarine for ages, but the Great Houses are faithful to the Tribunal.” Fen frowned. “Especially the Redoran, which is the House I’m planning on starting with. And if I mess up with just one councilor, I’m done for.”
“Why not go to another House first, then?” Julan suggested, picking at something in the bottom of his boot. “Maybe the Redoran will be more receptive then.”
“Nibani suggested I start with the Redoran,” Fen said firmly. “The Hlaalu are thieves and liars, and the Telvanni are thousand-year-old wizards. Redoran’s going to be my best bet, I’m afraid.” Fen glanced up at the sun. “Let’s keep going,” she muttered, and they stood and continued on their way, soon leaving the comfort of the sun-streaked grasses and moving into the Ashlands to the south. This region still gave Fen the same uneasiness it had when she had first come to Vvardenfell. The sloping mountains that blew ash off their tops when the wind came, the cliffracers gliding silently between the foyadas, the mournful, echoing moan of wild silt striders. Everything about the Ashlands put her on edge.
After a few hours of walking through the nearly deserted foyada, the gray skies began to churn with a familiar dusty red and the wind started to pick up, sending scribs scuttling into their burrows and cliff racers flying anxiously back to the nests they built in the caverns of the mountains, screeching warnings to one another.
“Shouldn’t we stop?” Shani said, glancing at the sky nervously. “If there’s going to be an ashstorm, we ought to set up the tent before it hits.”
“We’re nearly there,” Fen assured them, picking up her pace slightly. “I’m sure we’ll beat the storm.” Fen, to her relief, was correct, and they arrived at the Erabenimsun camp just as ash began to choke the air. The camp was cleverly erected in a deep bowl-like valley so that the walls of the ridge around them shielded the cluster of yurts from the ashstorm. As they came into the yurts, the Ashlanders going about their business glared at them, stepped back when they approached, and whispered behind their hands.
“Nibani said we should speak to the wise woman before the ashkhan,” Fen muttered, leading the way to the largest yurt. A man wearing a chitin helmet blocked them.
“You outlanders have no business here,” he snarled. “Get out before we run you through and feed you to the cliffracers.”
“We do have business here,” Fen said firmly. The man glared at her through the eyepiece of his helmet, his eyes hard and cold.
“You are Fen. The one that calls herself the Nerevarine. The outlander,” he spat.
“We have business,” Fen repeated. “Move away.”
“Take them to Ulath-Pal!” someone shouted, and there was a murmur of agreement.
“Move away,” Fen said again, her voice rising. “We need to speak with the wise woman.”
“Outlanders have no place here!” the man in the helmet shouted, and he drew a lethal-looking jinkblade from his belt. Fen was ready to fight back when the tent flap behind the man swished open, revealing a severe-looking Dunmer woman with her dark hair knotted behind her head and her black lips turned down.
“Tinti,” she barked in a sharp, loud voice. The man in the helmet faltered. “Lower your weapon,” the wise woman said. “These three are under my protection.”
“Lover of outlanders,” Tinti hissed under his breath, but he sheathed his blade anyway.
“Come,” the woman said curtly, holding back the tent flap but not looking at them. Fen, Julan, and Shani ducked into her yurt.
“You have no right,” they heard Tinti saying. “They are trespassers.”
“You have no right to slay them,” the woman replied. “Now leave, or I will speak to Ulath-Pal.” The flap fluttered and the woman appeared. Her yurt was spacious and dim, hung with guar skins and lined with bedrolls. “Sit,” she said, and they sat, cross-legged, before the fire burning between the centerbeams. “So,” the wise woman said, surveying Fen. “You are the outlander that says you are the Nerevarine.”
“Yes.” Fen showed her Moon-and-Star, the Teeth of the Urshilaku, the Madstone of the Ahemmusa, the Thong of the Zainab. “And to complete the Fifth Trial of the Nerevarine, I must be named such by your tribe.”
“Never. Not while Ashkhan Ulath-Pal and his war-loving Erabenimsun live,” she replied at once. “They all hate Outlanders, and are proud and haughty, and will never suffer an Outlander to rule them. If you would be Nerevarine of the Erabenimsun, you must kill Ulath-Pal and his supporters, the gulakahns Ahaz, Ranabi, and Ashu-Ahhe.”
“But –” Fen started.
“Do not interrupt me,” the wise woman said sharply, and Fen fell silent. “Then you must help me make peace-loving Erabenimsun Gulakahn Han-Ammu our ashkhan. Ashkhan Han-Ammu could then name you Nerevarine Erabenimsun.
“But before anything else can be done, you must first eliminate Ulath-Pal and his supporters. Then you should come speak with me, and we will discuss further how you might be named Erabenimsun Nerevarine. For I am Manirai, and I can give you counsel on how this might be done.” Fen could sense Julan and Shani staring at Manirai incredulously. To kill an Ashlander chief and his gulakahns was not only an act of sacrilege to the Ashlanders, but would undoubtedly be difficult as well.
“Tell me about Ulath-Pal,” Fen said.
“Ulath-Pal is always in his yurt, protected by his bodyguard, Gulakahn Ahaz. I am just a weak woman, and I am sure you would know best, but I would kill Ahaz first, the weaker of the two, and if I had secret magicks and powers, I would use them to preserve me while I defend against two enemies at once.”
“Thank you,” Fen said, and they stood and left the yurt.
“She wants us to kill a crazy ashkahn and all his mates!” Julan said incredulously as they left the yurt. Shani stamped, hard, on Julan’s foot.
“Shut up, you idiot!” she hissed. Tinti was sitting outside a yurt, watching them as he sharpened his jinkblade with a stone.
“Right,” Fen whispered, pulling Julan and Shani under the awning that marked the tents of the leaders of the tribe. “You two wait here.”
“What?” Julan and Shani said together.
“I’ll be casting spells,” Fen explained quickly. “And it’s a tight space, and I don’t want either of you to get caught in the crossfire.”
“We’re coming in with you, Fen,” Shani said gravely, and Julan nodded. Their faces were set. Fen knew there would be no convincing them otherwise. They stepped bravely into the yurt behind her, and Ulath-Pal and Ahaz turned to look at them from where they had been speaking near the fire. Ulath-Pal was sharp-faced, with dark, menacing eyes and a carefully trimmed beard around his dark lips. His arms outside his chitin cuirass were bare, and Fen noticed that they were thick with ropes of muscle. Ahaz didn’t look nearly as intimidating, but he still scowled at them, showing his broken teeth.
“What the hell do you want?” Ulath-Pal growled, rising slowly and curling a hand around the hilt of his blade. Ahaz merely gave a gravely chuckle – he evidently did not think an unarmored Dunmer woman and her two shabby Ashlander companions would be much of a threat.
“My name is Fen,” she said bravely. “And I have come concerning the matter of the Nerevarine prophecies.”
“Well,” Ulath-Pal said lowly. “This presents a problem that is easy to solve.” With that, he drew his blade from his belt and stepped easily across the yurt towards Fen. Fen flung her arm out, keeping Julan from leaping at Ulath-Pal, and allowed the ashkhan to strike a shallow cut across her cheek so that she could not be blamed for his murder. She had managed to cast a weak shield spell so that the blade did not do her any serious harm, but she still felt the painful stinging in her cheek and blood starting to trickle down the curve of her jaw. Fen realized Shani had moved out of the way and was sparring with Ahaz, leaving her and Julan to fight Ulath-Pal.
Fen had planned to use a spell of God’s Fire to be rid of both the ashkhan and his guard, but it was out-of-the-question with Julan and Shani in the yurt as well. It had only worked on Ahmabi because they had both been behind her and therefore out of range of the blast. So Fen summoned a frost atronach to aid them and stood back, letting Julan and the enormous atronach, whose head grazed the ceiling of the yurt, take on Ulath-Pal. She instead moved to help Shani with Ahaz, taking out the Staff of Magus and brought it down on Ahaz’s head, the combination of the impact and the drain health spell killing him.
They turned to Julan and Ulath-Pal, who were still dueling fiercely with the help of the atronach. There wasn’t much room for her and Shani to get in and help, so they just stood back, Fen ready to summon another daedra if need be.
But it was unnecessary, for Julan gave a triumphant cry as he found a chink in Ulath-Pal’s armor and put Han-Sashael’s tanto straight through the ashkahn’s chest. Ulath-Pal sank to his knees, his eyes hard and glassy as stared at Julan, who stepped back. The ashkhan fell curled to the floor at the feet of the frost atronach, who disappeared after a few seconds.
“That was incredible, Julan,” Shani said quietly. Julan didn’t answer, but wiped Han-Sashael’s tanto on Ulath-Pal’s pants and put it away.
“Come on,” Fen said, lifting the tent flap and touching her cheek tenderly. There was no point in wasting a potion on a small scratch. “Let’s take care of Ranabi and Ashu-Ashe. I don’t think we’ll be wanting to spend the night here.” The other two gulakahns did not pose nearly as much of a threat as Ulath-Pal had, and were dispatched more easily.
“You know, Julan,” Fen said as they crossed to the last gulakahn’s yurt. “I think we can safely say you don’t need me as a trainer anymore.”
Han-Ammu was sitting with his back to the entrance, stitching up a hole in the shirt that he had in his lap.
“Gulakahn Han-Ammu?” Fen said, stepping inside. Han-Ammu jumped, then clenched his fists, avoiding their gaze.
“I know it’s women’s work, Ranabi, just leave me be. You’ve bothered me enough today.”
“Ranabi’s dead,” Julan said bluntly, and Han-Ammu turned. His pained expression changed into bewilderment.
“My name is Fen,” she offered, sitting down beside him.
“You’re the outlander,” he said at once. “The outlander that’s saying you’re the Nerevarine.” Wordlessly, Fen held out her hand, showing him Moon-and-Star.
“Gods,” Han-Ammu breathed, his hands fluttering around Fen’s as if he was afraid to touch the ring. “This is a thing of legend.”
“Do you still doubt that I am the Nerevarine?” Fen asked, and Han-Ammu shook his head quickly. “Then you must help me.”
“I don’t care what Manirai says,” Han-Ammu replied at once. “I’m not interested. I don’t want to be ashkhan. I’m weak and stupid and the Erabenimsun don’t like me anyway. I would just make a fool of myself.”
“Here,” Julan said from behind Fen, tossing a long, dark green robe at Han-Ammu. He caught it, glanced at Julan suspiciously, then shook it out and held it up.
“Yes, I recognize this,” he said quietly. “It is the robe of Erur-Dan the wise. It was handed down to Ranabi through his family.”
“Julan!” Fen exclaimed, turning to look at him sharply. “You just took that off his body?”
“Well it’s not like he was going to use it!” Julan replied defensively.
“I’m sorry,” Han-Ammu said, folding up the robe and holding it out to Fen. “I can’t be ashkhan. Not even with this.” Fen took the robe, folding it over her arm.
“It’s fine,” she said, and Shani glanced at her suddenly.
“What?” Julan said, appalled. Han-Ammu looked puzzled.
“You aren’t – you aren’t going to even try?”
“We did,” Fen said simply. “But it seems you are adamant in your desire not to be ashkhan.” Fen stood. “But – might I just say, Gulakahn, before we take our leave, that I understand completely.”
“You – you do?” Han-Ammu blinked.
“Of course,” Fen said warmly. “You don’t want to be embarrassed. It makes perfect sense. Of course, the path of the Nerevarine has been broken, for without the Erabenimsun’s blessing, I can never fulfill the Fourth Trial, and Morrowind will succumb to the Blight and Dagoth Ur’s monsters. It will spread across the land, and no one will be spared from Dagoth Ur’s terror. Morrowind will become a diseased wasteland, and everyone in it now will die.” Fen smiled brightly. “But if you’d be too embarrassed, I understand completely. Thank you for your hospitality.” Fen turned and started to lift up the tent flap.
“Wait!” Han-Ammu called nervously. Fen looked back at him. “Maybe – maybe I can be ashkhan.”
“Are you sure?” Fen asked. “Because I wouldn’t want you to humiliate yourself.”
“I’m sure!” Han-Ammu said quickly. “Um – yes – I’m quite sure.”
“Then stop blubbering,” Julan said briskly, grabbing the robe from Fen and thrusting it at Han-Ammu. The Dunmer caught the robe and held it up for a moment, surveying it in silence. Then he slipped it over his head and put his arms through the sleeves, letting the green fabric rest on his shoulders.
“Thank you,” Han-Ammu said quietly. “Your lesson is clear. Now, with Ulath-Pal dead, I hold the fate of the tribe in my hands, and I must accept that responsibility. Thank you for your lesson. I shall be Ashkhan of the Erabenimsun. And I shall name you Nerevarine.” He went to a chest in the back of his yurt and opened it, taking out a wide leather belt with a silver clasp. “I shall do my best to amend the dark reputation of the Erabenimsun. And as my first action as chief, I now name you, Fen, Erabenimsun Nerevarine, Champion of the Erabenimsun, and Protector of the People.” He held the belt out to Fen, and she took it, feeling its energy rush down her spine.
“Thank you,” Fen said quietly, carefully tucking the belt away. “You will be a great ashkahn, Han-Ammu.”
It had grown late since they arrived at the Erabenimsun camp and the ashstorm was still raging fiercely outside the protective bowl of the cluster of yurts. Not wanting to spend too long in a camp where they had just slain most of the leaders, they prepared to teleport back to Ald’ruhn.
“Here, Shani,” Fen said, holding out her hand. “You can teleport with me.”
“Actually…” Shani said slowly, wringing her hands. “I think I’m going to go back to the Ahemmusa camp for a while. Traveling with you two has been great and all, but…I’m no warrior. I need some time to convalesce. You don’t mind, do you?”
 “Of course not,” she replied. “Just let me know anytime you want to tag along again, all right?”
“Sure,” Shani replied, breaking into a smile. “I’ll see you two later then. Don’t get yourself killed.” She flashed them a cheery grin, then cast recall and disappeared.
Fen and Julan teleported out of the fierce winds and found themselves in the warm, relaxed quiet of the Ald Skar Inn.
“Gods, I’m tired,” Julan yawned, pulling off his cuirass and dropping it on a table. “I’m sleeping in tomorrow.”
“Not if you want to come with me, you aren’t,” Fen replied, counting out money for two rooms. “If we want to get the support of all of the Redoran councilors in one day, we’re going to have to start early.” Julan looked cross, but said nothing as the publican passed him a room key. Fen left him a few septims for something to eat, then went straight to her room to peel off her ashen robes and leave them in a dusty pile on the floor. She extinguished the candles and sat down on the edge of her bed, running her finger along the curve of Moon-and-Star.
It had become so easy for her to kill. To end the life of another Mer. She remembered the first time she had done it, when she had been attacked by the Dark Brotherhood assassin on her way to Maar Gan. How it had shaken her so badly, how she had barely been able to sleep.
Fen lay back on the bed, crossing her hands over her abdomen and staring up at the red-and-white tiled ceiling. Surely it was her job to kill. It was her destiny. Something that couldn’t be avoided.
“But why me?” Fen whispered to herself. “Why was I chosen for this?” It could have been someone like Julan, who had been trailed from birth to be a warrior. Or someone like her grandmother, who seemed to understand everything about the world they lived in. But something had happened and Fen had been set on this course. She lifted her hand to stare at Moon-and-Star.

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