If you have any questions or comments, please email me at celestina.skymark@gmail.com

Saturday, September 24, 2011

I - The Assassin

Far away from the brightness and noise of Mournhold, the New Life Festival in Caldera was being celebrated in a similar fashion. Lights were strung across all the houses, people danced and laughed in the chill of the streets, and the doors of the local tavern were thrown open invitingly despite the cold. The cacophony of sound was dulled, however, inside the dimmed front room of a modest manor just inside the city, where a young Dunmer woman sat before the fire with her legs curled under her, a book open in her lap. Her eyes, however, were closed, the book unread, her head leaning against the wing of her armchair. The tea on the table beside her was undrunk, long grown cold, and the fire in the grate burned low. There was a general silence throughout the house, only permeated when a loud bang issued from outside, followed by several people cheering.

The woman’s eyes snapped open at this noise and she tensed suddenly, then relaxed upon realizing that she was far away from where her dream had been taking her – back to that endless climb through dust and ash beneath a blood-red sky. But the skies over Vvardenfell had been clear for nearly three months now, and that day was far behind her. Still…
Fen reluctantly stood, shivering as her bare feet touched the cold wood floor. Abandoning the book on her chair, she climbed a short flight of stairs to the second story of the house, pulling her dressing gown tightly around herself. In the small room that served as her study, the desk and tables were heaped with grants that needed reviewing, reports that needed signing, letters that needed reading. Just looking at the messy clutter of parchment made her eyes ache. She negligently turned her back on her work and continued into her bedroom, where the canopy bed with its thick ivory duvet beckoned temptingly. But Fen went straight to a solid-looking oak chest beneath the window, which opened with a key she kept in her pocket. She reached inside and pulled back the rectangular cover of guarhide that covered the objects there.
And there they were – an ornate brass gauntlet, a long dagger with a crystal blade, and a small black-and-gold hammer. Sitting on the floor of the chest tucked into the hide, as undisturbed as they had been since Fen had first put them there.
She closed the lid of the trunk with a sigh. She was restless, that was all. Her days had been completely consumed by work lately – she had barely been managing to balance her duties with the guild and her duties to Morrowind. When she and Julan Kaushibael had cleaned the last reported Sixth House base in Vvardenfell, she figured her life would belong to her again, that she would have time to study her own queries. But she had immediately been swept into a whirlwind of responsibility, and these days there was barely time to stop and breathe.
It was frustrating. Fen was certainly glad that her long journey to end Dagoth Ur’s reign was over, but she found herself irritated with the monotony her life had adopted, an endless flow of letters and documents and referrals that only added steadily to her workload. She found herself, strangely, longing for the days of walking through the quiet Ashlands with Julan, always with a goal in mind. Now, there was no perceivable end to her duties.
She turned around and leaned against the chest, staring out the window in the study, where fireworks flew up from the streets and exploded, accompanied by cheers and joyful cries of the people that gathered in the streets for the New Life festival. Fen touched the locket at her throat, feeling the tick of the clock enclosed beneath the fine silver. How long had it been now, since she had seen her grandmother? Over a year, Fen thought, running a callused finger along the curve of the locket. I’ve been in Vvardenfell for that long.
Exhausted, Fen let her head nod back against the chest and allowed her eyes to close.

* * *

Fen’s room was freezing. She opened her eyes groggily, still feeling sleep-deprived. It was dark – the candles were all hard and still. The unbearable chill seemed to be seeping up the stairs from the main level of the house. Outside, everything was quiet. The Festival had long been over.
Fen slowly got to her feet, shooting a glance out the window. If anything, her time in Vvardenfell had taught her that an interrupted sleep should never be dealt with lightly, and she silently picked up a silver dagger from the top of her dresser and slipped the Amulet of Shadows over her neck. Her feet padded silently on the icy wood floors as she crept down the stairs and peered around the corner into the dark entrance room. The front door was wide open, which showed the source of the cold. The entrance room appeared vacant, but Fen did not move from her position, watching carefully for movement.
There – a bit of shadow by the cold grate, picking through the ashes as if to see when there had last been a fire there. The shadow stood, briefly examined Fen’s cold tea on the table, then started to move quietly toward the staircase where Fen hid. She ducked out of the way, pushing herself up against the wall while the intruder passed within centimeters of her. She followed the person – guessing from their height she guessed it was a man – up the stairs, the dagger tight in her grip. The man seemed to know exactly where he was going – he passed silently through the study and into her bedroom, where her bed was neatly made and untouched. Here he paused, staring at the bed, and Fen took his momentary impediment as her cue to act.
She took several steps back and fired a moderately powerful fire spell, which lit up the room as it hurtled toward the intruder. He gasped, stumbling backward into her bedpost. He reached for something on his belt – it hissed through the air towards her, sharp and glinting in the moonlight that poured in from the window. Fen ducked – she felt the throwing star cut through the air above her, embed itself with a solid thunk in the wall. She threw another fire spell, suddenly aware that her Amulet of Shadows had slipped off somehow and she was fully visible.
The assassin drew a dagger and smoothly crossed the room towards her. Fen sidestepped, casting a simple drain health spell. He dropped to the floor before it hit him, rolled effortlessly to one side, and leapt up again, far more graceful than he had been initially. She didn’t want to use a spell like God’s Fire that would let off a blast that would engulf the whole room, but the assassin was moving quickly and she didn’t have much time to think. Hastily positioning herself by the stairwell, Fen mustered her energy and shot God’s Fire at him, immediately dropping to the ground and rolling down the stairs before the backlash from the spell could reach her. She mumbled a quick resist fire spell and curled up at the bottom of the stairs, ducking her head as the heat roared over her.
When it subsided, she hastened up and climbed the stairs again. Her bedroom was a mess – the walls were scorched and most of the furniture had been reduced to ash. The entire back of the room was gone its remaining edges being licked by flames, jaggedly blasted away from the rest of the house, letting the bitter cold envelop the room. The assassin was nowhere to be seen.
Fen quickly crossed the room to the opening – it looked like he had tried to escape through the window, but hadn’t made it far – a black-clothed figure lay immobile on the street among bits of charred wood and glass.
Fen hurried downstairs and outside, tying her dressing gown shut as she went around the house to where the assassin had fallen. She seized his helmet and pulled it roughly off, revealing a middle-aged Dunmer man with a thick, dark beard. He was still alive, though barely breathing.
“Who are you?” Fen demanded. The man stared blankly up at her. “Who sent you to kill me?” He did not answer, but his eyes slowly closed and his breathing stilled.
“Is there a problem here?” Fen turned, thinking it was a stupid question when one considered the fact that the ground was littered with debris and half the house above them had been blasted away. Three guards had appeared in the street. One had his bow out. “Someone reported loud noises coming from inside,” one said, and Fen stood, still holding the helmet.
“This man attacked me,” she said. “I’ve taken care of it.” Tucking the helm under her arm, Fen passed the guards and went back inside, shutting her door firmly. She lit a fire in the grate and sat down before it, examining the helmet carefully. It wasn’t the first time she had seen it. Ages ago, when she was an Evoker in the guild, she had been assaulted on her way to Maar Gan by a man wearing similar garb.
Fen closed her eyes. The Dark Brotherhood. That was what they had told her last time. The guard had told her to go to Mournhold to sort everything out, and Effe-Tei had sent her right back to Vvardenfell. But now she had been attacked again, and she had a feeling that whoever was trying to kill her would be more persistent than they had been last time. Abandoning the helmet on her chair, Fen climbed the stairs to try and repair her bedroom as best she could.
After only one hour of uncomfortable sleep in the spare bedroom, Fen dressed and made herself a cup of tea. While the water boiled, she went to her wardrobe and unearthed the battered leather shoulder bag she had used for nearly all of last year. It still carried a few spoiled potions and several dusty scraps of paper, as well as a pocket-sized copy of Azura and the Box. Fen pulled the book out of the bag, realizing that she had taken it from her first closet-sized room in Balmora and forgotten about it. As she started to flip through it, she found something bulky tucked into the front cover – it was a thick envelope, folded once and shoved roughly inside the book.
Curiously, Fen unfolded the letter. The broken red seal bore her family’s crest, and she suddenly knew what it was. The letter from Helseth, the last correspondence she had had with her father. She must have shut it in the book after she read it. Almost a year ago, she thought to herself.
Fen set the book aside and threw out the spoiled potions, replacing them with several fresh ones. She carried the bag downstairs and drank her tea quickly, finding a few spare loaves of bread and her old water skin. The old bag felt comfortable on her shoulder, and she smiled slightly at its familiar weight as she left the house, locking it with a key from her pocket. Caldera was still very quiet – most people were still asleep, recovering from the free ale of the New Life Festival. Fen went up the main road toward the guildhall, pulling her cloak more tightly around herself.
“Good morning, Arch-Mage,” Folms Mirel, the local alchemist said as she entered, pausing in his task of sorting raw ingredients into jars at the front table. “This is rather early for you.”
“I’m not going into Vivec today,” she told him, feeling gleeful at merely saying the words. She reached into her cloak and drew out a small, oblong blue stone. “I need to go to Indoranyon,” she said, handing the Master Propylon Index to him. “If it isn’t too much trouble.”
“Certainly, Arch-Mage,” Folms said, setting down the frost salts he had been weighing. Fen reached into her cloak again and took out a letter, which she had written the night before.
“And when the apprentices arrive, would you have one of them take this to Skink in Sadrith Mora?” Folms nodded and Fen set it on the table. “Thank you. Are you ready?”
“Yes, Arch-Mage.” Folms activated the Master Index in his right hand and reached out to Fen with his left. She took it, and Folms spoke a terse command. Then Fen dropped away from the Caldera guildhall, surrounded by blackness and motion. Seconds later, she was standing on the Propylon platform in the ancient Dunmer stronghold of Indoranyon. The vivid pink lights from the large pylons around her danced around the ceiling, casting irregular shadows upon the stone floor. Fen stepped off the platform and headed for the door.
The Grazelands hadn’t changed since Fen had last been there. The low, scrub-like trees and the waving, frost-coated grasses looked no different, even in the pale, early-morning light. Fen descended the stairs of the stronghold to the ground, and she quickly found the hard-packed dirt road and started north, feeling her heart swell with the familiar excitement of having a destination.
Only an hour passed before she arrived at Vos, the small Telvanni settlement on the coast. Fen went straight through and continued along the shoreline as the sun rose higher, reveling in walking the familiar path again. Soon she was climbing a hill, slipping on the wet grass, her breath short with the effort. As she came up over the crest of the hill, she saw the Ahemmusa camp spread out in the valley before her, with a few more yurts and guar, but otherwise unchanged.
The Ashlanders, it seemed, did not celebrate the New Life Festival, for many of them were already up and about, carrying baskets of fur, tanning hides, scrubbing clay dishes at a barrel of soapy water. As Fen entered the camp, three small children rushed toward her, tugging on her cloak excitedly.
“Uranabi!” Fen said, kneeling down so she was eye-level with them. “Teshpu! Mubdin! Look at how big you’ve all gotten!”
“It’s only been three months, Fen!” Uranabi said brightly. “You haven’t come to visit us at all.”
“I’m visiting now, aren’t I?” Fen replied, distracted, as she stood up. “Do any of you know where – ?”
Fen!” Fen was suddenly knocked sideways as someone collided with her, sending her sprawling to the ground.
“Sh – Shani?” Fen gasped, winded, as the children giggled. The woman who had bowled her over grabbed Fen’s cloak and pulled her upright, beaming. Shani looked just the same, her shaggy red hair amiss around her face, her eyes bright.
“Gods, Fen, it’s been ages!” Shani said brightly, grabbing Fen’s hands. “We could have used a visit.”
“I’ve been renting a house in Caldera for a bit,” Fen replied. “And I’ve been busy,” she added, brushing dust off her cloak.
“With what?”
“Well, someone tried to kill me yesterday,” Fen said nonchalantly. Shani’s eyes widened.
“Go away,” she said quickly to the three children behind them, and they shuffled off. “Are you serious?”
“I’m fine. But that’s kind of why I’m here.” Shani grinned.
“No time for idle visits to the Grazelands, hmm? There always has to be a reason.”
“I would visit all the time if it meant I could get away from the guild for a while,” Fen told her with a sigh. “I’ve been buried in work since Sun’s Dusk. Do you know where – ?”
“Where Julan is?” Shani finished, and Fen nodded. “He’ll be in his yurt,” she told Fen with a small smirk. “Come on, I’ll take you.”
Fen followed Shani through the camp, occasionally stopping as the Ahemmusa approached them and greeted her eagerly. The Ashlanders were easily the ones that had most benefitted from the return of the Nerevarine, and they were as grateful to Fen now as they had been three months ago. Shani and Fen ducked under the awning that marked the yurts belonging to the ashkhan and his gulakahns, and Shani went straight to the yurt in the middle, sweeping aside the flap and slipping inside, Fen right behind her.
The yurt was dark, the fire extinguished. A Dunmer man about Fen’s age slept spread-eagle on a bedroll near the back, snoring loudly, an empty mazte bottle in his limp hand and his dark hair disheveled. Shani went straight over and kicked him in the side.
“Julan!” she shouted, and he snorted once. Shani kicked him again and his eyes opened blearily.
“Shani…? What the hell…?”
“Fen’s here,” she said simply, pointing. Julan sat upright and his eyes widened.
“Fen!” he exclaimed, rubbing his eyes. He stood and stumbled into a table. “Ouch…I should move that.”
“Julan spent all night in Vos at the New Life Festival,” Shani said brightly, and Julan glared at her.
“You were there too,” he grumbled, roughly shoving the table out of the way.
“Yes, but I didn’t get thrown out for breaking four chairs. And I didn’t try to get back in by wrapping seaweed around my face and saying it was a beard.” Julan’s face flushed.
“Go away, Shani,” he said tersely, and she smirked and ducked out of the yurt.
“Been keeping busy, I see,” Fen said after a moment as Julan rubbed his head, watching her through bleary eyes.
“I have,” he said defensively, crossing his arms. Fen raised one eyebrow. “Well…kind of.” He glanced around the yurt, which was in a state of disarray. “Being the ashkhan is just…a lot different from what I’m used to.” Fen felt sudden relief at the fact that Julan was feeling the same way.
“Then I have a proposition for you,” she told him. Julan looked at her warily and she cleared her throat. “Come to Mournhold with me.” There was a brief pause.
“But Fen…” Julan said slowly. “Your father…”
“It’s been over a year,” she replied hastily. “I think I’ll be safe there by now. And there’s some business there that I’d like to clear up sooner rather than later.”
“What business?”
“The Dark Brotherhood attacked me for the second time last night.” Julan frowned.
“When was the first time?”
“Oh, it was ages ago. Before I met you. But I’d still like to do something about it. I completely incinerated my bedroom fighting the last assassin.” She paused. “And I want you to go with me.” Julan sighed heavily.
“Fen, I want to. You know I want to. But I can’t just go running off anymore. I have responsibilities now. The Ahemmusa depend on me.”
“Sinnammu can look over things again, can’t she?” Fen said earnestly. “Julan, I really don’t want to do this alone. And you’re the only other person I would want to take with me. Please.”
“Don’t you have a guild to look after?” Julan replied hotly.
“Are you really going to try and lecture me about responsibility?” Fen snapped irritably. “After you ran away and wallowed in a cave for two days before I hunted you down?”
“I just thought you would understand that I can’t go running off on adventures with you anymore, Fen! Being an ashkhan is a lot of work!”
“Oh, yes, I can tell from the way you were passed out with an empty mazte in your hand. Sounds dreadful.” Fen turned sharply to lift the tent flap.
“Fen!” She stopped and shot him a look over her shoulder. “I’m not saying…” he faltered and Fen raised one eyebrow. Julan sighed. “These past few months have been driving me insane. The exciting thing I’ve seen since Frostfall was a talking mudcrab that offered to buy my boots, and I think I was drunk.” Fen said nothing. “But…I can’t go with you. These people need me.”
“Oh, for gods’ sake, Julan!” The flap behind Fen flipped open and Shani appeared there. “Just go!”
“Were you eavesdropping?” Julan said quickly, growing red.
“Julan, Sinnammu and I can handle things here if you leave for a bit. Besides, since you and Fen got rid of Dagoth Ur, there’s been hardly anything to worry about.”
“Honestly, Julan, you’d be doing us all a favor.” For a moment, Julan just looked back and forth between Fen and Shani. Then he sighed.
“Ha!” Shani said triumphantly, flicking open the flap. “I knew you would!”
“Don’t listen at the door this time!” Julan snapped as the flap fell closed.
“It’s a bit of a long ride down to Ebonheart,” Fen said brightly. “So just let me know when you’re ready.” Fen ducked out of the yurt and reached into her bag, pulling out a worn ring with a green stone set into it. She hadn’t used Julan’s telepathy ring in nearly three months, and she felt a sense of satisfaction as she slipped it back onto her finger beneath the curved white gold of Moon-and-Star.

No comments:

Post a Comment