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

Saturday, October 1, 2011

II - The Dark Brotherhood

Fen’s feet touched solid ground. She kept her eyes closed, breathing in the sweet, familiar scent of Timsa-Come-By and feeling the sunlight warm her face. Slowly, she looked up, and found herself clasping Julan’s hand in one of several Reception Chambers of the Royal Palace of Mournhold. The chamber was empty and quiet, the late evening light filtering in gently from the rippled roseglass windows.
It had not taken them long to reach Ebonheart, and from there it had only been a matter of finding Asciene Rane, the Imperial Court mage, to transport them to the mainland just as Fen had gone all those months ago. Julan was quiet, staring around at the finely sewn tapestries that hung on the tiled walls and looking out-of-place in the elegance of the chamber. Fen let go of his hand and drifted over to the pink roseglass window, staring out at the quiet bustle of the Royal Courtyard, where couriers and pages drifted back and forth around the beech tree that stood in the courtyard’s centre. Fen let her eyes wander up to the top of the achingly familiar beech, where its pale green leaves shuddered in a slight breeze and threw dappled shadows down upon the clean-swept cobbles.
“We need to find Effe-Tei,” Fen finally said, reluctantly turning her back on the window. “He’s the court mage.”
“Won’t he tell your father that you’re here?” Julan asked skeptically.
“Effe-Tei is my friend,” Fen told him firmly. “He should be here somewhere.” She started toward one of the doors, but Julan caught her arm.
“Fen…I don’t think it’s necessarily a good idea to go wandering around the palace. Don’t you think you’ll run into someone that will recognize you?” Fen lowered her hand hesitantly. “Look, let’s just go out into the city. It’ll be safer for you there than in the palace. And that’ll give us a chance to see if anyone knows about you.” Fen looked past Julan at the achingly familiar walls of the Reception Chamber, at the door she knew led to a long hall that ended with the Throne Room. The thought of her grandmother being so close made her knees weak.
“You’re right,” she said finally. “We can go to the inn in Godsreach.” She cast one final, longing glance at the welcoming silence of the Reception Chamber, then pushed open the door. And in a second, they were out into the rose-scented air of Mournhold, where the late evening sun warmed the cobbles and tall trees stretched above the city walls.
The Plaza was comprised of several wide cobblestone roads leading from the different districts of the city to a round circle in the center, where an enormous statue of Almalexia battling the Daedric prince Mehrunes Dagon stood on a raised platform over a fountain. Where there were not streets, there were stretches of bright grass and long planters of Timsa-Come-By, occasionally stopped to make room for stone benches. No vendors were allowed in the Plaza and there were no buildings here, so the space acted much like a park. Fen remembered sitting in the window seat in her drawing room, watching as people would sit on the edges of the fountain or spread blankets in the grassy areas to sit.
The air was only the faintest bit chill, and Fen recalled fondly that Mournhold was quick to revert to spring, even this early in the new year. She led the way through idly strolling groups to the tall arch that led into Godsreach.
“This place is a bit extreme, don’t you think?” Julan muttered, glancing over his shoulder at the picturesque tranquility of the Plaza.
“I think it’s beautiful,” Fen said defensively, stepping through the arch into the next district. Godsreach was significantly more bustling than the Plaza, being the central residential district of the city. The apartments and manors were built on raised platforms so that the street was at a lower level than the buildings. Colored paper still hung, somewhat dejectedly, from a few lampposts, remnants of the New Life Festival, but beside that it was awake with a peaceful sort of fervor as people made their way home from the excursions of the day.
“The inn’s just up here,” Fen said, mounting a small set of stairs up onto the finely paved sidewalk. She had never been inside the Winged Guar, and where Fenara might have quaked at the thought of entering the tavern, Fen walked in with ease. The Winged Guar was pleasantly bustling with people stopping in for a drink before retiring home for the day, though Fen opted to go straight to bed. She gave Julan a few coins for dinner, then shut her door firmly on the noise of the bar, relaxing in the silence.
It was the first night she had slept in Mournhold for months. The plain green walls of her room were far from the tiled splendour of the palace, but they still filled her with a mixture of relief and dread. Relief at being in her city again and dread at not being welcome there. Fen sat down on her bed and examined the elegant twist of Moon-and-Star, the shimmering ring that never left her finger, symbolizing her position as the Nerevarine. She carefully slipped it off her finger, cradling the thin metal band in her palms. With a slight sigh, Fen wrapped Moon-and-Star in a square of burlap and tucked it into her pack. Julan was right – it would be best for both of them if no one recognized her, as Princess Fenara or as Lady Fen.
Early the next morning, Fen dressed in an old robe and hung her staff across her shoulders. She roused Julan and he grumpily followed her out into the pale light of Godsreach, where the rest of Mournhold’s inhabitants were slowly starting to go about their days.
“We’re going to have to find someone to ask other than the High Ordinators,” Fen murmured as a passing Ordinator glared darkly at her.
“Why do they hate you so much?” Julan asked, bewildered.
“Mournhold’s loyalty is divided,” Fen explained as they passed under the arch into the Plaza. “The more liberal citizens openly denounce Tribunal worship. The conservative half supports Almalexia and looks down on anyone who doesn’t. And the largest group are the people that dislike them both. I have a feeling the Ordinators here know me.”
“They wouldn’t tell your father, would they?”
“Of course not,” Fen said scornfully. “They hate my father. As do a great number of the city. And the rest of Morrowind, come to think of it.” They were just starting to cross the wide expanse of the Plaza when Fen heard her name, shouted suddenly across the space.
“Fenara!” She tensed instinctively and turned quickly in time to see a small, round-stomached Imperial man with a load of tufty white hair hurrying towards her. Fen relaxed slightly.
“Hello, Plitinius,” she said, smiling despite herself.
“My dear girl, what are you doing in Mournhold again?” he asked excitedly, gripping her hands in his. “We all thought we’d never see you again! And what of these ridiculous rumours of you being the Nerevarine?” Fen glanced nervously around, but they appeared to be out of earshot of the nearest guard.
“I am,” she said quietly, and the old man’s eyes grew wide. “But Plitinius, you musn’t tell anyone at the Palace that I’m here. Not even Grandmother.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it, Fenara! But might I say, my dear, that I would simply love to write your biography when all this messy business with your father is over. Or perhaps a novel? A stage show?”
“I like the idea of my father’s conflict with me simply being a trifle in the way of your literature, Plitinius,” Fen said wryly, and Plitinius grinned.
“Every conflict is just a hillock to be surmounted! But please, Fenara, do not keep me on my toes! Why have you returned to Mournhold?”
“The Dark Brotherhood has been trying to have me killed,” Fen said, dropping her voice to a whisper and moving a little further away from the flow of people that was growing as the city awoke.
“The Brotherhood?” Plitinius’s face drained of colour. “But surely it’s a mistake! Why would anyone wish you dead?”
“I’ve made a lot of enemies since I left,” Fen said, trying not to think of her father as one of them. An idea struck her. “Plitinius, you’ve lived in this city for ages. Do you know where I could find the Dark Brotherhood?”
“I have heard rumours,” he whispered, leaning close, “that their base is deep beneath the streets of the Great Bazaar, in the farthest reaches of the sewers. But Fenara, you musn’t put yourself in danger!”
“I think I can handle it,” she replied with a small smile. “Can you tell me how to get into the sewers?”
“The entrance is in the far corner of the Great Bazaar. But don’t let anyone see you going in. They’re not illegal to explore, but usually the only people that go down there are the ones with something to hide.”
“Thank you, Plitinius,” Fen said gratefully. “I’ve got to go, but I’ll see you again soon, all right?”
“Be careful down there, Fenara,” he said, his bouncing tone gone. “It would break your grandmother’s heart if anything happened to you.” His kissed her hand cordially and turned, hurrying through the arch into Godsreach.
“Who the hell was that?” Julan asked, gazing after him.
“Plitinius Mero. He’s a good friend of my grandmother’s. Come on, the Bazaar is just over here.” Fen had intentionally dismissed the subject quickly – thinking of Plitinius made her remember of those countless occasions she had sat with him and Barenziah, and thinking of them made her heart ache.
They passed through a second arch on the other end of the Royal Courtyard entrance and entered the Great Bazaar, which was so alive with extraordinary sights and smells that Fen’s knees felt weak. The Bazaar opened on a wide walkway that stretched across it, and just the walkway was crammed with street vendors shouting their wares at anyone who passed. Below, the wide plaza of the Bazaar was a confusion of color. A powerful mixture of smells crept up to where Fen and Julan stood – saffron, fire salts, lavender incense, and the sweet perfume of Timsa-Come-By. Despite the early hour, all manner of people were crammed into the Bazaar, pushing from stall to stall, flitting in and out of the row of shops on one side. The long stone benches before the outdoor theatre were crowded with people, and they cheered excitedly as two actors onstage parried with fake swords.
“This way,” Fen muttered, forcing her eyes away from the fantastic delights of the Bazaar and heading down a less-populated street where she knew the city’s canal ran along the walls. In a tiny alcove in the wall, a round, unlabeled trapdoor was set into the ground, worn from frequent use.
“Do you see anyone?” Fen asked, glancing around. Julan shook his head, and Fen pulled the door open and slipped in first, her feet finding the rungs of the ladder below.
The stench was the first thing that hit her – in fact, it hit her so powerfully that her hands slipped on the slimy ladder. It was easily a thousand times worse than the odor in the canalworks of Vivec – these sewers were a sickening blend of urine, disease, old meat, and pure muck that made an unpleasant lump form in Fen’s throat as she splashed down into the waist-deep water at the foot of the ladder.
“Ugh,” she said, moving away from the trapdoor so Julan could climb down. The trapdoor slammed shut, blocking out the ray of bright light that had been filtering down.
“I think I’m going to be sick,” Julan said, gripping his nose, his voice echoing down the dank tunnel. “This place smells worse than Shani’s armor after a hunt.”
“Let’s go up that way,” Fen said in a strained tone. “It looks like we can get out of the water, at least.” They splashed out of the sewage and climbed a short slope upwards to a long, empty hall that was still permeated by the foul smells. The light here was dim and greenish, and Fen slipped the Ring of Azura on her finger to help brighten the dark sewers. They passed an unfortunate lump of something that was covered in flies and rats, and Fen felt her stomach lurch.
They had barely gone ten paces when an Ancestor Ghost flew at them, its screeches bouncing off the walls. Two of Julan’s enchanted arrows quickly put an end to it, but it still made Fen uneasy. They continued down the twisting hallways, encountering more and more undead that attempted, unsuccessfully, to halt their progress. Before long, the slime-covered green walls had succumbed to rough-hewn rock, and they reached a worn door set into the stone, barely hanging on by one hinge.
“How often do you think normal people come down here?” Julan asked as Fen broke the door off its hinge and threw the warped wood aside.
“They don’t,” she replied, ducking through the small doorway. Almost immediately, they were accosted by a dark-clothed figure. Fen fired God’s Frost at him, and he dropped dead almost instantly. “I think we’ve found the Dark Brotherhood,” she said, going to examine his armor. They left him on the ground and continued down the tunnel, meeting several more assassins along the way. They soon reached a short ledge overlooking a tall cavern, at the bottom of which a great amount of rubble had gathered. Fen pushed Julan back and they crouched out of sight of the assassins milling about below.
Fen was just about to fire a powerful God’s Fire into the pit when she was suddenly pushed roughly from behind, tumbling down and landing in the centre of the black-cloaked men. She heard a shout, and Julan landed beside her with an unpleasant crunch.
“Well,” one of them said, his voice muffled by his helm. “Looks like we don’t even have to go anywhere for this job, boys.” Someone grabbed her from behind, pulling her to her feet.
“Release us,” she snarled, struggling against her captor. “You don’t know who you’re dealing with.” A ripple of gruff laughter rang through the assembled assassins.
“We’re dealing with our most difficult contract in a while,” someone said, and there was a murmur of agreement. Fen deliberately struggled forward, forcing the one who held her to move up a few paces.
“But we don’t have to do much now, do we?” another called, and the assassins chuckled darkly. Fen let herself go limp, and the hold on her slackened. She seized the opportunity to stamp down, hard, on his foot. There was a sickening crunch as he released her and she wasted no time in shooting a spell of God’s Fire into the centre of the group. Julan’s hand found her’s in the confusion and they ducked to the ground as heat swooshed over them. When the air was cool again, they stood, surrounded by the charred bodies of the Dark Brotherhood.
“Gods, Fen,” Julan muttered, massaging his wrist. “I thought we were dead for a minute.”
“These assassins are too vain,” Fen said, brushing dust off her robe. “They could have killed me in a second if they hadn’t dawdled so. Are you all right?”
“I think my wrist is broken,” he told her, wincing, and Fen carefully took hold of it and set the bone with a spell. “Thanks,” Julan murmured as Fen lowered his hand and glanced around. There was an odd structure just to her left, with a twisting roof and a low door set into it.
“This is Old Mournhold,” she said, walking over to the door. “The crypts look like this as well. What are they doing down here?”
“Let’s see, then,” Julan replied, and Fen pushed open the door and found a short, empty corridor with a single door at one end. When she opened it, they found a squat Dunmer man sitting with his backs to them before a firepit and wearing the same dark armour as the assassins, sans the helmet. Almost as soon as they entered, he leapt up with surprising agility, pulling a bow from his back and firing a shot straight at Fen.
It struck her in the shoulder. Fen cried out, stumbling back as she felt poison start to coarse through her body. Julan rushed forward, drawing Han-Sashael’s blade and starting to parry with the Dunmer. Fen seized the arrow and yanked it out, gasping, her vision starting to blur. She mustered the energy to cast a spell that would combat the poison, and her focus swiftly returned. Fen quickly summoned a Flame Atronach to help Julan. A final frost spell and the man stumbled to the ground. Fen hurried forward and the dying man reached up, gripping her wrist.
“Who are you?” Fen demanded, but he squeezed his eyes shut, shook his head, and gazed up at her again.
“Tell my liege…I have failed…h…” his hand slackened and slumped to the floor and his eyes turned glassy and blank. There was a long silence.
“See if he has anything,” Julan suggested as Fen’s  Frost atronach disappeared, leaving the room considerably warmer. “You know, that tells us who he is.” Fen pulled the quiver of poison arrows of his back and handed them to Julan, then pulled off the man’s armor, searching. There was a small satin pouch of gold tied to his belt that looked oddly familiar, but Fen brushed it aside and pulled out a roll of parchment. It was marked with a blank purple seal that had been broken, and Fen unfolded the parchment, standing and holding it toward the fire so she could read the words written there, in a spidery hand:

The Bearer of this document, under special dispensation of the Night Mother, who has entered in a contract in perpetuity with H, is given special dispensation to execute Fenara, also called Fen, a Dunmer recently residing on the island of Vvardenfell. In accordance with all laws and traditions, the afore-mentioned personage will be executed in the name of H in the most expedient manner possible. All services of the Dark Brotherhood are at the disposal of the Bearer of this binding and non-disputable document.

Fen read the writ again twice, unwilling to let her eyes linger on the H that seemed to call out at her from the page.
“Well, it doesn’t matter now,” she said hastily, throwing the parchment on the ground. “Their leader is dead, who asked them to do it isn’t important.” She started out, but Julan passed her and picked up the rolled parchment, reading it once. Fen paused, bracing herself.
“Fen…” Julan said slowly, looking up at her.
“There are probably thousands of people in Mournhold whose initial is H,” she said, her voice climbing a few octaves. “It doesn’t mean anything! Let’s just go.”
But Julan stayed where he was, clutching the letter in one hand.
“You have to tell the guards, Fen.”
“It wasn’t him,” she whispered, her voice shaking. “I know what you’re thinking. But it wasn’t him Julan, he wouldn’t try to kill me.” Julan said nothing, just stared at her sadly. “Say something!” Fen shouted, her hands balling into fists. “It wasn’t him, my father wouldn’t want me dead!” The words were like a knife in her side, sharp and sudden, and she collapsed to her knees, burying her face in her hands. Everything was wrong.

No comments:

Post a Comment