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Saturday, June 23, 2012

XXI - Return to Mournhold

White light enveloped the centre of the platform. The Hands of Almalexia standing around it suddenly straightened, lowered their eyes in the position of attention and respect. When the light cleared, none of them looked up to see that it was not their goddess that had returned, but rather a young woman, standing silently in the middle of Almalexia’s platform, her robe charred and torn and covered in muck and blood. Her skin was scratched and bleeding, her hair tangled and matted with sweat, every inch of her body aching. Upon her belt hung Trueflame and Hopesfire, the twin blades. The Mazed Band rested on her finger beside Moon-and-Star. And in her arms she carried a clay jar, sealed at the top. Silently, Fen passed the silent Hands and walked through the reception chamber, ignoring the stares of the priests and Ordinators there.

She pushed through the door and out into the city, expecting to be caught in the thick of the ashstorm – but rather, she tasted the familiar, clean, sweet air of Mournhold. Fen paused on the broad terrace, staring around. The ashstorm was gone, but it had not gone without leaving its mark. Everything was still coated in a thick layer of ash. The trees were still withered and shrunken and the gardens around the Temple lay still and dead. But there were people in the streets now, staring up at the clear, dusky sky in surprise and relief, slowly venturing back out of their refuges into the city once more.
Before Fen could start down the stairs, a slender figure began to materialize before her, like a person walking out of the fog. Fen saw swirling blue silk, thick, dark hair, wide, outstretched arms. She had seen this figure before.
“Azura,” Fen said, and her voice was hoarse.
You have done well, mortal. The death of Almalexia is a boon for all of Morrowind, though it may take time for this to be understood. She would have betrayed the Dunmer as surely as she betrayed all those she loved. This was her curse, and this was her undoing.” Fen lowered her eyes – she understood. The loss of the Heart of Lorkhan had been too much for Almalexia to bear. That was what had driven her to madness. “Weep not for Sotha Sil,” Azura continued, for he shed his mortality long ago, and I am certain his death was no small relief to him. These gods lived with the burden of a power no mortal was meant to possess.
Your work in Morrowind is not finished, Nerevarine,” Azura went on, a slow smile forming on her unmoving lips. Vivec still lives, but I believe his time grows short. Protect my people. Defend these lands. The skies of Mournhold are clear once again. Let these people suffer no longer. Now go, mortal. Embrace your destiny, and go with my blessing.” With this pronouncement, Azura vanished once more, leaving nothing but the sounds of the city in the evening in her wake.
For a while, Fen stood silently on the terrace, watching the sky turn into night. Then, making a decision, she pulled out Gildan’s headscarf and made her way toward the Palace.
No one deterred her as she walked up through the reception chamber and into the Throne room, the scarf carefully covering her face. Her father and her grandmother were both there, sitting upon their thrones, looking, curiously, as if they had been waiting for her.
“I have been hearing many stories about you, Fedura,” he said, and for a moment Fen was confused before she remembered the fake name she had given Helseth. “And about the goddess. In fact, I’ve been hearing stories about a great deal of strange happenings in my city. I sent you to learn more about the attacks. I will assume that the rumors I have heard relate to that.”
And so, still clutching the ceramic jar in her arms, Fen relayed the entire story to the king, her journey through the Clockwork City, her discovery of Sotha Sil’s body, Almalexia’s madness and death. Barenziah watched Fen with her penetrating eyes, taking in every word, her face impassive, while Helseth looked more and more incredulous. Around the room, the guards and courtiers whispered among themselves, their eyes wide. When she had finished, a silence settled upon the room for some time. Then, at last, Helseth broke it.
“The attacks were Almalexia’s doing?” he said, and his voice was hoarse. “And now you say that both she and Sotha Sil lie dead in the Clockwork City? She murders Sotha Sil, and then tries to kill you as well. Astounding!” Helseth shook his head. “I believe your tale, Fedura, but do not expect my people to be so accepting of it. You will find it is not so easy to kill these gods in the hearts and minds of their followers. It will take time, but this will be a new era for Morrowind, and I will lead them into it. You have done well, my friend. You have my gratitude.” With that, he gave a small wave of dismissal. Fen turned to leave, her heart sinking. She knew it wouldn’t happen. She knew none of it would ever happen. Not now.
She was almost to the door when she felt someone grab hold of the scarf around her head and pull it suddenly. There was a whisper of fabric and then it was gone, in the hands of a guard that stepped back. Fen froze, feeling the cool air on her hot face.
“Turn around,” Helseth said, and his voice was dripping with malice. Fen hesitated. “Turn around!” Helseth shouted, and Fen did so, slowly, finally revealing her bruised and battered face to her father. Barenziah was staring sidelong at her son, her eyes cold. “So,” Helseth said, his eyes narrowing. “I banish you from my city for treason on pain of death, forbid you from ever coming near us again. And here you are.” He tapped his fingers on the arm of his throne. “I, King Hlaalu Helseth of the Royal Family of Mournhold, sentence you –”
“What is wrong with you?” Fen said savagely, surprising herself. The courtiers around the room gasped and Helseth froze mid-sentence. “That you would banish your own daughter from your city?” An even larger gasp went up. There were whisperings from the sides of the room, alarmed looks. Helseth looked aghast.
“I – I don’t know –”
“You still haven’t told them?” Fen asked sharply. “That you have a daughter? That I’ve been living in this palace for nineteen years? That you’ve done your utmost best to have me killed since I first came here?” There was utter silence. Everyone stared from the king, to Fen, then back again. “I don’t care anymore,” Fen snapped suddenly. “I don’t care. Kill me. See if it makes you feel better. See if it makes the people in this city like you more. See if it gives you more power to murder the only child you’ll ever have.” Silence fell, and Fen stared fiercely at her father, who looked completely at a loss.
“How long have you known, Hlaalu?” Barenziah had spoken, her firm, powerful voice dominating the room. She did not look at her son, nor at her granddaughter, but leaned back in her throne, staring out one of the high windows. “How long have you known she was here?” Fen could see that Helseth wanted to disregard the question, but Barenziah’s commanding nature made it impossible. He stared at the floor.
“I realized it after the duel,” he said quietly. Barenziah did not look at him.
“Your daughter has been in this city for months, and you didn’t know?” she asked. “Did you not feel it the moment she came here?” Barenziah finally turned, staring at her son straight-on. “I felt it,” she said, lowering her voice slightly. “I felt a ripple in my heart, telling me that she had returned. You are her father. You should be ashamed that you did not.” Helseth said nothing. For a long while, there was silence. Then the king stood, slowly, and crossed the wide throne room floor to stand in front of Fen. It was the first time in years he had ever been so close – Fen saw now the lines on his face, the shadows beneath his eyes, the grey in his dark hair.
“I…do not expect you to forgive me,” he said softly, so the courtiers could not hear. “What I have done to you deserves no forgiveness. But I believe that there are turbulent times ahead of us. I have been foolish in my leadership of this land, and lost the trust of my people. They look now to you for protection. You will be needed.” He reached out, almost hesitantly, and rested a hand on her shoulder. “I would ask that you take your rightful place in the Royal Court and serve as the princess of this realm.”
For some time all Fen could do was stare. Slowly, she lowered the ceramic jar to the finely tiled floor and stared into her father’s eyes. She could see regret there, a tired lifetime of regret.
“Welcome home, Princess Fenara.”
Wordlessly, Fen fell into her father’s arms, something she had not done her entire life. She breathed in his smell, his fatherly, paternal smell, and wanted to cry with relief. Everything was backward, everything strange. Julan was gone and she was a princess again. Nothing made sense.
The rest of the day passed in a blur. Fen vaguely remembered being escorted back into the upper halls of the Palace, down a corridor lit with blue candles and into her chambers. Had the situation been any different, Fen would have collapsed with joy at being in her old apartments again – but she was too exhausted and riddled with grief to see clearly and barely took it in.
Someone ran a bath for her and helped her out of her ruined robe, giving her nightclothes and brushing out her hair. And then, somehow, she was in her bed, curled up beneath the thick crimson duvet, her view of the room hidden by heavy curtains that had been drawn around the bed, throwing her into darkness and causing her to plummet into sleep.

* * *

For some time, Fen lay still in her bed, staring up at the dark ceiling of the canopy. Then she sat up, slowly, feeling painfully different. She looked down at her hands. They were still crisscrossed with scars and rough after a year on Vvardenfell, but they were no longer covered in blood as they had been last night. She touched her hair – it was clean and smooth, smelling of rosemary. She pulled back the duvet and saw that she wore a satin nightdress that was cool against her skin.
Fen pushed the curtain surrounding her bed back and sunlight filtered in, startling her. It had to be late morning. She slid her feet into a pair of slippers that sat waiting for her and stood up, taking a dressing gown from a hook on the wall and sliding it over her shoulders. Her bedchamber was exactly as she had left it all those months ago – the round embroidered cushions stacked haphazardly in a corner, the surface of the vanity laden with jewelry and bottles of scented oils, the sturdy wardrobe door ajar, revealing a row of intricately sewn gowns. Someone had thrown back the ivory lace curtain over the window, giving Fen a view of the Royal Palace Courtyard, where courtiers and pages were going about their business as normal.
Fen dressed herself quickly, shouldered her bag, which had been left on a low table in her room, and exited into the reception chamber. Her chambermaid, an Argonian woman called Noh-Wei, was there, starting across the room with a bed table that was laden with breakfast foods.
“I apologize, Your Highness,” she said quickly, dropping her head in a bow. “I did not realize you were awake.”
“Noh-Wei,” she said. “Would you please go to my father and grandmother and tell them that I have business to attend to and will return soon?” The Argonian nodded and bowed out of the room, taking the bed table with her.
Fen hefted the bag onto her shoulder and drew out the Mazed Band from within her bag. She remembered what Gavas Drin had said about it, and she activated it once more to find herself standing on the rainy Palace canton of Vivec, directly in front of the great flight of stairs leading up to his citadel.
“Welcome, Nerevarine,” Vivec said as Fen entered. “It has been long since we last spoke.” His eyes narrowed with distaste. “Too long, perhaps.”
“And how long has it been since you have spoken with Almalexia?” Vivec looked surprised at the question.
“We don’t communicate,” he told her. “Without the Heart, our divine powers must diminish. She takes her divinity very seriously, and the loss weighs heavily on her. She tends to brood, and I fear she will do herself and others harm.”
“She has,” Fen told him, and she explained the attacks on Mournhold and Almalexia’s murder of Sotha Sil.
“That is very sad,” he said, when she had finished. “I thought she might harm me. And I presume she tried to kill you, Nerevarine. It is all very sad. But death comes to all mortals – and we are all mortal now. In time, death will come to me, Nerevarine – perhaps even at your hands. It is futile to deny one’s fate.”
“I’m not going to kill you,” Fen told him. “Not yet.” Vivec looked skeptical. “Almalexia murdered my friend.”
“The boy that travels with you?” Vivec asked, and Fen nodded. “I am sorry, then. But there was nothing I could have done.”
“You don’t seem to get it, do you?” Fen asked him sharply. “This has all happened because the Tribunal killed Nerevar. All of it. Dagoth Ur, the Blight, Almalexia’s madness – everything.
“And I am sorry for it,” Vivec said again. “But, nonetheless, I’m afraid I find it all very, very sad that it should end this way, something that began in such glory and noble promise.” Fen crossed her arms.
“What, exactly, was glorious and noble about murdering Nerevar?”
“We gave ourselves divinity with good in mind,” Vivec said serenely, and Fen glared at him.
“If you think I believe that, Vivec, then you’ve mistaken me for a fool.” And with that, Fen left the way she had come.

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