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Saturday, September 29, 2012

II - Jewel of Absolutely Nowhere

“Many would argue that her madness lessened any greatness she had,” Queen Barenziah said, taking a serene sip of wine and setting the cup down with a small clink upon the tiled table. Fen absentmindedly swilled the dark drink in her own goblet. Almalexia was mad, she thought to herself.

“I don’t think it was madness at all,” she said. “It was plain brilliance and strategy, and Potema’s enemies called her mad so they could have a viable reason to despise her.” A breeze whispered by, rustling the fine white hairs piled atop Barenziah’s head, and Fen let her gaze drift out over the terrace they were seated on, overlooking the palace’s ornate gardens that, at this time of the year, were overflowing with all manner of flowers and climbing ivy and gnarled trees. In the colder months, they would sit in Barenziah’s apartments to have these meetings, but in Mournhold’s notoriously warm summers, they met every day on the balcony over the gardens to lunch at the stone table there and talk.
“A mother’s love for her child is not brilliance,” the queen argued as a servant silently appeared behind them and refilled their goblets from a silver pitcher. Fen watched the girl leave and return with a tray of lemon cakes on a bed of parsley. “It’s natural. Potema merely acted out of love for her son, and out of that grew her insanity and her affinity to the necromantic arts.”
“It was more than loving her son,” Fen replied, swirling the wine in her cup. “It was wanting him to be the emperor above all else. She threw her entire life into it, not just because she loved him, but because she wanted power, and she knew that if Uriel ruled, she would be Tamriel’s true emperor.”
“But,” Barenziah began. “You forget that –”
“Your Majesty,” came a voice from the door into the palace, and Fen and Barenziah turned together. A nervous-looking page stood in the doorway, holding a number of rolled scrolls in his arms. “His Grace King Helseth has asked that you review the new maps of the surrounding provinces before they are published, as he claims that you have a greater affinity for cartography than he.”
 “I thought it was clear that I am not to be interrupted during my visits with my granddaughter,” Barenziah told the page, rather irritatedly, waving him over. “Why must these maps be approved by the court?”
“They are to be published in the Empire’s new guide of Tamriel, and the Emperor personally requested that the information for each province be personally reviewed by its leader.”
“Very well,” Barenziah said with a sigh. “Hand them over and tell my son I will look over them and return them to him when I am finished.” The page handed her the maps and she returned to the table. “This shouldn’t be done by your father and me,” she muttered. “This is steward’s work. But the good emperor commands, and we obey.”
“I’m working on changing that,” Fen told her, and Barenziah offered her a faint look as she flipped through the maps. “Once all these people stop hating me I can focus on ousting the Empire from Morrowind.” Fen watched as the queen unrolled the first map, of the island of Solstheim. It was barely detailed, only showing a few mountain ranges and what looked like an Imperial fort. Fen propped her chin on her hands, staring at the upside-down map under her grandmother’s elbow. That chunk of ice in the sea…
“I want to go to Solstheim.” Barenziah looked up at her.
“Tell me why.” At that moment, Fen felt a sudden, overwhelming love for her grandmother. Any other person would have called her mad, but Barenziah merely listened, unfazed.
“I just…I need time.” Barenziah studied her for a moment.
“Do you think it’s wise to leave the city now? In light of what happened in the Clockwork City?”
“I think these people need a break from me.”
“They’ll come to terms with it in time.”
“And I don’t think they want to see me up until that time.” Barenziah paused.
“Solstheim is not a pleasant place, Fen. It isn’t somewhere you typically go to find yourself.”
“I can take care of myself.”
“I know you can.” Barenziah leaned forward, closing her warm, gnarled hand over Fen’s. “Fen, I went through this once too. Before the Armistice, my parents were killed by the Imperial army and I was sent to Skyrim.”
“I know,” Fen replied softly. “I read Plitinius’s biographies.”
“Then you know that I tried to remedy my problems by running from them.”
“That’s not what I’m doing,” Fen insisted. “I just need to spend a while on my own.” They gazed at one another for a time, Barenziah unsmiling.
“I understand.”

* * *

The docks at Ebonheart were awake long before the rest of the world. It was hours until the sun would rise, and yet the seaside town was a confusion of people pushing their way toward the ships, holding crates and sacks over their heads as they went. Fen stood to the side beside Effe-Tei, the court mage, both of them with hoods drawn low over their faces.
“Which one is it?” Fen murmured to Effe-Tei, and he pointed with a long, reptilian finger at what appeared to be the largest of the ships in the bay, bobbing a ways out from the city.
“The Frost-Sail,” he replied. “Princess, are you sure you wish to travel this way?”
“I’m sure.”
“You will be on board with criminals being sent to Fort Frostmoth.”
“I’ve held worse company.” The Argonian cast a sidelong glance at her, then reached into his cloak, drawing out a golden brooch in the shape of the Moon-and-Star.
“I had this made for you,” he told her, holding it out. “It carries a frost resistance enchantment, and your birthday last year was rather subdued.” Fen accepted the brooch, rubbing one thumb along the fine gold curve of the moon.
“Thank you, Effe-Tei,” she told him softly, and she pinned it upon the clasp of her cloak, straightening it with two fingers. A horn sounded suddenly, and Fen saw the crew of the Frost-Sail begin to stir into motion. “I should go,” she said, and Effe-Tei nodded.
“Be safe, Princess,” he said, and she gave him a nod before stepping down onto the docks and joining the throng of passengers. A crewhand helped her onto a small boat alongside a group of fresh and excited-looking young Imperials, and she sat down at the back of the boat, folding her hands in her lap.
“It’s going to be great,” one was saying excitedly. “I’m going to mine enough ebony to build a manor for my wife.”
“I’ll mine enough to build a manor for the emperor,” another said.
“I’ll mine enough to buy Vvardenfell.”
“What would you want with Vvardenfell?” the first man quipped. “The only thing on this island are sullen Dark Elves and ashstorms!” The group chuckled together, and the boat pushed off the dock and drifted slowly across the fog-glazed water to the ship itself. Fen turned slightly in her seat to glance back at the dock, though it was impossible to make out Effe-Tei’s cloaked figure from here. She turned back toward the ship, drawing her cloak around herself as the Imperials laughed raucously a joke one of them had told.
The rowboat bumped up against the Frost-Sail, and Fen followed the Imperials up the ladder on the side of the ship to the deck. She stared out at the water, which was almost impossible to discern from the steel-grey sky, and the floating mists that shrouded its dim surface
“Name?” a tired-looking Redguard with a sheet of parchment asked her, and Fen turned away from the waves of the bay.
“Fedura Rindal,” she said, giving the fake name she had used in Mournhold. The Redguard found her name and crossed it off, moving to the group of Imperials that were now speaking loudly about what kind of fireplaces they were going to build in their homes.
The uppermost deck of the Frost-Sail was sparsely populated. It seemed most of the passengers had already retreated below decks to settle in for the twenty-two hour journey. Fen was not tired, nor was she in the mood to sit among the prisoners and overzealous opportunists. She climbed up onto the quarter deck, where another figure already stood watching Ebonheart through the darkness. It was an old man, a tattered cloak around his shoulders, his white hair blown back from the cool breeze. Fen studied the man curiously for a moment, then reached beneath her cloak and into the fold of her belt, where she withdrew a small, worn Septim that she had kept there for some time.
“Excuse me,” Fen said, approaching him. The man turned, revealing a familiar, careworn face. Fen held out the coin to him. “I think we’ve met. Did you give this to me?” The man glanced down at the drake in Fen’s palm and he looked up at her, smiling.
“I did. It is an honour, Lady Nerevarine.” The Buoyant Armiger stepped back from the rail and bowed deeply to her.
“Thank you,” Fen told him, glancing around to be sure no one had seen. The only people that seemed to still be on deck were the crew. “You’re bound for Solstheim?”
“Aye,” the Armiger told her with a nod. “There was no place for me at Ghostgate, and it took a visit from the Nerevarine to teach me that.” The ship lurched suddenly and began to move, almost sluggishly, away from Ebonheart. “Perhaps there will be a place for me up at Frostmoth.”
“From what I’ve heard, Solstheim is not the most forgiving of islands.”
“All the same, it’ll be better than moping about at a stronghold that isn’t even needed anymore, eh?” The Armiger held his hand out to her, still leaning on the railing with the other. “Wulf.”
“Fen,” she replied, taking it.
“And what brings the Nerevarine to Solstheim, Fen?”
“I needed a break from Morrowind.” She paused. “Or rather, Morrowind needed a break from me.”
“That’s what I’ve heard,” Wulf replied, taking a flask from his hip and flipping the lid open.
“I thought telling the truth would improve their opinion of me,” Fen replied sourly, leaning on the railing and watching Ebonheart drift away into the fog. “But it’s only made them hate me more.”
“Aye,” Wulf replied, taking a swig from his flask. “The truth always seems to irritate people, for some reason. I could never figure it out. Eventually I just stopped telling it.”
“Who did you tell it to that angered more easily than the people in Morrowind?” Fen asked him wryly.
“I told it to myself,” Wulf replied easily. “Told myself that my daughter was dead and moaning about it wouldn’t help.” He took another drink from his flask. “Then I just stopped believing it. It’s easier that way. To just ignore the things that you’ve got quarrel with.” Fen didn’t reply, but joined him in staring out off the stern at the empty fog that now succeeded the ship. I tried to remedy my problems by running from them.
But that’s not what I’m doing, she assured herself silently, wishing she could believe it. I’m not running from anything. A gust of wind sent the cloth of her cloak billowing against her from behind, and she turned her head to stare across the ship to the north, where the early-morning darkness and the fog veiled Solstheim from view.

* * *

The Frost-Sail shuddered to a halt, waking Fen from a restless sleep. The first thing that struck her was the cold – it seeped through the wooden walls of her cabin and through the fur-lined cloak she had wrapped herself in, curling around her like an icy embrace and making her skin prickle beneath her robe. She sat up in her cot and glanced around – the oil lamp overhead was swinging, throwing spiky shadows across the four close walls, and the ship around her was bobbing with heavy, moaning creaks. Fen pulled her grandmother’s locket from beneath her robe and clicked it open – it was nearly two in the morning. They must have reached Solstheim by now.
Fen pulled herself away from the scarce comfort of the little wooden cot and went to her bag, pulling out a pair of fur-lined cloth gloves. Her grey hands looked small and cold in the dimness of the cabin, and she shivered as she pulled the gloves over them.
She put her hood up as she climbed up onto the deck, and was instantly grateful for it. A blast of cold air hit her so fiercely that she thought she might topple over, and she winced as she joined the crowd of passengers that had gathered by the port side. The only ones speaking were the talkative Imperials, who were some ways away pushing one another out of excitement. All the others were standing silently, staring, grim-faced at the sight before them.
Up ahead, perched precariously on the edge of a lopsided hill, stood Fort Frostmoth. It was built in exactly the same fashion as the Imperial forts on Vvardenfell, though its stones looked cold and foreboding in the darkness, toting flying banners that were tattered from the harsh winds and only illuminated by a few swaying lanterns. To the right of the fort, the hill sloped steeply down and straight into the icy sea. To the left, the land yawned into gaping darkness, shielded by dark evergreens that stood taller than the fort itself. The sky overhead was completely black, no stars in sight.
“Bring her in!” one of the crewmen shouted, and the grating of an anchor being thrown over was heard. The Frost-Sail lurched suddenly, and the people standing on the deck took several steps to steady themselves, Fen included. She heard gangplanks being drawn out, guards shouting orders, the passengers muttering amongst themselves. They began to shuffle slowly toward the edge of the ship, and Fen joined the throng, keeping her eyes down as she went down the gangplank and stepped onto the icy stones of the dock.
“You here to join up?” a guard standing by the gangplank asked her gruffly, and she shook her head. “Get outta the way then,” he snapped, and Fen stepped aside as the rest of the passengers made their way onto the dock. It was a rectangular platform built out over the freezing water, laden with crates and barrels and coils of rope and lit by two spitting torches. A narrow stone bridge led to the path that wound up the hill to the fort.
“One warmblood does not belong,” a snakelike voice behind her hissed suddenly. Fen turned and saw an Argonian man standing there, bundled in thick, fur-lined clothes and studying her critically. “Which one could it be?”
“What?” Fen replied coolly.
“You heard me, warmblood,” he said sharply. “This isn’t Wayrest. You don’t come here for vacation. You come here if you have a death wish.”
“I can handle myself,” Fen told him icily, turning away.
“Get out while you can, warmblood!” the Argonian cackled as Fen started across the bridge behind the criminals being sent up to the fort.
Fen was exhausted, having hardly slept soundly on the ship. She had brought her old tent with her, figuring it would be unlikely that she would be shown hospitality at Fort Frostmoth.
If anyone had been less receptive to Fen than the people of Morrowind as of late, it was the Imperials. Since the end of the Vvardenfell Crisis, she had openly denounced the Empire and her intentions to rid them from Morrowind, and they were anything but pleased. Fen was almost positive the renegade soldiers of Fort Frostmoth wouldn’t know who she was, but as she walked through the stone archway into the courtyard, every sullen eye seemed to be turned on her, each soldier openly staring as she stood amidst them.
“What’s your business here?” a haggard-looking guard snapped, seizing her arm. There was a fleshy pink scar over one of his milky-white eyes.
“Why would I state it to the likes of you?” Fen replied, pulling her arm out of his grasp and fixing him with a cool glare.
“You’ve no business in this fort, Dark Elf. This land is claimed by the Empire.”
“Solstheim is claimed by no one,” she said. “I’ve just as much right to be here as you.” The soldier glared at her through his one seeing eye, hate etched on every line of his face.
“Then see how much you’re welcomed here, you Dark Elf trash,” he growled, and in an instant Fen had struck him across the face with a fire spell on her fingertips, sending him stumbling to the ground with his hands over his burned face. “You bitch!” he shouted as Fen turned and stepped quickly away. “You fucking Elf cunt!” She sped up as she crossed the courtyard, heading straight for the curved archway on the other side, knowing full well that every soldier on the exterior of the fort was watching her. She felt her breath catch in her throat as she emerged into the cool, dark night.
The forest before her was complete blackness. A wolf howled in the distance, and chills that had nothing to do with the cold raced up Fen’s arms. She glanced up – the moons, too, were gone along with the stars, rendering the night utterly and completely lightless. Fen found a flat space a short ways away from the fort and started pulling out the poles and ropes and canvas of her tent with quivering hands. 


  1. Love the darker, gritty angle you're taking as of late. I don't think the game ever managed to put enough focus on the consequences of your actions so it's nice to see it come out in this story. I like the subtle explorations of Fen's psychology as well. Awesome stuff :)


    1. Thanks! It's always a pleasure to hear from you :)