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Saturday, October 13, 2012

III - Pale World

It was the screaming that awoke her.
Fen’s eyes opened suddenly, and she heard them filling the night air, high and shrieking. There was a sound like stone crumbling, and the canvas of Fen’s tent whispered as something raced past it, toward the forest.

She sat upright as the tent shook again. Through the thin walls, she could see the faint pink glow of dawn. She had wrapped herself in her cloak and all the furs she could find, and as she rose from her bedroll the icy cold closed around her like a fist.
Fen snatched up her gloves from the floor beside the smoking firepit and ducked outside, her boot crunching down into fresh snow. She turned to face the fort, and the sight that met her eyes sent a chill down her spine that had nothing to do with the cold.
The archway she had come through to get to the forest was in ruin, a heap of fallen masonry and splintered wood. Smoke curled up in thick tendrils from the towers, where fire leapt from the windows. Fen could see bodies strewn throughout the courtyard.
She pulled her gloves on as she quickly crossed the snow to the fort. Blood stained the snow everywhere she looked – bodies lay violently mauled to pieces all around her. One soldier had been thrown into the well in the centre of the yard, so that the support beams pierced his heart and left him to hang there, his eyes empty and staring and blood dripping steadily from one finger.
“Don’t just stand there!” someone cried suddenly, and Fen saw a man tugging on the arm of a dead soldier, one of his eyes bruised shut and his face smeared with blood. “Help us! Do something!” Fen stared around. The wounded cried weakly from where they lay in the snow, and a few soldiers that appeared to be unharmed were moving among them, kneeling down and checking for a pulse. Fen glanced down and saw a severed arm in the snow before her, sticky with blood. She stepped over it, crossing the yard to a strong-jawed woman that was surveying the damage.
“Are you the captain of this fort?” Fen asked her.
“They took the captain,” the woman replied gruffly, turning her fierce eyes on Fen. “The creatures. They took him during battle.”
“What creatures?” Fen asked her, remembering the way her tent had moved as if something rushed past it.
“Who are you?” the woman asked, her eyes narrowing.
“That doesn’t matter.” The soldier narrowed her eyes at Fen, and Fen held her gaze.
“You want to help us?” she asked, and Fen nodded. “Fine. Come with me.” The woman led Fen through a door that was hanging to the stone by one hinge, long scratches raking down the wood. Fen stared at it as she passed over the threshold into the interior of the fort.
“You mentioned creatures,” she said, glancing around at the general quarters they had entered. The fort had even been attacked here – tapestries were torn from the walls, furniture splintered into ruin, blood smeared along the floor, around a corner, and out of sight. “What were they?”
“Creatures like I never want to see again,” the woman told her, turning to face her as two men hurried by, supporting a sobbing third man between them. Fen looked down and realized the third soldier’s leg had been torn off, his knee ending in a bloody stump. “They looked a bit like wolves, but…” she shook her head. “I’ve seen a wolf every day since I came to Frostmoth. Those…things were something else.” She leaned forward slightly as another soldier walked hurriedly past them, clutching his arm with his face twisted in agony. “I’d say they were werewolves.”
“Werewolves?” Fen repeated, puzzled. She knew that all manner of were-creatures dwelt in Daggerfall, but that was on the opposite end of Tamriel, nowhere near Morrowind. “There are werewolves on Solstheim?”
“There are a great many creatures on Solstheim,” the woman told Fen quietly. “Creatures that no one would ever wish to meet. But I’ve never seen a werewolf on this island. And I never would have imagined a huge pack of them would attack like that. There must have been hundreds. I saw the captain run into battle, but he was gone after that. We haven’t found his body, so they must have taken him somewhere.” A shadow crossed her face and her eyes narrowed. “My guess is that those savages from the Nord village have something to do with this.” Fen glared at the woman coolly. Her time with the Ashlanders had cultivated a distaste for those that passed judgment without cause.
“Have you ever been to this village?”
“No,” the woman replied gruffly, going to the remains of a wooden chest and picking through it, looking for something. “It’s on the northeastern tip of Solstheim. These Skaal, that’s what they call themselves, they’re nature-worshippers, and they seem to have a special commune with the creatures of this island. If anyone knows what attacked the fort, it would be them.” She straightened up, holding a half-rotted skull that was heavily carved with runes and symbols. “Earn their trust and find out what you can. You may have to remain with them for a while, but I you’re up to the task.” She held the skull out to Fen. “Here, take this – it was found in one of their tombs. Perhaps they will take it as a sign of good faith.” Fen accepted the skull and carefully tucked it away.
“You know,” she said coldly to the woman as she started for the door. “It would be wise for you to actually speak to a person once before you label them a savage. You might not even have this problem if it weren’t for your petty Imperial prejudices.” She turned sharply away and left the soldier standing there, going out into the carnage-streaked courtyard.
The sun had risen behind a thick wall of grey cloud, and it settled over the land with a grim chill as Fen left through the ruined archway and started toward the forest. A gentle hill flanked by trees sloped upward, and sitting at its base was a wide-bellied Nord man with a flask in one hand and a paring knife in the other.
“Hail, wanderer,” he said as Fen approached. “You plan to travel the wastes of Solstheim as I do?” Fen nodded. “Keep your wits about you, then. There’re worse things in those woods than wolves and bears. Things that want your blood more than anything else in the world.”
“What sort of creatures?” Fen asked him, shaking her head as he offered her his flask.
“Terrible things,” he replied. “Men the Nords call ‘bare-sarks’ in the our tongue, because of their insistence on going bare-chested even in the most severe blizzard. They’re crazy as they come, friend, and care only for savagery and murder. It is said they are so attracted to death, they make their homes in some of Solstheim’s burial barrows. There are the fryse hags, too, mages dedicated to the teachings of Kyne, the widow of the god Shor. Each is a powerful sorceress skilled in the use of frost-based magicka. They’re vicious lasses, and view most people as a threat to their beliefs. They’ve been seen out in the wild, and in a couple of the ice caves.”
A cold chill swept through the ruined fort off the sea, and Fen felt gooseflesh rise on her arms despite the heavy cloak she wore. The Nord looked thoughtfully up at the sky. “Blizzard’s coming,” he muttered, taking another swig of mead.
“How far away is the village?” Fen asked him.
“A fair few hours straight there,” he replied. “But it’s Solstheim you’re traversing, not Cyrodiil. You won’t be stopping to pick flowers along a cobblestone path.” He chuckled grimly. “Straight north, just follow the Iggnir River up to Lake Fjalding. And good luck.”
“Thank you,” Fen told him, and she began to climb the hill, her boots gripping to the slick snow as she went. She reached the top just as a heavy gust of wind blew heavily from behind, making her stumble slightly. She regained her footing and glanced up, and the sight took her breath away.
The island of Solstheim spread out before her, stretching far into the distance. The land dipped down into an evergreen-filled valley, the waxy green trees thickly coated in the previous evening’s snow. Farther in the distance, jagged mountains rose steeply out of the forest, far taller than the mountains in Vvardenfell and coated with everlasting snow. The Iggnir River spiraled out in front of her, weaving down into the valley and out of sight. The island felt oddly silent, as if the snow had quieted every sound. A lone wolf from somewhere in the forest howled, an eerie noise that echoed off the walls of the valley. The wind whispered past Fen, stinging her ears with its cold.
She slowly pulled her fur-lined hood over her head, still marveling at the sight. She knew Solstheim was completely inhospitable, but its breathtaking beauty was undeniable, even if it was manifested in a strange, eerie way. Fen carefully began her descent into the forest, taking her staff from its place on her back. She felt bulky and strange clad in heavy bearskin boots and a fur cloak, her trappings making noise with every step she took, for so used she was to walking the volcanic Ashlands with a thin robe and summer boots. But it was mercifully warm inside her many layers with Effe-Tei’s broach, and for that she was grateful.
Soon Fen had passed under the branches of the evergreens and was enveloped by the cool darkness of the Hirstaang Forest. A narrow deer trail wound around the trunks and out of sight. Fen followed it, her eyes narrowed against the chill. She had barely walked for ten minutes when a sudden rustling in the brush made her pause. Fen only had time to register the low snarl in the shadows before the wolf was upon her, its jaws wide and its enormous paws poised to bring her down.
Taken by surprise, Fen felt the wolf’s paws struck her shoulders and slammed her into a tree trunk, its teeth snapping at her. She pressed her hand into the fur at its chest, forcing it backward, and cast a simple drain health spell. The wolf yelped and slackened, falling limply atop her. Fen rolled its body off her and knelt to examine it. Its fur was matted and dirty, its eyes muddy brown and its teeth half-rotted. Solstheim had not been kind to the creature. Fen stood slowly, casting her eyes warily through the low-hanging branches. There didn’t seem to be any other movement around, but she proceeded with caution all the same.
The rest of the hour saw little incident for Fen, and soon the trees began to thin and she found herself crossing the land called the Isinfier Plains. There were more hills the climb over here and fewer trees, and the wind came screaming down from the mountains and blasted Fen with all its force as she struggled through the untouched snow. The Nord scout outside Fort Frostmoth had been right – a storm was coming, and it was beginning to show. The clouds churned anxiously, and the air was bitterly cold.
The wolves here were more frequent, and now they were accompanied by bears, monstrous creatures that Fen had never even seen drawings of. They towered above her like bloated, fur-covered Durzogs, their roars reverberating throughout the valley and their colossal clawed paws swiping at her face. They were more difficult to take down than the wolves, and Fen found herself reverting to quick usages of potions more often than she would have liked.
It was only after she managed to take down three of these beasts that she encountered one of the islands more notorious inhabitants. Fen had only just pulled Trueflame from the belly of a bear, its entrails spilling out onto the snow, when a powerful spell just barely missed her, hitting the ground and causing a geyser of ice to erupt there. Fen spun around and saw a simply clothed Nordic woman there, her face lost amid runic tattoos and paintings, a wolf snarling by her side. A fryse hag, she thought, remembering the scout’s words.
The hag sent another spell at Fen, and Fen quickly raised a fire shield before her to deflect it. The spell bounced away and Fen let loose a range of God’s Fire, enveloping the hag in flame. The snow had finally begun to fall, and it was becoming difficult to see through the thickening flakes. When the blast cleared, the fryse hag was screaming in an archaic tongue, and the wolf suddenly leapt toward Fen.
She pulled Trueflame from her belt and deflected the wolf with a swift curl of her wrist. It sprang away, snarling and spraying blood across the snow, and Fen ducked as another spell from the fryse hag went hurtling overhead. The woman abandoned her spellcasting and ran at Fen, a dagger glinting in her hand. Fen quickly slid Trueflame through the wolf’s heart as it leapt at her again, then turned her attention to the fryse hag a second too late. The steel of the Nord’s dagger bit through Fen’s heavy cloak, slicing along her forearm until Fen managed to shove her away and finish her with a well-placed jab from Trueflame.
Fen pulled her cloak back and rolled up the sleeve of her robe, wincing as the cold cinched her bare arm. It was almost impossible to see now – everything was grey, and snow was shooting down fiercely all around her. She felt light-headed as she examined the long cut on her arm. She had received far worse injuries in the past.
“Don’t move,” a deep voice behind her suddenly boomed over the blizzard. “We’ve twenty arrows pointed at your back.” Fen froze, her fingers flying to Trueflame at her hip. “Turn around,” the voice commanded. “Slowly!” Fen did so, and she saw the vague shapes of men, a large group of them, all with bows strung to kill her. “Who are you?” someone shouted.
“Fen,” she called back. A particularly fierce gust of wind rocked her and she stumbled. She could hear the bowstrings tighten despite the wind.
“What business do you have on Skaal hunting ground, Fen?” a man at the front of the group demanded.
“I can only plead ignorance,” she called. “I am not from these lands. I wish your people no harm. Truly.” She saw a few of the men exchange looks.
“Lower your bows!” the leader finally shouted, and they did. “Come with us,” he said gruffly to Fen. “We will take you to our chieftain. He will know how to deal with you.” The men closed in a square around her, and she pulled her hood up again, casting a silent healing spell to stitch the wound on her arm.
They walked for nearly an hour through the blizzard, trudging through deep snow and shallow parts of the river and weaving through trees and scrub. Fen’s face had lost feeling – the tips of her fingers, even beneath their gloves, were numb, and though she clenched her fur-lined cloak as tightly around herself as she could, the air still bit cruelly at her from all sides, sending deep chills down into her boots.
The hunters began to lead her up a steep hill, the wind bearing down on them from all sides. It howled fiercely through the grey air, resisting their climb with all its might. Fen burrowed more deeply into her hood, her jaw quivering. Soon they had reached the hill’s summit, and Fen saw a fair-sized village stood on its top, a village of wooden cottages overlooking the lake far below. She could not see much through the blizzard, however, and the hunters led her straight to the largest building, standing in the centre of town. The door was opened and she stepped inside. It closed after her, shutting out the sound of the relentless snow.
Fen let out a sigh of relief as the warmth of the building enveloped her. The men had not accompanied her inside, and she stepped out of the small foyer, pulling down her hood and gazing around. It seemed to be some sort of hunting lodge – built from sturdy-looking logs and supported by four tall, carved pillars. A rectangular section of floor in the centre of the room was sunken down, cluttered with an ashy firepit and several benches. At the head of the room, a high-backed chair draped with furs stood on a raised dais. A stuffed cliffracer was strung from the ceiling by several thick ropes, its glassy eyes wide and its beak open. It was bigger than any cliffracer Fen had seen on Vvardenfell – its enormous wings scraped the tall pillars on either side of it. The light from the candles danced in its dark glass eyes.
She walked slowly into the room, which was pleasantly warm despite the absence of a fire. Fen pulled off her gloves, staring up at the cliffracer. The hunting lodge was dim, the only light coming from a few iron chandeliers that were covered in melted wax and the three or four candelabras that dotted the walls. Outside, the wind of the snowstorm still howled violently.
Fen heard the door open suddenly, and the blizzard’s cries increased tenfold. She turned to see the shapes of three men, silhouetted against the wall of white snow outside. They ducked under the low wooden beams of the foyer and came into the main lodge, giving Fen a proper view – two of them were clad in intricate Nordic armour, their faces mostly covered by the helms they wore. The man between them, however, left his head bare, covered only by thick white hair that hung across his shoulders in braids. His face was pale and weathered, pockmarked with age and scars from battle, his mouth a fierce, downturned line. His eyes were a bright, unnerving blue, and they seemed to stand out from the rest of his face. He stopped several metres away, his gloved hand resting on the pommel of a broadsword at his hip.
“Geric,” he said, in a surprisingly strong and steady voice. “Send for Frid to light the fire.” One of the guards that had entered with him nodded and passed Fen without looking her, climbing up a set of narrow wooden stairs and out of sight. “So,” the man said, taking several strides forward. “The hunters tell me that you were found on our grounds in the storm.”
“I am sorry for it,” Fen replied. “I am not familiar with these lands.”
“Then you should not be here,” the man said haggardly. “Solstheim is not a place for the unfamiliar. Especially people of your kind.” He frowned.
“The Nords and the Dunmer may have warred in the past, serjo, but I assure you, I hold no prejudice.”
“You are very different from the Imperials in the south, then.”
“I am.” The man studied her, his icy eyes training deeply into hers. A freckled young Nord woman appeared from the stairwell suddenly, going to kneel by the firepit.
“Sit,” the old man said, and Fen took a place on one of the benches. The woman muttered a simple fire spell and the firepit crackled into life. She bobbed her head toward the man without looking at him.
“Chieftain,” she murmured respectfully.
“Thank you, Frid,” he replied, sitting down heavily across from Fen. Frid bobbed her head again and retreated upstairs. “What do you call yourself, stranger?”
“Fen.” His cold eyes narrowed.
“An unusual name for a Dark Elf.”
“So I’ve been told.” He paused, as if waiting for her to elaborate. She did not.
“I am Tharsten Heart-Fang, chieftain of the Skaal.”
“It is an honour, chieftain,” Fen told him, inclining her head slightly.
“You are courteous, for an outsider.”
“I spent much of my time several years ago among the Ashlanders of Vvardenfell,” she replied. “Their ways, too, are very different from my own.” She undid the catches of her cloak, letting it slide off her shoulders, and reached for her bag at her feet, carefully drawing out the rotted skull, wrapped in burlap. “I believe this belongs to your people, Chieftain,” she said, holding it out to him. Heart-Fang took the bundle and flipped the burlap over, revealing the skull. A sour look crossed his face.
“Where did you find this?”
“It was given to me by the Imperials of Fort Frostmoth,” she told him. “They have recently been attacked, and asked if I would travel to your village to speak with you.” Fen paused. “Though I have no great love for the Imperials.”
“How were they attacked?” Heart-Fang asked skeptically, looking up over the skull at her, his weathered face critical.
“They said it was by wolf-creatures,” Fen replied. “I did not see the attack itself, but I saw the carnage it left. No wolf could have unleashed that kind of fury.”
“Those soldiers!” Heart-Fang said angrily. “They cut their trees and dig their holes, and have little to show after a day’s toil. They do not respect this land or its creatures, and for that, I find them offensive.” He shook his head doggedly. “But, though I have no love for them, the Skaal would never do such a thing. We prefer to let the Imperials kill themselves slowly. But these creatures that attacked...these were not wolves of this island.” He held out the skull to the guard by the door, who came forward to take it. “Gods curse those Imperials,” he remarked fiercely. “They need to learn to leave things as they are. Still, it is good that you have returned this to the Skaal. Perhaps there is hope for you and your kind.”
“I would do what I can to restore goodwill between our people, if it was ever there.”
“The Imperials in their fort have brought nothing but harm to these lands,” Heart-Fang told her, shaking his head as he sat back down. “They cut the trees and dig the earth. They are wasteful, lazy, and careless. They have no comprehension of the Oneness of the land. It is this Oneness from which the Skaal derive our strength, and the Imperials have defiled these lands.”
“What is the Oneness?” Fen asked.
“The Oneness is balance,” Heart-Fang replied. “It is the balance of our lands, the trees and the waters, wolf and bear. It is from the Oneness that the Skaal derive their power. We have tried time and time again to reconcile with the Imperials, but they are stubborn and refuse to change their ways. Perhaps it is right that you do help to restore the power of the Skaal, as it is your people who have caused the damage.”
“I do not call the Imperials family, Chieftain. Far from it.”
“The people of Tamriel are one to us,” he replied sharply. “They do not understand the way of the earth and the wind.” He stood suddenly. “We are wary, but we are not cruel. I will not ask you to brave the blizzard. You may stay in our village until it subsides, but do not harm our people. Speak with Korst Wind-Eye, in the Shaman’s Hut. He will give you further instructions. Ledd will take you there,” he said, gesturing to the guard by the door.
“Thank you,” Fen told him, standing up and drawing her cloak over her shoulders. Heart-Fang did not reply, but sat silently, watching her as she pulled her hood up and followed Ledd to the door.
They found Korst Wind-Eye sitting at the back of his one-room house before the fireplace, a book in his hands and a thick pelt across his lap. He turned as Ledd escorted her in, and Fen saw he was just as old, if not older, than Heart-Fang, but there was much more wisdom in his dark eyes.
“Thank you, Ledd,” he said, and the guard nodded and retreated out of the hut, back into the storm. “Greetings to you, wanderer,” he said, reaching for a gnarled wooden cane that lay on the floor beside his chair. “Why have you come to our village?” He pulled the pelt aside and slowly raised himself up on the cane, limping slightly as he crossed the hut toward her.
“My name is Fen,” she told him. “Your chieftain asked me to come.” Wind-Eye gave her a curious look.
“Fen,” he repeated slowly. “Are you, perhaps, the Fen that they call the Nerevarine in the south?” She nodded, and he smiled faintly. “I had a feeling I would be meeting you someday, Lady Fen. Please, sit.” He gestured to a chair beside his with his free hand and limped over to the sideboard to pour tea. “You’ve come to Solstheim at an unfortunate time,” he told her as she sat down before the fire. “The summers are bad enough, but Sun’s Dusk brings the cruelest winters in Tamriel. Besides in Skyrim, perhaps,” he added, handing her a teacup and returning to the sideboard to pour himself one with his free hand.
“Are you from Skyrim, serjo?” Fen asked, curling her hands around the cup. The tea was too hot to drink, but it warmed her palms and sent fragrant steam whispering up into her face.
“I was born there, near Whiterun,” he replied, sitting down with a sigh of relief and carefully laying down his cane. “I came to Solstheim with my family when I was a boy. My grandmother used to be a Skaal, and she knew that the shaman here would need an apprentice soon. And with my bad leg, there was little opportunity for me in a place like Skyrim.”
“How long have the Skaal lived in Solstheim?”
“Oh, for as long as I can remember. I used to hear tales about them when I was still in Skyrim, tales of how they were terrible men that could turn into wolves at will.” He chuckled, scratching his yellow beard with one hand. “I hope the Imperials have not been telling you similar rumours.”
“I try to spend as little time with the Imperials as possible,” Fen said, and Wind-Eye laughed heartily.
“You must have spent enough time with them to know if the whispers about this attack have any truth to them,” he said, his laughter fading quickly.
“How did you hear about that?” Fen asked curiously. Korst did not reply, merely smiled. “They were attacked by wolf-creatures,” she told him. “And the chieftain assured me that the Skaal were not to blame.”
“That is true,” Wind-Eye said seriously. “The Skaal are brethren to the wolves of this island, nothing more. We do not command them, and we certainly do not share bodies with them. It would be like those soldiers to suggest it.”
“Heart-Fang also mentioned the Oneness,” Fen said, and Wind-Eye turned to look at her, the reflection of the fire glinting in his eye.
“There is a careful balance that lies in all things of this world,” the shaman said, holding his hands out on either side of him, his palms facing upward and held at equal height. “The animals, the trees, even the rocks and the winds. It is a harmony that the Skaal draw power from, by the grace of the All-Maker, He who gave us these gifts. But when this balance is upset,” he said, dropping one hand and raising the other, “our power is lessened.”
“Heart-Fang wishes for me to restore the power of the Skaal.”
“Does he?” Wind-Eye said, dropping his hands. “Then I will assist you. There is a ritual that must be completed. On Solstheim, you will find six Standing Stones, each representing one of the six gifts of the All-Maker. At each of these Stones, a ritual must be completed. Once the Ritual of the Gifts is complete, the Oneness should be restored.”
“The Ritual of the Gifts?”
“It would be too much for any not of the Skaal to remember,” Wind-Eye said, picking up his cane again and standing slowly. He went to a desk littered with scraps of parchment and drew two our of their stacks. “Here, take this,” he said, holding out the first. It was a roughly-drawn map of Solstheim, marked with six tall finger-like shapes. “It will explain the rituals and guide you on your way. This scroll may be of some use to you as well,” he added, giving her the second sheet. “If you are to remain with the Skaal, you should understand our beliefs.” Fen unfolded the sheet and saw it was a story, the top of the scroll illuminated with The Story of Aevar Stone-Singer.
“I imagine the snow will continue until nightfall,” Wind-Eye told her, cracking a shutter and peering out at the blanket of white that shrouded the world outside. “A few hours, at least. If you return to the hunting lodge, you will find hospitality there.”
“Thank you,” Fen said, standing and tucking the two papers into her cloak. Wind-Eye nodded.
“Good luck to you, Fen.”
Outside, the world was strangely silent. There were no people about, and the only things Fen could see were the dim outlines of houses that were sealed tight against the cold. She had only made it a few steps through the knee-deep snow when she saw a familiar silhouette standing before her in the gale. Fen squinted. She was sure she recognized that wiry frame, the jaggedly cropped dark hair…
“Julan?” she whispered, but her voice was lost in the howling wind. Then she blinked, and the figure was gone, leaving her alone in the silent, pale world.


  1. Wow. The Bloodmoon chapters are wonderfully written so far! I've noticed they're a lot... darker, and grittier, too. The ending had me wondering.

    1. Thanks! I've been trying to work in a different sort of mood for this one. Glad to hear you're enjoying it so far!