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Saturday, October 27, 2012

IV - The Wind Stone

By the following morning, the blizzard had subsided into a dim, grey morning. Fen left the hunting lodge and found that, while the snow on the ground was deep, the Skaal had risen early to go about their business. Now she could see the intricate wooden carvings on the sides of the houses, the well where tightly-bundled children collected water for their families, the curls of smoke that rose from chimneys and up into the grim sky. People were not lingering outside long save for the guards, men that wore Nordic armour and patrolled the village borders with one hand always on the pommel of their blades. They glanced up at Fen as she passed, but remained silent, though she could feel their gazes on her back as she descended the hill atop which the village was perched.

Fen had been exhausted, both physically and emotionally, by the time she returned to the hunting lodge the previous night, though she found that it was impossible to fall asleep on the bedroll that had been provided for her in one of the upstairs rooms. She had rummaged in her bag until she drew out The Story of Aevar Stone-Singer, and curling up beside the low-melting candle had begun to read:
"Sit quietly, Child, and listen, for the story I tell you is a story of the ages."
"But what is it, Grandfather? Is it a story of heroes and beasts?"
The Grandfather looked patiently at the Child. He was growing into a fine boy. Soon he would see the value in the stories, the lessons that were taught to each generation.
"Just listen, Child. Let the story take root in your heart."

In a time before now, long before now, when the Skaal were new, there was peace in the Land. The sun was hot and the crops grew long, and the people were happy in the peace that the All-Maker provided. But, the Skaal grew complacent and lazy, and they took for granted the Lands and all the gifts the All-Maker had given them. They forgot, or chose not to remember, that the Adversary is always watching, and that he delights in tormenting the All-Maker and his chosen people. And so it was that the Adversary came to be among the Skaal.
The Adversary has many aspects. He appears in the unholy beasts and the incurable plague. At the End of Seasons, we will know him as Thartaag the World-Devourer. But in these ages he came to be known as the Greedy Man.
The Greedy Man (that is what we call him, for to speak his name would certainly bring ruin on the people) lived among the Skaal for many months. Perhaps he was once just a man, but when the Adversary entered into him, he became the Greedy Man, and that is how he is remembered.
It came to be one day that the powers of the Skaal left them. The strength left the arms of the warriors, and the shaman could no longer summon the beasts to their side. The elders thought that surely the All-Maker was displeased, and some suggested that the All-Maker had left them forever. It was then that the Greedy Man appeared to them and spoke.
"You of the Skaal have grown fat and lazy. I have stolen the gifts of your All-Maker. I have stolen the Oceans, so you will forever know thirst. I have stolen the Lands and the Trees and the Sun, so your crops will wither and die. I have stolen the Beasts, so you will go hungry. And I have stolen the Winds, so you will live without the Spirit of the All-Maker.
"And until one of you can reclaim these gifts, the Skaal will live in misery and despair. For I am the Greedy Man, and that is my nature."
And the Greedy Man disappeared.
The members of the Skaal spoke for many days and nights. They knew that one of them must retrieve the Gifts of the All-Maker, but they could not decide who it should be.
"I cannot go," said the Elder, "for I us must stay to lead the Skaal, and tell our people what is the law."
"I cannot go," said the Warrior, "for I must protect the Skaal. My sword will be needed in case the Greedy Man reappears."
"I cannot go," said the Shaman, "for the people need my wisdom. I must read the portents and offer my knowledge."
It was then that a young man called Aevar lifted his voice. He was strong of arm, and fleet of foot, though he was not yet a warrior of the Skaal.
"I will go," said Aevar, and the Skaal laughed.
"Hear me out," the boy continued. "I am not yet a warrior, so my sword will not be needed. I cannot read the portents, so the people will not seek my counsel. And I am young, and not yet wise in the ways of the law. I will retrieve the Gifts of the All-Maker from the Greedy Man. If I cannot, I will not be missed."
The Skaal thought on this briefly, and decided to let Aevar go. He left the village the next morning to retrieve the Gifts.
Aevar first set out to retrieve the Gift of Water, so he traveled to the Water Stone. It was there the All-Maker first spoke to him.
"Travel west to the sea and follow the Swimmer to the Waters of Life."
So Aevar walked to the edge of the ocean, and there was the Swimmer, a Black Horker, sent from the All-Maker. The Swimmer dove into the waters and swam very far, and far again. Aevar was strong, though, and he swam hard. He followed the Swimmer to a cave, swimming deeper and deeper, his lungs burning and his limbs exhausted. At last, he found a pocket of air, and there, in the dark, he found the Waters of Life. Gathering his strength, he took the Waters and swam back to the shore.
Upon returning to the Water Stone, the All-Maker spoke. "You have returned the Gift of Water to the Skaal. The Oceans again will bear fruit, and their thirst will be quenched."
Aevar then traveled to the Earth Stone, and there the All-Maker spoke to him again.
"Enter the Cave of the Hidden Music, and hear the Song of the Earth."
So Aevar traveled north and east to the Cave of the Hidden Music. He found himself in a large cavern, where the rocks hung from the ceiling and grew from the ground itself. He listened there, and heard the Song of the Earth, but it was faint. Grabbing up his mace, he struck the rocks of the floor in time with the Song, and the Song grew louder, until it filled the cavern and his heart. Then he returned to the Earth Stone.
"The Gift of the Earth is with the Skaal again," said the All-Maker. "The Lands are rich again, and will bear life."
Aevar was tired, as the Sun burned him, the trees offered no shade, and there was no wind to cool him. Still, he traveled on to the Beast Rock, and the All-Maker spoke.
"Find the Good Beast and ease his suffering."
Aevar traveled through the woods of the Isinfier for many hours until he heard the cries of a bear from over a hill. As he crested a hill, he saw the bear, a Falmer's arrow piercing its neck. He checked the woods for the Falmer (for that is what they were, though some say they are not), and finding none, approached the beast. He spoke soothing words and came upon it slowly, saying, "Good Beast, I mean you no harm. The All-Maker has sent me to ease your suffering."
Hearing these words, the bear ceased his struggles, and laid his head at Aevar's feet. Aevar grasped the arrow and pulled it from the bear's neck. Using the little nature magic he knew, Aevar tended the wound, though it took the last bit of his strength. As the bear's wound closed, Aevar slept.
When he awoke, the bear stood over him, and the remains of a number of the Falmer were strewn about. He knew that the Good Beast had protected him during the night. He traveled back to Beast Rock, the bear by his side, and the All-Maker spoke to him again.
"You have returned the Gift of the Beasts. Once again, the Good Beasts will feed the Skaal when they are hungry, clothe them when they are cold, and protect them in times of need."
Aevar's strength had returned, so he traveled on to the Tree Stone, though the Good Beast did not follow him. When he arrived, the All-Father spoke to him.
"The First Trees are gone, and must be replanted. Find the seed and plant the First Tree."
Aevar traveled again through the Hirstaang Forest, searching for the seeds of the First Tree, but he could find none. Then he spoke to the Tree Spirits, the living trees. They told him that the seeds had been stolen by one of the Falmer (for they are the servants of the Adversary), and this Falmer was hiding them deep in the forest, so that none would ever find them.
Aevar traveled to the deepest part of the forest, and there he found the evil Falmer, surrounded by the Lesser Tree Spirits. Aevar could see that the Spirits were in his thrall, that he had used the magic of the Seeds and spoken their secret name. Aevar knew he could not stand against such a force, and that he must retrieve the seeds in secret.
Aevar reached into his pouch and drew out his flint. Gathering leaves, he started a small fire outside the clearing where the Falmer and the ensorcelled Spirits milled. All the Skaal know the Spirits' hatred of fires, for the fires ravage the trees they serve. At once, the Nature of the Spirits took hold, and they rushed to quell the flames. During the commotion, Aevar snuck behind the Falmer and snatched the pouch of Seeds, stealing away before the evil being knew they were gone.
When Aevar returned to the Tree Stone, he planted the tree in the ground, and the All-Maker spoke to him.
"The Gift of Trees is restored. Once again, the Trees and Plants will bloom and grow, and provide nourishment and shade."
Aevar was tired, for the Sun would only burn, and the Winds would not yet cool him, but he rested briefly in the shade of the Trees. His legs were weary and his eyes heavy, but he continued on, traveling to the Sun Stone. Again, the All-Maker spoke.
"The gentle warmth of the Sun is stolen, so now it only burns. Free the Sun from the Halls of Penumbra."
And so Aevar walked west, over the frozen lands until he reached the Halls of Penumbra. The air inside was thick and heavy, and he could see no farther than the end of his arm. Still, he felt his way along the walls, though he heard the shuffling of feet and knew that this place held the Unholy Beasts who would tear his flesh and eat his bones. For hours he crept along, until he saw a faint glow far at the end of the hall.
There, from behind a sheet of perfect ice, came a glow so bright he had to shut his eyes, lest they be forever blinded. He plucked the flaming eye from one of the Unholy Beasts and threw it at the ice with all his might. A small crack appeared in the ice, then grew larger. Slowly, the light crept out between the cracks, widening them, splitting the ice wall into pieces. With a deafening crack, the wall crumbled, and the light rushed over Aevar and through the Halls. He heard the shrieks of the Unholy Beasts as they were blinded and burned. He ran out of the Halls, following the light, and collapsed on the ground outside.
When he was able to rise again, the Sun again warmed him, and he was glad for that. He traveled back to the Sun Stone, where the All-Maker spoke to him.
"The Gift of the Sun is the Skaal's once again. It will warm them and give them light."
Aevar had one final Gift he had to recover, the Gift of the Winds, so he traveled to the Wind Stone, far on the western coast of the island. When he arrived, the All-Maker spoke to him, giving him his final task.
"Find the Greedy Man and release the Wind from its captivity."
So, Aevar wandered the land in search of the Greedy Man. He looked in the trees, but the Greedy Man did not hide there. Nor did he hide near the oceans, or the deep caves, and the beasts had not seen him in the dark forests. Finally, Aevar came to a crooked house, and he knew that here he would find the Greedy Man.
"Who are you," shouted the Greedy Man, "that you would come to my house?"
"I am Aevar of the Skaal," said Aevar. "I am not warrior, shaman, or elder. If I do not return, I will not be missed. But I have returned the Oceans and the Earth, the Trees, the Beasts, and the Sun, and I will return the Winds to my people, that we may feel the spirit of the All-Maker in our souls again."
And with that, he grabbed up the Greedy Man's bag and tore it open. The Winds rushed out with gale force, sweeping the Greedy Man up and carrying him off, far from the island. Aevar breathed in the Winds and was glad. He walked back to the Wind Stone, where the All-Maker spoke to him a final time.
"You have done well, Aevar. You, the least of the Skaal, have returned my gifts to them. The Greedy Man is gone for now, and should not trouble your people again in your lifetime. Your All-Maker is pleased. Go now, and live according to your Nature."
And Aevar started back to the Skaal village.

"And then what happened, Grandfather?"
"What do you mean, Child? He went home."
"No. When he returned to the village," the Child continued. "Was he made a warrior? Or taught the ways of the shaman? Did he lead the Skaal in battle?"
"I do not know. That is where the story ends," said the Grandfather.
"But that is not an ending! That is not how stories end!"
The old man laughed and got up from his chair.
"Is it not?"

It was far more lighthearted than the tales Fen had been told as a girl, finishing happily with the enemy successfully defeated. Perhaps that’s why the Nords are so much more cheerful than the Dunmer, Fen thought sardonically as she folded the story and slipped it into her bag. She wasn’t sure what to expect, therefore, as she began to traverse through the snows and trees of Solstheim the following morning, following the poorly drawn map as best she could for guidance.
It snowed on and off as Fen walked, the wind occasionally stirring the trees and sending snow drifting off its branches in elegant white fans. The air was just as icy as it had been yesterday, and Fen felt grateful for the brooch from Effe-Tei – she was still quite cold, but she shuddered to think of what the air would feel like without its enchantment.
The map Wind-Eye had given her was as vague as it could possibly be in direction, showing rivers, mountains, and nothing else save the standing stones. The one nearest to the Skaal village was the Wind Stone, beneath the junction of the Islid and the Harstrad Rivers. She studied the map as she walked through the strange silence that the gently falling snow created, occasionally glancing up to see how close she was to the river until a loud screech interrupted her.
Fen looked up abruptly in time to see the strangest sight she had witnessed on Solstheim yet. Riding toward her on the back of what looked like a wild boar was a man, though he looked like, if standing he would only come up to Fen’s knee. His skin was a frosty blue, more vivid than that of Dunmer skin, and his beady eyes were half-hidden beneath a spiked cap. He carried a lance the size of Fen’s forearm in one hand, and in the other clutched the reins with which he controlled the boar that was bearing down on her, snorting wildly as spittle flew from its snout in all directions.
For a moment, Fen was too surprised to do anything. Then the odd pair was upon her, and it one swift move the tiny man had swung his lance at Fen’s leg and sent her stumbling backward, the map dropping into the snow. She quickly regained her footing and used God’s Fire on the creature – it stumbled backward with a squeal, surprised, and flew off the boar’s back. Fen drew Trueflame from her belt and swiftly sliced at the boar, killing it with a pained cry. The tiny man got to his feet and lurched toward Fen again, and she managed to subdue it with two strikes from Trueflame.
She slid the blade back into its sheath, kneeling down in the blood-spotted snow to study the strange humanoid. He had an oiled black beard around his mouth, and Fen could see pointed, dirty teeth. His armour looked like it was hammered from some sort of hide, and his lance was made of the same leathery material. Fen had no interest in the minute leathers, so she left the strange creatures in the snow and continued on her way, making a mental note to ask Wind-Eye about them when she returned to the Skaal village.
She encountered several more of the strange men as she began to wander the land around the rivers, though never in groups of more than two. Usually there was only a brief reprieve after one of these confrontations before she was met with a wolf or bear or fryse hag or berserker. These frequent attacks coupled with the bitter cold and on-and-off snowfalls left Fen feeling exhausted and wind-beaten by the time her locket read noon. She found a small cluster of rocks beside one of the rivers that would block most of the wind and sat down huddled against them, pulling her hood low over her face and her cloak tightly around her.
Fen didn’t know how much time passed as she sat there, but soon her vision had started to blur. She felt numb from the chill, and she let her eyes drift closed as she sat curled against the tall rocks, the only sound coming from the faint trickle of the river and the wind blowing fiercely down from the mountains to the north…
Her eyes snapped open suddenly, and she stared wildly around, her heart pounding. She was quite alone on the rocky shore of the river. In the distance, a wolf howled.
Fen got to her feet, clenching her hands into fists to keep them from shaking. You’re imagining things, she told herself firmly. The cold is getting to you. But she had heard that voice say her name a thousand times. She would recognize it anywhere. He’s dead, Fen assured herself forcibly, picking up her bag and slinging it over her shoulder. He’s dead and dreaming about it won’t bring him back.
She was about to head upriver again to sweep the land for the Wind Stone when something on the opposite shore caught her eye. A rock, standing taller than those around it, like a weathered grey finger rising into the sky. At its base, Fen could see a swirling design carved in an elegant circle. She picked up her cloak and the hem of her robe and splashed through the icy shallows to the other side. This had to be the Wind Stone.
“And it was right here,” Fen muttered to herself, reaching out a gloved hand to touch the swirl. At once, the carving came to life, writhing and twisting like wind. A sudden breeze seemed to appear from nowhere, stinging Fen’s exposed cheeks as it coiled around the wind stone. Writing began to form on the surface of the rock, just above the carving, as if written by a spidery hand.
Travel south and east of the lake of ice to Glenschul’s Tomb and free the Winds from the Greedy Man's bag.
Then, as quickly as they had come, the words faded back into the stone and the carved wind stilled. The breeze was gone, leaving the land strangely silent. Fen slowly let her hand drop from the cold surface of the stone, tucking back a few hairs that had been pulled loose from her braid. The lake of ice, she thought, looking at the crude map again. The scout at Fort Frostmoth had mentioned a frozen lake. There was a large oval south of the Wind stone with tiny waves drawn in its interior. Fen straightened up and glanced around. The riverside was deserted. She rolled up the map, tucked it into her bag, and crossed the narrow strait of land to the Islid River, starting to follow it south, toward the lake.
Darkness was beginning to fall by the time she reached Lake Fjalding, an ice-crusted circle of water near the eastern coast of Solstheim. The cold seemed to leak out of the lake and soak into the air around it. Fen circled around the edge of the lake and started moving southeast of it. It gave her a strange feeling, and she felt relieved to be away from it.
She followed a high ridge and a narrow footpath away from Lake Fjalding, encountering a few more of the men-creatures along the way. Before long, she had arrived at what appeared to be the entrance to some sort of crypt, crafted from black stones piled atop one another and carved with strange Nordic runes and symbols. Fen pushed open the round door, expecting to find the usual tomb inhabited by animated skeletons and Daedra inside.
She was met with quite a different adversary.
The creature that greeted her was hunched over and bow-legged, its skin leathery black and clothed in tattered rags. It was an emaciated sort of human-shape, a few wisps of dead white hair still left on its scalp, its eyes round and glowing scarlet in the darkness of the tomb. It gave off a terrible scent of death, screeching with an inhuman sound, and it swiped at Fen with talon-like hands, its rotted skin swinging, lifeless, from its half-exposed bones.
Fen quickly deflected its blow with Trueflame, stepping backward to balance herself. The creature hobbled toward her, its jaw hanging open as if broken and revealing its rotting black teeth. Fen cut it down quickly enough with Trueflame, though soon more of the undead had appeared, growling as they attempted to pull her down.
When Trueflame had sliced the last of the creatures away, the tomb rang with an eerie silence. Fen kept the blade out for light, holding it aloft as she moved through the dank corridors lit by sputtering candles melted onto rocks.
The crypt was small, and at the back of it Fen found a low-ceilinged room where bodies lay in niches along the walls, entombed in a strange ice that seemed to glitter with an unnatural aura. Fen approached one of the bodies, sheathing Trueflame. The Nord inside had a face that was perfectly preserved, as if he was merely asleep within the strange substance. Unnerved by the body, Fen backed away, glancing around the cavern. At the very back, an enormous burlap sack sat before one of the ice-covered bodies. Fen moved toward it curiously. The contents of the bag seemed to be moving inside it, as if they were restless to be free. Fen remembered the story, in which Aevar had literally tore open the bag and set free the winds. I was expecting something a bit more metaphorical, she thought, taking hold of the tie that sealed the bag and pulling it free.
Before Fen knew what was happening, she was on her back on the floor of the cavern, all the breath knocked out of her, with her cloak and her hair and the skirts of her robe all flying around her as a violent wind tore through the cavern, howling terribly. Fen ducked her head as the gale flew through the tomb, then, in an instant, it had stopped. Fen slowly raised her head.
The cavern was dark – the wind had put out the low candles around the walls, leaving it nearly pitch black. She pulled Trueflame from its sheath for light and saw that the burlap sack lay deflated and empty upon the tomb’s floor. So the Nords can fill a bag with wind, she thought, pushing her hair out of her face. She kept Trueflame aloft as she navigated her way out of the cavern and into the freezing air. It was dark, and had begun to snow again. Fen started the long trek north back to the Wind Stone, cutting down the strange men-creatures that attempted to deter her as she went. The sun’s absence made it even colder, and her breath rose in clouds as she traversed the frigid landscape.
She found the Wind Stone where it had been, standing tall and elegant on the coast of the river. She raised her hand to it as she approached and pressed her gloved fingers to the freezing rock. The carved wind began to move again, and though no words appeared on its surface, it began to emanate a strange, bluish light, and shimmers of energy rose from the snow at its base and swirled around it, vanishing from sight as they passed the curved top of the stone. The wind had been restored to the land.
It was dark, and the snow was beginning to pick up, so Fen went a few metres away to build her tent for the night against a cluster of rocks not far from the Wind Stone. Being near the rock made her feel strangely safe.
Fen started the fire inside the tent and stripped off her snow-soaked clothes, her body aching. She piled meat and comberry leaves into the cookpot to stew, then pulled a small square mirror from her pack, sitting back on a round cushion to comb out her tangled, damp hair. She set the comb down when she had finished, staring into the glass. Her face was drawn and almost pallid looking, and her eyes seemed too large for her head, ringed with dark circles. The thin white scar where Bolvyn Venim’s ebony gauntlet had once struck her face stood out starkly on her left cheek, stretching from her cheekbone to the corner of her mouth.
Fen stared into the reflection of her eyes, so dim and exhausted-looking. She was barely twenty-eight, still so young for a Dunmer, yet she felt as if she had aged a thousand years. She lowered the mirror slowly. I once hoped that I would come out of all this just a bit bruised and scratched, a bit wiser and sadder for it all, she thought, staring out at the thin blue outline of the glowing Wind Stone through the cloth of her tent. How wrong I was. 

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