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Saturday, January 26, 2013

IX - The Ristaag

“Are you proud of yourself, Nerevar?” He stood before her, arms crossed over his powerful chest, his face concealed behind a mask of gold. “Do you think you’ve done well for Resadayn? Do you believe they think you a hero?”

“I’m not Nerevar,” she replied. “And I did what I had to do.” Another appeared beside him, a Dunmer man dressed all in black, the burn of a fire spell torn through his middle. The first man she had ever killed.
“Did you think you did well for me? I was only doing my job. I had a wife in Mournhold, and you made her a widow.”
“You’d have killed me otherwise.” More rose out of the darkness, Ashlander men with blood all down their fronts.
“You murdered us so that you could be named Nerevarine of the Eribenimsun,” one said. “You slaughtered us in cold blood.”
“And me,” said another, appearing, an aged wizard in dark robes with a bloody stain where his arm should be. “You rent me apart and blew my home to bits, just so the Telvanni would listen to you.”
“I could not help my affliction,” a new man said, his body mangled and covered in weeping sores. “I only wanted to go home to my children. I didn’t want to hurt anyone. And you butchered me without a thought.”
“I had to,” she said desperately, turning to escape them, but there were more there, all faces she’d seen before, faces that had given her one last imploring look before they went blank. “You don’t understand. I had to. I’m so sorry.”
She turned away, and then he was there, his glass armour scuffed, a gaping, bloody hole through his chest, his eyes wide. He tried to speak, but could make no noise.
“You killed him,” the others whispered, vanishing and turning to wisps of smoke. “You murdered him. It’s your fault. He’d be alive if not for you.” Julan finally spoke, his pained eyes never leaving her face.
“We’d all be alive if not for you.”

Fen gasped, her body starting violently. She was too hot. It was much too warm. Why were there so many furs on her? She shoved them away, but then it was too cold. The freeze seeped into her, into her very pores, chilling her to the bone, and she dragged the furs up over herself again. A dream, she assured herself, closing her eyes and breathing deeply. I’d thought I was done with bad dreams by now.
Fen sat up and cracked the shutter covering the window over her bed. It was morning, but barely – the sky was a pale grey, the fresh, glittering snow that coated the ground still dark. Smoke had begun to rise from the chimneys of the neighbouring homes, and a few lights were visible in windows. The Skaal constantly reminded Fen of the Ashlanders – hardy and unrelenting, quick to rise with the sun.
Perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad to stay here, she thought, shrugging off the furs and going to stoke the embers in the fire back into life. It would be strange, surely – a young Dunmer woman living amongst the Skaal. But they had already accepted her, had given her a home and a name. And there was not much left for her in Morrowind, it seemed.
Fen left her cabin just as the sun was rising, setting the snow aglow. Several other Skaal were about, most either walking to the longhouse or waiting by the well to draw water. They nodded at Fen as she passed, but otherwise were silent. The horrors of the previous night were still fresh on the minds of all.
It was a long, quiet walk southeast to the Tombs of Skaalara. The frigid island seemed oddly still on this pale, empty morning, not even a bird to stir the branches of the pines. The entrance to the barrow faced the sea, which was as cold and still and grey as everything else. Drawing Trueflame, Fen pushed her shoulder into the round, stone door and stepped into the dark, stale tomb.
She was immediately met by two werewolves, which she had been prepared for. It was easier to fight them now, when she wasn’t in shock and hadn’t just climbed out of an icy lake. She proceeded through the dark tombs carefully, cutting down the werewolves in her path as they came, unfazed until the image of Engar’s slaughtered young son would creep back into her mind.
The Totem Korst had spoken of stood on a pedestal at the back of the tombs. It was a lavish thing, a convection of talons and fangs and feathers and beads all strung together on black twine. Fen carefully packed the Totem into her bag and made her way back through the Tombs.
Korst was waiting for her in the Great Hall, leaning heavily on his cane as he spoke to several of the Skaal Honour Guard.
“This are grim times, friend,” he said as Fen joined them. She glanced around the hall – the bodies had been cleared, but the rubble and mess and splintered wood still lay everywhere. “Did you retrieve the Totem of Claw and Fang?”
“Yes,” she replied, drawing it from her bag to show him. Korst caught the pendant in his free hand and leaned in close, his dark eyes studying the jumble.
“Aye, this is the Totem indeed. You have been more than a service to us, Fen.”
“I just want to help,” she replied quietly, and Korst nodded to the Honour Guard, who moved away.
“With Heart-Fang gone, I must act as chieftain for the Skaal, a task that I am not well-suited to, I’m afraid. All I can do at this point is offer them as much hope and prayer as I can. Perhaps the All-Maker will yet spare us from this curse.” He sighed heavily. “Now that we have the Totem, we must perform the Ristaag.”
“Which is what, exactly?” Fen asked him as they moved outside to stand on the Great Hall’s vast porch.
“It is a ritual the Skaal perform in times of desperate need to show our thanks to the All-Maker,” Korst told her, leaning heavily on his cane as he stared out at the village. A hush seemed to have fallen over it all, an odd chill that could not be shaken. A tall woman with red braids wound around her head leaned against the well, sobbing as her husband silently held her. “And this is indeed a time of desperate need. Meet at nightfall with Rolf Long-Tooth, one of our Skaal hunters. You will find him by the western shores of Lake Fjalding. He will tell you more about the Ristaag and the part you will play in it.”
“How can I help until then?” Fen insisted.
“You have already done more than enough for the Skaal.”
“I want to do even more, then. How can I help?” Korst sighed.
“All the people need now is rest. Rest, and time to mourn. There is little that we may do to help them.”
“Here, then,” Fen said, turning to the Great Hall. “I can help with this.” Korst did not reply, but gave her a look that boasted a shadow of a smile before he turned and started across the snow to his cabin.
Fen spent the remainder of the daylight hours with the Skaal Honour Guard and a number of the stronger men, using telepathy and feather spells to help clear the rubble in the Great Hall. In the late afternoon, they discovered a child’s body buried beneath several splintered beams, a grisly reminder as if to make sure none of them forgot about the previous night’s slaughter.
When the wreckage was cleared, they emerged from the Great Hall to find that iron-coloured clouds were moving in over the evening sky, threatening snow as the wind began to howl. Fen silently donned her cloak and raised the hood, then started the short trek down to Lake Fjalding.
The snow was falling heavily by the time Fen found Rolf Long-Tooth with two other Skaal in a grove of evergreens just off the lake. Rolf was grey-haired and –bearded, but his eyes were fierce and he greeted Fen sharply and proudly, as any Nord warrior would.
“You are a great friend to the Skaal, Dark Elf,” he said, firmly grasping her hand. “It will be an honour to please the All-Maker alongside you.”
“What exactly is this ritual?” Fen asked, glancing at the other two Nords, both of whom wore similar expressions of confidence.
“In the Ristaag, we hunt the Spirit Bear that is conjured by the Totem of Claw and Fang,” Rolf explained. “When it is slain, we will return its heart back to Wind-Eye, who will ask for the blessings of the All-Maker. If the Ristaag fails, or does not succeed by daybreak, the All-Maker will be displeased.” Long-Tooth laid a heavy hand on Fen’s shoulder. “You will act as my second, friend. You are to stay with me at all times during the Ristaag and follow my instructions exactly. You have proven value to the Skaal, but now you must allow me to guide you through this night.” Fen only nodded in reply, but that seemed to please Long-Tooth.
“Right,” Long-Tooth said, pulling a torch from his back and lighting it with a simple spell. He turned to the other two hunters. Sattir, you take the west end of the forest. Grerid, the east. Fen and I will take the south.” The other two hunters drew their own torches and nodded, pulling up their hoods against the thickening snow. The sun had set completely now, and the forest was dark save for the distant glow of the fire on Lake Fjalding. Sattir and Grerid separated, vanishing into the heavy snow, and Fen followed Long-Tooth south.
“Have you ever hunted before?” Long-Tooth asked as they began to crunch through the thick snow that blanketed the ground. Fen shook her head; she had learned hawking at their summer palace in Tear and had been fairly competent with a bow, but that was the extent of her experience on the hunt. She remembered Shani smiling broadly, sitting on a log just outside the Ahemmusa camp. Julan and I will teach you how to hunt next time you come around, she had said, and Julan had nodded with a grin. You’re going to need to be able to down a Nix Hound with one arrow if you’re going to visit, he’d added, elbowing her playfully.
“We won’t be able to see any tracks in this snowfall, so the best we can do is search for entrails of the bear’s prey,” Long-Tooth was saying. “Search, and listen. Let the trees be your ears and we will surely find the bear.” He had only just finished this pronouncement when the quiet of the forest was shattered by a man crying out and the sound of a struggle, then silence. “Did you hear that?” Long-Tooth said quickly, throwing out an arm to stop Fen. “It came from Sattir the Bold’s Path. Quickly, go to him and see that he is well.”
Fen seriously doubted that Sattir was well after the noises they’d heard, and her suspicions proved correct when she found his corpse behind a rock, viciously mauled and torn open just like the bodies in the village. Fen leaned down beside his steaming entrails, touching the snow that had been mussed in the struggle. She had quickly learned to recognize the work of werewolves.
“Sattir is dead?” Long-Tooth repeated when Fen relayed the news to him. She nodded, and the old hunter’s face was troubled. “This is a bad omen. These creatures are dark spirits indeed, and they will try to disrupt the hunt. We must not tarry. Let us go.”
They continued uninterrupted for some time, stopping to check for tracks under trees or dead elk in the groves for signs of the bear. Fen had to periodically shake the snow off her shoulders and her hood, for it continued to fall thickly, shortening their vision and freezing them to the bone. The forest was dark and very quiet, save for the wind in the pines above, and Fen couldn’t help but jump slightly whenever a fresh sound permeated the silence.
They had been combing the forest for nearly two hours when a second scream rent the air, high and shrill, accompanied by a grotesque ripping and howls. Long-Tooth’s face was grim. “Grerid. These creatures will not stop until they have disrupted our hunt. Quickly, find her.”
Fen moved off east through the cold, slowing when she noticed light emanating from behind a tall stone. Sure enough, Grerid’s body lay mangled in the black snow, her torch burning brightly beside it, her innards spilled out around her. She quickly jogged back to where Long-Tooth waited, shaking snow off her cloak.
“Grerid is dead, the same way as Sattir. It’s the werewolves, I’m certain. We’re being hunted as well, it seems.” Long-Tooth gave a heavy sigh, rubbing his beard.
“Then it is up to us to complete the Ristaag, my friend. We must not fail our brothers and sisters of the Skaal.” And so they trekked on through the snow, although this time Fen was not the only one acting tense. Long-Tooth’s shoulders seemed to meet his ears every time the wind whispered or a wolf howled in the distance, and Fen could not blame him. She kept thinking she saw dark fur and yellow eyes out of the corner of her eyes and kept hearing heavy panting behind them, only to find nothing when she turned to look.
After another hour of walking, Long-Tooth stopped suddenly. He was staring into the darkness, his eyes narrowed.
“Did you hear that?” he whispered. Fen was about to reply when the air was suddenly knocked from her lungs and, in a flurry of fur and teeth, she was on the ground, a werewolf’s jaws at her throat.
Fen shoved her hand into the beast’s chest and cast God’s Fire, sending it flying off her, howling and leaving a stench of burnt fur in the air. Fen quickly got to her feet, drawing Trueflame, and saw they had been set upon by three werewolves, including the one Fen had blasted away. Long-Tooth was trying to take down two at once with his blade, so Fen quickly leapt forward to help with Trueflame. Long-Tooth finished off his wolf and turned to help Fen with hers, and soon both creatures lay dead at their feet.
“We…We have defeated those…those creatures and honoured our fallen c…comrades,”  Long-Tooth panted, sheathing his blade. “Now we must find the Spirit –”
Long-Tooth’s pronouncement was cut short as the third wolf reappeared from nowhere, pulling the hunter back with lightning-quick speed and tearing out his throat before Fen could even register what was happening. She had kept Trueflame out, and she quickly raised it up to block the beast as it slipped over Long-Tooth and came for her. The wolf was badly burnt and near-death from Fen’s spell and the impact of its fall, and it didn’t take much to put it down.
When the last wolf was dead, Fen left Trueflame out for light, staring around. Long-Tooth lay dead in the snow before her, his pale eyes wide and glassy. Fen breathed a heavy sigh and glanced around. Korst will still want the ritual completed, she thought. Which means I’ve got to find this Spirit Bear. Fen clicked open her locket to check the time – it was nearing two in the morning. She would have to move quickly to make it back to Skaal village before daybreak.
She had been searching for nearly another hour when he came out of the darkness and swirling snow, glass armour and all. Fen almost wasn’t surprised this time. She had almost been expecting it.
“I have to find a bear,” she told him, aware of how stupid it sounded.
“I can tell. It’s over there.” He nodded his head in the direction Fen had been headed. They stared at one another for a while. Fen was afraid that if she moved too suddenly or spoke, he would vanish again. “What are you doing here?” he asked.
“The…the bear…”
“No, what are you doing in Solstheim?” Fen frowned.
“I could ask you the same question.”
“Are you going to?”
“I don’t know.” There was a sudden roar from the forest beyond, and they both glanced into the trees.
“You’d better get that bear,” Julan said softly. Fen took several steps away from him, then looked back. He was gone, as she’d known he would be, replaced by darkness and swirling snow.
The Spirit Bear was indeed in the clearing beyond, fighting off a Riekling. When the little blue man fell, the bear turned its attention to Fen, and a few well-placed slashes from Trueflame coupled with Destruction magic quickly put it down. Fen looked at the clock again as she sheathed Trueflame – it was almost four now. She had to hurry.
She wasn’t quite sure how to get the heart out of an animal, so Fen used her alchemy knife to slice open the great beast’s bloody pelt. She was forced to cut through the entrails and organs within, biting back the bile that rose in her throat as she spilled the slick, steaming red innards over the snow. When she at last found the bear’s heart, nearly half an hour had passed, and she quickly cut it loose and slid it into a burlap cloth to take back to the village beneath a cloth-black sky.

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