I was dreaming.
Most people cannot tell when they are dreaming, and I admit I am usually inexcusably lax when it comes to this matter as well. Why, just a few weeks ago I had dreamt of being Archmage of the Mages' Guild and ordering all my underlings to pick cats from trees when they were ripe because we needed new apprentices... and not realised the impossible nature of it all until after I'd woken up. Shameful! However, this time there were several things that led me to cleverly deduce I was, in fact, asleep and my current situation a product of my subconscious mind.
First of all, I was in the middle of a mountain range, looking at a large volcano. The ground was grey and ashy, the only vegetation twisted trees, black branches grasping at the sky. Lava pools dotted the landscape, giving the whole scene an eerie glow.
Now, although it all looked rather fantastic I was perfectly happy to accept this place might exist somewhere, but my presence in it was another matter. I should not be seeing anything except my own personal cell in the Imperial City prison, and very occasionally my jailer - much though I'd rather forget that sight. Let me just say the sloppy gruel I was served twice a day, with its unidentifiable lumps and disturbing tendency to seem to move every time I looked away, was infinitely more attractive and charismatic. And although I'd told him I'd appreciate a change of decor, I'd more been thinking of wallpaper and maybe a potted plant.
Secondly, the sky was red. And by that I don't mean some poetic exaggeration of a sunset - the entire sky was a bright, vivid, uniform crimson. It looked as if someone had spilled a sea of blood among the stars. Wisps of grey clouds raced across it, forming strange patterns. For a moment, I thought I saw a face, screaming...
Apparently, I'd been so occupied keeping my track of my conscious thoughts that I'd sorely neglected my unconscious. If it was going to throw blood skies and clouds in agony at me, we were definitely going to have to have a talk.
I looked down. Several hundred feet below me, a tree looked as if it was about to rip itself out of the ground and hunt unwary passersby for dinner.
If I could fly, I really thought I would have noticed that earlier.
"You know," I said out loud, "If I'm going to dream, I would like to dream about something pleasant. Something like... Summerset Isle." I'd seen a drawing of it in a book once and been struck by the beauty. "Although I suppose it must be full of snooty Altmer. Or I could dream about managing a daring escape from prison underneath the guards' noses. Or... I know! A secret tunnel built into my cell and a bunch of... Blades, yes, Blades need to use it, and I escape behind them." That seemed the right sort of incredibly improbable fantasy for a dream.
I closed my eyes, focussed on the image of the wall of my cell swinging back and a group of Blades and... why not, if you're going to fantasise you might as well do it properly... the Emperor dashing through it. Opened them again.
I shook my head at it sadly. "This really won't do, you know. You seem to be misunderstanding something here - I'm the one that makes the rules. I'm sure you're a very nice volcano, but I'd like to see daring escapes. This is my dream and I don't hold with rebellion."
The voice was just a sibilant whisper, but it seemed to be coming from everywhere and nowhere at once, seemed to be composed of thousands of voices all layered on top of each other, and even after it had finished speaking the echoes lingered in the air.
"This is not your dream, foolish child. I am the one that has brought you here and you. Will. Listen." The voice kept growing, filling the air like a gong. I clapped my hands over my ears, but to my horror it didn't do anything - it was as if the sound was coming from inside my head.
"I'm listening! I'm listening!" I screamed. My voice sounded tinny and hollow compared to the... other one.
"Good." The voice paused for a moment. My panting breath echoed loudly in the stillness.
"Wake up!" Another voice, this one, as hollow as mine - a pebble compared to an avalanche, impossible to focus on.
"The preparations are complete. You have been taken from the Imperial City, to the east, as it should be. Fear not, for I am watchful." I could barely think, but managed to dimly wonder how exactly that last sentence was supposed to make me feel less afraid. "Soon, you will arrive. Soon, you will fulfil your promise."
That was too much. "What promise?" I shouted, hands dropping from my head to ball into fists at my side. "I haven't promised you anything! I don't make promises as a matter of principle, it can't possibly have been me who, who did whatever you're talking about you have the wrong person-"
"It has already begun." Despite the sheer overpowering alien nature of the voice, I could tell there was a strange note of satisfaction in it.
A soft crackling noise made me glance down - then I stared in horror. My hands were changing. The very bones were shifting, cracking and then rehealing as they grew in ways nature had never meant them to. My skin was writhing, puffing outwards and its colour was slowly, ever-so-slowly growing lighter, yellowish, metallic-
"You're dreaming, wake-"
I came awake with a start, still caught in the dreamworld. That changed when I jerked myself into a sitting position and-
I let myself fall back onto the floor with a groan and rubbed my head with one hand - although on the whole stars were preferable to volcanoes, I'd prefer not to see either when I closed my eyes. Apparently, my cell had suddenly gained a very low ceiling.
"Typical. Sleeps through the entire voyage, including the storm last night where I thought the ship was about to go under, and then decides to get up the precise instant I'm leaning over her. Just typical." Or maybe it wasn't the ceiling I'd cracked my head against.
Or, for that matter, my cell I was in.
"Sorry about that," I croaked. My throat felt as though I had screamed myself hoarse.
"You almost broke my nose," the voice complained. Dimly, I recognised that it was the second voice from the... dream. "Do you know how long it took me to get it into this shape? Just crooked enough to be mysterious and give me the look of a proper, dashing rogue straight out of the romance novels without being disfiguring. You almost ruined it!"
"Are you saying," I asked weakly, "that you break your nose regularly? For the sake of... attracting ladies?"
"And now you're insinuating I'm crazy enough to break my nose on purpose!" A pause. "I got a friend to do it."
The stars were gone, so I felt quite justified in carefully opening an eye and gauging the appearance of my new, eccentric, roommate. Immediately after, I opened the other one to stare.
The man – no, the mer – was leaning against a wall. His head was bald and covered in tattoos, his nose slightly crooked without being off-putting, giving him – I admit – a rather debonair look, even if the rough clothes detracted from it somewhat. His eyes-
And here came the reason I was staring. His eyes were as red and his skin as grey as my own.
Fragmented images from the nightmare swirled back into my mind and I stopped gawking in order to chance a quick glance down at myself. Yes, my skin was still grey, my hands the same shape they'd always been. Gawking could resume presently.
"Your judgement of the matter, m'lady?" the other dark elf said, and I realised he thought I'd been staring at his nose.
"It suits you," I told him quickly. Considering how fed up I'd always become when people stared at me, I didn't want to do the same to anyone else. Especially considering he was the same race I saw every time I looked in the mirror, even if I didn't often see it outside of one. How embarrassing! "Good look, although the clothes don't exactly scream 'storybook hero'. And if you really got someone to break your nose for it, you're mad."
"Unfortunately, prisoners have never been given the finest selection of clothing. It's always 'sack, sack with holes or sack with more holes – take your pick.' Terrible shame, that," he answered, his face falling mournfully. "And as for the nose, well... I did – in a way. A friend certainly did break my nose, and he informed me later that I had been asking for it. Namely, by saying what I said about his sister, and by being too drunk to dodge."
"What you said about his sister? If it was some slander, I may have to stop speaking to you," I said, raising an eyebrow.
"I was perfectly courteous!" he protested. "Well, perhaps a bit too courteous, if you understand what I mean. My friend has always been a bit... overprotective, and when I expressed interest..."
"Say no more." I could imagine the scene very clearly in my mind's eye, and suddenly had a difficult time suppressing laughter.
"Indeed, I shall stop dwelling on such past flames and give proper attention to the present one." He bowed, a gesture that looked particularly ridiculous given his clothes, my clothes (in no better condition than his) and our surroundings, which, although not my cell, were just as bare of any amenities - I sadly noted the lack of wallpaper and potted plant. I'd really wanted that potted plant. "My name is Jiub. What would yours be, oh fair lady Nosebreaker?"
"Adryn. And I didn't break your nose!" I protested.
"Came very close, if my chin hadn't been in the way... anyway," Jiub sighed, the comedic manner dropping away, making him look much older and more tired. "We should be reaching Morrowind soon. I'm sure they'll let us go."
It was my second big shock in as many minutes. "Excuse me, did you just say Morrowind?"
"Well, obviously, since that's where the ship's bound for – oh wait, you've been asleep since before you boarded, haven't you?"
"There may have been some magic involved," I said defensively.
"Oh, I was sure that there was magic involved. Or possibly that you were on the brink of death. We've been travelling for three days now, you see."
The news that I'd slept for three days – at least – wasn't nearly as disturbing as it should have been; I suppose three shocks in as many minutes were where my mind went on strike.
"Anyway, yes. This ship is headed for Morrowind."
Morrowind. I stared – past Jiub this time. It was a place I knew next to nothing about. I knew it was in the far north-east of the Empire, one of the remotest provinces. And, of course, I knew one other thing, one that had always fascinated me deeply – it was the home of the dark elves.
I hadn't the faintest idea why I was on a ship – and now that Jiub had told me, I realised the shape of the room we were in and the rocking motion should have told me immediately that was where I was; I blamed grogginess from the long sleep – heading to Morrowind of all places.
I shivered as the words from my dream floated to the top of my mind... you have been taken to the east. You will fulfill your promise. then shook my head, trying to drive them out of my thoughts. It wouldn't matter at all where we were heading, I told myself. One Imperial prison was much like another, after all, and as for the dream? I'd probably just reacted badly to the magic they'd used to induce sleep.
It has already begun...
Just my imagination, I told myself firmly.
We chatted for a while, Jiub dropping the sombre tone with alarming speed. I wasn't sure whether it was me or himself he was trying to cheer up with his exaggerated, foppish manner. If it was me, it worked splendidly. I was actually giggling, the dream almost entirely forgotten when Jiub shushed me, warning that the guard was coming.
The guard came to see us sitting on the floor side-by-side in perfect silence, faces perfectly composed as we stared back at him. He muttered something that sounded like "crazy Dunmer", then barked at me to come with him.
Only me, apparently; I looked helplessly towards Jiub, who just shrugged, the message 'what can you do' clearly evident in his expression. Then I hurried after the guard.
He shooed me through the hold and finally up onto the deck of the ship after saying, "let's keep this as civil as possible." I'm not entirely sure why the warning. What was he expecting me to do – sit down on the floor and refuse to go a step further? Because an Imperial prison ship is such a wonderfully pleasant place to be, after all. They'll start renting them out as cruise ships for the nobility in Imperial City any day now, I'm sure. Or maybe attack him with my bare hands?
Needless to say, the proceedings were perfectly civil on my side of things. Really, if anyone needed the reminder he did – apparently basic politeness was beyond him. Too much for his already overworked little brain, I conjectured.
The guard didn't follow me outside and I took a moment to catch my breath – I was really in terrible shape, and the fact that it was much, much warmer than I was used to didn't help – and look around.
The ship was docked at a small village, consisting of some houses built in typical Imperial fashion but mainly shacks that looked as if they were about to sink into the surrounding swamp. The entire coast seemed to be swamp, in fact, turning into low hills further inland. It seemed the land rose even further; in the distance, I thought I could make out a mountain range. The swamp was filled with greenery, all of it entirely unfamiliar to me. The trees were alien, the flowers were alien, even the mushrooms were alien. (Yes, I am sure. They were quite a distance away, it is true, but the mushrooms I was used to don't glow.) The air was filled with strange sounds – no bird-calls, but chittering and clicking and strange hoots.
Oh, and there was a giant flea standing just past the village.
I looked at it for a moment, then decided it was a hallucination brought on by too much sleep.
Someone cleared their throat. I jumped.
Apparently, I couldn't be trusted to walk two feet by myself; here was yet another guard. And down there on the dock was a third. Wonderful.
I endured the rat-race of being escorted from guard to guard and finally made my way through the door of what Guard Number Two had called the "census office". (Guard Number Three had merely wanted to know where I was from. Frankly, if the people supposedly in charge of registering arrivals don't even know where the ships coming in are from, this place is in deep trouble.)
Inside, I was greeted with another guard and – for a change – a bureaucrat. Now, some people might be puzzled that I can recognise bureaucrats on sight. Personally, I find it very easy. There is a certain aura bureaucrats have, one that seems to incite a mixture of suicidal and homicidal impulses in those forced to be around them – I know it well.
The bureaucrat, an elderly Breton, started talking. "Ah yes, we've been expecting you."
Now that was worrisome. Expecting me? Since when was I important enough that anyone should be expecting me? I'd been expecting something more on the lines of "I have no idea who you are or what you did and I don't particularly care. Off to X Imperial prison with you."
"My name is Socucius Ergalla-" correction, an elderly Breton with delusions of being Imperial. Very sad. "-and I am in charge of the Census and Excise office here in Seyda Neen. Now, you'll have to be recorded before you're officially released."
"Wait. Released?" I asked.
Ergalla looked distinctly annoyed at having been interrupted. "Yes. Released. As I was saying, we prefer to record all incoming individuals to this island and-"
"You mean you're just letting me go?"
"I should have thought that would be obvious," he snapped, and unrolled a piece of paper. "I have the orders right here. 'By order of Emperor Uriel Septim VII, prisoner 103841's sentence is to be changed from ten years' imprisonment to exile in the province of Morrowind.' Now if you would let me continue..."
I shut up, not in order to comply with his instructions but because I found myself speechless.
The Empire doesn't just shoo prisoners out the door with a "so sorry for the trouble, here, have fun in your new home." And what was this about 'by order of the Emperor'? I dearly hoped that that was some kind of bureaucratic formality, because although I had no idea why the Emperor himself might take an interest in me, one thing I was sure of – it couldn't possibly be a good thing.
"Anyway. What is your name?"
"Adryn," I said for the second time that day.
Ergalla cocked an inquisitive eyebrow. "Just 'Adryn'? No family name?"
"No," I snapped.
"Hmm. Interesting." He picked scribbled something on a sheet of paper. "Your place of origin?"
"Do you mean the place I grew up in, the place I spent most of my adult life or the place I was living in last?" I asked.
He sighed deeply. "Origin," he repeated, as if that should make everything obvious.
"Try 'birthplace' if that's too complicated for you," the guard threw in.
I glared at him. Having my intelligence insulted by an Imperial guard, how low had I fallen? It was an honest bit of ambiguity, even if I was a little snide about it.
"In that case, Daggerfall." My tone was distinctly frosty.
"Really? I'd have said you have a bit of a Skyrim accent about you. It's in the vowels, you know." Much to my dismay, the guard had apparently decided to be talkative.
"Look, if you ask for birthplace I'll give you my birthplace," I said, utterly exasperated. "And considering I asked for clarification I would expect that any being more intelligent than pond scum would realise-"
Ergalla cleared his throat without looking up from his papers. "This antagonistic attitude is entirely unnecessary, and is causing an unconscionable delay in processing. Cease it immediately." The guard smirked. I fumed. Quietly. "What is your profession?"
My profession? Well... let's see, what had people called me? Oh yes, there'd been thief, pickpocket, crook, good-for-nothing, 'damned demon of a dark elf'... I rather liked the sound of the last, truth be told. Probably not quite the thing to say if I wanted to stay out of prison, however. And there was one other, more respectable one that would be accurate. One I'd been curious about ever since I was a child, one I'd always worked at and wanted to become even when events forced me into other directions.
"Me? I'm an alchemist."
Ergalla gave me a penetrating look, and for a moment, I thought he would dispute that. But in the end, he simply 'hmm'ed and continued scribbling. The sheet would be full in less than a minute if he continued on that way.
"Would you say you specialise more in the arts of magic, those of combat, or those of stealth and speechcraft?"
"Magic." This was not an entirely honest answer, I admit, as my skills really lay more in the third direction - I could hide well, had a quick tongue and was rather deft at picking pockets and locks. However, I did mention trying to stay out of prison, and I figured telling an Imperial official I was best at stealth was just under telling him I was a thief in terms of 'really really stupid ideas' when it came to that goal. Besides, I did have an interest in and knack for magic even if I was a little rusty.
As for combat? If you gave me a weapon, there was only one thing I could be sure of hitting. My foot.
"Ah yes. Now, what is your preferred weapon, your preferred armour, and what schools of magic do you specialise in?"
I gaped at him. "Excuse me, is all this really necessary?"
Ergalla looked wounded. "Of course it is! In order to allow us to gather data on immigration patterns and facilitate your rehabilitation-"
I blinked. The words he was using seemed to sprout more and more syllables. "How about you give me the forms and let me fill them out? Otherwise we'll be here all day."
He looked distinctly unhappy at that idea, but couldn't seem to think of a reason not to. He handed me the papers with a long-suffering sigh.
I handed them back some time later, now covered with writing, and massaged my hand. Although I could understand that the authorities on this island might want to know whether I was a potential axe-murderer, I remain puzzled as to why they need to know, for instance, precisely how high and far I can jump.
Ergalla took the papers back eagerly, looking over them with a jaundiced eye as if afraid I'd cursed them. After reading through them several times while I stood and fidgeted, he put them down onto the desk and faced me again.
"Very well. One more question if you please." I opened my mouth, prepared to protest – what did they want to know now? My shoe size? I'd just about had it with this "processing" – but Ergalla didn't give me a chance to say a thing.
"The letter that preceded you mentioned you were born under a certain sign. And what would that be?"
Letter? Was this the same letter in which the Emperor personally (possibly) ordered my release? And why on earth did the Empire care about my birth-sign, of all possible things? Unfortunately, Ergalla's expression seemed to promise a quick and messy end if I were to make any more trouble, so instead of making a fuss I just said meekly, "The Lover."
And was immediately reminded why I generally lie and claim to be Lady-born as the guard who was really, really far too gregarious for his own good started fighting a smirk. I shot him a glare that should, by rights, have frozen lava.
It seemed to have some effect; the guard composed himself – with visible effort – and mumbled "Sorry, m'lov- er, m'lady-"
He let out a high-pitched giggle and covered his face with one hand. I huffed. Why oh why could I not have been born one month later? The Lord seemed as if it would be a nice sign to have. Safe. True, all the Lord-born I knew complained about being very sensitive to heat... but I was a dark elf, I was sure I'd manage. Besides, I'd be willing to take on even a sun allergy if it meant not having to listen to any more 'jokes' about 'dark elven promiscuity'... jokes, I should note, so lacking in anything resembling actual humour that even the tavern bards so bad their only pay comes in the form of airborne rotten vegetables would refuse to tell them out of professional integrity. In comparison to that, vampirism doesn't seem half so bad.
Ergalla ignored the guard's antics. "Interesting. Now, before I stamp these papers, make sure this is correct," he said to me.
I frowned – of course it was correct, I was the one who had written it in the first place – but scanned the paper anyway. I was about ready to get this "processing" over with, and judging by his expression, Ergalla was too. And it's a good thing I did; the fool had put my race down as Breton! Breton, I ask you. I don't want to know what low standards the Imperial Legion must have here; anyone who can't tell the difference between a Breton and a dark elf should not be in a position of importance.
He blinked at me owlishly when I pointed this out. "Ah, yes. But you are from High Rock?"
I pinched the bridge of my nose. "Didn't we have this discussion already?"
He took the hint, scribbled something on the paper and handed it back to me. I looked over it suspiciously – maybe he was claiming I was Argonian now or something; I wouldn't put it past him – but everything seemed to be in order.
"All right, is that it?" I said, about to slip the paper into my pocket.
"Wait – we need another copy for our records..."
Suicide was looking more and more appealing.
I slipped through the door and shut it behind me, letting out a deep breath. My mind was devising hellish tortures that would make hardened criminals quake with fear for the person who had invented bureaucracy, generously leaving some for the one who had come up with the triplicate form.
Luckily these particular bureaucrats seemed to have decided that I was harmless and didn't need a guard to go five steps from one office to the other (the guards on the ship could have learned much from them), which left me a bit of time to make my head stop spinning. I walked down the corridor, searching for a chair or a bench in order to get off my feet.
As soon as I looked into the next room, I forgot all about that.
The room was furnished simply, with a table, some rickety-looking chairs I didn't really want to test, a shelf and several baskets in a corner. However, what I was interested in was what was on said table and shelf. Namely the well-polished silverware and expensive-looking liquor – Cyrodiilic brandy, if I judged correctly. Quite practised in such things, I quickly tallied up my estimations of the values of each, adding on a bit as the brandy must have been imported. Then, sure I'd been mistaken, I tallied them up again.
The result was the same: enough money to eat for half a month. And that wasn't even counting the assortment of flasks on the shelf, and the small chest next to them and ye gods, was that a lockpick?
I clenched my fists. Was this some kind of game? A test or something? I grab the things here, they frisk me in the next room and voila, it's prison for you, little thief.
I turned away from the table and stalked towards the door. I hadn't got used to this 'freedom' deal yet (if Ergalla hadn't been lying, but I couldn't imagine it – he seemed stuffy, but not petty and malicious enough for a lie like that), no need to lose it before I'd even started. Better to be poor and free than rich and in prison – or rather, poor and in prison since it wasn't as if they'd let me keep my ill-gotten goods. So leaving everything behind was my best option... turning my back on not just a relatively lucrative but also totally unguarded haul.
I threw open the door and stopped short.
Far from another room with yet another Imperial officer, the door opened into a small, empty courtyard, with another building on one side of it and a tall wall on the other. A tall stone wall with plenty of hand- and footholds for the experienced climber.
In my mind, a plan began to form.
A few minutes later, I was back in the courtyard, now holding a bulging sack. The room behind me was completely bare, even the baskets at the side having been cleaned out. Spying a barrel near the door, I quickly rifled through it and added a greenish, slightly magical-feeling ring to my haul before turning my attention to the wall.
The wall was difficult to climb, especially with my heavy load, but not impossibly so; I silently thanked a childhood spent climbing trees when I reached the top and peered over.
The area just near the base of the wall was deserted, the ground overgrown with thick bushes. I quickly heaved the sack over the top. It disappeared behind a tree with a soft thump. I twisted around to see whether anyone had noticed, lost my balance and fell.
Lying on my back in the courtyard, I decided that a childhood spent climbing trees would probably have been better supplemented by an adulthood also spent climbing trees, or at least sometimes climbing trees. An adulthood spent climbing no trees at all seemed to have left me badly out of practice. I also wished I'd decided to keep the ring on me rather than add it to the sack; in retrospect, I was sure I'd felt healing magic on it and that sounded very good right now.
I got up, wincing, and dusted myself off gingerly. Luckily I seemed to have come away with only bruises.
I wandered out of the courtyard trying not to look innocent. This may sound somewhat counterintuitive, but Imperial guards expect you to look furtive and guilty. To them, an expression of carefree innocence implies that you're hiding something.
Thankfully, the officer in the next room – "Sellus Gravius", Ergalla had called him – seemed decidedly uninterested in my expression, guilty or otherwise. In fact, he didn't register me at all. Instead, he was bent over a pile of paperwork, and the sound of low swearing made me suspect that here was someone who shared my view on bureaucracy and the triplicate form.
It would have made me more charitably inclined towards him, except that he was – as said – an officer of the Imperial legion. I figured the torture was only just.
It was tempting to just leave him to it and slip out the next door, but I suspected that would get me into far more trouble in the long run. So I cleared my throat.
Then said, "Excuse me."
When I was wondering whether I would have to go over and shake him – always a thing to think twice about with an armed man – he finally looked up and blinked at seeing me standing there.
"Oh, right. You'd be... you'd be... I'm sure I have a letter about you in here. Somewhere." He looked through his pile of documents for a moment, then seemed to give up. "Anyway. Why didn't you say something instead of just standing there?"
Given that I had said something, I thought this accusation was rather unfair, but kept this to myself. Imperial officers can get quite upset when contradicted. Instead, I told him, "Are you Sellus Gravius? If you are, I'm to give you these papers."
"Yes, that's me. Knight Errant of the Imperial Legion – not that that gets me much but paperwork these days." He took the forms I'd painstakingly filled out and glanced over them briefly. I probably could have left them claiming I was Argonian and he wouldn't have noticed. "Yes, this all seems to be in order. Now what was I supposed to do with you again... oh, right!" Apparently, Gravius had found the letter about me. Everyone seemed to have letters regarding me. It was disturbing.
He fished around on his desk and handed me a sealed package. "Take this package to Caius Cosades in Balmora. I don't know where he lives exactly but someone in Balmora should know, so ask around."
"Excuse me, but... Balmora?" I asked, confused.
"Oh, right, you're new. Balmora is a town up north from here, ask in the tradehouse for directions. Or you could take the silt strider. Quite reliable transport for a flea that's as big as a house."
So that hadn't been a hallucination after all. I wasn't sure whether to be happy that my wits weren't entirely addled or terrified that the giant flea did, after all, exist – and was apparently used as transport?
"Oh, and take this as well," Gravius continued, dropping a small pouch into my hands. The way it clinked was very, very familiar. "It's your release fee."
I stared. I seemed to be doing a lot of that today, but this definitely warranted it. Getting money from the Imperial Legion? And – I hefted the pouch – a not inconsiderable amount? From the weight, it was probably at least sixty drakes!
"Ah. T-thank you," I stumbled over the words, feeling completely off balance. It was enough to make a girl almost feel guilty about robbing the place.
Almost being the key word here.
"Yes, yes." Gravius had turned his attention back to his paperwork with a sigh. "I'm afraid I can't talk any longer, I really need to get back to this supply request. So if you'd excuse me..."
"Of course." I turned towards the door, then paused. Before, part two of my grand plan had seemed flawless and brilliant. Now, I wasn't so sure about it. But I ploughed ahead with it anyway.
"By the way... is the room back there supposed to be empty like that?"
Gravius' gaze snapped up. For the first time in the whole conversation, his entire attention was fixed on me. "What did you say?"
I shrank back. "The room. Back there. I thought it was odd that it was empty, and, and the chest on the shelf looked as if someone had broken into..." my voice trailed off as Gravius slowly stood up.
"No. That room is not supposed to be empty. That room is supposed to contain our food for the next several days, and the official Legion silverware, and the weekly... liquor... excuse me. I think I need to check on something." And he was gone.
I almost let out a sigh of relief – Gravius' full attention was a disturbing thing to have fixed upon you, and I was left with the distinct impression that this was a very dangerous man. However, dangerous or not he certainly wasn't telepathic, and what I'd done should muddy the waters a bit. I'd heard the guard with Ergalla mention that no one had been in the room since very early in the morning, so that left them with quite a large time frame in which the theft could have taken place. And I should be their last suspect now – after all, hadn't I reported the theft to the guards? And hadn't I left the place empty-handed save for what Gravius had given me?
I strolled out into the sunlight and had to suppress the urge to whistle.
Studying my sack of loot in the bushes, I no longer felt quite so cheerful.
It wasn't that it hadn't survived the fall, which I'd worried about earlier. In fact, the fall had done even less damage than I'd expected; only one flask had broken, and that one had been empty anyway. No, my plan had worked perfectly.
Unfortunately, I'd come to the conclusion that the plan had been slightly short-sighted.
I now had my ill-gotten goods, in a bush outside the Census and Excise office, and myself outside the Census and Excise office, and hopefully not fingered as potentially in possession of said ill-gotten goods. However, now came the question – what did I do with the goods?
It was, after all, broad daylight. There were quite a few people wandering around on the street. Worse yet, there were quite a few guards wandering around on the street. The bush was, thankfully, away from the main bit of traffic and shielded behind several trees, so no one had noticed the dark elf rooting through shrubbery.
I couldn't very well grab the sack and walk straight through the village, either to the tradehouse on the other side or (since fencing stolen goods at the tradehouse next to the place I'd stolen them from in the first place wasn't the best of ideas) to the road leading out of the village.
Ordinarily, this turn of events would require waiting until dark and sneaking in to recover the items then. However, part two of my brilliant master plan, looking steadily less brilliant by the minute, meant that the guards would probably have finished figuring out that yes, someone had stolen their food, their silverware and (crime of all crimes!) all their alcohol for that week and would be out in force. Chances were, they'd discover the sack well before nightfall.
Really, my best option was high-tailing it away before Gravius added up a newly released dark elf, a sack placed precisely where someone might throw it from the top of a wall and the possibility of a childhood spent climbing trees and came up with the name Adryn.
Most of me rebelled at the idea. Hadn't I managed to get this far, after all? And besides, this was my first taste of freedom and a new life! It should start on a high note, with me leaving the town with everything and sticking out my tongue at Ergalla and Gravius as I went.
"Stealing from the Imperials, eh?"
The voice behind me made me try to jump a foot and freeze in terror simultaneously, which made for some rather odd movements. In the end, I lost my balance and barely managed to keep myself from pitching face-first into the bush.
Once I was steady on my feet again I turned around, horrified at having been caught. My fear was only lightened slightly when I saw the person behind me wasn't, in fact, an Imperial guard but rather a Bosmer.
"Don't worry. I won't say a word. We all hate them here in town." Slowly, my heart-rate returned to its normal speed. "Me especially, they keep beating me up and stealing my things. Just the other day, they took my ring! It's not worth that much, but it's a family heirloom, one of the only things I've got of them so far away from home, so it's really precious to me."
I fished around in the sack. "Would this be it?" I asked, cutting off the stream of words and handing him the green ring I'd found earlier. I was rewarded by seeing the Bosmer's eyes light up.
"Why, that's it exactly! Thank you so much!" He took the ring eagerly and pressed it to his chest.
Now, lest anyone get the wrong impression I should add that I am not, as a rule, all that altruistic. Especially when it comes to rings with healing magic, given my tendency to attract trouble through no fault of my own. However, I've learned that it pays to keep anyone who can call the guards on you as happy as possible.
"I was afraid I'd never see it again. I won't forget this! I'll put in a good word for you with Arrille at the tradehouse, just you see. And..." the Bosmer looked from me to the sack in the bushes and back again. Clearly, the predicament I was in was becoming clear to him. "I think I have an idea."
A few minutes later, I was strolling across the village to the tradehouse, Fargoth – that was the Bosmer's name – by my side. The sack was thrown carelessly over my shoulder, and Fargoth made sure to mention loudly how very grateful he was for my helping him carry some of his old things over to his good friend Arrille's, he couldn't have managed so much himself...
It would have seemed ridiculous that I, skinny little scarecrow of a dark elf – and we're not known for our upper body strength in the best of times – straight of prison would be engaged for heavy lifting. Luckily, Fargoth was a Bosmer. I'm small for a dark elf, but Fargoth was still a head shorter than me.
The tradehouse was well-furnished, with hangings on the walls and various wares spread out on polished wooden tables and a counter. Several people seemed to be browsing, and there was an Altmer standing behind the counter; I surmised this was Arrille. Fargoth had gone ahead of me when we reached the narrow stairs, and he was now whispering intensely with Arrille. When I arrived, they stopped. Arrille came over to me and winked.
"I hear you're helping Fargoth with his things," he said in a drawl that was definitely not a Summerset accent. "Always told him he was a packrat and that one day that shack of his wouldn't be large enough anymore! Good for him I have a storage room free here, hm? If you follow me there, I'll show you where to put them, and give you some advice on Vvardenfell while you're at it."
"Don't listen to a word he says," a Redguard woman who had been looking at a selection of bows interrupted. "Last time he 'gave some advice', the man actually tried to go rob one of the tombs in the swamp. He ended up getting lost, wandering around after dark trying to find his way back, and finally tripped and broke his leg. And I was the one who had to rescue him." She glared at Arrille.
"Elone, I'm insulted!" Arrille gave a mock gasp. I was suddenly reminded of Jiub, and wondered with a pang what had happened to him. It had looked as though I was the only miraculous releasee. "I'll let you know my advice was fine. It's not my fault the fool decided to interpret 'ancestral tombs' as 'excellent way to make money.' And what about that Redguard girl I helped out a while back? Last I heard she was doing perfectly well."
"Only because I caught her afterwards and explained why everything you'd told her was nonsense. It looks as though I'll have to do the same with this one too." Elone looked at me critically. I stared back, shifting my sack of loot. It was heavy and my arms were getting tired. I decided that if the two of them didn't stop acting as if I was a soulless, mindless automaton I'd brain them both with my illicit gains.
Perhaps she read some of my hostile intentions from my face, because she just sighed and said, "Well, off you go. Drop off... Fargoth's belongings." I had the sudden impression that our little charade hadn't fooled her at all. "Arrille, I'll watch the shop for you. Girl, remember to come speak to me afterwards and I'll set you straight. I'm a scout, it's my job."
"Thank you kindly, Elone. Come, it's-"
"Wait a minute!" Fargoth interrupted. He'd been hovering near the doorway and now stepped forward. "I'll come with you. There are fragile things in there, I have to make sure you don't break them."
A nearby Nord let out a loud, braying laugh. "Fussy Fargoth needs to make sure you put every bleedin' thing down just right. Kid, you picked the wrong person to run errands for - you'll be lucky if you get out before nightfall." He did not seem at all abashed by suddenly being the target of three hostile glares - Fargoth's, Arrille's and Elone's. "If you want a real job, with real pay, come to me afterwards. Name's Hrisskar Flatfoot, I'll be up in the bar."
"As if you're ever not in the bar, drunkard." Elone's tone was waspish. "Girl, don't listen to him, that one's no good through and through."
"Okay, that's it." I said loudly. All people arguing stopped and turned their heads to look at me. I found myself in awe at my apparent skills at crowd control - now if only I could do that on purpose... "My name is Adryn. Not girl, kid, child, or anything like that. Ad. Ryn. It's only two syllables, it's not that difficult. And my arms hurt and I am about to drop this sack and if I am forced to drop it I will use my last strength to aim at one of you lot, so could we save the manly posturing - or womanly posturing," I corrected myself, looking at Elone, "for another time?"
"Girl has spirit. I like that." Hrisskar snickered. I recalled my earlier conversation with Jiub and wondered just how hard I would have to punch him in order to break his nose - and not in a dashing storybook rogue way either.
Arrille coughed. "She does have a point, even if she phrased it a little... interestingly. We all have things we need to be getting back to, so best to get this out of the way. Here, the storage is up these stairs."
Stairs. I looked at them sadly, then promised my aching muscles it would be over soon, gritted my teeth and started walking.
At the top there was, in fact, a small storage room, empty and obviously unused for quite some time.
I let my sack fall to the ground with a sigh. Arrille, then Fargoth entered the room as I shook out my arms, which were informing me that they had got used to lazy lounging about in prison and did not hold with this sort of strenuous activity. Fargoth closed the door behind him carefully, then hopped up to sit on a large crate. I covered my nose when I saw the dust billow up, but he didn't seem to mind.
"There, that should do it," he said. "Now you two can bargain and no one will wonder what's taking so long. After all, Fussy Fargoth needs to have things just right." He grinned wryly.
"Doesn't it bother you?" I asked him.
"Oh, Hrisskar is just a big bully. And besides, I do get a little particular about how I want things. But just a little!" he added hastily. Next to him, Arrille started coughing loudly.
"Dear me, Arrille, that sounds like a nasty cold you're coming down with," I said. "Are you sure you're feeling quite well enough to bargain?"
"Oh, don't worry about me. The dust, is all. Should tidy this room more often. Now," he straightened, his demeanour growing serious, "Fargoth tells me you have items you'd like to sell. Items acquired from a nearby Imperial outpost under, shall we say, a loose interpretation of the law." I nodded, wincing. Two people already who knew of my criminal enterprises, this did not bode well for my future career. "Now although I usually don't look well on such activities, I could make an exception for a clearly good-hearted young lass who's been helping my good friend Fargoth, and one who's been a nuisance to the Imperials up at the Census office instead of any of us townsfolk."
By Arrille's scowl, Fargoth hadn't been exaggerating much when he'd said everyone in town hated the local Imperials. I was beginning to think I could run through the town stark naked at noon and paint 'URIEL SEPTIM IS THE BASTARD SON OF A MONKEY AND A SLOAD WHO COMMITS UNSPEAKABLE ACTS WITH SHEEP' on the walls and none of the citizens would report me.
...not that I was planning on doing this, understand. I mean, I like wearing clothes. Clothes are my close, personal friends. And noon? Not a good time. And, you know, if you're going to go the graffiti route it's best to go all the way - none of that 'unspeakable acts' business.
"...so that should settle it." Oops. Arrille was still talking, and it sounded as if he'd just said something important.
"Sorry, I didn't catch that?"
"I said, I'll probably go to the Census and Excise Office sometime tomorrow, if they don't stop by before then," Arrille repeated patiently. "A Nord sold it to me, big, strong-looking fellow. Kept his hood up, but sounded rather like Hrisskar Flat-foot to me. Wouldn't be the first time he's pulled something like this, and I happen to know he was skulking around town today - probably trying to find Fargoth's stash again."
"Stash?" I asked.
"He seems to think I've got some kind of treasure chest hidden away in the swamp somewhere," Fargoth shrugged. "Honestly, as if I have any valuables left to my name in between Flat-foot and the other soldiers. You saw what happened to my ring." I saw Arrille shoot him a sharp look from the corner of my eye, and suspected this might not be quite accurate. Not that I could particularly blame him; after all, I'd only known him for an hour, if that, and he knew I was a thief. "It does mean he'll probably be trying to poke his nose in here, trying to figure out just what 'belongings' you brought over."
"All the better," Arrille said firmly. "It'll make him look more suspicious. With luck, this will get him out of our hair entirely. And if I take it to Sellus Gravius, he'll feel obliged to cover my losses and pay for the items. A good sort, that Gravius. Pity the others aren't like him. Besides," his tone grew thoughtful, "if this does let us get rid of that Flat-foot we'll most certainly owe you something..."
I shook my head. "All right, I'm confused. What exactly does all this mean?"
"It means, young la- Adryn," he amended at my frosty look, "that I hear you have some goods you wish to sell me."
A classical way to open bargaining. I grinned. "As it so happens, I have... acquired... some items." I started taking things out of the sack. "For instance, this fine set of silverware."
Arrille looked distinctly unimpressed. "Fine? Rather an exaggeration, don't you think? But who knows, maybe someone will be near-sighted enough to believe these don't belong in the nearest junkheap... I'll give you seventy drakes for them."
Did I really look that green?
"Seventy? I'm insulted, truly insulted! Look at this craftsmanship, this polish – and feel how smooth it is, not a dent or a scratch. Seventy, I say! A septim and twenty and no less!"
"One septim and twenty? One hundred and twenty drakes for that measly piece of tin? No dents, I'll give you that, but only because they've all been hammered out. But craftsmanship? Hardly! Eighty drakes and no more!"
And we were off. Bargaining, when you do it right, is as much sport as anything else. Fargoth certainly seemed to think so, at any rate - he listened to us with wide eyes and a delighted grin on his face. When one of us pulled off a particularly clever maneuver, he would break into brief applause.
"Whose side are you on?" Arrille asked him in mock outrage after Fargoth congratulated me on managing to talk him up to a round septim for the silverware.
"I am a neutral observer. I am on no one's side," Fargoth said with an attempt at an air of dignity, one which would have worked better if his feet hadn't been dangling. It all reminded me of watching the traders on market day when I was a little girl...
Well, to make a long story short, after a while we settled on three and a half septims for all my illicitly gotten goods. Arrille looked as if he were rather regretting this agreement, so I decided to cheer him up with some purchases.
Arrille frowned when I suggested going downstairs for the next stage of our bargaining. "That could be a mite difficult... did you even have any money apart from what you st- acquired at the Census office?"
I wasn't sure where this was heading, but my usual reflex when I was asked things like this was to lie, lie and lie some more. Still, I did owe Fargoth and Arrille. "Actually, Sellus Gravius gave me ninety drakes-" I clamped my mouth shut, horrified at myself. Telling them I had money, all right, but why tell them where I'd got it from? Now there'd be questions-
"Oh. You're one of those." Arrille's eyes narrowed, and Fargoth stared at me.
"It started, oh, two or three months ago. Every few weeks, the Imperials release a prisoner from the mainland here. Far as we can tell, they're usually in for minor, or at least not violent, crimes - theft, that sort of thing." I blushed - that example had not been chosen randomly, I knew. "They get given a bit of money, then sent up to Balmora." I flinched. Arrille nodded, looking satisfied. "You too, I take it?"
I nodded, deep in thought.
To be entirely truthful, my first reaction was relief. Now, most people's first reaction to being told they are embroiled in what sounded like some sort of byzantine Imperial scheme where poor innocent... mostly innocent... not that guilty people are moved around like, like one of those stones for the board games people play in the High Rock markets which I never had the patience to sit down and learn - well, anyway, their reaction would not be relief, not if they had any sense. And although the sense thing can be argued on my part, mine usually would not be either.
No, the reason I was relieved was that if I was one of a group, it was highly unlikely the Emperor was, in fact, personally interested in me.
After all, even if the Emperor himself was at the heart of said byzantine Imperial scheme he surely put unimportant work like selecting suitable pawns in the hands of subordinates. Right?
The Nine save me, I was doomed.
"So," Fargoth said. He'd hopped off the crate to stand next to Arrille. I inched back a bit upon seeing the united front. "I take it you don't care to tell us what's going on?"
All right. That was just too much.
I exploded. "Going on? What in the name of Ysgramor and his Five Hundred makes you think I have any idea what's going on? I woke up this morning on a ship hundreds of miles away from where I went to sleep with no idea how I'd got there or why, nobody's told me anything except 'go here, do that, fill out these forms.' I'm tired, I'm hungry, I'm confused, I have no idea what I'm doing here, I've never even set foot on Morrowind before and you ask me what's going on? You, you inbred excuses for cowardly dogs who'd give Alduin indigestion-"
"All right, all right, all right!" Fargoth interrupted me before I could properly get going. "We understand. You don't know what's going on. Er, please calm down. I don't think you're supposed to be able to turn that colour."
...skin bubbling its hue changing it has already begun-
"Or that one, for that matter. Sit down, you've gone all... light grey."
I sat on the proffered crate and tried thinking of... plants. Beautiful, beautiful plants. Flowers. Ferns. Black trees in a volcanic wasteland while- no. "Thank you. Um. What were we talking about?"
There was a moment's collective silence.
"...well," Arrille said, "the issue is that we need to make sure you're not seen buying things with more money than you're meant to have. That sort of thing could lead to inconvenient questions, if you get my meaning. I'll sell you what I can, but best for you to get to Balmora and do your shopping there."
I was beginning to wish I could kidnap Arrille and take him with me. He thought of these things called 'consequences'. I'd always had a little trouble with those.
Downstairs, both Elone and Flat-Foot were gone. Instead, there was a dark elven girl, maybe eight years old, sitting on Arrille's counter. I looked at her curiously. She was the first other dark elf I'd seen since disembarking, which was rather surprising given that this was meant to be their, our, homeland. She was wearing rough clothing so covered in patches of various colours I could hardly tell what its original shade had been and holding a short wooden sword firmly in one hand. Red eyes peered back at me behind messy black hair that had apparently escaped from a rather bedraggled ponytail.
"Are you going to do something evil?" she asked me solemnly.
My mouth opened and shut wordlessly. Maybe it was because it had been a long and confusing day, maybe because I wasn't often accused of being evil by people half my height, but I found myself speechless.
Luckily, Arrille came to the rescue. "Good day, Llavani. I assure you Adryn is not evil. Does Indrele know you're here?"
"Mother is busy. And Miss Elone said she'd give me two whole copper pieces if I stayed and protected your things from evildoers, Uncle Arrille!" Llavani swung her sword, I presumed at an imaginary foe. Arrille ducked. "I dunno what evildoers look like, though, so to be safe I've just been asking everyone. Did I do good?"
Arrille reached over and ruffled her hair. "You did wonderfully, scrib. Why don't you run over to Elone now and tell her your guard duties are no longer needed, and that I'd like to talk to her when she has time."
"And," I threw in, "tell her I happen to know that in Imperial City little girls get three drakes for guard duty."
She grinned at me. "You're all right, sera." Then she vanished out the door.
"Who was that?" I asked.
"Llavani Rathryon. She's the daughter of one of the commoners around here. Very conscientious lass, but... I'll have to ask Elone just what she was thinking." Arrille shook his head. "Anyway. I think you had some items you wanted to buy?"
"Which is my cue to disappear, I think," Fargoth threw in. "I still have some work to do at home, after all. Arrille, I'll see you tonight. It was nice to meet you, Adryn, and thank you for all your... help. I'm sure you'll do excellently here." He winked at me.
I bade Fargoth farewell and looked around the shop. Honestly, I had to wonder whether there was actually anything there I'd be interested in. I saw a lot of weapons - and not even daggers or anything sensible or easy to use like that, but giant warhammers and blades almost as long as I was tall. I saw heavy metal torture devices, I mean armour, polished so brightly they were almost painful to look at. (As if the possibility of blindness would give me incentive to strap myself into a heat-absorbing death trap heavier than I am.) The only thing that looked remotely useful was a stack of rough woolen clothing in the corner - it looked as if some of it ought to fit reasonably well, and I wasn't in much of a position to be very snobby about clothing. (An understatement. I'd definitely ended up with the 'sack with more holes' of Jiub's explanation of prison garment options.) But apart from that...
Wait. Was that up in the corner of that shelf...
"That's Eldafire's old mortar and pestle, and her vial set," Arrille said, following my line of sight. "Sold it to me a few months back, said her eyesight was getting too bad to keep making potions but it was an excellent set which had served her well all the time she had it. Do you want me to-" he noticed my hungry gaze and amended himself, "I'll just get that down for you, shall I."
Honestly, and despite Arrille now trying to talk it up as the finest alchemical tool which had ever graced Tamriel, it didn't look like much. The mortar was too small to make larger or more complicated potions, battered, some of the surface already worn smooth from repeated use, the vials were milky with age - a far cry from the equipment you see master alchemists or even journeymen use. So it may be difficult to understand exactly why my fingers twitched at the sight.
At least, difficult to understand unless you have ever had the experience of trying to grind wolfsbane petals for an invisibility potion using two smooth rocks because you have nothing else to hand. In the middle of a rainstorm. While the guards the invisibility potion is meant to help you escape from are coming steadily closer. On the other hand, if you have had this experience I believe you will agree (albeit possibly from prison) when I say you never quite view alchemical equipment the same way again.
"So I'd sell it to you for eighty drakes,"Arrille said, finishing up his spiel.
Of course, none of that is reason to act like a fool. Which spending eighty drakes (almost all of the money I was supposed to have at my disposal!) on that would certainly be.
"Eighty? Eighty? You must be joking. You say it's served her well for years - I can certainly see the years part of it! Honestly," I sniffed, "I'm doing you a favour, offering to take this off your hands when you were probably planning to toss it out with the rubbish at the next opportunity since no respectable alchemist would go near it. Half a septim and no more."
"You exaggerate mercilessly - it might be old, but it's still perfectly functionable. How about... one septim, and I'll teach you a Firebite spell as well." That was actually quite a tempting offer. I didn't know one myself, but I knew fire spells could be very useful in a pinch - lighting fires even without flint and tinder, as an emergency replacement for properly cooking, and even for defense. Although to be entirely truthful, I wasn't planning to use it for the last; the first item in my arsenal when it comes to combat is neither spell nor weapon but my legs. Running away at the first sight of trouble has served me well for quite a while now and I wasn't planning on changing that (I personally blame this attitude on an excess of sanity, although some people would dispute that.)
"Ninety drakes for both, and you add in a shirt and a pair of trousers from that stack there," was my counter-offer.
"Done and done." Arrille smiled, satisfied, as I handed over every last drake that Gravius had given me. Usually I'd be a bit more careful about my money, but the weight of my illicitly acquired three hundred fifty more hidden inside my shirt reassured me that I still had enough to be reasonably secure. "Now, the way you construct a Firebite spell is like this..."
It was quite a bit easier to pick up than I was expecting, even though I had relatively little experience with Destruction magic. Arrille shrugged and muttered "Dunmer" when I managed to successfully light a candle on his table on the second try.
I'd just managed to pick a shirt and trousers that looked to fit at least no worse than what I was already wearing (and silently vowed that at the next opportunity, I'd squander some of my hard-earned money on a tailor) when the door creaked open.
"Elone!" Arrille barked. I looked at him in surprise; this was the angriest I'd heard him so far. "Since when does 'I'll keep an eye on things' mean you wander off and leave a little girl to look after things? Llavani's not a lass that goes running off, no, but she's no guard."
Elone raised an eyebrow. "Calm down, will you? I'm sorry for leaving the store unattended - I wouldn't have, but something urgent came up which I had to look into right away. I figured Llavani would look after things for you."
"Look after? The girl is eight."
"Eight and probably more careful about who she lets in than I'd be." I remembered being asked whether I was evil and had to choke back a giggle. Elone continued, "It's not as if you get a lot of thieves here, and if something happened Llavani'd raise enough of a fuss that you'd hear it even from upstairs. And nothing happened, did it?"
Arrille seemed to be calming down despite himself. "Still, Elone, whatever your 'urgent business' was, and no doubt you'll be telling me it's yet another secret of yours..."
"No secret this." Elone's voice was grim. "Processus has gone missing. No one's seen him since yesterday evening and I couldn't find him anywhere in town. Some people are searching the surrounding area, I'll join them in a bit. But first..." her gaze fell on me. I crossed my arms in instinctive defensive reaction. (It was a 'what am I going to do with you?' look. I don't like those looks; as previously mentioned I am not a game piece and the only one who ought to be doing anything with me is me, thank you very much.)
"Processus gone missing? Don't tell me..." Arrille trailed off, brow furrowed in thought, then noticed where Elone was looking. "Oh, I just finished selling Adryn here some items."
"Not, I note, any weapons or armour," Elone said drily. I stared at her in confusion; I thought the general idea was to make me more, not less, likely to survive.
Arrille shrugged. "Lass didn't seem to want any. Doesn't seem to be a warrior type if you look at her, now does she?" They looked at me. I glared back. "I did talk her into a Firebite spell, though, and was about to have a word with her regarding weaponry."
"Of course you will. After lunch."
"What?" Arrille asked.
An arm snaked its way around my shoulders. I tried to jerk away, but it was holding me too tightly. "Lunch. Arrille, you should be ashamed of yourself. While you've been making the girl pay for your cast-offs and telling her all sorts of nonsense, she's faint with hunger." Elone's voice was coming from right next to my ear. I moved my head as far to the other side as I could.
"My name. Is not. Girl," I muttered between clenched teeth.
"I'll take her outside for some fresh air, get some food into her and try to tell her how things really are."
"And you can stop ignoring me anytime, yes. Oh, and let me go. That too."
Elone ignored me. "I've got food at my place. Come on, let's go."
Now, lest anyone get the wrong impression I should note that ordinarily I defend my personal space with all the force and dedication of a rabid war dog. (Some people would tell you that there are other similarities. This is, of course, a barefaced lie.) Anyone trying to so much as tap my shoulder generally ends up with their fist in my face or, failing that, my teeth in their hand. Someone actually putting their arm around me without me doing my best to remove the offending appendage... remove it from their body, that was... was next to unheard of. However, in this case there was an overriding impulse, one of the few things that would make me put up with such manhandling with only grumbling.
More to the point, free food that was hopefully not gruel or at least not mobile gruel after far, far, far too long being forced to subsist on that... that... substance. At the moment, I was willing to swear my soul to the Emperor for something that could actually be classified as food without being academically dishonest. Tolerating someone being overly familiar, as long as their hands didn't venture any further down than my shoulders, went only slightly more against my basic nature.
As a result, I only put up a token struggle as I was dragged out of the tradehouse.
Elone's house turned out to be one of the nice-looking thatched houses clustered to the north of the tradehouse. I was glad of it, as most of the other "buildings" in this place - I use the term loosely - looked as though the instant you set foot in them they would collapse on top of you and drown you in the swamp. (Traps set for newcomers, perhaps?) Inside, it was also furnished much as I expected from a Cyrodiilic home. I'd have spent more time studying the surroundings except that my attention got diverted by a truly amazing gift of the gods exuding a heavenly smell-
I'm sorry, where was I?
"It's not much, just warmed-up crab chowder from this morning, but I can't afford to spend much more time here and you don't look as if you want to wait much longer," Elone said as she put a steaming bowl of soup and a chunk of bread in front of me.
"Mmfgrmp," I answered. It was meant to be 'thank you', but somehow my mouth had filled itself with soup without my even noticing. Strange how that happens.
Thankfully, Elone didn't take offense at my lack of manners; instead she just grinned and dug into her own portion.
Despite the fact that I ended up taking thirds, Elone and I finished at the same time - her with a somewhat amazed expression on her face. I didn't see what the issue was; time in an Imperial prison teaches you quickly that anything resembling food is to be devoured as quickly as possible before anyone takes it away from you. Or it runs away. (I remembered that gruel.)
"Well, you certainly needed that," Elone said, looking at me critically.
"Thank you very much," I said, comprehensibly this time. "It was delicious." Although honestly, what I was comparing it to was a very, very low bar - I'd almost have called Legionnaire hardtack delicious at that point - but I figured it was more diplomatic not to point that out.
"Almalexia's mercy, she does have manners after all!" I scowled and was about to snap a retort (probably proving her point), but Elone continued with something that made my blood run cold. "Pity she has next to no sense to accompany those, given what I saw from the lighthouse earlier today."
"I have no idea what you're talking about," I said woodenly.
"Oh? How strange. Then it must have been some other newly-released prisoner who stole everything that wasn't nailed down in the Legion's supply room and tossed it over the wall! Don't worry, I won't tell," she continued, correctly interpreting my expression as 'terrified'. "But you do realise the main reason you got away with it is Fargoth opting to help you? By all rights, you ought to be back in prison right now."
"It may have been slightly short-sighted-" I started.
Elone laughed. I glared at her. "Slightly short-sighted? Girl," seriously, two syllables, what is so difficult about this, "that was one of the stupidest things I've ever seen. Now, I can't say the other ones were particularly clever, but at least none of them decided to start their criminal activities when they hadn't even been officially released yet!"
"Look," I retorted, "I fail to see what business it is of yours anyway, but in any case what's done is done so if you're not going to turn me in-"
"What's done is done, yes." Elone didn't seem inclined to let me finish a single sentence. "Except that I can't help but think that now, after you've successfully robbed the Census and Excise office - thanks more to luck than anything else, I should note - you'll decide to continue on in this manner. And next time, or the time after, or the time after, your luck will fail you and you'll end up in prison again. Which would be a right shame, if you ask me."
My shoulders slumped. Elone was right; by all rights my stunt earlier should have landed me straight back in prison. I'd been overconfident and hadn't thought about consequences, yes, but the main problem was that I simply wasn't used to working on my own. I'd always had someone else to go through plans with, be a look-out, cause distractions, bail me out of trouble when worst came to worst - at this rate I'd end up arrested or killed soon simply because I was relying on back-up that wasn't here. But... "It's not as if I can do anything else." I hadn't actually been planning on sharing, but the words just spilled out of me. "Not like anyone'd hire me for a proper job, and I have to eat somehow."
Elone's expression softened. "Of course. For a moment there, I forgot you weren't from Morrowind. Most of the people on that ship looked to be from Cyrodiil... but no. Skyrim, by your accent. Solitude, would be my guess?"
I nodded reluctantly. "Lived there since I was twelve. Just moved to Imperial City recently before... all this happened." Maybe I'd developed mind-control powers in the last five minutes so that the please stop asking about this I was currently thinking at her would induce her to change the subject. Hope sprang eternal.
"Well, no wonder then," Elone said decidedly. "You've got pretty limited career choices in a city where going outside the gates is a near death sentence close to nine months of the year. And Imperial City's no better for all that the climate isn't so extreme. But," she fixed me with a stare, "you've got to remember that you're not in either of those places anymore. You're on Vvardenfell. It was a Temple preserve up until recently, you know?" I didn't - in fact I didn't even know what that meant - but Elone didn't seem inclined to let me get a word in between. "So most of it's still unsettled and a lot of the settlements that do exist are new. Vvardenfell is wild, untamed, dangerous, and in a place like that there's a lot of ways a bright, resourceful girl like you can make a living without resorting to crime."
"Like?" I couldn't help but be dubious, as this did not correspond with my previous experience in the slightest.
"Well, you could follow in my footsteps and become a scout." Elone grinned. "Honestly, I might find myself resorting to crime in Solitude myself - not much call for scouting if you can barely get outside without braving frostbite. Or if you're not so much for the wilderness, there's a lot of organisations and guilds recruiting these days, and they usually offer room, board, and a lot of ways to make money. If you're more of the adventuring sort, I know quite a few people who make a tidy sum of money by hunting smugglers and bandits - although by the look of you I'd guess that's not quite your thing." However could she have guessed? I mean, I'm sure I cut the precise image of an imposing warrior. They'll ask for my portrait to put next to 'adventurer' in the Imperial Dictionary any day now, I'm just waiting for the letter.
Elone continued, "If you can cast a water-breathing spell or get an item enchanted there's pearl-diving, although you need to be wary of the slaughterfish. Or you can gather ingredients in the wild and sell them to apocetharies or merchants, or make potions from them to sell yourself- aha, that caught your interest." She'd noticed my eyes light up. "Should have guessed when I saw you spend most your money on a mortar and pestle. Alchemy's an excellent way to make money here. There's enough call for potions that most merchants will buy home-made potions, and it's easy to get ingredients just by stepping outside and plucking flowers. Most everything growing out there, and some of the things walking, have some alchemical use. Who knows, you might even manage to open a shop if you play your cards right."
Alchemical ingredients just growing outside for anyone to pick up? Which you didn't have to dig out from under several inches of ice? Or have to beat the other dozen poor people with alchemical pretensions to? I hadn't seen anything like it since I was a child. If Elone was right and ingredients were readily at hand and it was easy to sell homemade potions, I might be able to eke out an honest living that way... and getting away from a life of crime had more advantages than she knew.
At that point, Imperial guards couldn't have stopped me from going outside to test this myself.
"Wait!" Elone might succeed, though. "Are you planning to go unarmed and unarmoured?"
I stared down at myself (still clad in dreadful prison clothes and conspicuously devoid of anything resembling armour), at my hands (empty), then back at Elone, raising an eyebrow. Honestly, did I look as though I had anything like that on me? Perhaps she thought I'd mastered the art of storing items in some sort of dimensional pockets, a feat I'd read about in books. If so, I was going to have to reconsider all the advice she'd given me; I prefer to take my guidance from people with at least some resemblance of sense.
"Don't be cheeky," Elone said, fixing me with a look. "And I wasn't joking when I said this land was dangerous, you know. You're not safe even close to town, and going outside without any way to defend yourself is just asking for trouble. In fact..."she sighed heavily, then stood up. "I have an old iron short-sword I was planning to sell to Arrille one of these days. Giving it to you is probably a good investment."
"But... Elone, I don't know how to use a sword," I pointed out.
"Which end would you stick into whatever's trying to kill you?" she called back from where she was rummaging through a chest.
Was this a trick question. "The... pointy one?"
"Wonderful! See, you already know how to use a sword better than some Imperial Legion recruits." Seeing the quality of their officers, I honestly wasn't all that surprised. "And 'the sharp bit goes into the enemy' is just about the most important thing to know when you're looking at a charging nix-hound or alit. Here, how's this?"
She pressed a sword into my arms, which sagged immediately. I pondered who on earth had come up with the idea of calling this thing a 'short-sword', as I had no idea what was meant to be so short about it. I could barely lift the thing.
"Well," Elone said, "I'm sure you'll get used to the weight in time."
I wasn't convinced. "Look, Elone... I owe you a lot, for the food, for the advice, for... er... keeping quiet about certain things which the Imperial authorities really don't need to know." I gave her my best smile. "But honestly, I'm no good with weapons. I'd probably stab myself by accident instead. And I know a Destruction spell now," I held my hand up and let flames play around it. "That'll probably be more useful in a pinch than a weapon I can barely lift. So thank you, but..."
Elone's brow furrowed. "I take your meaning, but... how about this. I'll probably be here for another half an hour, gathering up some things before I go back out to search for Processus. If, during that time, you redecide, just come back here and I'll give the sword to you."
I smiled at Elone. "I'll do that. And honestly, thank you for everything. I don't know why you're spending so much time on me..."
"Let's just say I have a suspicion you might just become a productive citizen if you don't get yourself killed first. Now, off you get." She smirked. "See you in five minutes."
It took ten.
Elone was kind enough not to say "I told you so" out loud when I knocked on her door, but her face more than made up for that courtesy. My face burned. I truly hate to admit being wrong, but... they had rats.
I can already imagine the cat-calls – "Oh, don't tell me you're scared of rats." Well, ordinarily I'm not. But I'm not talking about your average household rat here. I am talking about giant rats. Monster rats. Rats like you've never seen them before. The thing came up past my knees! Its fangs were several inches long! Destruction spells aren't much use if by the time you're close enough to use them you'd have already lost that hand to a monstrous beast cleverly disguised as a rodent. I'm lucky it couldn't climb trees, or else I might not be here today.
I decided I'd stay close to Seyda Neen for the time being. Just in case.
Several hours and an interminable amount of mud, insects, and insect bites later, I'd managed to avoid any further encounters with the Evil Rats of Doom (as I'd dubbed them) but had run into several crabs of similar size - I suspected they were the source of the soup I'd had for lunch. Luckily, they were slow enough that even with a really-not-short-sword at my side I could easily get a good distance away and wait for them to calm down. I was wondering again if taking that had really been such a good idea - after all, "the pointy end goes in the enemy" is all well and good but hard to manage if you can't even hold the point steady. I supposed that I could always use it as bandit-repellent; I'd be much less likely to be attacked if they erronously believed I could lift a sword without being a danger to myself.
At any rate – what was wrong with this country? Rats and crabs are supposed to be around the length of my forearm, tops. Maybe it was something in the water? A kind of magical algae, perhaps, that made all the creatures grow to monstrous sizes? But then again, wouldn't the people be just as big? A mystery indeed.
Crabs weren't the only thing I'd encountered, as it seemed Elone had been telling the truth about more than just the wildlife. I'd found no less than four types of mushroom, one type of fern and one type of flower in the swamps near the town. I didn't recognise any of them and none looked even remotely edible, two downright poisonous. However, some experimenting proved that the glowing purplish mushrooms combined with the buds of the flower, ground to a powder and mixed with water, created a bitter substance that enabled one to walk on water for short periods of time.
I didn't feel like testing just how short; I'd seen some fish in the water and they looked just as overgrown as every other creature on this island. And hungry. Very hungry. And let's not forget their big sharp teeth, shall we?
Returning to Seyda Neen, I noticed a door in a rock nearby and an inscription engraved above it. Nearing it, I could make out that the letters read "Addamasartus" - the name of a cave, perhaps? More importantly, I could make out footprints in the marshy ground. Someone had been here, and not all that long ago.
I had no idea who might live in such a place. Maybe some more inhabitants of Seyda Neen who hadn't found housing in the town itself. Maybe caves passed for expensive housing here (I could almost believe it after the shacks I'd seen in Seyda Neen). But perhaps it was someone far more dangerous. I told myself I'd really done enough on impulse today and, despite curiosity, gave the cave a wide berth as I returned to Arrille's Tradehouse.
Arrille seemed happily surprised to see I was still alive, although the "happy" part didn't change his ruthless style a whit. It took some hard bargaining, but he gave me fifteen drakes apiece for my homemade potions, more than I was expecting; I suspected he'd agreed just to get me out of the place, as I was dripping swamp all over his floor. Not that I was going to complain. Furthermore, the flowers, called 'coda flowers', according to Arrille, were apparently quite valuable, as they had a levitating effect when chewed (I made a mental note: Substances that give levitation are valuable. Exploit this). Even after haggling myself a set of proper vials and a decent pack, my "legal" purse was once again heavy as I left the tradehouse.
I considered staying near Seyda Neen for a bit, learning about the area and earning a bit of gold through alchemy, but I really didn't plan to stick around until Arrille set his plan into motion. From what I'd seen of Hrisskar Flat-foot I suspected that if he found out who had set him up, I wouldn't get away with my head intact. Besides, although it was tempting to disappear into the wilds with the package bound for Balmora with me I knew it would be a very bad idea. Imperials tend to get cranky when their mail gets delayed or mislaid. No, the best thing to do would be to deliver the package without any further side trips and then make myself scarce. I was sure the recipient wouldn't keep me around; after all, I was hardly anyone special. Just your average thief trying to turn over a new leaf; there was really nothing more the Legion could want of me, was there?
I ignored the nagging doubts about this, which were whispering things like "Emperor's personal orders" and "shipped all the way to Morrowind" and, of course, "release fee", hardened my resolve and stepped onto the road headed for Balmora.
Gravius had mentioned a 'silt strider' travel service that could take you to Balmora. I didn't mean to use it – for one, although I had some spare money now, I wanted to make that last for a while; for another, I was distinctly unsure about how safe giant bugs were as travelling devices.
On the other hand, it was getting dark. And...
I heard a squeaking noise from further along the path, and red, beady eyes gleamed at me out of the darkness.
I took the silt strider.
It was actually much better than I was expecting. Some clever mer had hollowed out the shell on top of the beast and installed seats, meaning that passengers could ride in relative comfort, and it moved with a gentle swaying motion that was vaguely reminiscent of the ship I'd arrived in. Other people might find the gait nauseating, but my stomach remained quiet... at least, as long as I didn't look too closely at exactly how the beast was steered. There are things I never wanted to know about giant flea anatomy.
I was the only passenger but the silt strider operator, Darvame Hleran, was friendly and we whiled the time away chatting – she said she was glad for the company, as she usually transported Legion members newly off the ship from Cyrodiil to Fort Moonmoth in Balmora or, lately, Fort Buckmoth further north, near Gnisis. The moue of distaste she made speaking of the Legion made me like her quite a bit more.
Darvame also gave me what was undoubtedly the single most important piece of advice I received that day, and I'd received many.
I'd mentioned that I had never been to Morrowind before and could probably count the number of other dark elves I'd met on one hand. Surprisingly, a flash of anger crossed her features, then she sighed.
"Don't say dark elf. Say Dunmer," she told me.
I blinked, puzzled. "The old word?"
"The only word," she stressed. "Dark elf is an insult. Not quite as bad a one since you're Dunmer as well, but bad enough. And you're an outlander. No need to make people even more angry with you."
As said, the most important advice I received. Of course, Elone had been immeasurably helpful but all that wouldn't be worth anything if I accidentally gave mortal insult to a local as soon as I got into Balmora and got myself killed.
In retrospect, it should have been obvious – we say Altmer and Bosmer, so why not Dunmer? But I'd spent my life being called a dark elf, with capital letters if people wanted to be polite, it never even ocurred to me that this might qualify as an insult.
Even apart from the conversation, the ride was pleasant. We were up high enough that I had a lovely view of the surrounding countryside – swamps giving way to fields and hills, covered in flora that I was just itching to inspect, an Imperial outpost in the distance I'd make sure to avoid. Then, from one step to another, the green hillsides gave way to the grey, ashy wastes of the Foyada Mamaea, as Darvame called it.
Now, after my complaining about swamps, midges, armour, crabs, E.R.Ds, Imperial outposts and other such annoyances, one might believe I didn't like Vvardenfell, and that my first sight of the barren ashes that apparently covered much of this island would only reinforce that opinion. It was true that up till then I had been getting steadily less fond of Vvardenfell, and was seriously contemplating getting off it as soon as possible; even the fact that Morrowind was undoubtedly my ancestral home (unless anyone finds Dunmer in, say, Akavir) and that I might be able to make money from my alchemy hadn't managed to change my impression of the island. However, at my first sight of the Foyada Mamaea all that changed.
It turned out that I had left at exactly the right time. Usually, Darvame told me, the volcanic regions were an ugly grey, the monotony only broken by the occasional trama shrub, scathecraw or fireflower – none of them particular aesthetically pleasing either. Adding in the dangerous wildlife (remembering the E.R.Ds, I was tempted to ask "more dangerous than the wildlife in the swamps?" but thought better of it) it was hardly the most pleasant region of Vvardenfell. But all that changed for a brief time every day and when the silt-strider's footsteps stirred up the ashes of the Foyada Mamaea, the setting sun turned them into glittering diamond dust floating in the air.
The sight was breathtaking, the grey wastes turning gold in the sunlight. It only lasted a short while, but after it was over my eyes seemed to have changed. Rather than the drab ugliness Darvame had described, I saw austere beauty in the grey slopes, the ash whirling in the air, the few struggling plants-
Suddenly, neither this island nor the idea of spending a long time - possibly the rest of my life - here seemed as dreadful.
Even if I still thought someone should come up with an extermination program to deal with the rats.
We didn't spend long in the ash-wastes, as the Foyada Mamaea was apparently bordered by green lands on both sides (I wasn't quite sure of how this worked geographically and decided to try and find a map at some point). So the grey country quickly gave way to green fields again, although the air had a marshy tang more reminiscent of the swamp-lands I'd explored than the lands we'd travelled through. Nevertheless I saw it with new eyes, ignoring the midges and muck in favour of the lush greens, the blossoms, the smell of growing things overlaying the acrid sting of the swamp.
We reached Balmora just past sunset.
After bidding farewell to Darvame and getting off the silt strider, I stopped and stared for a while. Unlike the village of Seyda Neen, Balmora was a proper-sized town, and one built in what seemed to be the local style at that. Rather than the tall granite buildings with steeply slanted shingled roofs I was accustomed to from Solitude or the wood and daub houses with thatched roofs I remembered from my childhood, the buildings here were made out of beige bricks that put me in mind of clay. They were oddly rounded, looking almost slightly organic, and with flat roofs easily accessible by stairs – a clever idea in the balmy climate. It was dark, but the city was well-lit by torches, lanterns, candles and mage-lights, by which I could see that the city was still alive despite the hour – people strolled down the streets or reclined on the roofs, chatting. Most of the shops still seemed to be open, their services announced by flapping banners with symbols and Daedric wordings. A similar banner stood at the gate of the town, saying simply "Balmora". I touched it as I went by.
There were a number of traders near the town gate, but I ignored them; time enough for all that tomorrow, after I'd dropped off the package. Instead, I accosted a Nord passerby for directions to the nearest inn.
She looked at me disdainfully and I winced, uncomfortably aware of the sight I must cut – rough, ill-fitting prison clothing, torn and stained with swamp-muck and ash, red, greasy hair in complete disarray, my face smudged with dirt, a worn iron sword awkwardly sheathed at my side...
"Try the Eight Plates, straight ahead past the Mages' Guild. Or better the South Wall Cornerclub on the other side of the river, they cater to your kind."
Although I was loath to spend more money than I needed to on accomodations – already I was richer than I'd been in a long time and found that I quite liked that state of affairs – the sniff that accompanied the comment of "your kind" decided me. I thanked the Nord politely and set off towards the Eight Plates. (Let no one say that I am not contrary to the point of absolute idiocy.)
The Eight Plates turned out to be an upper-class establishment on the far side of town; the looks its patrons gave me as I entered almost enough to make me forget my bravado and flee back outside again. In the end, it was sheer exhaustion that compelled me forward: I didn't think I'd be able to make it to the bridge, let alone the other side of the river, without collapsing.
The proprietess looked aghast as I approached her. "Now look here, this is a good establishment and we don't serve- ah." She quieted as I hefted my full purse and turned positively friendly once I slid her a few coins.
"My pardon," I murmured, trying to sound like a useless dimwit with more money than- I mean, a noble. "I have been travelling for some days now and seek accomodation for the night."
Either my attempt at an upper-class accent was not a complete failure or the promise of money had mellowed her more than I had hoped; not only did the woman agree to rent me one of her better rooms, but also offered to run me a bath and give me supper despite the late hour. Needless to say, I accepted gladly.
The bath was just the right temperature, deep, long enough to lie down in... in short, perfect after a long day of digging up mushrooms, running from E.R.D.s and dealing with bureaucrats (I think it is obvious which of those three was most exhausting). Too perfect, actually; after scrubbing myself repeatedly and lathering my hair, I dozed off and only woke up when I tried to breathe water. Bathing when tired is a perilous business, one best attempted with either cold water, iron self-control or a ring of water-breathing.
After a great deal of choking and spluttering, some sad looks at my change of clothes (although protected from the ravages of the journey in my pack, they were just as rough and ill-fitting as the others) and a vain attempt to tame my hair, I descended into the common room.
I was informed that supper was a soup of marshmerrow, saltrice and roobrush, followed with fried nix-hound meat and kwama eggs, and decided it was probably better not to ask what any of these things were. When the meal came, the only thing I recognised was the bread on the side – but it didn't matter anyway, as I was so focused on not falling asleep in my soup I didn't even register the taste. I finished quickly, as the noise from the other patrons was making my head hurt, bade goodnight to the landlady and stumbled up the stairs again.
My room was situated on the second floor, with a lovely view over the river, a night-stand and desk and – most importantly – a large, soft-looking bed. I let myself fall on that last and was out before my head even hit the pillow.