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Winter of the Wheel

Chapter Text

The life of a thief is not a glamorous one, despite the many legends told of the Gray Fox. Those were tales that would end with the first spring of the Fourth Era, as the newest of their line crept through the Colovian highlands, on a stolen mare, his mind far from ideas of any more great heists or grand adventures.

Kyndoril, self-exiled lord of Luxurene, had no ambitions but to become a living ghost. It was pure necessity. Theft of an Elder Scroll had been heinous enough without being framed for a large count of murders. The theft alone was reason enough for Cyrodiil to seek him out and, in the name of Zenithar, drag him back to the Imperial City.

Not a desirable reunion, Kyndoril thought as two faces strayed into his mind – the first belonging to the High Chancellor, who would never understand, and the second to High Kinlord Silabaene of Firsthold, the murderer.

As the sun drifted further to his left, Kyndoril began to examine the ground. And he spotted a glint of marble between the oaks. The Ayleids had one redeeming quality, and it was that they had not discarded the Aldmeri practice of burrowing beneath Y'ffre's green earth for the sake of creating vast underground libraries, treasure vaults, temples, and catacombs. Much like the ruins dotting the wilderness of Summerset, the Ayleid basements of Cyrodiil had survived where time, warfare, and the elements had all but erased the cities above.

To Kyndoril, these ruins were sanctuaries. Haunted, but sanctuaries nonetheless. There was merely the matter of letting himself in and finding a good place to make an offering, be it an altar, Aetherial well, or anything elevated above the floor. A bit of food seemed modest when his own rations were low. And then there was the matter of prayer, to make sure the dead got the message.

“Spirits, forgive my trespass,” Kyndoril whispered. “Accept this humble potato in exchange for shelter.”

The potato sat there, as vegetables do. The magicka of the ruins shifted, and he sensed a grudging cessation of ghostly hostility.

“Thank you, spirits. Gods bless and keep you.”

There would be other potatoes. And perhaps pickled cabbage, and maybe even some smith's cooking pot if he were lucky. Maybe he could even shift some coin to compensate for the iron and trouble, if he found someone worth robbing of their gold first. And maybe one day, looking back, he would see the irony in trying to be virtuous while robbing the good people of their vegetables and cookware. No, wait, there was the irony, staring him in the face.

But what was his other option? Begging for meals? If that even worked, it would all end when the Black Horse Courier or the guards reached them. The life of a fugitive required practicality, if it was to continue at all. Theft was a necessity, and guilt a thing to suppress.

The cawing of crows roused him from his sleep. But, no, perhaps he'd imagined it. Who could hear the birds sing from underground?

Kyndoril started to wonder about the strength of his ears when he saw a ruffling of black feathers on a low branch near Maborel's horse. Which, he considered, did deserve a name. She had given him her loyalty after all.

“What did Maborel call you?” Kyndoril patted the horse's withers. “'Beast' and 'horse' do not suit such a noble creature.”

The horse lowered her head and began tearing grass from the forest floor.

“Right. You shall be Wenaya Naganwe, the death of green things. But for simplicity's sake I will call you Wen.”

Wen continued eating, because she was a horse and did not care about her new name. Kyndoril looked up again. The crows were still there. And their feathers had an eerie violet sheen. Which, now that they had his attention, had something to do with magic. Foul magic.

“By the empyrean light,” Kyndoril said, “go away.”

“At last! He greets us!” screeched one of the birds.

Wen, finally distracted from her breakfast, wanted nothing to do with them. She trotted off to find a better patch of grass.

“No, I'm telling you to leave. I've stooped low enough as it is, and I will not traffic with daedra.”

“Oh, but he's already dealt with our mistress!” said the other bird. “He has the cowl!”

The first bird flapped its wings. “The cowl! The cowl!”

Kyndoril thought of the daedric artifact sitting in his bag. It wasn't as if he'd asked for it. “The cowl was gift from a human. Charity, in fact. I've never spoken a word with your Prince.”

“Does he want to?”

“No. Emphatically, no.”

“She requires your attention, elf. You must answer her summons!”

“I will not.”

“He would have us return with empty beaks!”

Kyndoril watched the two birds with growing fright and exasperation. On one hand, they were birds. On the other, any actual attention from a Daedric Prince seemed like the worst idea.

But, they were crows.... Kyndoril fumbled with his bag and found his coin purse. His pitiful purse. And he drew two coins. “I've got something better. Er... a tribute? It is meager, but....”

“Shinies!”

The other crow tried to contain its excitement. “Thieves used to bring us silver dishes. Goblets. Mirrors and ornaments from the courts of kings. But, this will have to do!”

“We accept!”

“Yes! We will accept it!”

The crows flapped over to his arm, perched there just long enough to take his gold, and flew away. And Kyndoril began mentally screaming to the Aedra, praying that he would never hear from Nocturnal again.

So he had a daedric artifact. So it was infused with Nocturnal's unholy power, and that might have been more than enough reason for her to take notice of his mortal existence. And he might have acknowledged that when speaking to Umaril. And he might have found some hope that Nocturnal's power would keep him safe.

Who was he kidding? He had doomed himself back in Anvil.

“Mara, have mercy,” he whispered. “Aedra, have mercy. Mara....”

Mara was troubled, but not without compassion. That much, he felt. He drew on that hope for strength while he collected his horse and slipped back into the trees.

The crows did not pursue him right away. Instead he was left to continue his path through the wilderness as the days lengthened and the air grew warm. Soon, towering clouds roiled in the skies of Cyrodiil and wind and rain lashed the hills.

Days like that found him huddled in whatever shelter he found find, with whatever he could manage to burn for a fire. Even wet twigs burned when heated long enough with a bit of magic. And then there were the wanted posters, which he made a point to quietly take down whenever he passed through a village.

Kyndoril paused in the middle of building another campfire, this time near the entrance of a cave, and looked at his own artistically rendered visage. The face was too narrow, the chin too long and sharp, the cheekbones jutted out far too much. Humans had strange ways of depicting elves. The one feature they got right was his long hair.

Kyndoril rolled up the poster and slid it underneath the burning kindling, then watched as it began to smoke and curl.

“Ten-thousand septims,” he muttered to himself. “Leave it to the Empire to underpay the poor fool who catches a mass-murderer.”

As the flames crackled, he pulled his latest prizes out of his bag: a hefty bundle of smoked sausage, a loaf of bread, and a steel knife. And he started to consider the strategy of being a notorious thief.

Travel was a pain. Settling near one remote village would give him access to whatever he needed. But was it worth the risk of being discovered? And that was a risk he took no matter where he went, but movement was worth staying away from the Imperial manhunt.

“This is why Luxurene treats criminals with a light hand. So they don't have to go squat in the Forest of Light or the sea caves.”

As he thought of his home, his thoughts turned to Firsthold and Silabaene. Maybe it would have been safer to obey, he thought. If he had intended to deliver the scroll, would Silabaene have waited for him in his chambers? But, that might have been a trap all along. Would the trap have been set if he had not given the mer reason to hate him?

Would groveling in Skingrad have helped? Or, better yet, would it have worked in Anvil? No. No. If he'd given him an impossible task after that in the Imperial City, would it have ever worked?

Perhaps he should have stayed on Luxurene. Handled the Thalmor himself. Been more cautious with the High Kinlord of Firsthold. Been more of a kinlord.

The thoughts, as they always did, ate at him until he passed out.

And at once, his dreams echoed his sorrow. He stood at the cliffs, looking down over the landscape of his isle. The forest, where welwas and indriks roamed. The village beyond that. The citrus orchards and rice fields in the distance. But Luxurene sat under a veil of clouds, its magic subdued.

Another force lurked nearby. He turned to face the hills, where gryphons should have nested, and instead saw a woman. A woman with her dark robe open, exposing the middle of her chest and belly. It was a look he admittedly wanted to try for himself, but there was little time to study it.

Crows sat on the woman's shoulders, flapping their wings as she spoke to him in a voice dripping with false pity. “Oh, my poor kinlord....”

“Madam.”

“You've been lost and alone for so long....”

“Nonsense. I've a horse.”

“And now Cyrodiil hunts for you, unwittingly.... Unaware that their own champion is innocent of the deaths that they seek to avenge.”

“All right. Listen. Nocturnal. Because I know who you are. I heard what happened in Summerset during the Three Banners War, so forgive me for not trusting anything you have to offer.”

At once, Nocturnal grew in size, until she stood twice his height, and looked down at him with scorn. A snarl at his side drew his attention; the golden Wolf had come to face the Prince of Shadows.

“So Lorkhan's bitch reveals herself at last,” said Nocturnal. “You have no power in my realm, goddess of whelps.”

“I have the ear of Meridia!” barked the Wolf. “If so much as one feather touches my child, you will know Dawnbreaker's wrath again!”

He had never heard such anger in Mara's voice. Then again, he had never seen Mara face a Daedric Prince. She had kept well out of the way for the encounter with Hermaeus Mora. And Meridia had not opposed her when she arrived to cast Umaril's soul into Aetherius.

“I am not here to harm this... child of yours, was he? I merely require his attention. And his deference where it is due.”

Kyndoril looked to Mara, who nodded. And he lifted his eyes to look at Nocturnal again. “Lady Nocturnal. I know I carry your cowl. If you've come to reclaim it, then take it. I never wished for this life.”

“Oh? And what will I hear next, when the Empire corners you and you have nowhere to run? A plea for help? A regretful prayer lamenting the loss of my cowl? Keep it.”

“Aren't there better thieves, more deserving of your power? Or did you have plans for me?”

“You stole the Prophecy of the Wheel from under the nose of its mortal guardians and snatched your own fate from death's grip.”

“A mage helped.”

“Your destiny is not going to be found in a cave or the wilting harvests that you take from these peasants. Go north, as your goddess of tears commands. I will be watching.”