Come to me, Kynareth, for without you, I might not know the mysteries of the world, and so blind and in error, I might consume and profane the abundance of your beautiful treasures.
~ Pocket Guide to the Empire, 3rd Edition
“I’m the innkeeper. It’s my business to keep track of strangers.”
Xeri was about to tell the irritable and anxious Breton exactly what she could do about her business when Nerussa sidled up and shoved a tankard of ale into her hand. “Please excuse my friend,” she said, scowling at Xeri, “we’ve had a very long day. And I can assure you, we’re leaving in a couple of hours.”
Before Xeri could protest, Nerussa gripped her arm and dragged her to a table on the other side of the tavern and away from the curious eyes of the innkeeper. “Why do you always have to make everything so difficult?” she asked as they settled into their chairs.
The Dunmer ignored this question and gestured to the papers that Nerussa was pulling out of her bag. “Have you translated that scroll yet?”
They found the scroll on the body of a spriggan earth mother that attacked them almost as soon as they returned from the Void, where they had met with the initiates of the Trials of St. Alessia. The scroll was covered in ancient symbols and a language that looked to be a variant of Nedic. Nerussa had spent the morning studying it, while Xeri and Evangeline repaired their weapons and armor at the smithy and procured supplies from the shopkeeper in Riverwood.
Nerussa narrowed her eyes and looked intently at Xeri. “Use Nature’s gifts wisely. Respect her power, and fear her fury.” Her tone was firm and she spoke with authority, as if reciting a sermon.
“That’s what the scroll said?” asked Xeri. She sounded a bit doubtful, though she supposed she had no reason to be.
“No. That’s Kynareth’s command. I thought it would be an appropriate way to introduce the first trial,” she explained. “We need to head to the temple in Whiterun.” She unrolled the scroll again, intending to show Xeri the symbols that conveyed this specific information but when she saw the look on the Dunmer’s face, she realized this information was of no interest to her.
“The temple of Kynareth in Whiterun? Are you serious?” Xeri pressed her palms to her eyes and pursed her lips.
“What’s wrong with you?” asked Nerussa.
The usually stoic womer scowled and jerked her head toward the room where Evangeline had retired. The Breton’s disposition had grown increasingly distressed since they’d returned from the void. She had barely spoken while in town with Xeri and had excused herself for a nap after barely touching her lunch. She was miserable; Xeri could feel it and Nerussa knew it. Or she should have.
Nerussa’s face softened. “I have the utmost confidence that regardless of how ambivalent she might feel, that Evangeline is more than capable of adhering to—”
“Ambivalent?” Xeri was incredulous. Surely Nerussa wasn’t that stupid. “I don’t think you understand the magnitude of her distress. She’s not weary and indecisive; she’s despondent. I don’t think I’ve ever felt anything like it.”
Nerussa rolled her eyes. She wasn’t unsympathetic, but Xeri’s sudden display of compassion was dubious at best. “Really Xeri, I don’t think you appreciate how capable people really are. Of course she’s a bit unhappy. She can’t see Elspeth and her only source of information concerning her daughter is….well, you.”
Xeri opened her mouth to protest, but thought better of it. There was absolutely nothing to be gained from an argument apart from tension and exasperation. “Very well,” she said as she curled her hands around her tankard and took a long drink. Evangeline would push through her despondency, she supposed. She had to. They all had to.
After finishing their drinks, they woke Evangeline and set out. They arrived at Whiterun just after midnight and approached the gate cautiously, their faces partially obscured by their hoods. They intended to stay by the stables for a couple of hours and enter the city when it was most likely that Elspeth and her companions would be sleeping. An hour went by, spent in an uncomfortable silence that was eventually broken by the chatter of some guards who had decided to stop by the stables.
“My cousin’s out fighting dragons and what do I get? Guard duty.”
“How exactly did your cousin come to be in the service of the Dragonborn?”
At the mention of the Dragonborn, Nerussa’s curiosity was piqued and she edged a little closer to listen to the guard’s response.
“Trygve? He’s always doing important things. Jarl Laila made him thane of the Rift after he—“
But before Toki could explain, Nerussa had wedged herself between the two guards. “Excuse me, what is this about Trygve and the Dragonborn?” When Toki merely looked up, clearly bewildered as this interruption, her face softened a bit. “My name is Harinde,” she explained. “I knew Trygve in the Rift. I knew Birkir as well. You said that Trygve is out fighting dragons with the Dragonborn.”
“Yes,” he replied though he still seemed a little confused. “After they killed the dragon she absorbed the soul. Jarl Balgruuf made her thane and she’s gone with her companions—“
“WHO? Who is this Dragonborn?” Evangeline yanked Toki toward her as hard as she could—had she been just a little bit stronger, she would have dislocated his arm. Toki was now horrified as well as confused and his friend was just about to draw his axe when Nerussa spoke up again, her voice was both soothing, for the sake of the Nords, and stern, for Evangeline.
“Please, everyone calm down. This is Caterine Louvier and she is a priestess of Akatosh who has come all the way from Imperial City seeking information on the dragons. You must understand; it has been a long and difficult journey.” Though they had worked out their false names and stories ahead of their journey, the ease with which Nerussa spun this yarn was almost startling. But it had the affect of halting Evangeline’s panic and reassuring the guards who confirmed that the Dragonborn was a young Breton named Elspeth and that she had recently left with her companions. Nerussa nodded and bade them farewell.
As they made their way up the road to the city, Xeri scowled, “Do you have any idea how much trouble you almost caused? The fate of these trials depends—more than anything else—on discretion.”
“Xeri, what’s done is done. There is no need—“
“Nerussa, don’t make any excuses,” Evangeline replied, looking sheepish and uncomfortable. “Xeri’s right. Please, let’s just get to an inn. If Elspeth isn’t here, we can sleep and head over to the temple in the morning.”
But Evangeline didn’t sleep and her thoughts remained troubled. Over breakfast, she brought up the matter of the Dragonborn once again.
“All the Septims were Dragonborn,” said Nerussa, glancing over her shoulder to make sure no one was listening. “It’s really not all that remarkable.”
“But it is!” Evangeline was insistent. “If Elspeth is Dragonborn then why are we doing this? Shouldn’t that be enough?”
“It doesn’t matter. We are bound to the trials,” Xeri interjected before Nerussa could respond. “Are you going to eat that?” Evangeline frowned but passed her plate to Xeri who happily devoured the remaining scrambled eggs and cured meat.
“Besides, there were others who were given Akatosh’s divine blessing,” Nerussa explained. “No, these trials, the amulet, it’s all essential.”
When they finished, the left the Bannered Mare and made their way to the temple, where they waited until Danica Pure Spring was finished tending to her patients. The priestess looked exhausted as she approached but offered them a weak smile as she led them to the benches that lined the side of the temple’s main room. “Children of Kynareth, how may I be of service?” The greeting was not insincere but her tone was weary and tinged with a little sadness. Xeri and Evangeline looked at the woman intently as Nerussa stepped forward and offered her the scroll. Upon examining the parchment with the strange symbols, the woman’s countenance changed considerably, as if her energy was being reinvigorated. “You’re here to help me. All right then, this way.”
They followed her outside to the courtyard, where she gestured to the large withering tree above them. “The Gildergreen” she began, “It’s a bit of an eyesore at the moment. More of a problem for the pilgrims than for me, but not many of them come around anymore. A big dead tree isn’t very inspiring if you’re coming to worship the divine of wind and rains. Kynareth gives life, and we need a living tree to be her symbol.”
According to the priestess, in order to bloom again the tree needed sap from the Eldergleam, the oldest living thing in all of Skyrim and from which the Gildergreen was grown from just a wee sapling. The sap could only be accessed with a tool called Nettlebane, an ancient blade forged by hagravens that was said to be the only thing strong enough to penetrate the Eldergleam’s bark. Their first task was to recover the weapon.
Orphan Rock was just a few miles outside of Helgen. As they passed through, the women stopped and observed the ruined town, which was now littered with the dead bodies of the bandits who had attempted to settle there after the dragon destroyed it.
“This was the first town I stopped in after crossing the border,” said Nerussa. “I expected to be regarded somewhat suspiciously, but everyone was civil…if not kind.” As she looked around, she realized that neither Xeri nor Evangeline were paying any attention to her as they were both reflecting on the damage wrought by the dragon.
By now it was clear that just being in Skyrim was doing a number on Evangeline. When she let Xeri take Elspeth over a decade earlier, she knew that the dangers her daughter would face would be considerable. But seeing Helgen and imagining the terror that Elspeth had to flee was almost too much to bear. Back in Frostcrag Spire, she buried herself in strategy and training. In Skyrim, with reminders everywhere, it weighed heavily on her mind and was unbearable at times.
“We should keep moving,” said Xeri. She regarded them coolly, but she was astonished at the magnitude of the damage done by the dragon and felt a twinge of what could only be described as pride at the thought of Elspeth escaping this disaster. Though she would never admit this to the others.
They arrived at Orphan Rock a little over an hour later. The huge formation was accessible by a fallen tree and from their hiding place they could see only a single hagraven atop the giant rock. After nodding to Evangeline to watch her back, Xeri approached, crouching across the tree bridge. She grimaced as she sneaked up behind the haggard bird-crone and let loose a powerful fire spell. The hagraven screeched and threw her own lightening spell, which Xeri deflected with a ward. They continued to toss spells at each other until Xeri finally lunged forward with her mace and, after enduring some painful shocks, bashed the old crone’s head in.
“I’m all right,” she protested harshly when Evangeline found her on the other side of the rock from the bridge, though she was still suffering from the hagraven’s spell and her muscles quivered painfully. Evangeline offered her potions while Nerussa recovered Nettlebane from the hagraven’s body.
They arrived back in Whiterun two evenings later and the following morning walked in on Danica having an argument with someone—a pilgrim of sorts. He was complaining loudly about the condition of the Gildergreen—insisting that, in its current state, it was in no condition for worship and meditation.
The priestess looked relieved to see them, if only because it allowed her to move away from the complaining pilgrim. She led them to the far corner of the room, out of eyeshot of everyone else. “So, have you gotten Nettlebane back from those filthy hagravens yet?”
Xeri nodded as she unsheathed the ancient weapon and held it out. The priestess recoiled when she saw it and put her hands up. “No,” she said firmly, not wanting to touch such an artifact. “Just take it to the Eldergleam and bring the sap back here. Then you will have fulfilled your duty and will be rewarded with the aspect of Kynareth.”
They nodded in thanks but before they could turn to leave, the priest strode across the temple. “Excuse me,” he said, “my name is Maurice Jondrelle. I am a traveler. A pilgrim. I follow the voice of Kynareth wherever it can be heard. I’ve dreamed of seeing Eldergleam for years. Might I travel alongside you? I promise not to get in the way.”
“No.” Xeri’s voice was firm, not harsh. But it was clear that she was not going to be argued with. Evangeline rolled her eyes and Nerussa opened her mouth, but thought better of it and simply shook her head.
“You might want to reconsider.” Danica’s voice sounded across the temple, causing them to stop. Xeri turned back with a harsh scowl. Before she could respond, however, the priestess approached them and continued, her voice considerably lower. “Think for a moment about the manner in which you conduct these trials.” She paused and brought her pressed hands to her face and lowered her eyes as if in deep thought. Finally, she looked up again and straightened herself. “This is my counsel. These trials are not tasks. They are not a series of steps, where the final goal is all that matters. Rather they are a journey in which each step you take is judged against the ideals and values of the god being served.”
The journey to the Eldergleam sanctuary was long. Maurice spoke with Nerussa at length about Kynareth and her place in the Divine’s pantheon, something the mer’s years of studied had prepared her for and which she hoped would help her pass as a mere scholar. Evangeline, who had been thrown into the role of priestess for the sake of their disguise, did not have the knowledge for such conversation so she walked a few steps behind an incredibly annoyed Xeri.
By the time they had arrived, however, everyone was tired and irritated. So it was with immense relief that they entered the sanctuary, though they were all quite unprepared for what was inside. The path led them to an enormous grove lit from above and filled with lush flora and numerous insects. Two small waterfalls filled the space with a dull, yet soothing roar. And in the center of everything stood a beautiful tree, similar in appearance to the Gildergreen in Whiterun, but much larger and in full bloom. There were other pilgrims, several of whom stood to greet the group as they passed.
Xeri didn’t want to waste any time. Ignoring everyone else, she hurried down the path to the Gildergleam. However, as she kneeled down and took Nettlebane from her belt, Maurice shouted and ran down the path. The Dunmer was confused, but refused to let the monk distract her. She turned back down to the trunk and as she raised the weapon, he charged forward and grabbed her wrist.
“No! You can’t cut into the Eldergleam!” He tried to take the weapon but he missed the hilt and grabbed the blade. He refused let go but all he got for his trouble was a deep gash in his palm as she yanked the blade out of his hand.
By now Evangeline, Nerussa, and the others from the grove were gathered around, looking confused. Xeri shoved Maurice out of her way but when she tried to lift the weapon again, the rest of the worshippers lunged forward and pushed her to the ground. The furious Dunmer dropped the blade as she yelled and tried to kick her way out of the pilgrim pile. Nerussa grabbed the weapon and trying to be as inconspicuous as possible, she and Evangeline snuck around to the other side of tree, where they found Maurice.
“You can’t do this,” he pleaded.
Evangeline raised her sword to stave off any more attacks. “I am sorry,” she said calmly, “but this is something we have to do.”
“Please don’t. Do you have any idea the wrath you will incur if you cut into this sacred tree?” His voice started to break and when he opened his mouth to speak again, he simply couldn’t.
Nerussa couldn’t recall the last time she’d seen anyone look quite as desperate. She bit her lip and looked around. She could hear Xeri shoving her way past the pilgrims and as the Dunmer made her way around the tree, her mind started to wander, thinking back to Danica Pure-Spring’s counsel and Kynareth’s command.
Fear her fury.
The admonition rang in her head as she looked past the tree to Evangeline, Xeri, and the worshippers. When her gaze returned to the tree, she put the blade in her belt. “No,” she said finally, “we’re not doing this.”
“Are you insane?” Xeri was fuming, though she paused for a moment and took a breath. “If for some reason this is difficult for you, I can do it. But we don’t have a choice.”
Nerussa responded calmly but firmly. “I believe we do. I believe the choice is what we are being judged on—not simply the goal.”
Xeri shook her head. “We can’t go back there without the sap. We were tasked to help repair the Gildergreen. We were given the instrument to do it. Besides, taking heed of the steps toward a goal doesn’t negate the goal either.”
“We weren’t given the instrument; we took it.” Evangeline reminded her as Nerussa nodded vigorously.
Before Xeri could respond or simply take the weapon back, Maurice spoke up again. “Could I help?”
“Shut up Xeri.” Nerussa turned to the monk. “What would you suggest?”
He narrowed his eyes to the Altmer, “I think I can convince the tree to help us.”
Xeri started to mutter something under her breath but Evangeline looked at her harshly until she was silent, though she remained furious at being admonished like this.
Maurice stepped forward and knelt by the tree. Within moments there was a sound, like a lower pitched Nirnroot, and a pale light shone on the ground. In the center of the light a sapling appeared. He picked it up and brought it to Nerussa, gently placing it in her hands. “The Eldergleam has blessed us with a sapling. You should take it to Whiterun. Danica will want to see that the true blessings of nature lie in renewal, not a slavish maintenance.”
Nerussa smiled. “Thank you,” she whispered.
When they arrived at the temple several days later, Xeri was still skeptical. And her skepticism was almost proven correct when they presented the sapling to Danica.
“What is this?” she asked, clearly exasperated. “I can’t run the Temple without the support of people who are inspired by the Gildergreen. How can this little tree bring new worshippers?”
Nerussa let out a long sigh. “Maurice asked us to convey the message that Kyne’s true blessing lies in renewal, not maintenance.
Danica considered this for a moment and then nodded. “Yes… you’re right of course,” she admitted. “It can be hard to hear the winds of Kynareth when all you hear are the rabble in the temple. Death feeds new life. I’m sure that, in time, this little sapling will grow into a new Gildergreen that will tower over Whiterun. I can’t thank you enough, but I do have this for you.” And with that, she handed them a new scroll, indicating they had passed their first trial and would be awarded the Aspect of Kynareth, and on which was named the location of the next trial.
(Author note: It gets more exciting, I promise. And I won’t wait two months for the next chapter.)