(Author’s Note: This chapter picks up from here.)
Arkay says: Honor the earth, its creatures, and the spirits, living and dead. Guard and tend the bounties of the mortal world, and do not profane the spirits of the dead.
~ The Ten Commands of the Nine Divines
“I said no.”
Xeri rubbed the back of her neck. She wasn’t used to this. In Cyrodiil, when Xeri Tharys demanded something, it was hers. But here in Castle Dour, she had no clout, no connections. All she had was a made up story and a strong admonishment from Nerussa forbidding any physical altercations. On this last point she conceded—reluctantly. Initially, Nerussa was meant to contact Jarl Elisif’s court but the number of Thalmor seen wandering in the city put Xeri in the castle in her stead.
“Look,” she said, tossing a coinpurse on the table. “All I’m asking for is a location. A public location. Not his secret encampment..”
But the young Auxiliary would not budge. Xeri rolled her eyes, irritated that she would have to pack up and wait out this guy’s shift in the Winking Skeever. Perhaps the next soldier would be more easily influenced, a young lad or lass from some poverty stricken village for who the temptation of that much coin would be too much to resist. In Skyrim of all places, this soldier had to be an exception. If not, they would have to leave and seek Legion assistance in High Rock or worse, Cyrodiil.
“If you don’t leave, I’ll have you removed.”
“That won’t be necessary,” she replied, angrily hoisting her satchel over her shoulder. She turned to leave, but her exit was interrupted.
“Xery Tharys! Well, I’ll be damned.”
Xeri turned and looked intently at the Nord woman calling her name. It took a few moments, but she soon recognized her.
“Captain Rikke,” she replied.
“Legate Rikke,” she said, stepping toward the Dunmer. “What on Nirn are you doing all the way up here? Last I heard you were breaking priests out of prison and shacking up with dissident mages.”
“Just an errand,” she explained. “I’ve got a letter to deliver to a Legion officer. Personally, of course.”
“On behalf of the dissident mages?” Rikke asked, narrowing her eyes toward the Dunmer.
“Oh no, I haven’t been associated with the in over a decade,” she lied. “Been working round Bruma, occasionally Imperial City. Some rich noble hired me to bring the officer a missive. Nothing nefarious as far as I can tell, just that I am to deliver it personally.” Nobles from Cyrodiil had business dealings with everyone. Invoking them in such a tale would hopefully not raise too many suspicions.
“And did you get the information you were seeking?” She frowned and looked back toward the soldier who had denied Xeri’s request.
“As a matter of fact, I did not.”
“And yet my soldier still stands,” Rikke observed. “You’ve changed.”
“Nonsense,” Xeri protested. “I’m just exercising a but of restraint.”
Rikke grunted, stifling her laughter a bit as she looked at the bewildered soldier. “I’ll take care of this,” she said. She paused and continued to observe Xeri for a few more moments. She had no reason to believe the Dunmer meant the Legion any harm. However, that did not preclude other trouble. “Who are you looking for?”
Xeri pulled a slip of paper out of her pocket and glanced at it casually. “General Falx Carius.”
“Falx Carius?” Rikke furrowed her brow. “A general? I don’t know that name. He must be retired.” She gestured toward the door behind where the soldier had been standing. “Come this way.”
She led Xeri down a narrow stone stairway into a tiny, poorly lit office with small desk, shelves lined with dusty leather-bound ledgers, and a card catalog cabinet covering an entire wall. Rikke scanned the labels on the cabinet and pulled out a long drawer that was stuffed with yellowing cards. She quickly filed through the cards until she found the one she was looking for. But after inspecting the card she’d removed, she returned it and checked several more drawers.
“Well that’s strange….” Her voice trailed off as she turned back to the first drawer and once again selected the card she originally pulled. Crossing the room, she pulled a ledger from the shelf and read over several pages, her expression growing increasingly perplexed.
“What is it?”
“Well, the only Falx Carius we have on record was stationed at Fort Frostmoth,” she explained, pausing to turn the ledger toward Xeri. “Almost two hundred years ago.”
Xeri had not understood Nerussa’s translation of their latest directive, but that the trial of Arkay, Lord of the Wheel of Life, might direct the group to a long-dead Legion officer was not all that surprising. “Fort Frostmoth, you say?” That fort was a decrepit mess the last time I was in Solstheim.”
“I’m not surprised. The Legion hasn’t had a presence on the island since…well, since about the time of this General.” At this Rikke looked even more perplexed. “You’ll just have to relay that to your noble.” She shrugged.
“Is there a ship heading to Solstheim?”
“By way of Windhelm, yes. But wait, you’re still going to the fort?”
Xeri only nodded and Rikke chose not to ask why. “Just so you know, solitude is going to be swarming with Thalmor in the next couple of days,” she explained.
“A delegation? Is this a regular thing?”
Rikke furrowed her brow and shook her head slowly. “It came as quite a surprise. The Dominion’s presence in Skyrim is small, but not insignificant. First Ambassador Elenwen keeps an office here in the castle, but spends most of her time at the Embassy up north.” She paused for a moment, clearing her throat before continuing and bringing her voice down. “This is unusual. But so are the circumstances bringing the delegation here.”
“A patrol happened upon a fort the Thalmor were occupying. Every mer in there was slaughtered,” she said, her voice deliberately steady, as if she was withholding her feelings on the matter.
“Perhaps, but not likely.” Rikke shook her head. “Right now their best guess is the dissident mages. If not from Cyrodiil, then perhaps High Rock.”
Though she maintained her composure, Xeri felt her body grow tense. “Where was this fort?” she asked.
“A bit west from here, along the coast,” she replied. “Why?”
“So, they’re heading there? Leaving the road from Dragon Bridge clear?”
The legate studied the mer carefully, a bit perplexed by her interest in the Thalmor’s movement. Then again, given her past involvement with the mages, it made sense that she would be wary. She shook her head. “Not likely. We’ve not been apprised of their plans but as long as they believe the dissidents were behind the attack, they’ll have patrols from here to the college.
At this the normally impassive Xeri gasped and though she was quick to recover her formal and serious expression, Rikke immediately grew suspicious. Xeri’s notoriety as a cunning warrior, always two steps ahead of her enemies preceded her. Surely the Thalmor weren’t enough to shake the indomitable Dunmer. There had to be something else.
The two of them stared at each other for a bit, neither one giving in to the other’s glare. With her empath abilities, Xeri should have had an advantage, but the Nord betrayed nothing other than a cold detachment that the Dunmer envied—if only for a moment.
Rikke finally broke the silence. “What is it you want Xeri?”
“I need safe passage to Solstheim, one that avoids the Thalmor entirely.”
That was no small favor. Rikke rubbed her temples. Every instinct she possessed indicated she should just turn the woman away, but she also knew that Xeri had been instrumental in helping Thalmor prisoners, priests and priestesses of Talos, escape Cyrodiil following the signing of the Concordant. She couldn’t simply ignore her plea, but she had questions.
“Xeri we get briefings. The Thalmor aren’t concerned with stragglers from the war, however notorious they may have been at one time. Unless you’re shlepping Evangeline Sigeweald around, I doubt you have anything to worry about.” She was exaggerating, of course, hoping that such an absurd statement would prompt Xeri to reassure her that her mission was far less nefarious. But no reassurance came.
“And if I was?” Though she was not one to let her guard down, Xeri knew that if she was going to be begging favors, she couldn’t keep this secret.
“Are you kidding me? But you just said—”
“Well, I lied,” Xeri replied. “Can you blame me?” She paused, trying to read Rikke’s emotional state. However, the stoic Nord had neither sympathy nor scorn.
“Was the attack orchestrated by the dissidents?”
“Of course not!” Xeri exclaimed and then thought for a moment. “Actually, I don’t know. I’ve only recently become reacquainted with Evangeline. We aren’t in Skyrim on behalf of the resistance.”
“That will hardly matter to the Thalmor.” Rikke glowered and let out a deep breath as she considered her options. As the military governor, General Tulllius would be forced to arrest Evangeline. This would curry a great deal of favor with the local Thalmor authorities, possibly decreasing their presence in Skyrim, which would, in turn, calm the anxieties of the Nords. But at what cost? And if word got out that the Legion was responsible for the incarceration of someone as notoriously anti-Thalmor as Evangeline, would that not simply bolster Ulfric’s claim, sending ambivalent Nords into his ranks? The most pragmatic course of action would be to simply turn Xeri and her companions out to fend for themselves. But that did not sit well with her either.
“All right,” she said, after thinking the matter over some more. “I can get you a boat to Windhelm tomorrow at midnight. Take the road by the sawmill north until you come to a small dock. A man named Erikur, a local businessman and one of Elisif’s thanes will meet you there.”
Xeri, who was expecting no less than a swift rejection and a warner never to show her face in Solitude again, was simply shocked. “Thank you,” she said. “Is there anything—”
“Just don’t make me regret this.”
“Pirates!” whispered Evangeline as Erikur introduced them to Volf, captain of the Dainty Sload.
“If you’ve a problem with my associates, you can get yourself to Windhelm.” Erikur sneered. “I don’t know why the Legate chose to waste a favor on your, but I have no problem turning you out on your own. This is your best chance to get out of the city and avoid the Thalmor.”
“But of course,” Nerussa interjected, grinning awkwardly. “Please excuse us; we are not used to traveling under such circumstances. It’s been a bit tiring.”
“Of that I have no doubt” he replied as he stepped aside.
With some of the tension abated, they boarded the ship and Volf’s first mate led them down to their quarters.
“You get the luxury suite.” He laughed, gesturing to the closet-sized room with a single bench and a pile of ragged wool blankets. “Ya need anything, get one of the men and bring a bit of coin. The boys’ll do extra work, but they ain’t doin’ no favors. Clear?”
The women nodded and crowded into the room, shaking out the blankets and positioning themselves as best they could on the bench. It wouldn’t be the first time they’d slept in close, uncomfortable quarters. But it was the least amount of control they’d exercised over their surroundings and that did not sit well with either Evangeline or Xeri. Nerussa was a bit more optimistic. At the very least, she was relieved to be getting away from Solitude.
“It’ll be an adventure!” she teased, pulling a scratchy, moldy smelling blanket over her shoulders and nestling herself between the others.
“We’re not children,” Evangeline said, grunting as she wedged herself between the Altmer and the wall. They left Xeri on the end of the bench nearest the door, in case there was any trouble.
Xeri grunted and leaned forward, resting her bent arm on her knee, before looking back over. It was going to be a long, uncomfortable trip. “Morrowind is neutral territory—well, at least with respect to your exile,” she said, looking at Evangeline. “You can use your name there, though that may be unwise.”
“You have Dunmer allies, no?” asked Nerussa, recalling the banners that hung in Frostcrag Spire.
“Not in House Redoran or any of the Great Houses for that matter,” Evangeline explained. “Our allies are small groups, newer Tongs. Mostly set up by and for Dunmer Blades to keep them safe from the Thalmor after the war. Most of the Dunmer Blades were recruited from House Hlaluu so long ago and with no House to go back to, they organized, operating mostly underground—apart from those who openly declared allegiance with the dissidents.”
“I wonder why that hasn’t triggered suspicion from the Thalmor?” Nerussa wondered.
“Morrowind has so many nomadic groups and Tongs—they wouldn’t be much of a threat, I suppose,” Xeri replied. “No doubt the Thalmor is keeping an eye on the Great Houses. And none of the Great Houses give a shit about any Dunmer Blades, except to denounce them along with Hlaluu and any other Imperial sympathizers.”
“Those Dunmer Blades must be ancient.”
“Quite a few of them were.” Evangeline chuckled lightly before recovering her more serious expression. “So, we keep our false names in Solstheim.”
“You will,” Xeri replied. “I know Elder Othreloth, the priest in the temple there. I think I will pay him a visit. Knowing someone locally might help ease tensions.”
“An old friend of yours?” asked Evangeline, suddenly very curious. Xeri rarely spoke of past acquaintances, especially ones from Morrowind.
“My grandmother’s actually.” She smirked. “Old Balam brought me to see him, to see if I might have her gift. He was the one to break her heart with the news that I did not.”
Nerussa laughed. “If only she could see you now.”
“Will you tell this elder of your visions?” asked Evangeline.
“I think I will,” she replied. “Perhaps not all the details of Elspeth’s ancestry and your family.”
With this the women the women stopped conversing and tried, in vain, to settle into more restful positions. The trip was long and they spent their waking and sleeping hours in the same upright and cramped position as attempts to take more than an occasional break outside their uncomfortable quarters to stretch and relieve themselves were met with hostile stares from the crew.
By the time they reached Windhelm, Nerussa’s hips had stiffened to the point where she couldn’t walk and was mortified when Xeri, spurred on by Volf’s impatience, picked up and tossed the Altmer over her shoulder to carry her to the docks. They hoped their arrival would mean a bed and a meal consisting of something hearty and warm. But Gjaland Salt-Sage, captain of the Northern Maiden, made very few trips to Solstheim and was leaving a few hours from when they arrived, giving them just enough time to replenish their supplies. There was a bit more room on this second vessel and it was stocked for passengers as well as crew, so they did not have to ration their water and food supplies quite so rigidly.
Still, this voyage was no less miserable than the previous one. The already frigid temperatures dropped even more the further away from Skyrim’s shore they sailed. Rough waves tossed the boat as ice floes smacked the hull so that by the end of the trip, Evangeline was so dizzy and her head so sore, she was certain she’d suffered a concussion at some point.
They arrived just under a week later, weary and nauseated, and Nerussa could not recall a time when the subtle smell of ash, which permeated the island, was so comforting. Captain Salt-Sage was far less aggressive than the pirates in evicting them from the boat. However, they wasted no time in disembarking, their movements were labored and awkward, muscles tight and joints cracking as they limped toward the end of the dock where a Dunmer dressed in fine clothing and several guards were waiting.
“Good day! I am Adril Adrano, second councilor of Raven Rock.” The finely dressed Dunmer was formal and exacting in his greeting. “I don’t recognize you, so I’ll assume this is your first visit to Raven Rock, outlander. State your intentions.”
Xeri stepped forward, a knowing smirk on her face. “Ah, but this is not my first visit,” she explained. “I came here many years ago. My name is Xeri Tharys, my family is well acquainted with Elder Othreloth. And these are my companions—“
Adrano’s eyes widened at the mention of her name and his authoritative demeanor changed quickly from formal to aggressive. “Seize her,” he commanded and the guards, now flanking Xeri, grabbed her.
“What the fuck?” Xeri exclaimed while the other women looked on. “You have made a mistake.” She sneered angrily at her captors, her body tightening though she did not struggle.
“I doubt that,” the councilor replied. “Take her to the barracks.” He watched them lead Xeri away for a few moments before turning to Evangeline and Nerussa. “And who might you be?”
“Has that womer committed a crime?” Evangeline asked, her tone decidedly more exacting and formal than usual.
“Who are you?” The councilor was stern and it was clear that he was not about to entertain their questions.
“Forgive me,” she replied. “My name is Caterine Louvier and this is Harinde, scholars from Cyrodiil. We hired this Dunmer in Bruma to aid us on an expedition to study the ruins of Fort Frostmoth and I must say, I am quite concerned about this turn of events.” She frowned and placed her hand over her chest, as if bile were rising in her throat at the sudden and unexpected association with this criminal element. “We are both highly regarded and this is not an association we desire.”
Arano raised his eyebrows, uncertain what to make of these two. He trusted no one, but he had no reason to detain them either. “Well, I am very sorry that you found yourself involved in this. Though, I am certain you will be able to find a mercenary at the Retching Netch to suit your needs.” He crossed his arms and studied them. “And just so we’re clear, we’ll still be keeping an eye on you. As we would anyone in such a situation.”
“We wouldn’t have it any other way,” she replied, employing her most conciliatory tone as Nerussa nodded in agreement. “And if there are no other concerns, please pardon us. We have had the most dreadful journey.”
“Of course,” Arano said, turning and gesturing toward the town. “The tavern is the first building on the left when you enter the village center.”
They nodded and strode forward, moving with poise and confidence and not once breaking comportment until they closed the door of their room, at which point they simply collapsed on the bed in a fit of uncomfortable laughter. However, as the gravity of the situation settled in, they turned serious again.
“Mara have mercy! Nerussa, what has she done? Did she say anything to you about this?”
“No, but why would she? Xeri has never been forthcoming about her past.”
“Xeri’s not stupid,” Evangeline replied after musing a bit. “She never would have introduced herself if she thought there was a chance she’d be detained like that.” She sat forward and rubbed her head, as she tried to determine their next step. They had apparently avoided suspicion but any inquiry into Xeri’s status would no doubt undermine their charade. “Let’s rest a bit. Then think about how we might get some information on Xeri.”
After such an excruciating journey, both women slept deeply, awaking late that afternoon. Nerussa was in quite a bit of pain, her muscles still cramped. So, Evangeline left her to sleep some more and went out to the common area and tavern, where she sat at the bar.
“Greetings outlander, I trust you found your accommodations satisfactory.” Geldis Sadri, the Netch’s publican, grinned. “Care for a drink? We’ve got a running special. Sadri’s Sujamma, the finest in all of Morrowind.”
Evangeline grinned. She never cared much for Dunmer liquors. They tended to be potent and extremely bitter. But as she had a special place in her heart for sujamma, she nodded and Geldis poured her a generous shot. Evangeline drank it quickly, shuddering as the drink sent chills through her body, biting back at her jaw.
“Chaser?” he asked.
“Yes please,” she croaked, holding her hand over her mouth.
Geldis laughed and poured her a cup of ale. “This is imported; it’ll help.”
“The sujamma was quite good actually,” she replied after taking a long drink of the sharp, but decidedly smoother ale. “More spicy than bitter, but still packs a punch.”
“It’s my secret recipe,” he explained. “Anything else?”
“Indeed,” she said, pulling a fat coin purse from her pocket and plopping it on the counter. After taking a quick glance around the room, she leaned in slightly. “Can you tell me, which if these young guards might be somewhat—”
“Corruptible?” he interrupted, a knowing smirk on his face. “Belas Turar. Mother’s sick. Father’s dead. Family’s got a boatload of debt.” He gestured to a guard sitting alone across the room. “Here, this will help facilitate your conversation.” He pulled a bottle of matze onto the counter.
“I’ll take some more of your sujamma too.” Evangeline pulled enough coin from her purse for the drinks and also for his trouble. She strode across the bar and at Belas’ table, placed both drinks firmly down. “Might I sit here?” she asked, a sly grin on her face.
“Ah…yes, of course, but I don’t—“ He held his hand up to protest something, the drink or what he perceived to be her intentions.
“It’s not that” she said as she took a seat and nudged the drink closer to him. “I’ve got a business proposal.”
He looked at her suspiciously, but accepted the drink with a courteous nod, prompting her to continue as he sipped at the matze.
Evangeline once again took the coinpurse out of her pocket and placed it on the table between them. “That is yours,” she began, “if you wouldn’t mind answering a couple of questions.”
Belas swallowed and nodded. “If I can help, I will.”
“There’s a prisoner, a Dunmer by the name of Xeri Tharys who was taken from the docks earlier today. I need you to tell me everything you know about why she was taken.”
The guard furrowed his brow a bit. “Prisoner information isn’t always confidential. You might have asked Captain Veleth,” he replied.
“I require some discretion,” Evangeline explained. “I would rather keep my curiosity quiet for now.” She slid the coinpurse toward him, but kept her fingers pressed firmly on the fabric.
He nodded. “Well, I’m afraid there’s not much to tell. For some time now, there have been threats against Lleril Morvayn. Adril Arano, Morvayn’s second counselor, has learned of a House Hlaluu plot to have Morvayn killed. From what I understand, this Xeri Tharys has extensive connections with them.” Belas’ tone was tinged with derision at the mention of of the former Great House.
Evangeling frowned. Xeri’s family was from Narsis, which was once the capital of House Hlaluu. Everyone who ever lived there could be connected in some way. But whatever ties she had surely must have been severed. Xeri left Morrowind and most its customs long ago. “Can you get me in to see her? Discreetly?” With this she removed her hand from the coinpurse, but leaned forward, keeping her eyes fixed on the guard.
Belas thought for a moment. His posture was firm, but Evangeline could tell he was unsettled. Indeed, when he spoke, his apprehension was apparent.
“With some arrangements, I might be able bring you in on my next night rotation, which is on Fredas.”
Five days. She groaned and shook her head. “I can’t wait that long.” Sitting back, she gripped her forehead in her fingertips and rubbed. She might have asked about his colleagues, but she didn’t want to involve any more guards in this and they would be short on coin if they kept this up. “Thank you for your help,” she said finally, offering a brief nod.
“You change your mind; I’ll be back here tomorrow.” He spoke with a bit more confidence now.
She stood and returned to the counter, where she procured a bottle of wine and a large bowl of yam and horker stew with two spoons. Back in their room, Nerussa was awake and eagerly accepted the food and drink, tucking into her share as Evangeline explained what little she knew of Xeri’s situation and how they should proceed.
“We’ll go Fort Frostmoth tomorrow,” she said. “We can’t wait a week to figure her shit out.”
“That’s a terrible idea.” Nerussa was confused. “You do realize the three of us are bound to these trials together
“I haven’t forgotten,” she replied, her brow furrowed. “But we might have to consider that Xeri’s in a lot of trouble here, and we may have to proceed without her.”
“How is that possible? We can’t abandon her. Øyvind was quite clear that—”
“That we were bound together for the duration of the trials, yes. But not literally, I don’t think.” Evangeline paced the room for a bit before kneeling before Nerussa, looking at her intently. “Nerussa, you are the scholar here, an expert on the history and the theology. For a moment, I need you to consider the possible implications of moving forward on this particular task without Xeri.”
Nerussa wiped her mouth and took a long drink of wine. Then she stood and moved past Evangeline, taking the chair in the far corner of the room, where she sat for a long time in a state that was both contemplative and meditative. On the one hand, she had almost two decades of knowledge to consider. And on the other, she needed to take care that her unrelenting hopefulness would not cloud her judgment. Evangeline had retired to the bed and was dozing off when she finally spoke again.
“Failure to complete the trials for any reason will leave us in the service of the Divines for all of eternity. I think that is the overriding principle here. If she lingers in prison forever or dies, her soul is still bound to ours.” She let out a sigh. “Remember what Danica said, that these are not just a series of tasks. We are being judged every step of the way. Do we wait—divines know how long—for our warrior, so we can proceed with less fear? Or do we press on?”
“The divines delight in human folly. It behooves us not to be stupid. Or cowardly. Or indolent.” Evangeline sighed. “So…then?”
“Tomorrow, we move on to Fort Frostmoth.”
To be continued….