LotS: Frost Moon - Chapter Thirty

  • Deepened Shadows


    Last night, he had dreamed of dolls that rotted like corpses, with maggots crawling through the cloth. He had stumbled through the dream-fog half man, half monster. Laelette glared at him from the shadows, and the scent of snowberries mixed with wet earth and fresh blood.


    He woke up with the taste of it on his tongue. In the sickly pale glow of dawn over Morthal, Kjeld looked at his hands. Dirt beneath his fingernails, not blood. Calluses, not claws.


    Releasing a breath, Kjeld reached for the mark on his shoulder; the skin felt hot beneath his fingertips, raised and angry. Whatever the seal was doing to him, it was working fast.


    Kjeld swiped the Skaal amulet from his bedside table and put it on. He wouldn’t go to bed without it again.


    He had to get moving. The day began regardless of the night before it, and Kjeld washed and dressed quickly, eager to leave the darkness behind.


    As he swung the door shut, a wink of steel caught his eye, and he faced the front door. There was a knife embedded in the center, spearing a note in place. Kjeld scowled, and ran his thumb down the notch in the wood leftover from the knife. He set the blade aside on his smithing station, and opened the piece of paper.


    Business has been left unfinished.
    Come at midday.


    The sharp brevity made the note’s author obvious. ‘Business has been left unfinished’. What business? Kjeld’s heart quickened. Could it be that Mor’vahka had changed his mind? That he would help, after all? To even think it was laughable, the khajiit’s disgust even fresher in his mind than last night’s dream. The only other business he’d had with Mor’vahka was Helgi.


    Kjeld’s stomach, already tight with hunger from going to bed without dinner, clenched further. A feeling of pity settled in like a stone. The note was pocketed, and the blacksmith made his way to the Moorside Inn.


    An acknowledging nod passed between himself and Benor, the rough warrior regarding him with something almost like respect. Kjeld considered asking why, but the hunger gnawing at him was enough of a distraction that he let Benor go without question; the return of his appetite was a relief. The world felt easier to face on a full stomach.


    "Go to Highmoon Hall, White-Paw." Said one of the guards - Jurgen, evidence of an approaching yawn in the vowels. "Ravencrone wants a word."


    He should have expected this. Kjeld groaned. Letting go of his plans for a piping hot bowl of porridge and a mug of coffee, Kjeld put the inn behind him and the Jarl's longhouse ahead.


    It was just as dark as it had been when he'd first arrived; the hearth had been tended to, but the light never quite reached the rafters. That was so like Morthal. Even their houses always seemed to be shrouded in darkness. Jarl Ravencrone stood beside her chair, straightbacked and thin. Kjeld waited by the hearth, attempting to turn deaf to the conversation taking place between mother and daughter.


    "I'm worried for Joric, mother. I hear him crying out in his sleep." A woman's voice, softened with concern, was as smooth to Kjeld's ears as melted copper. Jarl Ravencrone's was like unsmelted ore, rough and hardened by experience.


    "Your brother carries a heavy weight. Watch over him."


    "Is he in danger? Have you seen something?" Panic flitted across the younger woman’s face like a crow's shadow.


    "No, no. He is only in danger of distancing himself from us. Stay close, let him know that he still has tethers here." A matronly hand was laid upon her daughter's arm, before the Jarl noticed Kjeld's presence.


    Idgrod the Younger looked as if she had more to say, but Ravencrone's attention was no longer hers. With a short glance at Kjeld she quietly excused herself, disappearing into one of the side rooms.


    "Kjeld." The Jarl withdrew to her chair, watching him with the keen eyes of an old wolf. "The Divines have shown me visions of the swamp for many days. Now at last, I understand the reason. Tell me of your findings."


    Mention of the Jarl's powers of foresight had reached him from the first day; he'd believed it rumor, until now.


    “Haven’t you spoken to Mor’vahka already?”


    Jarl Ravencrone chuckled, a dry crackling. “That witchblade shares very little, if he does not ‘deem’ it necessary. He did not even mention you, though I know you went with him.”


    “I was the one who saw her,” he murmured. Kjeld looked at the fire, gathering his thoughts into sequential order, careful not to exclude anything. He started with Helgi's ghost, and ended with Laelette's body. The argument with Mor'vahka was kept to himself.


    Ravencrone regarded him with an enigmatic expression.
    "These swamps are difficult for even the most experienced tracker. How did you find Helgi's grave in so short a time? It's been a week since the fire."


    "Mor'vahka tracks well," said Kjeld, hoping she would find the answer satisfactory. "His sense of smell is powerful." He couldn't speak of his own powerful senses, and thankfully, the Jarl had never asked him why he was in Morthal of all places.


    "Hm." Ravencrone regarded the fire with that same unreadable expression, keeping her cards close to her chest. "So. We have a mother and her child burned to death in a housefire. Thonnir's wife turned into a vampire, and Hroggar living with Alva before the ashes even cooled. We have more questions than answers. And three murders, if you count Laelette."


    Kjeld’s eyes snapped from the fire. "She attacked us."


    Ravencrone waved him off. "Killing a vampire is justice, not murder. I speak of the wretched thing that stole her humanity. They must be found, and held accountable. Start with Alva. Laelette was supposed to meet with her the night she 'disappeared'."


    "Me?" He had been tasked with solving the mystery. A part of him enjoyed the prospect of a puzzle to solve, but the majority of him did not feel comfortable digging further into tragedy. “I have had my fill of death, Jarl Ravencrone.” He did not want to think about the lives stolen anymore.


    "Yes, you. There will be no peace for Helgi and Berlinda until this whole matter is laid to rest."


    Kjeld rubbed his jaw, and thought of his own troubles. This seal could take months, even years to undo. Yet he felt as if he were losing time with every distraction. If he uncovered the truth behind all this, would he damn himself in the process? It was a selfish thought, and he regretted the circumstances greatly.


    Helgi had spoken to him, chosen to talk to him and no one else.


    Mor'vahka had sent her to the afterlife, but what if that wasn't enough?


    With a sigh, Kjeld relented. "I'll find out what I can."


    "Be careful, White-Paw." Cautioned the Jarl. "Lust can make a man do the unthinkable. Jealousy? Even worse."


    Hroggar had seemed mild-tempered, but Kjeld knew better. Anyone that made a living off swinging an axe could become very dangerous. Hroggar might not take kindly to Kjeld's 'sudden interest' in Alva. He would be careful not to give the lumberjack the wrong impression.


    Now that he had food for thought, the blacksmith left the longhouse. If he was to get anywhere with this task, he was going to need a full stomach.




    The glow of the hearth chased some of the dourness from Kjeld’s eyes, and Jonna’s smile warmed him further.


    “Morning,” he said.


    “Morning. What can I get you? I just took a fresh loaf out of the oven, and we’ve got a little snowberry preserve leftover too.”


    The dream was too recent for him to enjoy the taste or smell of snowberry anything. “No jam, and I’ll take porridge if you’ve made it.”


    Jonna shuffled back to fetch him a bowl. He did not want to deal with Alva and Hroggar without a decent meal and some coffee. Kjeld let his gaze wander the inn; it was nearly empty, save for a guard helping themselves to breakfast, and a boy sitting in the corner - as small and alone as a mouse’s shadow.


    Kjeld went over to the boy picking meekly at a snowberry crostata.


    “Virkmund,” he said gently, sitting on the empty half of the bench. He knew that look. The look in the boy’s eyes was an echo chamber of the mourning he’d done twice over in his lifetime.


    “Oh, it’s you.” Virkmund murmured. “I… I want to be left alone.”


    Kjeld’s smile was soft. “I understand. I understand how you feel, too.”


    “Yeah, sure.” Virkmund pressed a fingernail into the crust. “Was your mother a monster too?”


    “No, she wasn’t. But my father was. That didn’t change how lost I felt when he died. I felt cheated. I still needed him, and he wasn’t there. I was a little older than you were, and the grief felt like a weight in my heart I could never get rid of.” Kjeld sighed. This was an old wound that had never fully healed. “I’ll never know why he did what he did, or what he would have said if I’d ever had the chance to ask him. But I have...enough good memories of him to believe that he cared about me. That he loved his family.”


    Kjeld squeezed Virkmund’s shoulder, sadness reaching his eyes as he realized Virkmund was trembling. “Your mother loved you. She may be gone now, but your memories of her are not.” Some day, Virkmund would have to confront the rumors and the resentment of Morthal for his mother’s actions. And it would feel like a dagger across the heart.


    Virkmund would have to be strong.


    Kjeld looked the child in the eyes, making sure his words carried the intended weight. “You can hold on to her, Virkmund. What she became and what she’s done won’t erase those memories.”


    Virkmund’s face crumpled, and he tucked tear-streaked cheeks against Kjeld’s shoulder. Kjeld hugged him, and his own throat tightened as nostalgia crept into his thoughts. He felt fifteen all over again, listening to his brother cry after the broken remains of Leiv’s fishing boat had washed ashore. After three days of no sign of their father. After Storn came to speak with them, saying Leiv was now beyond their reach.


    Storn had been a guiding light in those days, helping the family of four overcome such a prominent loss. Kjeld found himself in the shaman’s position, trying to guide Virkmund through a long, dark morning.


    He hadn’t thought positively of his father in… months… Years. Stars above and earth below, had it really been years? Kjeld wore a deep frown, realizing this grudge in Leiv’s name had been tainting him even longer than the seal had. It was difficult not to follow every thought of Leiv with ‘yes, but’, a counterargument for every pleasant interaction he’d ever had with his father. His father was not the villain.


    Struggling to reach through the walls he put up around those memories, Kjeld found his voice. “My father was a fisherman. Sometimes I thought he had more patience for the fish than for me—I had no skill for it. But I helped him repair the nets when they tore. My favorite part was working on my father’s fishing boat. We named it The Sea Otter for good luck.” He could still picture the white seashell painted on the side. Helmi had been so proud of that shell.


    Kjeld continued. “The year he died, he promised me we could build the next boat together. Just the two of us.”


    Virkmund’s voice, husky with tears, spoke at the table. “But he didn’t keep his promise.”


    “No,” Kjeld admitted, “he didn’t. Understand, Virkmund, that things happen outside of anyone’s control. If he hadn’t died, I think he would have kept his promise.”


    The boy rubbed his eyes on his sleeve. “I miss her.”


    “Aye,” he replied softly. “I miss my father too.”


    Kjeld longed to tell Virkmund that his mother’s spirit had gone to a safe, peaceful place—but Mor’vahka’s talk of Coldharbour had unsettled him. He could not promise anything, only hope that the truth would not torment Virkmund severely in later years.


    Virkmund finally pulled away, staring at the crostata as if it held all that was left of his mother. With a rattled exhale, Virkmund began to eat.


    Kjeld smiled, and gave the boy’s shoulder a final, firm squeeze, rising from the table in time to see Jonna hailing him.


    “Thank you,” he accepted the bowl of porridge, but lingered. “How long has Virkmund been in here?”


    “Let’s see… Almost two hours,” said Jonna, her arms resting on the countertop. “Poor boy. I gave him a crostata, good to see him finally eating it.”


    “And Thonnir?”




    He had guessed as much. When grief dealt a powerful blow, Kjeld found the best remedy (besides time) to be immersing yourself in a craft or duty. Anything to keep moving.


    Kjeld glanced at Virkmund, and his grip on the bowl tightened. Virkmund and Thonnir both deserved closure; whoever was responsible for Laelette—and the sorrows inflicted upon Virkmund’s family and Helgi’s—would be dealt with. Now I am beginning to understand some of Mor’vahka’s rage. He was tired of children’s lives being disturbed and mangled.


    “Something the matter?” Jonna’s voice brought him back to earth.


    Kjeld set the bowl down, leaning in to speak quietly.
    “Listen, what can you tell me about Alva?”


    Jonna’s eyes flashed, and she looked away for a heartbeat, weight shifting from one leg to the other. “She was in here this morning. Why…?”


    Her evasiveness made him frown.
    “I think she’s part of this. I don’t know how, but I know what my instincts are telling me. I don’t trust her.”


    To his surprise, Jonna visibly relaxed.
    “Oh, I thought you were another fish on Alva’s hook.”


    “No,” he replied hastily. “I don’t like trouble.”


    Jonna’s mouth twitched into what might have been a smirk, but he didn’t have time to focus on that.


    “Alva’s lived here her whole life. She’s always been one to turn heads. She made a couple of the women around town uneasy, but that started to change a couple months ago. Her and Lami used to be at each other’s throats, come to think of it.” Jonna frowned in thought. “Now they’re like two horns on a goat’s head. Alva and Laelette were supposed to be good friends, too.”


    “You said she was in here this morning.” said Kjeld.


    “That’s right. While I was making the crostatas, she came in to just...chat.”


    He didn’t like prying, but he had to know. “What about?”


    Jonna frowned again. “I think we talked about Thonnir and Virkmund. I can’t really remember, I was distracted.”


    Distracted? Kjeld had a hard time believing that, but he had to trust her. He needed to talk to Lami. “Thanks for your help, Jonna. And be careful. Something doesn’t seem right in Morthal.”


    Her eyes darkened. “I know. Things seem stranger than usual — even for this town. Oh, almost forgot. You seein’ that cat today? Would you give these to him?” The innkeeper’s hands disappeared under the counter and reappeared with a small, cloth-covered basket. “Normally Virkmund takes them up, but today’s not a good day.”


    Kjeld blinked. Snowberry crostatas.
    “What happened to ‘that Khajiit has a hole for a heart’?”


    Jonna chuckled. “Oh I still think he’s got the compassion of a sand viper, but he’s been paying me every two months for a batch of these.”


    Kjeld accepted the basket. “I didn’t figure him to have a sweet tooth.”


    Jonna shrugged, and an unknown emotion flickered through her eyes like candle flame.
    “That’s the thing about people. Everyone’s got a few surprises.”



    The Night Before



    Agni’s muttering finally stopped. He always made her recite the day’s or the week’s lessons until she fell asleep. Falion appreciated the educational reinforcement, and the sheer drowsiness this caused in his apprentice every time.


    The conjuror draped the thick sleeve of his robe over the door knob, muffling the sound of his departure as he eased the door shut behind him. In his dark robes and unlit lantern, the guards had no hope of seeing him.


    Falion crept past the blacksmith’s house.


    Unlike the thick tomes and battered lore books on his shelves at home, the one he carried was lighter, slender of spine and peculiarly textured. The book felt heavy in its holster on his waist.


    When the shadows of the swamp had made the glow of Morthal’s buildings dimmed and hazy, Falion stopped to light the lantern. Though he had walked this path many times, there was no safety in familiarity; the marshes had a way of… changing. Dry earth became wet, wet became home to all manner of unpleasant things - and the log he’d thought was a log could very well be a chaurus.


    Low dead branches brushed against his hood like claws, and he was forced to stoop beneath a wide bough, murk-water dampening the hems of his robes when he forded the gulch.


    The lantern’s light gave shape to the old stone pillars that lied ahead.


    They protruded from the peat and rock like eagle’s talons, and in the center, painstakingly carved, was a summoner’s circle. Falion set the lantern in a chair beside one of the pillars, and pulled the book from its holster.


    It was made of scamp skin, water-resistant and durable. The demon it had been taken from had been less so.


    Falion opened the book, and went completely still as one of the pillars’ shadows stepped towards him.


    “Speak,” came a cold hiss, the khajiit’s eyes burning gold in the lantern’s glow. “While this one still allows it.”


    Falion did not need to look closely to know that the khajiit was armed.

    “Laelette,” he said slowly, firmly, “was not my doing.”


    Mor’vahka stalked across the circle, the moonlight unable to touch his face, the armored hood too thick. “Says the one who consorted with their kind. Such words mean almost nothing.”


    Falion snapped the book shut. “My word is always ignored in favor of rumor. My research into vampires has long ended. Besides,” he glowered at the cat. “If I was still researching, I wouldn’t turn a villager just for the sake of study.”


    Mor’vahka responded with a cold sneer of derision, teeth bared. “No, instead the conjuror would stand by and let filth roam the marshes.”


    The wizard scoffed. “Vampire hunting was your job, or have you forgotten? If there are vampires in this area, I haven’t met them. If there are vampires in Hjaalmarch, then the fault lies with you, not me. Maybe you’re losing your touch.”


    The khajiit’s tail lashed, and the tip of the crossbow glared at him almost as coldly as the priest did.
    “Your foolish summons and dalliances bring filth out of hiding. The conjuror claims to keep balance,” Mor’vahka spat the words at Falion’s feet. “Yet continues to foul the air with darkness and corruption.”


    “The darkness was already here,” said Falion coldly. “I make use of it, I keep it in check, that’s all. I had nothing to do with Laelette, or the house fire. Now if you’re done wasting my night, I have ‘consorting’ to do.”


    Mor’vahka’s eyes narrowed, bright as struck matches. “One mistake, conjuror, and this circle will become your pyre. This one will see you burn.”


    Those words hung in the shadows like an airborne toxin, settling into Falion’s thoughts as he was alone once again.


    He laid down a few more protective runes, wary of what lay beyond the lantern’s light. Wary of what lay within Windbreak Chapel. With some effort, Falion put Mor’vahka’s accusations out of his mind — they were but a few among many — the conjuror returned to his book.







3 Comments   |   ilanisilver and 6 others like this.
  • Paws
    Paws   ·  August 31, 2018
    “That’s the thing about people. Everyone’s got a few surprises.” True! Will we be finding out what Jonna's surprise is, then? If Falion and Mor'vahka worked together before, I wonder if her decision to tag along to Morthal with her brother has a deeper tr...  more
  • SpottedFawn
    SpottedFawn   ·  July 14, 2018
    Header image added.
  • Karver the Lorc
    Karver the Lorc   ·  May 5, 2018
    I quite like the point Falion has made. If there are vampires it is Mor'vahka's fault. Now that had to sting, surely getting under the cat's thick skin. Now I'm looking forward to Alva, quite curious how you gonna portray the Vampire slut. :)