Straag Rod: Book 1, Part 2, Chapter XX: The Grave Digger

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    Chapter 20 - The Grave Digger

     

    “Seek the storm.” She repeated, the voice becoming like knife’s edge. The cry of Mother Storm-Hawk.

     

    “No!” He looked away, trembling, wanting to run, wanting to hide, but there was nowhere to turn in this wasteland of stone and storm and his feet hurt so much, he dare not move them.

     

    Another crash of lightning in the same distant place and he screamed into the howling winds, weeping into Oblivion. Afraid.

     

    “Skar…” She whispered. “Fly to me…”

     

    “I was the eagle, I lived in high country. In crystal cathedrals that reached to the sky…” His dulled song mourned into the Past’s void.

     

    Another lightning strike.

     

    “Be my hawk.”

     

    “But there is blood on my feathers…” He cried, feeling the cuts on his feet bleed.

     

    “Blood is only blood, Thunder-Child!  Time is still turning, they soon will be dry. And all that see you, all who believe in you, shall carry the freedom you feel when you fly.”

     

    “But I can no longer fly.” He mourned.

     

    Her voice became an angry gale. “Lies of the Literal!”

     

    He fell to his knees at her booming outburst.

     

    “Come dance my Western wind and embrace the long winter of Snow-Throat.” Her wind softened against his skin, cooling. “Wing-sing over my canyons. Steal back your serpent’s stars, lokalaat!  Reach for all that you can be and not what you are. Time is still turning, your feathers soon will be dry… kos faal Straag Rod!”

     

    Be the Turning Wheel.

     

    “Dovah kiin”, She whispered in the howling winds…

     

    “Dov ah kiin”, She whispered in the scraping stones…

     

    “Do vah kiin”, She whispered in the healing rains…

     

    “Three names in one…

     

    Birth, Death, and… Renewal!”

     

    Thunder rumbled and lightning struck.

     

    So he walked, his blood a trail upon the stone. His broken wings now a mantle upon his back;  not drinking, not eating, naked. He walked, starving, shrinking, until he came upon a great gnarled tree standing alone amidst the field of stones, under the swirling vortex of lightning. A bolt struck the tree, bathing it in lavender light.

     

    And the tree was THE Great Tree, Tree of Ages, Tree of Life, only bare. With roots digging deep, its branches many. Intertwining, the wind through its latticed canopy singing echoes of what was to the world and what would be. And wrapped around the tree were heavy silver chains.

     

    The Prison of Winter’s Death. Yearning for Spring.

     

    “Chain yourself upon the tree, Skar Serpent-Star. Bind yourself to these chains.” Lightning-Strike commanded. “I promise, Spring shall come again…”

     

    And he obeyed.  

     

     

    Äelberon woke with a sudden start, his eyes flinging wide open, still processing the vivid images he had just seen.

     

    It was… It was… He did not know what it was.

     

    She spoke to him... again. And she was Kyne. The Great Lady of Storms. Alien to his people whose gods were all male. Auri-El, Trinimac, Phynaster, Y’ffre, and Syrabane. He remembered from the dusty tomes of his past. Once, Syrabane had been made female, but that was during the time of Ayrenn. Once Queen, her influence strong, her power great, her arms wide open to embrace all of Tamriel. But power fades and with it came a staunch return to the old ways of Altmer isolation. Of God-Kings, not Queens.

     

    But he was no longer in Summerset and Aedra still whispered beyond the confines of sex.

     

    Kyne’s appearance in his dreams felt like how it felt when the Lady Mara took upon her the form of Dinya Balu, only… far more intense. A gentle, nurturing Mother gave way to a hardened Matriarch, wise, her voice like steel.  In many ways, like Auri-El, a stark cruelty in their justice. Well? Can not the storm be as harsh as the sun, old Mer? Neither one of them were the placating shell of the divines found in the Imperial City. But why speak to him? The Aedra were supposed to turn their back on him, it was part of the bargain he had struck, what he gave so that he could heal his brothers and sisters, Dragonborn or not. And yet…the tree. Did he have to search for it? Was it a sign? Where was the noble Rynandor, where was the wise High Priest Kahlailas? Calianwe? His ata, his lenya? The people that could have guided him through this great mystery?

     

    They are either long dead or distances away. They cannot help you now, old Mer, you must do this yourself. Äelberon groaned silently, hating that he felt very much like a child again, unknowing, unsure. The encounter left his head feeling like it was splitting in two and he tightly shut his eyes for a moment to quell the walls of Gallow’s Rock from their infernal spinning.

     

    A few moments later, he was able to open them and study his surroundings more carefully. The first thing his eyes rested upon was Skjor’s lifeless body.

     

    The flood of memories returned to him with full vengeance, like angry waves upon the beaten sand. The words his friend spoke. Their final moments together. Seeing the kiss of two lovers. Then the Veteran fell...

     

    There are sounds in the world that are almost too much to bear and one such sound is the sound of a woman mourning. Love, the unity between two souls, is a sacred power as ancient as Kyne and Shor, as ancient as even Anu and Nir. And when that bond is sundered…

     

    “Save him.”

     

    At first only whispered from Aela’s trembling lips while the blood flowed from the Veteran’s body. While he breathed his final breaths, his silver eye already closed and at rest, his face almost tranquil. He knew where he was going and Skjor has happy at the prospect, Äelberon knew it.

     

    But you leave people behind.

     

    The old Mer’s heart broke when he could do nothing, when none of the magic of his ancestors could be called from the deep wells of Aetherius. He was torn from that world, just he was torn from his homeland. So there was not a drop, nothing for the brother he loved too. His great Lord did not go back on his word. His gods did not have wives, lovers...

     

    Aela’s whispers of hope then became screams of rage, then wails of sorrow upon the icy winds when Skjor’s mighty heart finally beat its last, her fists beating hard upon Äelberon’s chest.  

     

    “I am sorry,” was all he could manage. Over and over again he whispered those words while she wept. He let her beat him with her fists, accepting the punishment for being a moment too late, for squandering the time Auri-El had graced him with, and he himself gave in to an old Altmer’s grief.

     

    Very different from that of men. Emptiness, weariness. The eyes go red and the heart is as if dragged down by a thousand lead weights, but there is no wailing, no breast beating.  At least not anymore. Only the silent tears of a hundred years of guilt flowing.

     

    When you could not save them either.

     

    Of course, he thought of his beloved parents then. It made so much sense for that particular pain to resurface after the tragedy of Skjor. Theirs was the greatest of deaths he could not prevent. Theirs, and those souls lost in Dusk’s Purge all those years ago.

     

    But what is the grief of a savage Nord to an Altmer? What is the grief of an animal to the very kin of the Aedra? The grief of the hare to the eagle that preys upon it? The lesser to the greater? Those were the questions his people would ask of him, demand that he answer, lest they dash his crystal sphere upon the floor, shattering it to a thousand million pieces.

     

    To you, a brother who loves his sister, her grief over Skjor’s death is like the pain of a hundred Purges, the pain of infinite strokes from the Thalmor’s lash upon your back.

     

    So Äelberon let Aela beat him, let her gnash her teeth at him, let her spit upon his face, let her curse him a thousand times in Hircine’s name, let her wish him dead, let her cry. And he gave her in return his silent tears of profound understanding, until her curses became weak pleas for forgiveness, murmurs that it was not his fault, whimpers of ‘sorry’, her grasp of him almost painfully tight.  Until she finally fell asleep, utterly spent in her anguish. He then covered his sister of the blood with his warm cloak of bearskin, kissed her head, and he slept a little too, holding her close. Because that is all a brother can do when he has failed again to protect from pain.

     

    You never had siblings, you fool.

     

    It is what priests do.

     

    Altmer priests should not hold the suffering. They looked at you with disdain when you committed such crimes of compassion, hated you for your empathy...

     

    It is what fathers do.

     

    Gods, don’t think of Mia now, nor of Lillandril, he shuddered, shaking his head. Their black hair, their apple-green eyes… He tried to stop it, but again, the flood of memories came. Holding Lilandtar’s daughter, comforting her after her nightmares of the Great Anguish, whenever she scraped her knee, after anything that caused her pain. Being there when Lillandril married, had children of his own… Remembering the wonderful joyful day when the Tower mage’s two children stopped calling him “Captain” and started calling him “Ata”...

     

    He took a deep breath and composed himself, centered himself for what needed to be done. The lack of control. A symptom of the Lycanthropy. It had to be. His random memories would be harder to master under this affliction.

     

    And that was what it was, an affliction. He felt like shit. Werewolves were supposed to be strong in the human form, like Farkas had been at Dustman’s Cairn. Virile. Like stars that burn bright, burn fierce, burn hot. Äelberon only felt tired, like something had been sucked from him. Like a dying ember in a cooling forge. Like a cold star, near its death.

     

    Your magicks, that is what it is. The profound connection to Aetherius was denied him and he felt, well, like shit.

     

    But he could not dwell on his exhaustion.

     

    You are a priest, and a priest must do priestly things. The dead must be seen to, bodies buried, rites said in accordance to the cultures of man and lycanthrope alike. So, despite the exhaustion, despite the emotional reluctance, he stirred, being very careful to not disturb Aela.

     

    Let her sleep, let her dream. Perhaps of love and of what could have been...

     

    Äelberon shifted position and ended up propped on an elbow, surveying the circular stone chamber at Gallow’s Rock, trying to piece together what Skjor had done. It was impressive, but he imagined the bolt to the warrior’s thigh had started the chain of events that led to Krev getting the upper hand. The silver probably poisoned him enough to force the change back. Naked and back in human form, the Veteran werewolf was an easier target, though by the blood on the Dwemer blade he wielded - a sword dulled from its many years, a trinket from a forgotten ruin, he had fought back.

     

    And won.

     

    Krev the Skinner was dead, but the price was high. The gut wound started from Skjor’s blindside. An old lesson that was never learned. The injury was made from Krev’s serrated silver blade. Like a saw, designed to damage as much as possible, designed to bring as much silver into contact with the vulnerable, cursed flesh. Äelberon could only imagine the pain, from both the poisoning and the wound. And yet, the Veteran still had the wherewithal to deal the Skinner the death blow. You did not give me your all on the Training Circle, Veteran. I do not think I would have survived battle with the Skjor you were on this night.

     

    Krev definitely did not survive and Äelberon felt himself scowl. She deserved death. Cruelty comes back to you, he always believed that. It was what he clung to sometimes, when the thought of the cruelty he knew in his many years. When he thought of Vingalmo, Ondolemar, and all the others who had done evil to those he loved. More memories, almost losing himself in them, and Äelberon shook his head to clear his mind. He would need to figure out a way to curtail this or he would get nothing done. You only have a month to cure them. You need to focus and act quickly. Meditation. Prayer. A good cup of canis root tea--

     

    Ah shit, he suddenly grumbled to himself, really hating Lycanthropy now. No. Damn. Tea.

     

    He pushed himself up, the scowl morphing into something more akin to grumpiness, and sat like a sulking child, motioning to Koor with a stern finger to his lips to keep silent.  The husky obeyed his master, crouching towards Aela and taking Äelberon’s place next to the sleeping Huntress. That action made the old Mer break from his sulking and crack a tiny smile, giving the animal a well-deserved ear rub. Good boy, he mouthed. So briefly known and yet already so deeply loved, by both him and his dog. The entire family. Not just her.

     

    And I will go to into Oblivion itself to save my family. I will not make the same mistakes twice.

     

    His soul was filled with boundless resolve, yet, with great difficulty, he dragged his body to his feet, keenly aware of the many cracks his bones made in protest. How wobbly his legs were. How very old he felt. Damn, how much did the magicka suppress his infirmities? Are you actually weaker? Was it possible?

     

    When you are denied that which makes you whole, then, yes, it is possible.

     

    I am dying then?

     

    Äelberon chose not to answer that last question, because he already knew the answer. Instead, he stretched, bending his neck and arms to loosen the stiffened joints, feeling a keen soreness he had never felt before. He had not slept long, but sleeping in armor was not the best of actions. His legs moved as if Old Lady Lilisephona herself had put triple the lead weights in his boots while he crossed the chamber to head for the doorway, grabbing a shovel leaning upon a wall on his way out.

     

    But move he did, Auri-El’s will be done.

     

    Because Time is not on your side.

     

     

    Balis was freezing to death. He had no idea how long he had been away from Gallow’s Rock, but it couldn’t have been very long, it was still very dark outside. He doubled back on his tracks as best he could, unable to travel further through the dense, snow-covered forest to reach the mill.

     

    Some hero you are, he thought angrily to himself while he trudged. You couldn’t even make it to the mill. The fucking mill. You got lost, got scared, and turned back on your tracks like a coward. It’ll probably kill you there.

     

    He fingered the bone hawk amulet while he walked, running through the song’s lyrics in his mind. Not that it mattered. He was definitely going to die once he reached the fort. If the werewolf was still there. Which it probably was, considering how easily it killed the warriors at the campfire. His friends. No, not really, it had only been his first day. What a damn first day.

     

    Maybe it ran off? Do they sleep in forts?

     

    “I’d sleep in fort if I were a werewolf…” Balis suddenly mumbled aloud, trying to keep his hands warm by sticking them under his armpits. He already could feel his feet going numb through his boots. “Forts are warm, they have fires, food, water… mead.”

     

    Mead would be delicious right now. He could drink bottles and bottles of the stuff. Sitting around the campfire with Torsten, Rigmor, Ulren, Nameless Nord, and Spearmaiden. All sitting as if nothing had happened. Talking, chatting and maybe becoming friends. Sitting around the still blazing campfire--

     

    He stopped in his tracks, furrowing his brow. Still blazing? Wait…

     

    Balis squinted at the fort through the falling snow.  Sure as Ysmir’s Beard, he saw it, the burning campfire in Gallow’s Rock. Did they?

     

    Did they kill the werewolf? He didn’t fucking believe it.

     

    Unless, unless, unless!

     

    Praise be to Stendarr! Overjoyed, the weary cleric scrambled as fast as he could in a sort of half run, half stumble through the building snow banks, towards fire, towards warmth and safety, his breath coming out in heavy puffs of steam.

     

    There is someone there! Oh yes! Frozen feet move faster, much faster, please, Balis urged himself. I know you’re numb and about to fall off, but if you could just make it to that person, you could get inside that nice warm fort and wait to travel when the weather improves.

     

    The large figure he saw was digging through the snow and dirt with a shovel. The movements were deliberate, focused, a pile of dirty snow and dirty steadily growing behind him. Torsten’s body was close to the expanding hole. A big, white-bearded Nord from from what Balis could make out, wearing a hood that obscured the upper half of his face, the tip of what was probably a large nose just peeking. The figure was clad in a dark, fur-trimmed armor that cut an imposing figure against the whiteness of the snow. The figure shifted position, preparing his body to push the shovel deep into the frozen earth once more.  Light from the campfire highlighted a carving upon the armor, where the breast plate joined with the kilt. Brother Balis squinted to get a better look.

     

    A wolf’s head--

     

    Oh shit! Shit, shit, shit! Just like the armor Krev mentioned when he toured Gallow’s Rock with her. The armor of the Companions, of the clan of werewolves they were focused on.

     

    Shit! It’s one of them, one of them! Balis could feel his heart hammer so fast against his chest that he was scared the creature would be able to hear it. It was said their hearing was extremely sharp. He dodged behind a tree and then cautiously poked his head from behind to get a better look. Why was it digging? Some profane ritual to Hircine, no doubt. Brother Theodard would know for sure, he knew all sorts of things on the matter of werewolves. Was it going to bury Torsten in some Daedric desecration of a good Nord? Eat him? Cook him, then eat him? The monster!

     

    He couldn’t let that happen. You have a crossbow! You grabbed one from the camp when you ran. Balis took a deep breath to try to staunch his rising fear. It’s not looking at you, it’s still digging, you can get a clean shot of the Beast.

     

    Carefully, trying to stop his chilled fingers from trembling, the cleric loaded a silver bolt onto the weapon and started to pull it back. It didn’t budge. He tried again, his face contorting with effort.

     

    Stendarr’s Balls, that’s damn hard to do. Shit! He couldn’t pull the string back. How do you do this? Ah, put it down, you idiot! He had seen some of the Imperials load a bolt that way, bracing the weapon with their legs, so they could pull the string back with leverage. Torsten could do it with a single slow pull from his muscled arm.

     

    You don’t have Torsten’s muscles, Balis, you just have a lot of fat.

     

    With some effort, he managed to load the bolt and he lifted the weapon to take his aim, bracing his arm against the trunk of the tree to help support the weapon’s weight. He could already feel the cold streak of nervous sweat upon his brow. The creature had paused from digging, set the shovel down and moved towards Torsten. Squatting on his haunches, reaching for Torsten.

     

    Balis released the trigger.

     

    Nothing happened. What the Oblivion? The bolt was supposed to fly, strike its target. He was doing this correctly. Touch the trigger, bolt flies, target dies. Balis looked up.

     

    Oh shit.

     

    The creature looked up and then right at him. Its head tilted to the side and with a curious look, two eyes, like smoldering embers, had found him.

     

    Balis brought his head back in confusion. That isn't a Nord.

     

    And didn’t werewolves have silver eyes in mortal form? Brother Theodard always said--

     

    “Son, you have the safety on.” The creature spoke matter of factly, something oddly familiar about the low voice, a soft-spoken quality that yet also seemed to convey strength. “You are not shooting anything unless you disconnect that.”

     

    Safety? What the Oblivion is that? He looked down and searched the weapon frantically. Gods, gods, gods… footsteps in the snow coming closer. A long, powerful stride. It’s coming! Shit! SHIT! A big shadow loomed over the snow close to him.

     

    You are so going to die now.

     

    The crossbow was snatched from his hand like it was a toy by someone who was far stronger and far taller than him. “Let me see that.” The creature moved its hand deftly over the weapon, and gestured to a small mechanism, releasing a tiny pin. “Here.” There was a barely audible click and then the crossbow was now pointed at Balis.

     

    You are really going to die now.

     

    He closed his eyes and said a prayer to Stendarr, his second for the evening.

     

    And waited. Only the trigger was not released. The creature didn’t press it. Here Balis was, standing, trembling in the snow with a werewolf who had a crossbow aimed directly at him and nothing was happening.

     

    A chuckle.

     

    “Open your eyes, son.” the werewolf spoke. “I am not going to kill you.” A sigh and the voice grew weary. “There has been enough killing today already.”

     

    Balis opened one eye and looked up to see a striking pair of red-orange almond-shaped eyes staring back at him. Bushy, slanted brows framed the eyes, the skin upon the scarred face nearly the same shade as the hair of the brow and beard.   Oh, he has a beard now. Nice, filled out, looks good… Wait. How do you know he didn’t have a beard before? The Nord’s second eye opened and his jaw dropped.

     

    Äelberon of Dusk was standing right next to him. THE Äelberon of Dusk.

     

    It was Äelberon of Dusk. The old Altmer demon hunter, warrior-priest of Auriel, the last living Knight of the Crystal Tower, and... By Stendarr’s Holy Balls, he is impressively tall. He had visited the Hall of the Vigilant. When was it? Some time in Evening Star. Told stories of his adventures after he met with Keeper Carcette.  Balis remembered he and the  other vigilants sitting by the great hearth, the shadow of the Shrine to Stendarr upon them as he told his great tales of faith, hope, and resilience. The awe they felt. So many years of hunting, of battle against the evil of the Daedra, and still alive, still unbroken.

     

    “One. Hundred. Years. Big fucker and damn, he was one Oblivion of a hunter. Knew his shit. I used to call him Bolt when he worked for us a spell, 'cause it was all he'd use to kill them. Bolt to the brain, right between the eyes, and that's that. No funny business, no skinning. Quiet Mer, kept mostly to himself…”

     

    Torsten’s words suddenly passed through his mind and Balis gasped in understanding.

     

    This is Bolt. This is fucking Bolt!

     

    Balis opened his mouth to speak.

     

    “I know you.” The Elf said, immediately silencing the cleric.  He leaned closer to Balis, those eyes narrowing. Something in those eyes both scared the Nord and at the same time, their beauty, it was just so hard to place, and aye, it was beauty, like staring into a great fire or something akin to that. They neither belonged to man, mer, nor even demon. They seemed entirely his own, though Balis could also see how bloodshot they now were, as if sleep had been long-denied them. Stop staring at his eyes, Balis! He has your crossbow pointed right at your fat belly. He made a feeble move to reach for the weapon, but the Mer spoke again, shifting the weapon back just enough to be out of the Cleric’s reach. “The Hall of the Vigilant, Morndas,” the Altmer continued, the words measured, as if he was piecing together a puzzle. “The twenty-second of Evening Star, nightfall. I had beef stew, a bit too much salt for my taste, but Koor enjoyed it. And tea, canis root tea. She gave me a satchel next morning. A gift. When I spoke to the Vigilants after my meal, you, son, sat in the third row of benches, two from the end. When you shifted position, the right leg of the bench would creak. Your name is Brother Balis, a student of Brother Theodard.”

     

    If Balis’ jaw wasn’t already to the floor, it was now. He didn’t even remember what he ate yesterday and here was this Elf telling him precise details from an event that took place over a month ago. So this is the famous ‘Altmer’ memory? He had heard that they often had incredible memories, but this was not what he expected.

     

    “Why are you not at Stendarr’s Beacon?” The Mer pressed, and it looked like, to Balis, he was trying to decide whether or not to lower the crossbow. He would have to chose his words carefully. It was Äelberon of Dusk, but he was wearing the armor that marked him as one of them. But he was a priest, a friend to the Vigilant’s cause.

     

    “When the Hall fell, I was in Dawnstar. Earlier, Keeper Carcette had asked me to investigate rumors of nightmares among the townsfolk. We suspected--”

     

    “Vaermina.” The Elf hissed in disgust. “I know.”

     

    Balis’ eyes widened in surprise. “You know? How?”

     

    Äelberon sighed wearily and looked away. “I felt the Prince’s evil when I first entered the city early in my travels, after Keeper Carcette had graciously offered the Hall’s hospitality to the most unworthy of knights.” The broad shoulders stooped a little and Balis caught himself blinking at the Elf’s speech. Formal, like something out of a storybook, not of the fourth era. “It seems the Daedra are everywhere, son.” The Elf continued. “Drawn per chance by the chaos of the dragons, ready to take advantage? Who knows. Ey, ey, I am not strong enough to fight her, not yet.” He turned back to Balis. “Do the people there suffer much? I hated leaving that city knowing and yet, unable to help.”

     

    Balis shrugged. “I wasn’t that far into the investigation when I heard the Hall fell, was about to speak to a priest of Mara, a Dunmer.”

     

    A silver brow raised. “Another Dunmer priest of Mara? I know Priestess Balu from Riften, but she was found by Maramal the Redguard, saved from her sins, and converted from the ways of her People. A Dunmer connected to the goddess is an unusual thing, especially with the Reclamations.”

     

    Balis was now completely ignoring the armor and speaking to another cleric, another brother in the faith. “I know.” He nodded. “Honestly?  I don’t buy his story. Smelled like bad fish to me.  He means well, don’t misunderstand me, the intent feels right to me, feels clean, but he is hiding something. His name is Erandur. He had mentioned possibly taking me to some sort of temple to confront the matter, but nothing came of it. And then the Silver Hand hired me as their new cleric.”

     

    “Keeper Theodard would be pleased to know you lived. Their numbers are too few.” the Altmer’s mouth turned down in a small frown. “You do not belong here, son. You should return to the Beacon. It is where they are gathered now. Theodard is their Keeper. A good man, strong in the faith.”

     

    Balis straightened his back. “I’ve made my decision.”  

     

    “Reconsider. These are not the people for you.”

     

    “Yet you are here. Are you working for the Silver Hand, Brother Äelberon?” A good question to ask and it forced a break from the Elf’s words. Entirely possible he could just be passing by the fort. Not in that armor, gods damit, Balis. But he is Bolt, one hundred years of werewolf hunting. Silver bolt to their brains, the Mer the Vigil turned to when the Daedra became to much. One hundred years doesn’t lie, Balis. Maybe he isn’t one and is just a Companion. Not all of them are werewolves… Shit! There’s still a werewolf inside, he realised. His eyes widened, suddenly remembering his fear, and he clasped the Mer’s forearm. “Oh Stendarr’s shield, you must have come while the beast attacked! Bless the Divines! Is it dead? Did you kill it? Did only the people by the campfire die?”

     

    “There is death within as well. I was too late and much was lost. You were lucky, I saw your tracks leaving Gallow’s Rock before I entered. Where did you go?”

     

    Brother Balis took a deep breath - time to lie - and looked right into those strange eyes. You can fake lying much better if you look them in the eye... “I was gathering firewood, see, and I was just return--”

     

    “Then where is the wood you gathered, Brother Balis?” The Altmer asked, raising the crossbow again.

     

    “Uh… back a ways.” The Nord Cleric pointed behind the tree, very aware of how nervous he was. Stop shaking your hand.

     

    The large Mer glanced at the tree and then back at Balis, those eyes probing. He then leaned closer to Balis and sniffed. “You always piss and vomit on yourself when you are fetching firewood?”

     

    Did it smell that strongly? Shit. Balis turned his head slightly, took a whiff, and aye, one didn’t have to be a werewolf to smell that. The Nord swallowed.

     

    “You saw him then?”

     

    “Him?” Balis shook his head. “No, Brother Äelberon, there was no him.  I only saw a monster. Huge and grey! With only one great yellow eye.” He pointed towards the door, no longer caring that his hand shook. “It went inside. Did you kill it? Please, say you did.”

     

    Another chuckle, laced with bitterness, and in a surprising move, the Mer gave Balis back his weapon. “Here you are, son. As I said before, there has already been enough death tonight.” He then walked back to Torsten and began to drag the body towards the dug hole. A hole that Balis now noticed was decorated as a Nordic cairn, filled with simple gifts, offerings of wrapped food, mead. And upon Torsten’s wrapped arms was held an Elvish longsword of uncommon make, the hilt decorated with golden Eagle’s wings, the blade of shining steel. Balis’ mouth opened in shock, the Mer wasn’t performing some heinous Daedric rite. No, he was burying him, readying him for Sovngarde, and the sword was his very own weapon. A gift. He felt ashamed for thinking the Mer was one of them.

     

    “And what is a monster, Brother Balis?” the Altmer asked calmly as he neared the small cairn. Balis then noticed that there was another freshly dug hole close by, near the entrance of Gallow’s Rock, at the center of the courtyard of the fort. And next to that hole was another crossbow, fresh meat, deer antlers, a werewolf’s pelt, and freshly cut lupines that had still clung to the notion of life despite Winter’s hold. Lupines… their flower, Balis narrowed his eyes.

     

    “A werewolf is a monster.” Balis answered, not wanting to accept what the other hole was for.

     

    He is supposed to be a priest of Auriel.

     

    “The answer of someone truly young still.” The Mer responded. “A surface answer. And it was my answer once too, long ago, and not so long ago. But the world has grown complex. I have seen such monsters, Brother Balis, in my long life, and they were some of the most beautiful people in all of Tamriel. Graceful, noble… Like a perfectly round, smooth orange, only to find rot when you peel away the rind. Beauty can be ugly. And conversely, Ugly can be beautiful. Ugly and deformed on the outside, one eye, grizzled and grey, yet truly noble underneath. And yet, which of these should die? The beautiful or the ugly? The surface, or what lies beneath?”

     

    Balis jumped when that stupid owl again screamed from its perch.

     

    “Do not be frightened, Brother Balis, by the scream of the owl. He has only been speaking his wisdom all night.” The Mer sighed, his bloodshot eyes finding the bird briefly before focusing on Torsten. With a gentle strength, he lifted the Nord’s bloody corpse to carry him the final distance to the cairn, not wanting to drag the body anymore, but his words were still for the owl, and Balis found himself listening. “You were cast out too, eh Jhunal? Do you understand then? Is that why you scream? Is if for me?”

     

    “Is the monster dead?” Balis asked again, his brow lowered while he watched the Mer lower Torsten to his cairn.

     

    Äelberon of Dusk adjusted Torsten’s position a final time, before sighing and placing a hand on the old Nord’s bloodied chest. “Alas, my brother has committed a sin against you, Torsten, and for that I apologize. He has left you no head to receive the Kiss, no cheek, no chin, no eyes, no lips. Ah, Skjor...sometimes you do not think that others deserve a proper death too.”

     

    “The monster?” Balis pressed, raising his weapon, not wanting to process that the werewolf had a name. Skjor. Krev never mentioned names.

     

    Äelberon looked up at the cleric, a suggestion of simmering anger in his tone. “Which one, Brother Balis? Which monster? Your one-eyed monster that was my Shield-Brother, a brother who loved his family? Or the monster who slew him with her saw sword? The one who skinned them alive without remorse while they screamed? You tell me?”

     

    “Wait? Krev is dead?” Balis’ eyes widened.

     

    The Mer turned away. “Monster kills monster, blood begets blood. It will not stop. She will want revenge and then they will want revenge in turn. I do not wish this violence, but perfect peace is a Priest’s folly.” The eyes narrowed. “You were not gathering firewood, were you?”

     

    Balis watched Äelberon of Dusk place stones upon Torsten, one at a time, not answering the Mer’s question.

     

    “I must hurry,” the Altmer continued, his face growing long with sadness. “She will wake soon, and I must give her my all, for our fallen brother, her lover. If she sees me with Torsten… Ah, to be trapped between both sides! She will not understand, but I knew Torsten too, ate with him, fought with him, I cannot not see him to Sovngarde. I am cursed now, but cannot ever stop being a brother, a father, or a priest…so I shall set the stones, say the rites, sing the songs...and I will also do so for Skjor, because I ate with him and fought with him too. Both are worthy...”

     

    Moved, and still not knowing quite why, Brother Balis set his weapon down upon the snow and approached the cairn. He grabbed a stone and placed it upon Torsten’s body. And another, and another. Through all this, as they placed stones, Äelberon began to sing softly, the voice a hoarse, melancholic baritone. An echo, it seemed to Balis, of what that voice once must have been.  

     

    In darkness, your light shines through,
    Warrior Goddess, for you we strike true.
    When hope is lost and war rages on,

    Warrior Goddess, hear our blessed song!

     

    Balis joined him and together they sang the old Hymn to Kyne, laying stone upon stone on Torsten, sending him to the Mother Goddess.

     

    With a Nord's death, fallen in battle,

    “We must cover it with snow, lest my Shield-Sister see…” The Altmer murmured sadly between lyrics, beginning to gather large piles of snow with his hands to push over the cairn. To hide it. “Her grief is too fresh, she will not understand, but I cannot let him die like that. He had been kind to me, called me Bolt, and we shared stories, I remember...” He took a deep breath and he and Balis continued, ignoring the sting of the cold upon their hands.

     

    Warrior Goddess, guide us through shadow.
    Grant us courage to fight and sharpen our swords,
    Warrior Goddess, mother of Nords!

     

    They finished their song, covering the last of the rocks with fresh snow and then they knelt for a moment, silent, next to each other. Two priests. The only sounds their breathing in the cold night.

     

    After a period of silence, Äelberon reached for several packed bags, placing them on Balis’ lap. Balis immediately smelled food, mead. There was also a freshly oiled torch, flint, and tinder, some animal skins. The Mer was giving him supplies, supplies that were supposed to be for him. Balis shook his head to refuse, but the Mer stopped him, putting a hand on bags. “Take them, Brother Balis.”

     

    “But you know exactly where I’m going.” The Cleric said, shaking his head. “I was heading there before I turned back. Like I said, I had made my decisions.”

     

    “I know.” The Mer gave Balis a resolute nod. “But you helped me, gave me a kindness, and I need you to survive. I need you to deliver a message for me, to him, your leader. Big Nord. Black hair, black eyes, a dark smile...”

     

    “What do you want me to tell him?” Balis asked, deciding not to mention Vânător by name.

     

    Äelberon looked him right in the eye, speaking slowly, those eyes feeling like they were burning a hole right through Balis’ skull. The voice was thickening with emotion, weight, resignation. “You have family, Balis?”

     

    “Yes, I do. In Chorrol.” Balis let himself smile, let himself be brought back briefly to the happy family orchard, blossoms in the spring, sweet apples in the fall that would last all winter. His mother’s famous pie. “Apple orchard.”

     

    “An apple orchard, you say?” The Mer asked. “Lucky lad. I love apple pie.” He said quietly, sadly, and Balis could have sworn he heard muttered under the Mer’s breath ‘canna bloody have that now either, damn it all.’

     

    “Mine fished and forged,” the Priest of Auriel continued, “simple people, but my Lenya, that is ‘mother’ in my tongue, she kept bees. And their honey was golden, thick, smokey, and spicy-sweet with the wild, wild flowers of my homeland.”

     

    “Aye, Summerset. I remember at the Hall you speaking of Dusk’s boardwalks on the sea, of the flower baskets that lined them, of temples with wooden spires. It sounded beautiful.”

     

    “My city by the sea.  It is good to have family, Brother Balis. I have lost mine, but the gods have seen it fit to show me mercy and grant me another, here, in Skyrim.”

     

    “Jorrvaskr.” Balis guessed. “You are a Companion then?”

     

    “Aye, Jorrvaskr. I do not know the cause of the trouble between Jorrvaskr and the Silver Hand, but I know this. That I will defend my family with everything I have in me, so help me.” He put a fist upon his breast, as if pledging a solemn oath and his gaze intensified. “As Auri-El’s servant, I swear upon his name, as I swear upon the blood-family in Summerset I have already lost and now upon my brother in the blood. You know the story of my beloved blood-family, of my City by the Sea. You heard it in the Hall of the Vigilant under the shadow cast by Stendarr’s shrine in the hearth, so you know the lengths I will go, Brother Balis.  The roads I will travel, the exile I have endured. If the Silver Hand cause more grief, and strike after my Shield-Sister’s blood price has been paid, I will hunt them in vengeance, as I still hunt the vampire who destroyed the family of my homeland. I will hunt until my quarry is dead, or until I die, and I do not run from the prospect of either course.” He raised his eyebrows in a question. “Do you understand, human, that level of commitment? Your petty feuds are nothing to me. Ten years? Twenty? Try One Hundred.  Every wrinkle upon my face is a year I have hunted my monsters, but I am still not so old, not so beaten, that I cannot take upon myself yet another.”

     

    Shit, Balis thought to himself, letting air escape his lips. That was the reason why Äelberon had endured, survived among the great demon hunters for so long. It wasn’t just his devotion to Auriel, but something much darker. It suddenly made the Mer far more relatable, because Balis could only imagine what he would do if his own family were dead. He loved them, just like Rigmor had loved his. The amulet, you have to do this now, Balis. You need to go. Vânător will understand, he’s a Nord. Delivering Brother Äelberon’s message would be his last act as a Silver Hand and then… on to Solitude. And if he survived that journey, then maybe back to Dawnstar to finish what he started. The Nord cleric swallowed before standing, supplies in hand. “Yes, Brother Äelberon, I understand.”

     

    “Good.” The Mer nodded, giving Balis a pat on his shoulder.

     

    “One question, before I go.” Balis asked, rising to his feet.

     

    “Yes.”

     

    “Are you really one of them now?” He had to know.

     

    “I am a complete member of Jorrvaskr’s family now.”

     

    “Gods! Why?” The cleric gasped. Sure, he had suspected when he was just a figure digging in the snow, but it was Äelberon of Dusk, Knight-Paladin of Auriel, a priest. A priest wouldn’t do this!

     

    The Mer’s hardened facade cracked and several tears were now making their way down his scarred cheek, but he quickly composed himself, straightening, his chin raising in a stubbornness that was reflected in his tone when he next spoke. “Their cure and Ysgramor’s line restored, through my suffering. My lord, Auri-El adonai, has shown me the way, Brother Balis.  A light for their darkness.”

     

    “A cure? But you can’t cure Lycanthropy, Brother Äelberon. Bro-Keeper Theodard said the cure died with a Glenmoril Wyrd long ago--”

     

    “Their curse is not the same as those of the Beasts I have hunted in the past.” The Knight of Auriel interrupted. “It is different somehow, I can feel the treachery, the betrayal in that Mead Hall, as a weight upon both me and my ancestor. It must be cleansed.”  

     

    Ancestor? Did he have Nord blood? Balis was confused, but dismissed it. “But how? How can you cure them?”

     

    A quick shrug from Äelberon, the Mer’s eyes finding the campfire. “It has not been revealed to me yet, or it has and I do not yet understand it, stupid as I am in the ways of those greater than me, but Auri-El has put me on the path of their redemption. It is a test of my faith. And I will succeed. There is no other option.” The Mer growled and his jaw clenched as his fist found his thigh. “And may Hircine take the husk of the beast that is left if I fail, because I will truly be worthy of no god then. In that, I am resolved.”

     

    There was silence for several moments and Balis just let the Mer’s words sink in. It was simply that way with priests of any order. They did not hunt for coin or fame, they hunted to prevent the awfulness of what had been the Oblivion Crisis from ever returning. Their own lives meant little in the grand scheme of their cause. Easier said than done, of course, because Balis surely didn’t want to die, his running and latent cowardness proved that.  But once in a while, one bore witness to a soul truly devout. And it was a beautiful, uplifting thing. The nobility, the sacrifice, willing to die for the good of Tamriel, whether it was colored by vengeance or not. Balis could feel it deep in his heart, his courage welling, the reasons why he became Vigilant resurfacing. His nephews and nieces safe in a world without Daedra. Rigmor’s children too. And perhaps even his own, if the gods ever saw it in his future to give him some.

     

    “You are smiling, Brother Balis.” The Mer suddenly asked, raising his eyebrows. “Why?”

     

    “You have uplifted me, Knight-Paladin.”

     

    “Oh?” The Altmer seemed genuinely surprised, almost taken aback, but then a funny-looking smirk flashed through his tired features. “Using my old title are we? Enough of that, son, I am nothing special.” He chuckled and his face grew thoughtful. “I guess in needing to uplift myself…well, it often spreads.” he nodded in understanding. “It is a very hard path we follow, Brother Balis, there is no lying there. I do not fault you for running, for being afraid. Fear is normal. I fear too and that is alright. I am very afraid now.”

     

    “You? Afraid?”

     

    “Auri-El’s bow, of course, lad!” The Altmer exclaimed. “I am not made of stone! I am no heartless statue. I am flesh and blood. I am afraid, my heart races, my hands sweat, my stomach knots. Afraid of failure, of my body’s infirmities getting the better of me, of me not being able to save my family, of what they will think when they learn what I have taken upon myself. Will they love me the same? Will they even understand? I have dark thoughts of vengeance too, I am sometimes base in my motives, the deep grief I feel for my blood-family coloring what I do and that is wrong in the eyes of my Lord, selfish.  But we, you, the Vigilant, and I, the Priest of Auri-El, humble brothers in the cause, feel the fear so that those we protect do not have to. And in that…” He paused, giving Balis another nod. “Aye, in that, lies a certain strength we can draw from.”

     

    Brother Äelberon then took a deep breath and the face now assumed the demeanor of a kindly priest or a grandfather even, his body language relaxing. “Now, go, my good son,” He started with a warm nod, “This old Mer’s Sermon is finished. Leave me to do my Lord’s work. And deliver my message. Hopefully, your leader will see the wisdom of it and perhaps a priest’s folly can then be realized. Peace attained. Safe travels… friend Balis.”

     

    “You as well, friend Äelberon.”  

     

    “So, not a monster then?”

     

    “No. Not a monster.” Balis answered, understanding the Mer’s deeper, sadder question. The cleric then gestured with his head towards the empty hole, wanting to give something back to the old Priest for the gift of renewed faith. “My condolences for the loss of your Shield-Brother.” Balis offered. He would pray to Stendarr for forgiveness later, god of mercy, after all.

     

    “I thank you… and Jorrvaskr thanks you.” The Mer smiled, his eyes lightening up through their weariness at Balis’ act of kindness. “He was great among us. A veteran of the Great War. Of Red Ring. Great were his deeds and many songs shall be sung in his memory in accordance to the traditions of Ysgramor.”

     

    “Then I will help you bury him too.” Balis suddenly offered, stopping, about to drop his bags. “Where is he? What do we need to do?”

     

    “That is kind of you, Brother Balis, for I know the sin you have just commited for even offering, but no. She must be the one to say his rite. I only prepare the body.” The Mer said softly. “I only dig the grave.”

     

    Straag Rod, Book I ToC

    Chapter XIX       Chapter XXI

Comments

9 Comments   |   Meli and 6 others like this.
  • Paws
    Paws   ·  January 17
    There's definitely room for Yggdrasil in Nordic mythology, it fits
    so perfectly. Trees as they relate to folklore in general seem
    conspicuously absent, like a missing flame. We can see the smoke, can
    see the halo of moths but we canno...  more
    • The Long-Chapper
      The Long-Chapper
      Paws
      Paws
      Paws
      There's definitely room for Yggdrasil in Nordic mythology, it fits
      so perfectly. Trees as they relate to folklore in general seem
      conspicuously absent, like a missing flame. We can see the smoke, can
      see the halo of moths but we cannot see the fire. Th...  more
        ·  January 18
      You know me far too well. Probably both. 
  • The Sunflower Manual
    The Sunflower Manual   ·  January 8
    Albee is such a nice person, even when he's grieving. Never lashes out just for the sake of hurting someone or wanting them to feel at least as horrible as he does. Good that Balis is the somewhat reasonable sort too. But helps a lot that Albee is the person he is.
    • The Long-Chapper
      The Long-Chapper
      The Sunflower Manual
      The Sunflower Manual
      The Sunflower Manual
      Albee is such a nice person, even when he's grieving. Never lashes out just for the sake of hurting someone or wanting them to feel at least as horrible as he does. Good that Balis is the somewhat reasonable sort too. But helps a lot that Albee is the person he is.
        ·  January 9
      Thanks. He still has his own learning to do in this section of Straag. And there will be moments where he will lose his patience. 
  • Ebonslayer
    Ebonslayer   ·  January 8
    I really like this. Really takes on the dark fantasy vibe in a series that is often too light-hearted for it's theme.
    • The Long-Chapper
      The Long-Chapper
      Ebonslayer
      Ebonslayer
      Ebonslayer
      I really like this. Really takes on the dark fantasy vibe in a series that is often too light-hearted for it's theme.
        ·  January 9
      It always bothered me in game that all you lost for lycanthropy was your well-rested bonus. So, Karver and I looked into the lore of lycanthropy and found out you give up quite a bit more, so we brought that to Straag. No, lycanthropy doesn't effect, say ...  more
  • Ben W
    Ben W   ·  January 8
    Poor old Relic...
    • The Long-Chapper
      The Long-Chapper
      Ben W
      Ben W
      Ben W
      Poor old Relic...
        ·  January 8
      Well, yeah, decisions have consequences. He knew that going in. I'm sorry for the gloomy nature of these chapters, but no, something like this isn't going to be bunny rabbits and sunshine. It won't like it is in the game. 
      • The Long-Chapper
        The Long-Chapper
        The Long-Chapper
        The Long-Chapper
        The Long-Chapper
        Well, yeah, decisions have consequences. He knew that going in. I'm sorry for the gloomy nature of these chapters, but no, something like this isn't going to be bunny rabbits and sunshine. It won't like it is in the game. 
          ·  January 8
        Glad you're still with me though! :D