Isheriil sat on a stone bench, in the shade of an old plum tree. His long, thin nose was buried in a book so closely that that the tip was near enough to brush the yellowed pages. His eyes, however, were not following the carefully printed words. Instead, he peered out over the top of the tome, nervously tracking the movements of a group of children playing raucously in the market square.
It wasn’t fair, he decided. School was out for the day. Why had they chosen this particular part of town for their noisy games? He wanted to read his book in peace; it was a comprehensive study of the various species of clam found off of Skywatch’s western coast. Every time he tried to focus, their whooping and howling inevitably roused him from his studies! It was difficult to focus on the finer aspects of clam biology when he was quite sure he’d be spotted and harassed at any moment.
He debated the merits of slinking home or staying where he was and hoping to be overlooked, but by the time he’d decided, it was too late – the nearest of the children had spotted him. His book had drifted a few inches downward, revealing the top of his long nose and his nervously peering eyes; it was enough for Niria to catch a glance and come jogging over, her cheeks flushed a golden orange with play.
“Hay, Ishie!” There was no mistaking the meaning – calling him by the nickname they had to know he hated! Reluctant but resigned to the inevitable torment that would follow, he lowered the book, wetting his lips and affecting an expression of indifference – as though he hadn’t noticed his classmates, and was merely absorbed in his study.
“Hullo, Niria. D-didn’t see you there; what are you lot up to?” The aloof impression was rather spoiled by a stutter, and he couldn’t quite bring himself to look her in the face. The street before him was paved in crisp white cobbles, and the tree above was decked in pale lavender flowers that would soon become fat, sticky plums. He made a note to himself to avoid this spot when that happened; plums were such messy fruits, and it wouldn’t do to muss his clothing. A shame, too – they were his favorite.
Niria, however, tried valiantly to catch his eye, and offered an uncertain smile as she failed, following his own wandering gaze instead. No doubt this was another way she was mocking him. He licked his lips again and stubbornly continued to avoid her glance. Not to be deterred, the girl’s features crinkled merrily and she beamed at him instead- “We’re playing Altmer and Humans! Wanna come? You can even be Altmer! We take turns!”
His eyes narrowed slightly as he made careful observation of the tree’s craggy bark, avoiding touching it – doubtless it was just choked with dirt. Nature was always dirty. Quickly, he shook his head. “No thank you. I- I don’t like those sorts of games.”
“Awww, come on! It’ll be fun!”
Just then, one of the other children abruptly rounded the street corner, making a series of ghastly faces and shrieking at the top of his lungs. “GRRAWRRGHHL I’MMA HUMAN I AM GONNA KILL YOU AND BURN ALL THE BOOKS, BLAARGHWARRMRGH!”
Niria jumped, her golden eyes growing huge, and grabbed Isheriil by the hand. “Quick, Ishie!! ALTMER POWERS! BACK, YOU FOUL MAN! BACK I SAY, OR I’LL USE MY MAGIC ON YOU!”
Isheriil found himself being dragged along, stammering his protests all the way, as Niria stubbornly waved her arm around as though casting a thousand different spells all at once. The boy playing the Human howled and screeched as imaginary flames consumed him, and was soon ‘dead’ on the cobbles, limbs twitching. In spite of his reluctance, Isheriil had to admit that the other child made a good sport of it.
Nervous but resigned, he kept close to Niria’s heels as they scoured the streets for other pockets of Mannish invaders; of course, the Altmer forces outnumbered and outgunned the Men, who largely seemed to rely on screaming and waving their arms about. It was frightening and exciting all at once, and he never could seem to find his voice to help Niria much. But that was okay – she was doing a good job of dispatching the Men, even without his help. She didn’t seem to mind his quiet, anyway.
The round ended with a final march, all the ‘Altmer’ children rounding up what few reserves the ‘Men’ had left and ‘executing’ them for their crimes against the great island of Alinor. Then, the tables turned.
“Okay, Ishie, now we gotta be the Men – all you do is just scream and say things like a Man would say, kay?”
“B-but I don’t really – like humans… they’re – they’re dirty and -”
“Well, we’re not really humans, silly! We just gotta pretend to be like them, and take over Summerset Isle!”
“B-b-but I don’t want to take over Summerset Isle!”
“You just gotta pretend, come on!”
Niria, he decided, was an unstoppable and implacable force of madness, impervious to all reason and logic. He cringed and hunched to make himself as small as he could, thinking longingly of his book – but he as he was told.
Being saddled with a madwoman was far better than being on his own. He kept close to Niria, and was surprised to find that she accrued some victories as a Man; when they’d been Altmer, all the Men they’d encountered had quickly been ‘killed’ by their Altmer powers. As it happened, Niria’s vivid imagination gave them swords made of sticks, and if they caught the Altmer defenders by surprise, their enemies would eventually give way to the poking of tree branches, having to admit that they had been tricked and slain by the enterprising humans. Soon enough, however, they came to their bitter end – surrounded by Altmer on all sides who raised a deafening din of magic noises, their fingers wiggling dramatically. It was here that he and Niria made their last stand, and at last collapsed into a spasming pile of Mannish ‘corpse’.
That was the last round for the evening, and the children filtered away to their homes, filled with pride for the inevitable victory of the Merrish people, and tired from the day’s exertions. They grinned and chattered to one another as they went, and Isheriil was swept up in their mass before finally splitting off to trot home to his books.
In the safety of his room, the door firmly closed and his shelves of books surrounding him, the young elf anxiously eyed himself in a mirror of well-polished silver. He was sticky with sweat, and unhappy about the whole adventure; his clothing was mussed, and he was dirty where he’d fallen down. His book had been claimed as a Merrish artifact, and he had no idea where it had ended up at the war’s conclusion; peevishly, he was now sure that the invitation to play had all been some sort of set up by his peers to steal his book.
When he finally fell asleep, he dreamed fitfully of Men’s faces leering from in the darkness, their swords tearing holes in Altmer bodies and their fires burning libraries full of books. He woke trembling in the darkness with sleepless half-moons beneath his eyes; he wrapped his skinny arms about his knees and waited grimly for dawn to break.
Never again, he promised himself. Never again would he play Altmer and Humans.