“Deep down in the marshes, far past where Men dare to set their soft, supple feet, and beyond the clutches of Merrish fingers, it is said there is an old hollow tree, with branches that twist and grasp after the stars they can’t hope to capture… its bark is as hard and yellow as dried up bones, and when the wind blows just so, you can hear it whispering.
“What the tree whispers is a mystery to the living, but it is also said that there was once one who could understand its sibilant tongue.”
Her yellow eyes glowed in the firelight and her ridiculous cloak of patches took on a sinister aspect, like the rainbow colored scale of a fish with too-long teeth. The speaker’s hands twisted as she wrung them as if wringing the cold from her scales, casting odd shadows this way and that; her teeth flashed in a sly smile as she regarded her audience.
“… or perhaps you didn’t want me to continue-?”
Across the firepit, Ivan the Bull was watching her with open, rapt attention; his admiration wasn’t mirrored by his companions, but there was certainly some measure of grudging interest. There was Svetti, a Nordish woman with perpetually squinting eyes, and Traldoren Falendus, a dunmer who seemed of the belief that speaking beyond a dull monotone was beneath him. In fact, he rarely bothered to waste his breath speaking to his travel companions at all – but tonight was an exception.
“Go on.” He intoned with grudging interest, watching the argonian woman thoughtfully. His red eyes were embers in the firelight, and he sipped his flask of Imperial flin as he leaned back indolently. Ivan shot him a look that was almost an objection, but the large Nord thought better of it as he eyed Traldoren; it was clear the Mer’s lofty ways were intimidating to him. Svetti watched the exchange with an expression of mild amusement, eyes half-closed as she sharpened her axe.
Jin-Rei toyed with a talisman of feathers that dangled from one of the spikes that angled from her jawline, and bowed her head. “As you say, then.”
She wet her throat with a sip off her own flask – water, lightly flavored with mint. She preferred to be alert. “In the darkest reaches of the swamp, not far from the great hollow tree, there was once a creature who could hear that which others were deaf to…
“He began life as an Argonian slave in Morrowind, but his body was shaped by tainted Hist-sap – an abomination, born of greedy slavers who hoped he would be made stronger. The sap itself was stolen, perverted by the improper handling of outsiders; when they tried to Name him as a slave and a subservient, the touch of the sap twisted his bones and turned his scales to stone… he did become stronger, but it was to their despair – unable to hear the Hist’s calling so far from Blackmarsh, the change went unchecked and the silence drove him mad. Those that did it didn’t live to do so again, or so they say; at the very least, their bodies were never found… it could be that they were devoured by the very demon they’d created – much like the bosmer cannibals in Valenwood.”
Here, she shook her head, allowing the lines of her features to settle in solemn disgust; her hand had drifted from the feathered trinket and was now idly twisting a satchel at her belt. The runestones within clattered softly, inaudible to any but her.
“In the silence of the Hist’s absence, the monster listened with all his might – and the sap must have shaped him beyond what others might do, for he began to hear things that no man nor beast should have been able to hear. The closer he came to Blackmarsh, the more he began to hear… but that which is most important to all Saxhleel, the touch of the Hist, the – connection we bear, to one another, to the trees themselves… the poor brute never gained that. He could hear it in the whisper of the wind through the branches, but could never feel it in his bones – couldn’t comprehend the words.
“He was an argonian apart, in a hostile marsh of things that sought to turn his bones to dust and strip the twisted flesh from his body; and always, he could feel the nearness of his belonging… but always, it was just beyond his grasp.
“By the time he found the tree, he was no more Saxhleel than any of you are; he was something different, something worse… in his madness, he began to believe that the Hist was tormenting him; that these things had been done to him out of malice. He began to hunt, to prey on the unwary Saxhleel – and to tear out their hearts and devour them, believing that he might be able to absorb their power.”
Her audience was rapt; even Svetti had set aside her axe in favor of crouching nearer to the fire, arms folded across her knees, gaze intent. Jin-Rei allowed herself the barest touch of showmanship, hiding her satisfaction as she slipped a palmful of reagents into the crackling flames. A moment later, there was a soft pop and sizzle; faintly, the sound of weeping emanated from the fire.
“Each time it failed, he grew angrier and less lucid; he began to hunt younglings, to run them down and flay them open as an offering to the mysterious whispers he could hear, but never understand… each time he did this, the whispers grew louder and louder, until they became screams of anguish that rattled inside his head like rocks in a canteen! He couldn’t comprehend anything past those shouts and moans, accusations and condemnation in a jabbering tongue that was as foreign to him as the Alik’r deserts – … until at last, there was a voice which hissed and clawed at the back of his mind, calling to him, beckoning and urging and tugging him forward.
“The voice quieted the other voices, and whispered to the abomination – told him secrets no mortal should know. At last, the monster found its source, and lay down beneath its branches, letting it soothe the rage and confusion that warred within him. In return, all it seemed to want was to impart its twisted knowledge… to teach the misshapen Saxhleel the darkest arts of the Marsh, the secrets that the Hist would have hidden from the world.”
She exhaled a soft sigh, shaking her head, and let her hands flutter skyward as she continued. “But the poor brute didn’t realize that this gift was as poisoned as the tainted sap that made him what he was; even with all the strength imparted to him, his body began to weaken beneath the weight of that knowledge. Though the tree urged him, he strayed less and less… he could at last speak to something which understood him, which treated him what seemed like kindness- but in truth, he was no more free than he had been as a slave. Each day that passed, he became less a beast of his own will and want, and more a tool for the tree’s designs.
“He became thirsty for blood, and what little light trickled down between the trees made his eyes hurt and his skull ache; once he began to drink, he became stronger again, but his mind was as dark and clouded as the very waters of the swamp. Within his skull there was a constant litany of hatred and shadow, until at last he was scryed by a powerful witch, who tracked him down by his victims tortured bodies.
“She traced his path by rite and ritual, and found him sleeping beneath the branches of the tree, protected by it. Though she was deaf to its call, there was an evil breeze to the place – an unnatural stirring that made her uneasy, a shifting of shadows where there should have been stillness. She watched, she waited.
“For three days and three nights, she hunted the hunter – she followed at his his heels, concealed by her magics. Many ways of dealing with the stranger crossed her mind; perhaps he could be helped. Perhaps he could be freed of the tree’s influence, or spoken to in such a way that he might feel the weight of his crimes before paying for them. Perhaps, in destroying him, she might also destroy the tree.”
Here, Jin-Rei paused, eying her audience with a calculated glance before shaking her head. She leaned down to pluck a dry leaf from the ground, and twisted it between her fingers – letting the reflected shadows jitter over her features before seizing it in her palm and crumpling it into dry dust. She cast the remnants into the fire, which abruptly took on a purple glow.
“When at last she chose to appear before him, she cast a spell to quiet the hungers that drove him. The swamps themselves lent her their magic; there are some who might say that a swamp witch’s powers are fickle and false. Those few are foolish; what transpired then was nothing short of a miracle.
“With her terrible, wonderful secrets and spells, she reached out and touched him – and for the first time in his life, the monster knew some measure of compassion.
“She was bright as luminous mushrooms in the darkest of caves, like Jone and Jode when the clouds finally part and all the stars spill like jewels across the sky! Her scales were soft, and though his were stone, he could feel the touch of her skin, and it shook him to the core in a way that no victim’s struggle, no slaver’s strikes, had ever touched him before.
“And at long last, he could hear it – could hear it through her, that song that had been shrouded by silence for all his years!
“By the time she was finished and the spell was complete, he was both broken and made anew. The weight of what he’d done was a bitter yoke upon his shoulders, and the awareness of it was as a knife twisted between the ribs; in that moment, he was made Saxhleel for the first time. He knew what must be done to deserve the privilege of a Name, a true name… though he knew also that it might cost him all that he had left to take it.”
Her head bowed, and she leaned closer to the fire, hands reaching to clutch at her scaled shoulders as though cold. Her eyes squeezed shut for a moment, and she drew in a ragged breath before continuing, her words alive with the sorrow of the tale.
“He returned to the tree and the world of whispers and shadows, but it was her voice which lingered in the edges of his mind – her words and her breath which gave him the strength to do what need be done. Her brightness lived on inside of him, and made him whole – was the mortar that filled in his empty spaces, where there had only been broken pieces before.
“The tree didn’t like this, couldn’t grip and tug at his mind as it had; evil that ancient wasn’t born of naiveté. It could sense that its vessel had changed, and in retaliation, it dug its roots deeper, letting in all those echoes that had driven him in torment.
“He stood steadfast and resolute, made strong by the witch’s magic, and began to dig at the base of the tree, using his enormous, brutish claws to make the job faster.” Here, Jin-Rei plucked a stick from the ground and began to use it to prod at the frozen earth, in imitation of the story’s digging. Traldoren’s eyes were closed, as though sleeping – yet his features were alert and she could see the tension in the way his fist was balled in his cloak. Something about this story was clearly getting to him.
“For three days and three nights, the monster dug at the base of the tree – its roots twisted and tried to snare him; foul waters filled the rapidly growing hole, making him sick. Still, he persisted, kept digging and digging, even as his scales began to slough and bleed, and his claws turned brittle and wiggled loose like rotten teeth from his hands. He dug with the tips of his fingers bloodied and raw, poisoned by the tree and its powers, but resolute.
“On the morning of the fourth day, the Witch returned, gravid with eggs and full of purpose. She looked on the face of the broken monster, and gently placed a hand on his shoulder; through her, the Hist sang, and his pain receded.
“In the hole at the base of the tree, she made her nest in those foul waters, protected from the treacherous roots by her own clever spells. There, she laid the clutch; one by one, the eggs sank into the mud and disappeared… and the tree began to quiver.
“At first it was a tremble; then it was a shake. She could hear it screaming, though she had been deaf to it before… but the monster had no such fortune. He clawed and hissed, his broken fingertips raking across the drum of his membranes and destroying them utterly. As she laid the last egg, she moved to help – but there was nothing she could do.
“As he twisted and writhed on the ground, the tree itself began to hiss and sizzle as the stillborn young broke through the shells, given animation by the rituals of the swamp; their teeth were as sharp as daggers, and they chewed through the center of the tree, climbing its roots and gnawing away the soft, rotten insides. The broken monster lay still by the end; the tree was no more but a hollow skeleton from which all the wickedness had been stripped by gnashing teeth.
“The stillborn young turned to holy ash, their last remnants resting in the core of the tree – forever purifying those grounds into a sacred space, a testament to the Hist’s triumph over wickedness.”
Jin-Rei bowed her head, toying with a bit of stone she’d retrieved from one of her satchels. The stone was black, and shaped like a brutish claw; she turned it over and over in the firelight. Within a moment, there was a sudden gasp, and Ivan the Bull was lunging over to get a better look.
“Is that – ? No! It can’t be, that was just a story! And – what became of the witch? Of the monster-?” His voice was plaintive, just a touch surly; she offered up the stone claw without comment, offering an enigmatic shrug of her bony shoulders.
He turned it around and around, trying to find some evidence that it was fraudulent, and while he did so, Jin-Rei yawned widely. “It is time for sleep, my friends. Perhaps tomorrow, another story?”
Abruptly, she heard a scoff. Traldoren rose and stretched, rolling his eyes exaggeratedly. “Bloody hedgewitch, your story’s as much a lie as the rest of you. I tire of this.” He sounded bored, but the look he shot Jin-Rei was dirty as he stalked off toward his bedroll. Jin-Rei only smiled. “It was just a story, you may believe what you wish.”
With that, she liberated the stone claw from Ivan, tucking it back within its satchel and retiring to her own hammock. As she closed her eyes, a faint smile curled along her muzzle.
They could believe exactly what they wished. She knew the truth of things.