[Daniyah] Baranth Do

Even in the darkest nights, there was always the promise of a new day dawning.

Daniyah’s face was a swathe of lurid reds and purples, accented by stark white lines – a grotesque yet elegant exaggeration of human features made to look twisted and demonic. The natural droop and mottling of her burn scars was exagerrated by the face paint, and in the fire’s dancing brilliance, she cavorted alongside other dancers, motions graceful from long years of combat drills.

Children whooped with laughter as Alik’r shamans cast shadowy ‘demons’ for the dancers to drive back, their feet stamping the ground, their fingertips becoming claws as they twisted and leered. Her heart pounded with the throbbing of the drums, her voice rising with the others in song, and though the war torn borders of Hammerfell were never far from her thoughts, here she could lose herself – if only for a night – in the celebration of Baranth Do.

Again and again, the dancers swirled their airy silks to frighten away the ‘demons’ of last year, ethereal monstrocities carefully crafted to the delight of the crowd, giving way before the men and women who howled and roared. Even the smallest of children could hardly be afraid, watching the illusions fade in fear of the brave, ferocious champions.

She didn’t often indulge herself in drink, but tonight the battered Redguard felt fire in her belly which made her voice louder as they sang songs of the Alik’r, of the Ansei and other heroes of their people. Even though she was no longer a young woman, or a child, she couldn’t help but feel lighter, freer – she could see the shadows of horrors in the magical illusions. It was a good way of being, to devote a night of revelry to letting go of last year’s nightmares; there was wisdom in these old pageantries, as literal and light-hearted as they were.

As the stars glinted overhead, one by one the revelers trickled away, leaving the night to wear on and the dancing to ebb to slower, more tempered songs. At long last, her bones aching and old scars prickling in discomfort, she wiped the paint from her face and settled herself, grinning, among the elders.

The heat of the fire was a welcome reprieve from the cold night air, and she shared of the sweetly spiced bird and baked flat breads, content to listen rather than speak herself.

The world could wait another day. Though it was not in her nature to forsake duty for pleasure, Daniyah journeyed to the desert for Baranth Do each year she could. Tradition was important; it helped define her in the context of her people, as a part of her culture, particularly after years spent in High Rock, in Cyrodill, and in Skyrim.

She had once resented her parents’ interference, when she was abruptly snatched from the tutelage of a Breton knight and placed beneath a traditional Redguard. But in the years since, she had come to understand it as a blessing – she was proud to be Redguard, now, though there were merits to the Bretonic Orders.

As she sipped her liquor, she wondered, not for the first time, at the divide between the races of Men, between such different ways of seeing Tamriel. Her eyes slowly drooped, head nodding as the fires dimmed. The coming years would bring hardship and suffering to all; there was no doubting it.

The star glittered overhead as the last of the dancers finally found their seats, the low murmuring of voices blending with the pop and whisper of the fire. Though they all longed for a brighter future, war was a serpent that devoured all in its path and left nothing but ashes behind. What she was doing was small, and Daniyah had begun to wonder if it would be enough.

With a soft groan, she drew herself to her feet, and murmured her blessings and goodnights to those gathered. When she laid her head down on the saddle that was her pillow, Daniyah found herself more troubled than before she’d come to the festival.

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[Ofeig] North Winds Prayer

“Shift your stumps, Crapboy! I’ve a new job for you – the Thane wants y’to bring Sassybritches off to the Temple fer t’be blessed!”

Ofeig startled, nearly dropping the pitchfork he’d been leaning on while making calf-eyes towards the forge. He turned and tried to look as though he was very busy shoveling manure. “Eh, what’s that now-?”

He kept his head bent low in deference, but couldn’t help but eye the man’s fine winter furs with awe. Ulris Wolfmantle was the Thane’s brother, and well renowned as a fine hunter. He was one of the few men allowed by the Thane to take the hawks from the mews without express permission, and often returned from hunts with impressive kills. Ofeig was always very careful to tend his horse with extra diligence, and for all that the man was brusque with the stableboy, the youth couldn’t fail to notice how vigilant Ulris was about making sure his beasts had the best of care… nor the pride the hunter seemed to take in keeping his animals in prime condition. It endeared him to the lad, despite the harsh words.

“Are you stupid? Y’heard me – my idjit brother thinks Mara gives a blind rat’s arse about his damn horse! Now stir yerself; you can bet yer ma’s bonnet you won’t see me tryin’ to haul a horse into a chapel!”

The stripling blinked in surprise, then in horror. “Awww gee, y’don’t really mean it, do ya? He really wants that-?” But already, he was mentally preparing himself for the blasphemy he was about to commit. Hell, Thane said jump, he jumped – he had to, Ma was counting on the coin he made here just to make ends meet.

Ulris’ response was to cuff Ofeig over the head, though the blow wasn’t so much painful as it was a warning. “A’course he does, I said so, didn’t I? Now get goin’. Looks like y’got a lot of shit t’sweep here, boy-o, and don’t think y’kin be slackin’ off just because it’s a holiday!”

Ofeig yelped and scrambled, bobbing his head in deference. “Yassir, I’ll – I’ll bring Sassybritches t’the Chapel fer t’be blessed…” His mind reeled. There was no way the Maran priestesses would allow a horse inside the Chapel. Heart sinking to the pit of his stomach, he retrieved a harness and began to prep Sassy for their journey to the Chapel.

“Ha! That brother of mine – s’a real idjit sometimes, but he means well. Look, shitsweeper – I’ll toss in a few extra coins, yeah? Gods know you’re gonna earn ‘em tonight. An’ make sure Hjilda’s got some’a those apples I know the cook’s squirreled away somewhere – it’s a holiday, innit?”

Ulris’ craggy features softened slightly at the mention of his prized hunting mare, and he scratched his beard, grinning to himself before casting another pitying glance at Ofeig. “S’been a good harvest – but damn if it ain’t a winter froze enough ta freeze yer knickers right off if y’aren’t careful. Here, boy – y’kin borrow my cloak. S’the spirit of the season, an’ y’don’t look as if y’got one yerself what’ll keep yeh from becomin’ a shitcicle, haw!”

The heavy fur cloak just about bowled him over as Ulris tossed it carelessly to the lad, and by the time he managed to make a choking sound to indicate the awe-struck gratitude he felt, Ulris Wolfmantle had already left the stables. Ofeig gulped a few times, before smoothing the fur with a humble fingertip.

As he trudged the long, cold trek to the Temple of Mara with Sassybritches in tow, Ofeig reflected that this must be what it was like to feel like a real man, and not a baseborn stableboy. Hell, he could barely feel the cold at all!

***

“’Scuse me, miss… I – I was wonderin’ if y’might consider a bit of an odd request.”

“Hmm?”

The middle-aged priestess eyed the unimpressive youth in the fancy fur cloak with a skeptical loft of one eyebrow, tilting her head. Not for the first time, she steeled herself in preparation for what Mara’s gentleness might bring upon her. If it’s another case of groin pox…

“W-well… y’see… my lord Thane wants ya t’bless his mare.”

The words burst from the young man in a sudden avalanche, and his pimpled features turned bright red as he looked anywhere but her face. The priestess’s eyebrow raised just a bit higher, and her arms folded across her chest.

“What.”

“W-well! It’s, ah. It’s gonna be her first year havin’ a foal and all, an’ I know she’s nought but a horse t’you, but she’s real important to the Thane, see – and he’s willin’ t’pay the donation and all, seeing as it’s North Winds Prayer, right-? A-and so he figgered – he figgered he’d send me and see if you might be willin’ to…”

“You want me to bless… a horse.”

Ofeig frowned, rubbing the back of his head, and nodding sheepishly. “… yeh. That’s – that’s about the jist of it.”

The priestess exhaled a long-suffering sigh, unfolding her arms to prod her fingers against her temples. “My son, you do realize that we do important work here, yes-? We save lives. We feed children and counsel the sick at heart. We cure diseases that do terrible things to the body, and purge daedric influence from fevered minds. We help women to bear children, and offer hope to the hopeless.”

Here, she looked up from her hands to pin the lad with a disapproving stare.

“- But we do not bless horses.”

The young man seemed to shrink within himself, and began to stutter. “I – I apologize, miss – it was never my intention to – I just do what I’m told, I – I thought it’d be better t’ask than to bring the horse into yer nice clean chapel and… didn’t mean no disrespect…”

His mumbles grew smaller and smaller beneath the priestess’s stare, and he shuffled back a few paces, features a shade of beet. The priestess considered her charge, and couldn’t quite restrain the twitch of her lips – but it was too late. The expression was spreading like an cold through an infirmary, and her eyes crinkled with mirth. She smiled at the poor, sodden stableboy before her, and shook her head. Somehow, he reminded her exactly of her younger brother.

“Alright, alright, I get it. Wasn’t something you did to offend. Still, it’s hardly an appropriate use of my abilities, to bless a horse – it’s preposterous, really! What kind of knuckle-headed Thane would come up with that bit of nonsense?”

“W-well…” Ofeig offered a timid glance to the woman, eyes wide and hopeful as he brushed a coarse hand across the uneven scruff that barely marked his weak chin. “He’s – he’s only tryin’ to look out for them what matter most to him, miss. S’not like that’d be me or my ma, see – it’s the horses he cares about. They’re good, strong creatures, an’ he just wants to make sure Sassybritches has a healthy firstborn, yeah?”

It was a little bit of a stretch; so far as Ofeig knew, the Thane didn’t care for much more than himself and his mead. But somewhere in his cups he’d come up with the notion that his horse ought to be blessed of Mara, so… that implied that he really, truly cared for Sassybritches’ well-being, didn’t it?

He swallowed hard. Was stretching the truth to a priestess enough to make Mara crook with him? Biting his lip, he offered up a silent prayer of apology to the Goddess. He didn’t want to have to go home and tell them he hadn’t gotten Sassy blessed…

The priestess frowned hard, and resumed rubbing her temples, as though a deep headache was building there. As if she could read his thoughts, she sighed.

“… you’re going to be beaten if you tell them we wouldn’t bless your mare, aren’t you?”

Chagrined, the young man nodded.

“I… I suppose we haven’t had many supplicants today. The weather’s too nasty, even though it’s North Winds Prayer. Very well, young man. I will bless your Thane’s horse – but only this once. And for the love of Mara, don’t go telling everyone about it, alright?”

“Aww, gee! You have no idea how happy this’ll make the Thane – yer a real rose among thorns, miss! I – I really appreciate it, I know it ain’t right, an’ I won’t tell a soul ‘cept the Thane himself – Sassybritches is a real sweet mare, she’s got fine lines an’ a gentleness to her… if Mara was a horse, I bet you she’d be just like Sassybritches, miss!”

Inwardly, the priestess sighed, and followed the babbling man out of the chapel.

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[Yngrid] The Salted Pyre

She had no choice but to walk away now.

As the flames ruptured skyward, engulfing all that remained of the house she’d once called home, Yngrid was acutely aware of the distant howling of the wolves. Even through the livid inferno, she could hear them – she always heard them, now, even when they weren’t there.

Age had been particularly unkind to the woman; but then, she’d never been a beauty. In the gloom of midnight, with only the harsh light of the conflagration, her face was dominated by an overlong, pointed nose, and a well-lined brow. Her brown-black eyes glittered with malice, deeply sunken and underscored by low-slung cheekbones. Thin lips parted slightly to expose her teeth to the wind and heat, and she breathed into the smoke before grimacing at the scent – all her life until now, consigned to the fire.

She’d expected to feel fearful, to feel angry – to feel something. But everything seemed distant, now, and the pain of her losses was blunted to nothing more than a dull ache that somehow managed to run like a stitch through the fiber of each moment. Leaving it all behind was queerly effortless; what had remained was only the skeleton of her existence, lacking all substance. Once the idea had been planted, it seemed the obvious step to take.

The fire raged, rapacious and roaring, intensely hot. Yngrid could taste the salt in the air, the estuary’s bitterness bleeding into the wind, but it was the forest which haunted her nightmares, the brooding pines and feral brambles where death lurked unseen.

The ocean had been her life’s blood for as long as she could remember. Born a fisherman’s daughter, grown to a fisherman’s wife, with a fisherman son and countless cousins, she had a fisherman’s obsession with the seas – and a mariner’s mistrust of solid land, scorn for those who eked out a living pecking at seeds and soils. She’d never feared the rocks and trees – they seemed dull and lifeless when compared to the waves that provided her livelihood. Tough and capable, she’d never considered turning her back to the water, always wary for the next storm that might devastate her family.

An ocean death was a clean death, a thing worth honoring and remembering. Tragedy was common among fisherfolk, to be taken in stride and born with the strength of conviction and family. But what had happened to her husband – to her son, her only son – had been a twist of fate that only the Daedra themselves could be held accountable for; Yngrid was no wilting lily. She was a fisherman’s daughter with seawater in her veins and steel in her spine, and there was nothing left to lose.

Turning her back at last to the intense heat, she hefted the travel sack over her shoulder and resolved herself to the pain in her joints. A storm was coming. She could feel it in her arthritic bones, but she had many miles to travel before the night’s end, and nothing so small as weather would stop her.

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[Jin-Rei] Seer of the Swamps

The entrails were noxious as they spilled from the dead rabbit’s carcass- a sign of an unclean cut.

His hands trembled slightly, and she could taste the veneer of his revulsion as it stained the marsh air, his soft skin oozing as he glanced her way. His forehead crinkled, round eyes flitting across her, as if searching for something – anything – to relieve his uneasiness.

She exhaled a soft, reverent hiss, and let her fingernails trace from his elbow to his hand as she pulled the blade from his grasp, voice a husky whisper so quiet as to be audible only to the two of them. “Yes, very good. Just like that; all will be revealed, but that one has eyes which might see.” His pliable hide grew softer beneath her palm, and he nodded numbly, letting his breath escape in a soft, trusting sigh.

Her teeth flashed in a smile that had been learned among his kind, but that might confer aggression to another Saxhleel; the outside ways were as instinct, now, and she moved between cultures deftly. Careful, with all the heaviness of ancient ritual, she drew the blade across the ridge of her lips and tasted the blood of the sacrifice, indifferent to the metallic tingle that set the spaces between her vertebrae crawling. He watched her, the whites of his eyes prominent in the fading twilight.

The dagger found its sheath at her thigh, and she crouched down low to examine the shimmering organs by the glow of the conjured magelights, which bobbed with the marsh breeze.

“Can you see anything-?” The man’s voice was thin and reedy, like the whining of a mosquito’s wings. She felt a momentary twinge of irritation, but let it slide away, recalling the weight of his coinpurse.

“Patience; you may sit, if you’d like. This will take time. The Gods do not impart their Vision frivolously, nor are the portents easy to decipher, once they’ve been witnessed.” She didn’t waste the motion it would take to turn and look at him, to offer comfort.

She fell to a crouch, the ground swampy beneath her knees, and bent over the dead animal, using the tip of her nails to gently lift a segment of intestine. It leaked where the tip of her client’s unskilled blade had punctured, green-black bile dripping from the cut. Her nostrils flattened in displeasure, eyelids briefly closing as she reached upwards, towards the Sight.

Her magic unfurled like the creaking of joints, uncomfortable yet somehow pleasurable at the same time- the blood on her tongue tasted sharper, the buzzing in her bones felt like a hive of bees stirring. Her skin felt too hot, then too cold, then too tight by turns. Her teeth ached and her pupils itched, and all around her, she became intensely aware of the humming, buzzing cacophony of life. Even here, at Blackmarsh’s dirty edges, the whisper of the Hist was deafening – each wing that stirred and heart that beat seemed dredged in its rhythm.

Her tongue pressed against the points of her teeth and when at least she opened her eyes again, her eardrums throbbed and the inside of her skull shimmered with heat and ecstasy. Her eyes were hungry, devouring the sights before her; a thousand fleeting images could be discerned in the coils and viscera, but few of them lingered long enough to be grasped, turned over in her mind’s eye and understood in the fabric of the greater whole.

Even those that lingered could be read in myriad ways, the barest detail changing everything, yet the harder she tried to hold on to the vivid imagery, the less there was to hold to. The surface of her eyes felt like the skin of a drum stretched too tight and pounded with hands, with mallets –

A golden eagle soared high above the mountains, white voids where its eyes should have been, blind . A tree burned underwater, the flame blue-black and the branches bedecked with skulls where leaves should have been. A sword lanced through the air, striking the ground hard and splitting off into lightning patterns across the surface of an untanned hide.

Her jaws ached and her vision was streaked with grey as she quested forward, pushing stubbornly to snatch at omens, but the more she tried, the harder it became, and she was aware of a horrible sound piercing the discord. Reluctant, she exhaled a shuddering breath and fell back on her heels, tail curling about her feet and eyes wrenching shut against the bright, ever-shifting colors of the Sight.

And then a hand grasped her shoulder, shaking her vigorously. “Jin-Rei! Jin-Rei, are you alright? Don’t leave me here, I don’t know the way out, I’ll die – Jin-Rei!

She twisted away, eyes opening again to what seemed to blinding darkness. Her throat was hoarse, and her breathing labored as she turned toward the source of the panicky cries, irritated by the ragged sound of his fear. “- Is fine. Give me a moment.”

He stank worse than before, his hands groping at her roughly to check her pulse, and it was all she could do not to hurt him, blind as she was. His soft pink skin dragged across her scales, intrusive and unpleasant; she tolerated it, if only barely. “I have Seen. You must patient; all will be made clear soon.”

“The lights! The lights, they all went out, and you screamed – your whole body shook! The guts, they started twisting!”

“Patience, Ivan. Give me a moment.”

She felt the faintest traces of a smile tugging against her teeth, and she allowed it, waiting for the black fog to clear. She’d make note of that later; pieces of the carcass might prove useful. A harvest of reagents for her talismans, perhaps – or for curses, depending on the wind and the placement of the stars.

Her breathing grew easier as the minutes ticked past, and she began to make out shapes again, indistinct though they were. She turned to her would-be savior, and bowed her head, rising unsteadily and lifting her arms high.

Voice quavering, she exalted the skies as she spoke – “I have Seen!”

A pause before she continued, allowing herself to waver ever so slightly as she cried out to the skies- “And as with all things, the measure of your joys shall only equal the measure of your sorrows! Your child will be born, healthy – a male child, with yellow hair and strong of lung!” Here, her arms lowered, head bowing. Her eyes closed. “But your wife will take ill; she will not last the day of his birth.”

She could hear the man more easily than she could see him. He was clammy with terror, and his sharp intake of breath was all she needed before she pressed on. “There is yet a thing which might be done… the fates may be changed, with the twist of a string – allow Jin-Rei to help you.”

“Y-you’ve done so much already – how can I ever repay your kindness?” He gabbled, reaching for his coinpurse. “I- I will ask your help to change this fate – I cannot lose my beloved Hilda, she is everything to me…”

Jin-Rei nodded wisely. “Be warned, Ivan; to change her fate is to change the very nature of time. What I have Seen may be rendered false if we move forward; but I will do my best to help you keep your wife.”

“Anything – anything, for my lovely Hilda!”

Exactly what she’d counted on.

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[Daniyah] A Hand Rebuffed

“Tell us what happened, boy – and spare no detail.” The guard captain’s voice was stern as he eyed the lad, lips pressing in a thin line of disapproval.

He swallowed hard, gaze not lifting. “A man wanted me to leave my duties. Tried to give me wine, but I said no. Then he struck me in the head. When I came back ’round, she was there – fighting him off, I think. I tried to help, and she hit me in the throat. He got away.”

The guard captain eyed the teenaged stable hand with a lofting brow and the faintest the suggestion of a scowl. “You shouldn’t have interfered with your betters, boy. Elsewise we might be questioning him and not you – fat lot of good you’ve done us.” Here, a faint groan as he rose from his seat, the chair creaking softly as he brushed a hand over his eyes. It was late. He was tired, and ready to be done with this business.

She wants to speak to you. Wait here.”

***

She sat across a small table from the boy, expression somewhere between solemn and serene.

Between them lay a sword; the sword was a simple thing, gently curved in the way of a scimitar, plain steel and a hilt wrapped in thick leather. There were no ornamentations, nothing to distinguish it from any other quality weapon – yet not an hour earlier, it had posed potentially a threat to the ugly woman and her sullen companion.

Both looked somewhat rougher for the wear, the boy’s chin held high and stiff as he swallowed convulsively, the woman’s nose swollen to much larger than it ought to have been. His eyes were untrusting and wary, and one of his work-weathered hands drifted to touch the goose egg that had formed on his shaven head. He waited for her to speak, frowning.

Daniyah offered the boy a quizzical smile, halved by the stiff scar tissue that perpetually twisted the right side of her face. “By right, this sword is yours, since your attacker did not leave anything else of worth with which to pay you. I would ask, however, for the opportunity to purchase it from you.”

He rubbed his head, finally dropping his gaze to the sword on the table, but making no move to reach for it. His voice was sullen and hoarse when he spoke, his cant very clearly higlighting the lowliness of his birth and station. “Then take it. He attacked you too, everyone saw it – only you didn’t fall down.” His weathered knuckles reached out, giving the sword a little shove with a balled fist. Any fool could see the resentment that simmered in his deep brown eyes – a lifetime of being pushed down, why should this time be any different? “No one’d look twice.”

The ugly woman shook her head, reaching out to carefully straighten the blade again before speaking in a lyrical, low voice. “You were attacked. You should be compensated by the man who attacked you – and by me, though it was not my intention to cause you harm.” Here, her eyes closed and she bowed her head serenely. “Coin cannot undo what has been done – but it is all we have to offer.”

His lip curled in a snarl, and his words came fast and angry. “I don’t want your coin – it won’t stop it from happening again, will it? Do you think this is the first time I’ve been knocked around? Just go! Take your money and your swords and leave – it won’t make a difference to me one way or another!”

Her head tilted, and her lips thinned, eyes falling half closed as she took in his words.

Somewhere deep inside herself, she could feel his anger as though it were her own. The sting of humiliation, of having no power over what happened to her – she could remember these things. The years had not been so long that she didn’t still own those feelings, that they didn’t still linger, pushed down and far away.

Empathy guided a hand to his arm, but he pulled away as though her fingers were snakes, leaning back in his chair. His body tensed, as though readying to bolt, and she drew her hand away, feeling a distant twinge of regret as he eased.

“… you were brave, you know. It takes courage to stand up to a man like that – and to face him down with a horse brush. There are places in the world were such impulse and grit might be honed into valor.” She tried to catch his gaze, but he wouldn’t meet her eye.

When he spoke, it was to the sword between them. “Maybe for those who were born the right way, to the right people. What would you know? You’re rich, probably some fat lord’s daughter gone do-gooder because you never had to work for a living – I can’t just leave my sisters here, even if there was a place that’d take me for my ‘grit’. So go on. Take your stupid sword and get out of here. I don’t need your pity or your coin.”

He stood, back straight and chin lifted, and offered her a shallow bow – a stiff imitation of a servant’s submission. Even as he turned and left, his features burned with the hurt of his pride and the sinking realization of what he’d turned down; however much coin the sword would have fetched might well have been a boon for his family.

Daniyah watched him walk away, and sat a long time after, troubled despite herself.

In the quiet of the empty room, she listened to the distant screech of the night-birds at their hunt, and allowed her heart its heaviness for a time.

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[Varayne] A Letter to my Father

There have been many days like this day, yet I am at a loss.

I stood and watched, powerless to stop the ebb of her heartbeat, the slowing of her pulse, and cursed myself seven times a fool for my failures. There are no words in a book that could have helped me stop what was ultimately inevitable. Death comes for us all, and my patient was no exception to the rule. Entropy is an emperor with greedy, cunning hands and a patient smile.

This time, it was no case of the Knahaten Flu, which claims its victims without apparent prejudice. Nor was this a case of natural degradation of the body’s scheme and structure, old age giving shade at long last to that spark which inhabits our flesh. She had lived the most solid years of her life, but many more lay ahead of her, if only –

I have done things which might seem impossible to those who don’t understand them. For years, I have bent my mind to the study of anatomy, to the art of vein and bone and soft tissues, to the understanding of the viscera that rests inside our skins.

They have sent me children wasting away from esoteric disorders; they have sent their elders to me to stymie the flow of time, and these I could help. I have worked surgeries and magics in such concert that there are those who say I am gifted by the Gods themselves – such works that even I have wondered, at times, if they might not be right.

But every physician must bow before death. There are those who will not live to see the sun rise again. The darkness inevitable, and no mortal can escape it.

There have been many days like this day, yet I am at a loss.

For all my years of erudition, for all the praises that have been heaped on my works, this patient’s spark is a dead coal growing cold in my office, and there was nothing I could do.

So simple; so deadly. There are many who survive blunt trauma to the head with little difficulty for it – a lump, a concussion, but they’re okay. Not so this time, however. The angle was just right, the force strong enough and the placement at the skull’s apex…

I did what I could for her. It might have been enough, under other circumstances. But even if it had been, the brain was already damaged; she might not have survived once the swelling went down. It was probably too late to save the patient’s mind and motor function.

I was so careful, so precise. I did everything the way it should have been – the skull gave way in perfect symmetry, as I had meant it to, not a scratch on the tissues – so exact, so beautiful! I shocked her body with cold and ice; I kept her breathing and held tight to the tendrils of magic that pressed and prodded… there was too much resistance. The body was committed to its course, and I could not stop it, no matter how I tried. The damage was too much.

It just one patient. There have been many others like her, who I could not save. There have been many more that I could.

It’s not as if we’d spoken. The years have marked our infrequent correspondence. Why is it that I should care, after all this time-? We were largely irrelevant to one another, save the featherlight touch of recollections, I suppose. The neither of us held a great deal of affection for the other; it was simply the way things were, that we should be distant.

Why is it that she found me at last, only so that I might be the one whose conscience weaves lies and useless sentiment around this, the last memory I’ll ever have of my mother?

The body will be removed from my office. The sun will rise. Life will resume, as it always does – babies will squall, couples will bicker, elders will complain. Should I mourn for her?

Would you?

There’s a secret that follows her to the grave, a dead bird trapped behind the cage of her teeth. I’ll never know, now. She never told me.

There have been many days like this day, yet I am at a loss.

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[Daniyah] The Temerity of Youth

Daniyah gripped her spear with pale knuckles, her heart somewhere in her throat as she stared straight ahead, motionless – outwardly, she was calm as a still lake on a cloudless day. But beneath the surface of her apparent indifference, she was roiling and frustrated.

Not for the first time, she found herself regretting the decision that had been made to send her back to Skaven. At sixteen, she’d only spent five years in the tutelage of her mother’s brother in arms, yet there was still so very much Sir Devlin Colville had left to teach her – it seemed bitterly unfair that she’d been sent back to her father’s house, to the man who had never once showed more than passing interest in her. So why was it, then, that suddenly her heritage was so important to both of her parents?

Lamya’s letters had been few and far between, though Sir Colville had been diligent in sending his own reports of her daughter’s progress; Daniyah couldn’t help but feel betrayed, when the letter informing them of her impending change in training had arrived. It was followed not weeks later by an escort rider from her father’s house.

An opportunity, they had called it, yet it felt like another shuffle in living arrangements – an inconvenient daughter, being shunted from one house to the next. One of Mahomet Sulayman’s uncles, a man of great repute, who’d finally returned from two decades of study in the Alik’r desert. He didn’t look like much to Daniyah, accustomed as she was to Devlin’s sheer physical presence and power; just a skinny old man with a long face and rime-grey hair. Already, she was homesick for the rainy farmstead, for Sabine’s endless attempts to teach her more ladylike behavior – even for Rickard’s constant attempts to engage her in battles of wit, so enamored of words he was like to drown in them.

The old man watched her with an expression of superiority that chafed at her, as he folded his arms and stared down his nose, lips thinning. Perhaps that is simply the way all Crowns look, she thought to herself, careful to stare straight ahead, motionless. Certainly her mother had never born such an expression.

“What is that, in your hand?”

Even his voice seemed weathered, his words slow and plodding. She felt her heart sink; what was she supposed to learn of a Knight’s duties from a hermit wearing such ragged clothing-? He was skinny and bent, like an old tree baked too long by the sun, never drinking in enough water to grow…. there had to have been a mistake. This was hardly the learned warrior she’d been told she ought to feel honored by.

Careful not to meet his eye, she spoke plainly, voice passive and each word pronounced carefully.

“It is a spear, sir.”

His gaze sought hers, but she wouldn’t meet his eye – a tiny stroke of defiance, not even technically disobedient. It was all she could muster, in light of that she’d been given to him for training. Perhaps, if she could prove herself a more capable warrior than the dusty relic before her, she might be allowed to return to High Rock…

The man’s lip curled. “Tcha. They told me you were a squire- not cannon-fodder in training! Why does a Redguard girl bear a spear, when our ancestors won their conquests by the might of the sword, when Onsi himself taught us the gift of drawing knife to blade-?”

Daniyah felt herself becoming hot beneath the collar of her gambeson, irritation warring with indignity. Cannon-fodder, indeed! And now the old man was speaking of the Yokudan Gods as though they were more than stories passed down from one generation to the next, embellished until they were grandiose legend that little resembled whatever truth there might have been. The sun beat down overhead, and she found herself re-evaluating his cool, flowing desert kit – certainly it would be more practical than her own padded gambeson and thick chain hauberk, just a little too big so as to leave room for her to grow into it.

He seemed to expect an answer, so she gave him one, voice still soft and low, eyes straight ahead; she allowed her expression to remain as bland as unsalted bread, almost, but not quite, reaching the point of insolence. She never would have dared speak to Devlin Colville that way. Sir Colville, however, had always accorded her a modicum of respect, which she was only too grateful to reciprocate. At least he’d wanted to train her, seemed enthused by her aptitude, unlike this man.

“I was well suited to a spear, sir. It allows me to make better use of my reach, as I am tall and may grow taller still.”

The old man narrowed his eyes.

“Very well then.” His voice cracked like a whip, and she suddenly found he wasn’t where he’d been a moment ago, his curved sword drawn and ready. So he can move quickly for an old man; what of it? Should I be impressed?

“Let us see you use your vaunted ‘reach’. Strike me down, girl; keep me from getting inside your guard. Are you ready? You stand there like a moon-eyed calf; did they not teach you how to stand, or were you waiting for someone to tell you differently-? This isn’t High Rock, girl, no one’s going to hold your hand and spoon feed you your directions!”

Anger prickled at her as the righteous, grey-bearded old charlatan jabbed at her with his sword with each word – mocking her to her face and insulting everything that she’d learned in Devlin’s careful tutelage. With a thin breath through flared nostrils, she chided her temper and allowed her body to guide her to a solid starting stance, pointedly ignoring his jibes. Now, at last, she met his eye, her spear drawn back and the point of it leveled at his unarmored middle. One foot back, the other forward, shoulders squared and tilted to present as small a target as she could – this was something she could do. Of course Devlin could still best her, even without his shield, but the man was a battle-trained Knight in the employ of the fighter’s guild – and if she focused on the defensive, a match could last for a long time. Against his son, a year her senior? At her best, she could trounce him; and at her worst, it was still a fair fight.

She allowed the faintest of smiles to touch the corner of her lips, waiting expectantly for the old man to make the first move – refusing to be goaded by his poor manners. He was old, and seemed half mad from those long years in the harsh landscape of the Alik’r desert; let him see, then, what it was like to fight a person and not the voices in his head.

He paused as she finally made eye contact, a heavy eyebrow raising as if uncertain. She felt her confidence, her pulse settling to a steady throb, her body light in spite of the days of hard riding and nights sleeping with a saddle for a pillow. The chain mail was heavy, but she was strong and well-practiced. As he moved forward, her own motion was less than his; he came at her at an angle, the curve of his blade seeking to catch the haft of her spear, and all she need do was twist and draw back a pace. She could feel the strength of his arm as their weapons collided, and it surprised her – it was more than she’d expected from him, being as he looked likely to be blown away by a passing breeze. Still, it did not perturb the young woman.

His footwork was unlike what she’d encountered before, moving from strange angles and with an alacrity she would not have anticipated from one who spoke as slowly as he did. His second blow with that blade did not come where she thought it would, and it was only dumb luck that she lurched out of the way instead of in to it – he was feigning, his movements were tricking her, and she was falling for it! Annoyed, she backpedaled, keeping the man in sight as she fumbled for the reach she’d so recently lauded herself on –

Suddenly there was a blade at her breast, the curve of it slashing from collarbone to the side of her ribcage – or would have, if not for the chain mail. The force of the blow sent her stumbling and she felt a brief moment of humiliation before regaining her balance, grunting as she swept her spear wide to keep the mad devil at a distance while she-

Somehow, he was behind her and then away, her knees kicked out from beneath her and his blade leveled at her throat.

He hadn’t even broken a sweat, wasn’t even breathing hard as he stared her down with contempt in his eye.

“Ra’gada do not focus on spears; not when Leki gifted us with the ability to make Shehai. You are young and you are filled with the foolishness that comes with being young, you think you know everything. You do not. I only agreed to teach you because my nephew assured me you were worthy of my teaching- he told me you had been taught the basics already, but you don’t seem to know anything. I am not so certain you can be taught, but for his sake, I will try. Stand up, and leave that thing there – you will not be needing it again.”

Daniyah frowned, her ears hot and her cheeks flushed as she carefully drew to her feet. The spear remained in the sand, and it was almost physically painful to leave it. She’d been instructed to treat her weapons with reverence and care, had had it drilled into her that one did not disrespect such instruments of death.

Still, she’d been bested, though his methods seemed like cheating – a knight is not dishonest – and she’d been told she was to do what this man said she had to.

Abruptly, the flat of his sword whipped out, smacking her on the hip in a painful blow. “What, are you even more stupid than you look? You don’t have another weapon, why would you leave that one there, on the ground-? You’ll have to prove to me you’re worthy of carrying a sword, you pup! Do you not question the things that are said to you? Eh? Eh?”

Anger surged through her and she lurched to pick up the spear, finding comfort in the well-worn haft. She bit down hard on her tongue, unable to suppress the sour expression on her face, and the old man let out a bellowing guffaw.

“She has nothing to say – too good for any of this, no? Arrogant, even after being kicked around like a dirty shoe. You don’t get to have such pride, not until you’ve earned it. Quit looking like you’ve swallowed an anthill and get moving; and you, rider!” He turned and offered a wide, leering grin to the liveried man who’d escorted Daniyah to Skaven. “Take those horses back to my nephew and tell him he owes me for this. I’ve never seen so hopeless a case in all my years.”

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