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Chapter 8: Wilderland
The journey through Valenwood was pleasant. The weather held fair for the most part, with sunny days and cool nights. Bright leaves of scarlet, crimson, gold and green drifted down to form a carpet beneath their horses' feet. Valenwood was very different from the somber, steep forests of High Rock. When they reached the northern border, Edward, looking back, saw that the trees were mostly bare, shorn of their glory. Before them lay a wide green land of rolling hills with only a few stands of trees. It seemed to spread on forever.
"This is Wilderland, Edward," Moraelyn said. "Be on your guard. It seems a pleasant land, but no king's writ runs here. Each man's hand is against every other's and there are worse than men. All the races of Tamriel meet here, and clash, save thine, perhaps."
They journeyed for some days more with small incident, save one for a band of Khajiit raiders that crept up on their camp by night. These were easily repelled. Silk slew one and the rest ran off yowling. The gentle wood elf girl, Willow, lobbed fireballs after them. There were no roads, just small paths that criss-crossed one another and seemingly led nowhere.
After two weeks of steady riding they came to a bowl shaped place in the hills where the land was tilled. The fields looked fair and were stacked with harvest, but the folk were dispirited, ragged, and unfriendly. Questions about inns got only shrugs and puzzled looks. Armed bands challenged them at times and demanded to know their business. When Moraelyn said they were bound for Morrowind, they were told to pass through quickly and mind they stole nothing.
"Passage is all we wish," Moraelyn said quietly.
"Someone should teach these folk manners," the usually placid Mats growled.
"Thou mayst stay and open a school of etiquette, if it pleases thee," Moraelyn said, "I fear my life's too short to teach the lessons these villains require. Still, I like not the look of the sky; it looks even more evil than the folk. I think we'll try our luck in the town."
The town was surrounded by a palisade of wood and had a stout gate. Guards looked them over and refused them entrance. "None but humans enter here, elf. Take thy rabble and begone."
"I see. Ali, Mats, Edward, thou seemst to qualify for the hospitality here. The rest of us will shelter elsewhere."
Aliera announced that she would see them all blown back to Firsthold by the storm before she'd step within these gates. So they circled the town, passing a moat with stone walls within and a keep of some sort within that. A track north took them past a small house with a large barn nearby. Both looked in poor repair, but Moraelyn sent Aliera and Edward to knock at the door and ask if they might sleep in the barn. The rest waited in the road.
An elderly woman answered their knock; she looked pleased to see them. "Stay? Aye, I'd be glad of the company. No need to sleep in the barn, though, lady. I've a room to spare. My name's Ora Engelsdottir." Aliera gestured toward the waiting Companions. The woman squinted toward them. "Thy man's there and some friends? Aye, we'll all squeeze together then. T'will be warmer so. I've a pot of soup on the fire; made it to last me a week but you're welcome to it. I can make more."
"My husband's an elf."
"Is he so? He looks to take good care of thee and thy son. Thou's fat as pigs. Bring them in. I wish my grand-daughter had such a one to care for her."
Ora refused payment, saying she was not yet at such a pass that her guests must pay for her hospitality. She said tales and song and an evening's merriment would be payment enough. Pots and dishes were set out to catch the worst of the leaks; she knew them all well. They gathered around the hearth and made very merry while the storm raged, banging the shutters and doors and threatening to blow the roof away altogether.
"Tell me, my lady," Ora whispered apart to Aliera, "He's truly good to thee? He's so big and so black."
"Truly good," Aliera said keeping her mouth serious while her eyes laughed.
"Aye, 'tis well, then. He put me a bit in mind of our baron, who's big and dark...oh, not so dark as thy elf. He took my grand-daughter, Caron, and he does not treat her well. He...he hurts her, my lady. And she dare not run away. Where would she go?" Tears gathered in Ora's eyes and followed worn familiar tracks down her cheeks.
When their hostess had gone to sleep in her own room, Aliera repeated what she had been told.
"Let's rescue the girl," Beech said, "we grow stale with inaction."
"Aye!" said Silk and Willow at once.
Moraelyn looked doubtful. "We cannot right every wrong in Tamriel. This baron offers his folk shelter of a kind. They could leave if they liked it better outside."
"Aye," Mith said, "he keeps the bandits off so he may rob the folk at leisure."
"And we pull him down? There'll be another to take his place. Or else the outside will come in and there'll be nothing left at all."
"Nothing would be better than this filthy something," Mats said.
"There's that." The storm seemed to have moved away. Aliera went to the door and stared up into the sky where clouds raced past the eastern moon. A single large brilliant blue star hung near the moon. "Zenithar hangs near Tamriel tonight. Moraelyn?"
"I'd thought to mend her roofs tomorrow if it's fair," he said as she returned to the fireside. "We'll do so much at least. As for the rest, Aliera?"
"She asked for my help, in a way and I...I think I hear Zenithar's voice in the wind and feel his hand in the rain on this night."
"Thy quest, then, wife."
Aliera nodded, unsmiling. She curled up with Moraelyn in the chimney corner and they whispered and laughed together for awhile. Edward fell asleep. In the morning he was sent up on the roof to help Beech and Willow place new shingles. Moraelyn wrote a letter which he gave to Mats, telling him to take it to the baron, to arrive at the castle around dinnertime and to go afoot.
"You're going to challenge him for the girl!" Edward grinned. "But will he fight? And wouldn't he take her back again once we're gone?"
"Mmm. Since he wouldn't let me in his town, thy mother thought to invite him to our house instead." Moraelyn stamped the letter with his sealing ring and handed it to Mats.
"Oh. It's a long way to your house still, isn't it?" Edward felt a bit of disappointment that no rescue seemed imminent, but he supposed it really was not reasonable to expect eight people to take a keep, even if they were Moraelyn's Companions. Probably the songs exaggerated their deeds.
Moraelyn grinned, ruffled Edward's hair and told him to cease his questions, get up on the roof, and mind his mother. Moraelyn and Mith set off together on foot. Aliera said they were going hunting. They did not return even at suppertime. Aliera told Edward not to worry; they'd meet later.
It was well after sundown when she bid their hostess farewell. They took all the horses with them and left them in a grove near the north wall of the keep. Aliera asked Edward if he wanted to wait for them with the horses. Edward asked where they were going.
"We have to enter the keep to get Ora's grandchild out. No questions, Edward. If you're coming, then stay with me and do exactly as I say. Levitate across the moat: I must swim. Once across we'll scale the wall. Once inside, just follow me and be as silent as you can."
Edward gaped at his mother and the other Companions. How could the six of them possibly storm a keep? Three women, two men and a boy? There would be guards up on the wall and a lot more inside. Mats would be inside too, though, he guessed. But where were Moraelyn and Mith?
There were fearsome things in the moat. Edward began a protest, then thought better of it. Ssa'ass slid into the moat first. There was some splashing and hissing, then the water went quiet. Aliera entered the water. The others levitated.
"Here's the ropes," Beech said, feeling along the wall. There were three ropes. Edward, Beech and Ssa'ass went up first; Aliera, Willow and Silk followed. Moraelyn and Mith were waiting above. Two guards were snoring softly in a heap.
"How..." Edward began, and found his mother's hand clapped over his mouth. A guard from another wall section called out and Edward's heart stopped beating. Mith called something back to him and tramping footsteps moved away.
The Companions went silently down the stairs and slipped across the yard like shadows. There was no guard on the door to the keep itself. Inside the passages were eerily quiet. They stopped at an imposing door and flattened themselves against the wall beside it. They could hear voices within. A thin chilling wail sounded and died away. Moraelyn whistled a snatch of song into the silence that followed. The door swung open and they raced inside, falling on the startled guards like furies.
Edward was last inside, Tooth in his hand; he stabbed the nearest guard in the side, and Beech finished him with a blow to the head. Mats had been inside; it was he who had opened the door. His axe clove the head of one guard, then swung against the inner door. Aliera and Willow had barred the strong outer door. Moraelyn's opponent was a very young man. He'd taken one look at the big dark elf, dropped his sword and fallen to his knees, praying for mercy.
Moraelyn eyed him with disgust and said, "Greet Zenithar for me; tell him Moraelyn of Ebonheart commends you to his mercy. I have none for such as you." He slashed the young guard's throat. Blood sprayed over Moraelyn's leathers. His victim fell over, gurgling horribly. A burning acid rose in Edward's throat; he swallowed hard and looked away.
The guards inside the anteroom had been dispatched, but outside the door shouts and footfalls thundered and there was pounding on the door. Edward followed his mother into the inner chamber, which was empty save for a naked girl tied spreadeagle on the enormous bed, her eyes starting from her head.
The Companions cut her free while Aliera caught her shoulders. "Thy grandmother sent us, child. Where's the baron?"
The girl pointed at a bookcase, then clung to Aliera. She was no bigger than Edward and seemed not much older. Her breasts were just beginning. She was covered with welts and blood and purple-yellow bruises. Aliera flung her own cloak over the girl. Beech picked her up. Mith's fingers were feeling over the bookcase; there was a click and a section slid aside. He went through cautiously. The others followed and the secret door closed after them.
"I think it's just a bolt hole," Mith said, "but there'll be traps, no doubt."
"Go warily, then, friend," Aliera said. "There's no hurry. I think the baron plans to show his departing guests the door, as a good host should."
A narrow passage opened to the left. Mith sent a bolt of light down it. The floor was littered with bones. Human bones. Small skulls stared eyelessly. "I'm going to enjoy killing him," Moraelyn said.
"No!" Aliera protested. "My quest, my kill!"
Moraelyn swung to face her. "Aliera..."
"I want it sung that he died by Aliera's hand! I claim my right to face him, king."
"Leave him to me and we'll sing it your way! He's twice your size. D'you want to fight me for the right?" The elf leaned over her, a full head taller.
"If I must." Aliera brushed past him, slinging her shield on her arm, and drawing her short sword as she ran. Moraelyn grabbed at her, missed, and ran after her. His size hampered him in the low, narrow passage. Sparks flew from his spell shield as he caroomed recklessly off the walls.
"Come on, you two," Mith yelled from ahead. "I'm not promising to save him for you."
"Moraelyn," Edward gasped, running after him. "You're not going to let her!"
"Let her! How d'ye propose I stop her? I'm open to suggestions, short of actually fighting her myself." He seemed half-angry, half-amused.
"M-maybe he's gone by now."
"Nay, he's locked in here with us; we found the exit earlier from the other side and Mith set a lock the baron will not undo."
"Well, paralyze her. You can carry her."
"She's activated her shield; it reflects spells, among other things. I'd only paralyze myself and I'd be inconvenient to carry. She'll be all right. It's an excellent shield. It casts a very powerful protective spell. I'ric himself devised it."
"Having a spot of trouble with your locks tonight, baron?" Mith's voice came clearly from ahead. They emerged into a larger space where the baron had been clawing vainly at switches beside a massive door. "Shoddy work. You should get another smith."
"He won't be needing one," Aliera snarled. The Companions spread around her in a semi-circle. The baron set his back to the door and set himself in a fighting stance. He was a big man, as big as Mats, and he was holding an axe as big as the one Mats wielded, and wearing a breastplate and helm. He addressed Moraelyn.
"Nine against one. I'd expect odds like that from you black devils," Moraelyn was at the back of the group, yet the baron had singled him out as the leader. People did, somehow.
"You prefer the advantage of weight, do you not? But my wife wants you to herself. She cannot resist your charms it seems. Nor can I; I could not wait for you to respond to my invitation, so I came to you instead."
"I beat her and the rest of you kill me? Hah! It might be worth it at that," he added, staring at Aliera with cold dark eyes.
Aliera smiled a terrible smile. Her dark hair swung free about her shoulders and she seemed to glow. "You will not beat this woman, baron, but if you do, then you go free. You are mine alone tonight. Swear it all, by Zenithar! If he haps to kill me, my ghost will hound him to his grave and beyond." She sounded rather pleased at the prospect. Edward began to shiver.
The baron laughed, "I don't believe you, but one last female for my collection then. Are you so wearied of her, elf?"
"Are you so afraid of her that you'd rather face me instead?" Somewhere deep in his mind Edward realized that the elf was right. Despite the baron's bravado, he was afraid of Aliera. Edward hadn't sworn with the others. He clutched his staff tightly but his feet seemed rooted to the floor.
The baron laughed again and swung a mighty blow at Aliera in answer, but it deflected harmlessly off her shield. His eyes widened as he realized she was spell shielded. Aliera danced aside and cut his arm. She was nimble, but he managed to land many blows. If her shield went...Edward did not finish the thought.
But he was leaving himself somewhat open in the hope of wearing her shield down and she was scoring hits against his limbs. She kept her blows low, trying to cost him the use of his legs and drain him of blood. All the while she taunted him about his manhood, saying she would geld him ere he died. A great blow knocked her back; her shield flashed and was gone.
The baron raised his axe high to cleave her skull with a single blow. Her arm drew back and she threw her slender short sword straight into her enemy's eye. He dropped the axe and fell screaming to his knees, hands clawing at his face. Aliera stepped forward and thrust the sword home, piercing deep within the brain. The body fell over, twitching and jerking.
"Well fought, wife!"
"I had a master trainer, and a better armorer!" Aliera laughed, then she threw back her head and shouted wordlessly in triumph, raising her arms, fists clenched.
"That you did!" Moraelyn grabbed Silk in a rough hug and kissed her noisily. "It's a neat trick you taught her, Silk."
"I'll thank you to cease flirting with my trainer, husband!" Aliera said, wiping her slender adamantium blade carefully.
"Me flirt? Not while thy blood's up, and thy shield's still charged. I'm just thanking her. I'll kiss I'ric too when next I see him."
"Is he truly dead?" Caron had clung to Beech throughout the fight with her eyes closed. Now she regarded Aliera with Awe, Edward thought was the right word. Edward felt something of the same, although it was akin to horror.
"Dead enough," Aliera said, regarding the still faintly twitching form, with satisfaction. The girl drew closer, then knelt beside him. She picked up a stone and smashed it into the face again and again, sobbing. When she had done, Ssa'ass cast some healing spells on her. Mith unlocked the door. They'd come out quite near to where they had left the horses.
They took the girl back to her mother's house and left her there, instructing her to tell anyone that ventured to molest her, that Zenithar's servants would return if she were harmed. The bewildered old woman clasped her granddaughter to her. As she bade them farewell, she whispered to Aliera to look after that man of hers.
"Oh, I do," Aliera said. "I do."
When they stopped for rest Aliera came over to Edward to talk to him, but he protested that he was very tired and just wanted to sleep. Moraelyn tugged her away, saying that if her son did not need her then she could see to her man, who did. They moved out of the circle of firelight. Edward lay wakeful, listening to their small, stifled sounds. That was not unusual. It had troubled him at first. "I can't sleep; you're too noisy," he'd protested one night. "What are you doing, anyway?" That had drawn giggles from the Companions. "Can't you at least pretend you're sleeping?" Moraelyn had asked plaintively. "Now I know why dark elves seldom have more than one child. What I do not understand is how humans manage to get so many." Moraelyn and Aliera had come back to lie by him that night, but after that he had pretended to sleep, like the others.
And the noises were too familiar now to keep images of the night's adventures from flashing through his mind, as vivid as if they were happening again in truth. He could feel his daedra feeding and could not stop it. It just wasn't fair, he thought, but now he was beginning to see what Moraelyn meant by feeding his daedra and yet walking with the gods. With Zenithar.
Moraelyn came back, carrying Aliera. He set her gently down, then stretched himself out between Edward and her.
"It must be difficult, being a woman," he said softly. "It was hard, watching her. Just watching."
"I've asked it often enough, of her," Moraelyn continued. "She told me how hard it is, but I never knew until tonight. I knew she'd win. Zenithar was with her, and all the baron had was his daedra. And still it was very hard to watch. She makes that cast nine tries out of ten, and there were more uses on the shield if she missed, he'd have dropped of exhaustion before he wore it out entirely."
"I keep thinking about it, too...and the guard you...he asked for mercy?"
"I know. And yet, he listened to that night after night. And still he remained the baron's man."
"Most men are not as strong as you are. Maybe he couldn't help himself?" Why was he pleading for a man already dead? His mind kept replaying the night's events as if they might yet come out differently, for better or for worse.
"Even to witness evil such as that corrupts the soul. To watch and do nothing, Mats would have stayed my hand had there been anything there worth keeping. And it's worse for the young; I am sorry you had to pass through this night."
"Is my soul corrupted now?"
"You feel the acid's bite, as do we all, but you'll heal."
"Can you Heal me now?"
"Aye." Moraelyn gathered the boy in his arms, then rolled over so that Edward lay between his parents. Aliera put her arms around him without really waking. Her strong woman smell mingled with Moraelyn's musky dark spice odor in Edward's nostrils.
"She was so angry," Edward whispered. He'd wondered if he would ever really feel the same toward her again and yet her arms were still as comforting as before. Maybe Moraelyn too had needed that reassurance and had been wise enough to ask for it.
"She's a woman. That sort of injury to another touches her near," he said.
How near? The boy looked the question he dared not put.
"Thy father's not a monster. But she was wed to a man who did not care for her, and she could not leave him. It's common enough among thy race, which makes it none the easier to bear, I think."
"She has a daedra, too, then?" Edward asked sadly.
"You must speak with her about that."
"It wasn't really a fair fight, her shielded and not him."
"What will become of Caron and Ora? And the other folk, now that the baron's dead?"
"Do I look like the prophet Marukh? How should I know? We can stop here in the spring and see what's been planted in the field we burned tonight. I've no mind to stay and plow it. I've my own fields to tend, listen to me, I sound like a Nord farmer. Mines to dig is more like it." He yawned.
"The others didn't think about afterwards. You did."
"I'm a king; it's what we do."