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There is no speed so deceptive, no peace more unnerving, and no steadiness so impossible as that of a ride atop a silt strider. The enormous flea, already standing higher than its spindly legs have any right to carry it, rises and swells at the withers, its chitinous shell creaking as the abdomen fills with gas. The thing lifts, higher and higher until it sits perched on the edge of flight. But it remains as it is, half hovering and half grounded, like a buoy tethered to the ocean floor. Its legs no longer bear weight - they exist only to pull the beast along. Its footfalls weigh no more heavily upon the road than a well-laden Dunmer in netch leather. If the roads of the Bitter Coast were washed away entirely and left to turn to mud, the striders could still carry passengers over the bog without fear of sinking.

Atop the beast, the driver pushes a lever, wrenching and prodding the living machinery within its bowels. It lets out a long, low moan - sad, yet resonant, like the horn of a herald - and lurches to a start. This is the only bump Garyn will feel for the entire journey.

The strider glides over the gentle slopes of the swamp road. From its back, Garyn can see the flood plain stretched before him over the treetops. Heading into the setting sun, the marshlands are bound to his left by the Inner Sea and to his right by a range of rocky foothills extending toward Red Mountain. They're riding close to the edge of these hills - near enough for him to see the top of an enormous fungal tree peeking over the crest of a ridge. The famed Emperor Parasols of Morrowind.

The caravaner sees Garyn staring and smiles. "Never ridden a strider before, outlander?"

"Never even seen one before. Barely heard of them, to tell you the truth."

"Ah, but you've been to the Fatherland, surely."

Garyn raises an eyebrow. "What makes you think that?"

"Little things, all around," the driver says. "Your accent's Cyrodiil, but I can hear the rasp of Dunmeris clear enough. That don't happen on its own. Your forehead has the ghartok. Most outland Dunmer don't pay no mind to their gods, old or new, 'less they're the sort that keeps one foot back where they came from. Damned shameful, the way they forget. Then they return, and expect us to treat them like a brother returning home, when they've forgotten the gods! There was one coming back from Vivec who wondered why the Ordinators turned aside and spit as he passed. I said he should know damn well why that was. Me, I see all kinds in the back of my strider, and I'm good at reading people. I figure you or your folks must be among those few - the ones who remember. Am I right?"

Garyn's expression is flat. "I've never been to Morrowind in my life," he says. "I speak how I was brought up to speak."

"Well, wasn't all wrong, then, was I? You've not been to Morrowind, but you've been taught to speak as a Dunmer ought. And I'll wager that same mother and father what taught you to speak, marked your head and soul for the Triune House and its Anticipations. Now is that right or isn’t it?"

Garyn falls silent.


Garyn rises to one knee, his limbs bruised and his brow still bloodied.

"Better," the Master says, his wooden blade still pointed at Garyn's head. "Still not half good enough."

The boy bows his head. "I understand, muthsera."

The old mer's eyes narrow. "Clearly not yet well enough."

"Apologies, muthsera."

"Do not apologize. Improve your bladework, and you will not need to
explain to me that you understand. Stand up. All the way - you aren't hurt that badly."

As Garyn rises, the master takes his practice sword and points the tip at his pupil's forehead. "Do you know what this mark is, boy?"

"Some...kind of Dunmer symbol, I think. Muthsera."

"It is the ghartok. It is branded through magic upon a Dunmer child after birth or at circumcision. A symbol of the Divine Hand which guides our people. Whoever whelped you would sooner abandon you than allow you to forget your gods. Not that I pay any mind to the Tribunal - not since the Armistice. But I've never forgotten what the ghartok truly stands for. GHARTOK PADHOME AE ALTADOON DUNMERI. Do you know what that means?"

"No, muthsera."

"It's in the Ehlnofex, so it means many things. One meaning is 'The hand of Padomay is the weapon of the Dunmer.' It can also mean 'The arms of the Dunmer are the hands of Padomay.' Did they teach you who Padomay was at that damned temple?"

"The spirit of change, sera."

"That's right. The mannish priests were good for something after all. The blood of Padomay is the same soul that animates the Daedra. This is why the Daedra are our ancestors, why they chose us - our blood is theirs. We are their descendants - consanguine with the gods. Do you know what that means, boy?"

"That we share blood with -"

"Not what the word means, boy, what the TRUTH of it means."


"It means that you are more than other mortals. That you are
expected to be more than other mortals. Your cousins are the Sons of Change and Brothers of Deceit. The Dunmer way is strength. The Dunmer way is cunning. The Dunmer way is making sure the other dies before you. Now - finally, boy - do you understand?"

Garyn bows. "Yes, muthsera."

The master brings his blade into position. "Good. Now, on your guard. You'll learn to parry this move today or die trying."


"...More or less."

"Ah, good, good. Even just a little is good. Too few outlanders think on the Three these days."

"True enough, sir. It's a shame."

Garyn says this flatly. He doubts he can even name all of the Three, so little would his Master speak of them. “Traitors to the Dunmer” was all he ever named them. As far as Salms was concerned, Talos had proved himself the better god.

The caravaner is silent for a few seconds as he navigates a bend in the swamp road. Garyn’s weapons and chainmail jostle around in the seat beside him.

The driver glances back at the sound. “Mercenary, are you?”

“You’re very perceptive, sera.”

“Wouldn’t have needed to see the sword, f’lah,” he says. “That you’re an outlander and you’re here is enough. We natives are here because we were born here. Outlanders come here for business. Good business in mercenary work on Vvardenfell.”

“So I’ve heard,” Garyn says, though he has in fact heard nothing of the sort, and very little of anything about Vvardenfell proper.

“It's either that or the ebony, and I didn't figure you for an East Empire man,” says the driver. “You must be a sellsword of some repute to pay the Empire enough to let you through the blockade. A right terror with a blade, I’ll bet. Won’t pry into the bloody business, of course, but I don't doubt you’ve seen some action in your day.”


"Take a good look at him, boy," the Old Master says quietly, as Calvus Egnatius ceases to clutch at his bowels and is finally still. "That's the work of your own hand. Him and the big orc. Your first harvest."

Garyn stares at the bloating and contorted corpses of the thieves before them. Their blood dribbles down the stone steps of their cliffside hideout, pooling with the stagnant rainwater of the landing below. The orc's jaundiced merish eyes are still open, almost quivering. But there is no life behind them. More of his comrades lie dead in the chamber behind him, felled by the blades of the Guild. Garyn bows his head.

"Don't be ill, boy. I won't tolerate a mer who vomits at the sight of blood in my outfit."

"I wasn't going to, sera."

"Good," Salms says. "You shouldn't. You did fine work. Two against one and you funneled them into a tight spot. Well struck, and cleaner than it looks."

"Thank you, sera."

There's a long pause as Garyn slumps down and sits back against the wall. Salms pulls up a chair as the rest of the company files in and begins ransacking the place. Chests are opened, tables are flipped, and the pockets of dead men are turned out. They take nothing, at least not yet - these mercenaries are looking only for one thing. The Old Master takes out his hackle-lo pipe and begins to fill it.

"Awful, isn't it?"

"Yes, muthsera."

"Awful when it's happening, worse when it's over."

Garyn nods, looking every bit the fifteen year-old. The sound of cracking earthenware echoes through the chamber.

"It's all normal, as I'm sure you're smart enough to know. I remember my first as well, clear as the sun. No feeling the world like it - fear, nausea, but also...excitement. But then there's that sick feeling afterwards - illness, regret. You'll want to get past that. You mustn't let it keep you from doing what needs to be done. It will fade with time, if you live long enough. You fall into the routine."

Garyn nods again. He's fallen silent.

"Not to say you shouldn't avoid drawing your sword when you can - death is an awful thing, necessary as it is. But when the time comes you must not hesitate or
this -" he gestures toward the dead criminals - "will be you. You've got to harden your heart to it, boy. And you will, faster than you'd think."

"I understand, muthsera."

The old mer shakes his head, smiling joylessly. "No," he says. "Not yet. But one day, you will. When I'm gone, and -"

A young Nord calls out from deeper inside the carved-out hollow. "Sir! We've found the key!"

Salms lets forth an annoyed grunt. "Very well," he says. "Open it and start counting our share. Our client will want to count it himself, but I'll be damned if I leave that to someone I've never done business with."

"Aye, sir."

Garyn's eyes turn downward again.

"You, boy -" Salms says, snapping his fingers at Garyn, "- stop gawking and help them carry it out. You've got centuries ahead of you. Plenty of time to stare at corpses then."


“…I’ve come out the right end of a few scraps.”

“I’ll wager, I’ll wager. Though I won’t pry, as I said. I’ve been in some fights myself, and I know to use a shortsword if need be. I’ve the stomach for it. But I’ve enough sense not to ask a mer how many he’s killed in his time.”

“I’ll thank you for that.”

“Bah, basic courtesy is all it is. My cousin carried a banner for Redoran in Arnesia. I never cared to hear his stories and he didn't much care to tell them.”

"I'd imagine he wouldn't."

The caravaner shrugs and turns his gaze forwards. "Fair enough, then. You don't want to talk. I respect that. Should be only two or three hours before the Odai. We'll rest and graze her there."


They're taking the short route, he says, and bypassing Pelagiad because it adds a day. The strider absorbs the weeds and water through the bottom of its rear legs as its enormous mandibles shovel the fodder behind its open mouth flaps. It sleeps standing up, as horses do, and two hammocks are tightly strapped and suspended to its side, that its passengers may rest unmolested by beasts and highwaymen. Their rest will be short, not that Garyn will protest whatever he can get as he rests secure amid the harness and straps suspended and shackled me in chains before the executioner

Tall he stands with his glittering axe and a face implacable, he is my father no not my father, the old master who gave me my wounds though if I do what he says I will make him a Father yes the full measure of his pride but I do not see it on his face because there is nothing on his face but


He says and the word shakes the earth, and I look at my chains and feel the poisoned robes he clothed me with devour my skin and watch the broken blade he gave me crumble to dust and hear the soiled prayers he taught me echo without meaning to be heard by no one, and so he who advised me and gave me his sword and his years that I may rule has now condemned me


He says again -- a third or a second time? -- and I wonder if it could really be true, for yes, we had both loved our departed House very dearly; but was it not its own corruption that made it fall, and was it not its leader who struck first at me? Or was it that I had denied him what he sought, the kingdom which I having earned he would now claim, a king of violence and blasphemous ambition beyond the very grandest of avarice


I speak: Brought up for your glory, muthsera

Finally an expression. A snarl from my executioner, his face I see as I look up at him and my face is soiled with mud -- this was it, I remember it as it happened: this is when he killed me --


Downward swings the axe, and away my head flies, tumbling endlessly in the dirt and


into Daylight, as the dawn hits Garyn's eyes. The afterglow haunts him for a moment. A dream, it was of someone else. Or maybe it was, him and...who was it? But the light climbing over the river bank hits his eyelids, and, as dreams often do, it fades into the morning. Already the caravaner is rolling up their hammocks.

Up the Odai, and then, to Balmora.


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Garyn Balvadares

January 2017

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