Straag Rod, Book 1: Fate Goes Ever as it Must, Part 1
Chapter 9: The Key
The door opened and Archmagister Rynandor stepped into his closet of his study, carrying a burlap sack that he hoped was not dripping too heavily onto the floor or the scent too much of a giveaway. He disappeared into what he now considered his sanctuary in this dark time, his stomach growling with anticipation, leaving the door open for ventilation.
“Welcome, Archmagister, and thank ya.” A cheerful voice towards the center of the room acknowledged. “He still forgets to leave tha door open when I cook.”
It had been a closet where he stored most of his scrolls and supplies for spell crafting. He had many such rooms in the Tower dedicated to spellcraft. One could walk inside it. Two Altmer by one in size. More than suitable for spellcraft, but for people, it was terribly cramped by Altmeri standards. He had removed most of the shelves, though he left one narrow bookshelf so the boy could store his own supplies for their lessons. No window and that was a sad, sad thing, for he knew how the family loved fresh air, sunshine, the moon and stars, but at the same time, it was one of the few places in the Tower where no burning sky was ever seen. So he could pretend, at least for a little while, that there was still fresh air, sun, moon and stars.
Rynandor was promptly greeted by a slip of a thing and he could not help his smile. A Nordling by the name of Hedwige, barely 3 winters, in the well-worn attire of the Altmeri working class, but the clothes were clean, the fair face and hands freshly scrubbed, and the ample blonde hair, like golden wheat just before harvest, plaited tightly against her scalp. She was cared for, dare say, loved? She was even starting to fill out and gaining weight at this time of crisis meant only one thing.
Stubborn Duskens, Ryandor cursed, feeling his brow crease. They were going hungry to feed her. A slave. Ronnie’s entire Tower savings, spent on this one child, taking on a practice that the boy and his family found deeply repugnant to prevent something even more revolting. He found the Nordling’s intense, wide grey eyes, like pewter, their sclera as white as snow, an alien eye to an Altmer. Do you even know, little Nordling, he wondered. Do you understand what you were saved from? Children had been coveted above all others in the Tower and she was so young. He shuddered at the thought, the images in his mind of what the People had stooped to.
“Nordling.” He acknowledged with a composed nod, as befitting his station among the Wise.
“Shoes.” She said with authority, despite her size and age, the Nord accent thick, pointing a tiny finger towards a corner near the doorway.
Rynandor smirked at her audacity, but obliged, bending to remove his leather shoes. “Of course, my dear.” He bowed his head, the wrinkles around his eyes crinkling in good humor while he set them carefully next to the doorway, near what he assumed were the Lady’s boots. They were certainly too small to be Ronnie’s. The Archmagister flexed his long bare toes and followed the Nordling across his marble closet floor, now littered with carpets to keep out any chill, to a pale Atlmer sitting cross legged, tending to a small cooking fire upon a large, shallow ceramic bowl of sturdy construct, a makeshift cooking pit. Potentially dangerous in such a small space, but Äelbé was an experienced cook and he, unlike the boy, could be entrusted to remember to leave the door open to let the smoke out. At the far edge of the room were three bedrolls and an assortment of packs and sacks. Neat and orderly. And next to the longest bedroll, surrounded by crumpled papers, scrolls, and aye, a half-closed inwell, a precarious stack of books. Not so neat and orderly.
The last of the Tower’s library.
Only Ronnie was not lounging in his bedroll reading them after a hard day at his post as he normally did when Rynandor came to share a meal. Rynandor took a deep breath to quell his sudden nerves. Perfect, perfect, better the boy isn’t here for this, he thought, fingering the ancient key in his pocket. Ronnie would not approve, but it was not the boy’s decision to make.
The Nordling did a wee bow and scurried off to take her place next to the Altmer. The Lady of the Forge--what he had taken to calling her in his mind, from her many hours laboring for him to see his plans completed-- paused from her work, wiped a stray white hair from her brow and dried her hands with her roughspun apron before she acknowledged Rynador with a low bow, still seated.
He was in a Dusken house.
“My dear, dear Lady.” He bowed in turn, giving due respect to the lenya of Äelberon of Dusk, Knight-Paladin of Auri-El, Knight of the Crystal Tower, his Tower Guard.
“Oh no such fancy titles for me--” Her jaw then dropped and she shook her head, noticing both the faint smell and the water dripping from the burlap sack. “Oh no, not Master Neloth.”
Rynandor hoisted the bag and placed it next to the firepit with a resounding thud. “Yes, Master Neloth. About time that old Telvanni got what’s coming to him.”
“If they ever got word in that house...” Äelbé chuckled, opening the sack to peer inside.
“Is it even bloody edible?” The Archmagister asked, standing over Äelbé’s shoulder to get a better look himself. “I tried to take it out of its tank at the last possible moment. Took me the better part of the afternoon, the stubborn thing wouldn’t budge from his corner. I got very wet in the process and... Master Neloth bit me.”
“He bit ya?”
“Aye,verily” Rynandor frowned, showing the She-Elf the tip of his finger. Of course there was nothing on it now because he healed it, but still. “The ingrate. Is he still fresh?”
“I’ve never cooked scum carp before and I’ve cooked near everything. It’s a Morrowind fish.” She frowned, lifting a caudal fin. “Looks a little bony, tough scales.”
“The very image of Master Neloth, my good lady.” Rynandor joked.
Ronnie’s lenya released an easy laugh. “So my Ronnie says.” she replied, sniffing the fish. “It’s fresh. I suppose I can make somethin’ of it. It will take awhile to prepare.” She turned away from the dead fish and met Rynandor’s gaze with a sigh. “But it’s a bad omen to eat such things. He was your pet, Archmagister.”
“We all could stand a decent meal tonight. And I will not eat the alternative and neither will you, nor Ronnie. Besides, like I said, some comeuppance for House Telvanni is in order for not treating the Archmagister of Crystal-Like-Law and his Tower Knight with the proper respect.”
“Make yerself comfortable, Archmagister, and I will prepare it as best I can.”
“Give the bastard a proper Dunmeri funeral.” Rynandor grinned. “Rrroast him!”
“Blasphemy! And swearin’!” She cried, though the corners of her mouth twitched, and there was definitely her good Dusken humor behind her crystal blue eyes while she began to unwrap Master Neloth from his burlap death shroud.
“Well, he bit me.” It was as close to whining as the Archmagister could muster but he was nowhere the expert that Lilandtar was.
“I’ll give ya that, Archmagister. And a spot of tea ta ease yer pain.”
“Thank you.” He bowed graciously, answering her playful sarcasm. “It did hurt.”
“Heddy, fetch the satchels for the Archmagister’s tea and then set him a place at the table. This will take a spell.”
The slip lowered her brow in thought, her finger at her lips. “Plate, f… fork, knife, cup, and… and… cloth for wipin’.”
“Aye, that’s it, just like Ronnie did yesterday and now it’s your turn. The Archmagister sits next to Ronnie and you with me.”
“Aye.” She started towards the table.
“Heddy.” Äelbé chuckled, making the slip freeze in her tracks. “But tea first. A mage cannot be without his tea. You remember how Ronnie gets?”
“Grumpy.” Rynandor laughed at the child’s honesty.
Rynandor rolled his eyes and held his hands up in reassurance. “Never apologize for the truth, Äelbé, and the babe speaks it fluently. I have seen the boy without his tea.”
“You remember where the satchels are, Sweeting?” Äelbé asked. Sweeting was a type of apple known for its sweetness in the South, and an appropriate nickname name for the Nordling.
“Aye.” The little slip nodded, changing direction to pitter-patter to the opposite end of the closet to search through Ronnie’s things for the blessed satchels of tea.
“Canis root, Heddy.” She winked at Rynandor. “Might as well go full Telvanni...”
Rynandor guffawed, admiring the She-elf’s quick wit as he settled into his favorite spot, leaning against the wall amongst a pile of old, but clean cushions. It was a traditional Dusken house in the middle of a Crystal Tower closet. The low table for meals was at the central location and everything else was situated around it, also low to the floor.
“I Founded it!” The Nordling cried in triumph after some moments, bringing the satchels to Äelbé, who wiped her hands on her apron to drop some of the precious roots into a tankard of boiled water to steep. The Nordling then frowned when she resumed her place. “Ronnie needs to clean, too many papers…he messy.”
“He IS messy.” Äelbé corrected.
“He. Is. Messy.” The Nordling repeated, sounding out the words.
“He’s a mage, my child.” Rynandor interjected.
“All mages messy, uncle ‘Nandor?”
“Very much so, but it is an organized mess and we know exactly where everything is at all times.”
Äelbé abrupt snort only emphasized his lie. It was what mages believed. To everyone else, it was just a bloody mess and mages only found their things because they were lucky.
“You sure?” The Nordling’s eyes narrowed and then she shook her head, coming to her own conclusions on the matter. “‘Cause sometime Ronnie spend awful lot of time lookin’, but Bé find it real fast.”
Caught red-handed, Knight of the Crystal Tower. The jibes at the boy were priceless and Rynandor was fighting hard to maintain his composure while the tips of Ronnie’s Lenya’s ears turned bright red, the only indicator that she was acknowledging the child’s continued candor.
“Well, we are looking for very important things, Nordling. And Äelbé? Call me ‘Nandor. We’ve had this discussion far too many times, and even the Nordling has it right, so please, I insist.” Rynandor shrugged, it was a losing battle with her, but he would still try. Not in public, but here? Here, he was family. “By the way, where is your messy mage?”
Dusken mothers have more pressing priorities than immediately answering an Archmagister’s questions. She handed a tankard to the Nordling, quickly repositioning the child’s hand so she wouldn’t burn herself. “Like this, Sweeting, don wanna burn yerself, eh? Now, what do we always do for guests, Heddy?” She asked thoughtfully, raising her eyebrows.
“Tea.” The Nordling nodded, rising again to present Rynandor with his tea. “Arshmanister.”
May the Tower Council scream forever in agony at the mispronunciation, he was adoring it.
“Thank you, my dear.” He took the tankard with a chortle. The slip did another wee bow and again found Äelbé by the fire, watching the pale Altmer’s every move in their tiny hearth. In response, the She-Elf gave the child a kiss on the top of the head, making the child cuddle up even closer to her. The display of affection was endearing. The child was no slave in this house, but family, and aye, already very much loved after such a short time.
“Very good, Heddy.” Another kiss to the child’s head before she turned to Rynandor. “Ronnie’s doin’ some tradin’.” She finally answered, resting the carp on a cutting board of pine to begin scaling it. “This will be messy, Arc-’Nandor.” He heard the scrape of a knife against Master Neloth’s bronze scales and rather than scattering everywhere, the dislodged scales began to form a rather neat pile, making the Archmagister marvel at Äelbé’s precision as she prepared Master Neloth of House Telvanni for his final journey into their stomachs. The many years as a fishermer’s wife on clear display.
“For what?” Rynandor continued, barely ignoring his stomach’s growls at the prospect of fresh fish--real meat, again. “And with what?”
“Salt, food. His lute. He’ll be back soon.” She said, calmly gathering a pile of scales and placing them into the burlap sack with one hand, before swiping the fish with the knife on its other side. Her other hand gently separated the burlap sack from the Nordling’s curious grasp, “we’ll need that for the scales and bones, Sweet--”
“His lute?! What?” Rynandor blustered, rising to his full height amid a flurry of pillows, forcing the She-Elf and Nordling to look up at him. “I forbid it! Where did he go? Tell me! I need to find him, stop this!”
“I’ll do no such thing.” She replied in a way that made the Archmagister’s jaw drop.
“What?” He blinked.
“He’s forty-two. A Mer. He lives by Auri-El’s tenets and by tha way he was raised. I stand by his choice.”
Rynandor sank back to the cushions, defeated. “But he loves that lute. It was a present, It’s valuable.”
She scraped the scales from Master Neloth’s other side, but her expression turned warm. “Aye, and what a joy it is for a lenya when she learns her son loves her more than such a valuable thing. Loves the Sweeting...”
And there it was, a life lesson taught by the most unlikely of creatures. Rynandor bent his head in understanding. “I suppose music can be made without one.”
“The way he sings, aye, most definitely.” She smiled.
“I never told him I was bringing Master Neloth.”
“Does kindness need a town cryer to shout it to tha world?”
“No, my dear lady, it certainly does not. Not when it is true.”
She furrowed his brow and set her knife down, her eyes finding his. They were such astounding eyes to Rynandor, similar in shape to Ronnie’s, only with much less of the boy’s hooded eagle quality, the slight redness and watering from the building smoke of the cooking pit only enhancing their crystalline color and clarity. Right now, they had a knowing expression, the wisdom of one who is far smarter and more aware than others gave her credit for. “Why did ya bring Master Neloth?”
Rynandor looked away and shrugged, tracing the stitching on the pillow that was closest to his hand to mask his building anxiety..
“They are coming.”
It wasn’t a question. She knew, he sighed.
“Yes, Äelbé, they are coming.”
“I knew the sky was lyin’ when it showed the ge and moons again. Well, if it’s a trial Lord Auri-El wants, ‘tis a trial he’ll get. We’ll be ready. Ronnie will be ready.” Äelbé said resolutely, picking up her knife to resume preparing Master Neloth, though it was clear she was trying not to show how distraught she was, being brave for the Nordling in front of them who didn’t understand anything of what was happening. “He needs to eat then, needs to be strong...”
“And so do you. That is why I brought Master Neloth.”
She laughed, shaking her head. “Auri-El’s Bow! What do I need ta be strong for? I’m no fighter, not anymore.”
Stubborn, stubborn Dusken, Rynandor grinned, rising from his place while she bent her head at the pit again, thinking the discussion over. He brazenly walked towards the Äelbé’s assortment of packs and sacks near her bedroll and dragged a peculiar shaped one to the forefront, using his dagger to cut at its tie. An older, worn set of gilded Elven armor revealed itself and Äelbé set her knife down, looking straight ahead, stoic and proud.
“As Khaleron, my husband, donned his, so shall I, Äelbé, his wife, don mine.” She declared, still facing forward, her countenance such that the Archmagister was suddenly humbled. Rynandor could only stare at this lady before him, poor and low in echelon, who was grander to him now by far than any of the so-called “grand” kinsladies, the children of the ancestors. Grand children, who hid behind their hooka pipes and sweet-smelling quarters in the Tower, letting others battle for them.
“To the death?” He asked, deeply moved by her show of quiet strength.
“Aye.” Äelbé nodded like a true soldier of the Blessed Isles. “For my land. For my son. And...” She brought the Nordling closer to her, kissing the child’s head. “For her. To me last breath.”
This is why you brought the key here in the first place, old Mer. She does not disappoint.
Rynandor cleared his throat. “And for Summerset? Would you don your armor for Summerset if I asked?”
“I’ll already be wearin’ it, ‘Nandor, so put me in tha battlements, if ya like. I’ll stand by Ronnie, or wherever ya need me.” She smiled a haughty smile, showing her pride. It was Ronnie’s smile. “Can shoot straighter and better than tha lot of ‘em, savin’ maybe Ronnie. Maybe. He’s much to learn still.”
Äelbé frowned and crossed her arms over her chest, a fire building in her eyes. “Then why ask me ta don me armor? Ya insultin’ me? Ya don think I’m good enough? That it?”
He broke strict Altmeri protocol and quickly knelt next to her, placing a hand on her forearm. Touching her. “No, I need you to be exactly who you are for Summerset, my dearest Äelbé. I need your lenya’s fierceness for what I’m about to ask of you. For our future.” He moved his hand from her forearm and broke social protocol yet again by placing his hand on the Nordling’s head, feeling the softness of the plaits, feeling his eyes brim with tears. “For hers.”
The Nordling looked up. “Bé, why is Arshmanister sad?”
Observant little one. I am terribly sad.
“Nothing, Nordling.” Rynandor sniffed, unable to stop himself from caressing the child’s cheek. He cleared his throat and managed a smile. “Why don’t you go watch for Ronnie, Heddy?” Aye say her name, though she be a Nord and only a beast to the People. She’s no beast to me. “Do that for your uncle ‘Nandor.”
“Do as he says, Heddy. Stay right at the door, where I can see ya and don wander”
With a final nod, the slip scampered off to the door and Rynandor blinked away his tears, grateful that he was able to focus on the tasks at hand.
“First,” he began. “Did you bring it? His Calian?”
Rynandor sighed in relief. “Then fetch it for me, quickly, before he returns. I will sip some of this fine tea, gather my thoughts.” He retreated back towards the cushions and sat with his tea, while she went towards her bedroll, retrieving from her pack a box of carved wood, decorated with sea gulls, shells, and wisteria blossoms. He took a sip of the soothing hot liquid and closed his eyes. There was still so much to do. The armor would need to be worked on. There needed to be an answer to the profanity that was Bet and Äelberon of Dusk would be that answer. An answer the People could see, could witness in the end of all things. No, not the end, the beginning, he swore quietly to himself. He felt Äelbé kneel next to him and he opened his eyes.
“Will it be safe?” She asked. “It means everythin’ ta him.”
“Yes. It will be safe. I promise.”
Äelbé handed him the box and he looked at it. A puzzle box of such rustic beauty, each decorated lever or knob a key within a key, leading eventually to the crystal sphere within, nestled in his lenya’s silk handkerchief.
“You look tired, ‘Nandor.”
“My burdens are heavy, Äelbé.”
“I know. If there was a way I could somehow ease them, I would. You’ve been so good to our family. So good to tha Tower.”
“Do you really, really mean that? Have I been good to the Tower?”
The unapologetic smack to his forearm made him regret his question and brought some much needed humor back to his soul. “‘Nandor, Duskens never say what they don’t mean.”
“I should know this by now, shouldn’t I?” He smirked, taking another slow sip of tea.
“Aye, ya should.”
Rynandor carefully set the box down by his side and he reached within his bell sleeve for the key. The key to their future, at least that was his hope. Hope is all you have right now, old Mer. “Give me your hand, Lady of the Forge.”
“I don’t understand.” Äelbé extended her hand towards the Archmagister and he took that hand in his, holding it for a spell, noting its many callouses, the rough skin, the slight swelling of the joints from chronic rheumatism of a life’s many, many hard labors. He felt the magic surge within him and he healed, repairing the damage, reducing the swelling.
“Ronnie does for me all tha time…” she smiled, while he worked. “I keep tellin’ him ta stop, not ta fuss. I don’t have anythin’’ that needs such fancy fixin’.” A sigh.” Just gettin’ older is all…”
“Ronnie will need his magicks for what’s to come and you will need your strength. Besides, we are family, eh?” He replied, giving her her hands a final squeeze before finishing his work and placing the sacred key upon her palm.
“This key is something I have kept for a very long time. Older than me. As old as the Tower. It opens a door. Follow the path behind the forges and through that door, Äelbé.”
“At the depths of the Tower? I have seen this door while I worked. A grand metal thing, heavy. Where does it go?”
“When the time comes, Äelbé, you will take the People, you will lead them through this door. It leads them to the hills and slopes under our Eton Nir. It will lead our People to Survival.”
Äelbé shook her head and made to give back the key. “Ya put too much faith in me, Archmagister. I’m nothin’. Surely there are bet--”
“You are your son’s lenya.” Rynandor interrupted. “I know full well what you are, Dusken, because I have known your legacy, and been honored by his service to me as my Knight of the Tower.” He closed Äelbé’s hand over the key. “My faith in you, great Lady, is well-placed. With you guiding the People, you give an old Mer some measure of comfort in the coming darkness.”
“I am afraid.”
It was whispered and he decided to give her some of the treatment she had given him.
Rynandor snorted. “You were so brave before, was that merely an act?”
“How dare ya?” Her eyes flashed. She was angry now and he really wanted her angry. Because anger and fear would see the People safe and only Äelbé had the right amount of both to do what he needed her to do.
In a move that surprised her, Rynandor brought her white hand that held the key to his lips for a kiss. He kissed a Dusken of the lowest echelon and he didn’t care, holding her hand to his bearded cheek tenderly before moving the hand to rest upon his heart. “Fear is a perfectly normal and rational thing, Äelbé. I’m terrified. Ronnie is scared out of his mind. He is scared of Bet, scared of what will happen to the people he loves if he falls to that demon. And the odds are very much against him, we both know that. The grand kinsladies shake as they smoke their hooka and give airs. Even Master Lilandtar and Vingalmo tremble under their silken sheets, though they will never admit it.” He gave her hand a final squeeze and rose, taking the wooden box in his hands. “The boy will be back soon. I will go to the tombs, to put this away, but I’ll be back. Tell him nothing, promise?”
“You have my silence.”
“Very good.” Rynandor allowed himself a wily grin and good humor to fill his soul once again. “If you manage to make me a fine dinner out of tough and scaly Master Neloth, you are truly a miracle worker, Äelbé.”
“We will need many miracles before this time is over, ‘Nandor.” She said quietly, moving towards the cooking pit to finish preparing Master Neloth. “Fetch, Heddy, if you please. She will wander...”
“I will.” Rynandor walked briskly to the door, only to turn a final time to face Äelbé, his nostrils flaring in defiance, wanting to show her a tiny bit of what he knew. “Do you want miracles, Äelbé?”
She snorted and gave him a chuckle that had a certain measure of Dusken acid. “Who doesn’t?”
“Then use your fear, Lady Dusken. I will use mine. And, by Auri-El, know that your mighty Eagle will use his. And know that he will make such miracles in this Great Anguish from his fear, that he will become a legend to our People.”
The shield will hold, against all odds, it will hold.
Rynandor laughed when the She-Elf’s wet wash rag struck him square in the chest and she rolled her eyes. “Don tell me ta channel me fear, old Mer. Legend me arse, didn’t tell me ya were hittin’ tha skooma that hard before ya came, eh? Go bring Heddy inside.” She shook her head, turning Master Neloth over to begin fileting the carp, still mumbling to herself, though he did see her tuck the key into her apron’s pocket. “Boy canna even clean up after himself and shuts tha door while I’m cookin’, nearly killin’ us with the smoke. But sure, legend, Aye…”
She was joking, but her demeanor was clearly different, less fearful as she fileted the carp with renewed vigor.
“We’ll have a bet on it then.” Rynandor challenged. Let’s see where the love of gambling truly comes from in that family.
Another laugh. “Ha! Ya have been at that skooma! A bet it is then, I’ll see yer grain of rice with five wee grains of me own, because that’s all the currency there is now. No skooma for you t’night, old Mer, that’s for sure.”
“It’s a bet then.”
“Aye, it’s a bet.”
No wonder Ronnie was such a gambling Mer, it came equally from both sides.
With a Scholar’s bow and a smile, he ushered the Nordling back into their closet haven and made his way towards the tombs of the Aldmeri ancestors. He will be a legend. The bow will challenge, the shield will hold, and the sword, the sword… He suddenly stopped, wiping a stray tear from his eye. Don’t think on what becomes of the sword, where it will eventually lie, think of only of the now, and that she will become a legend too.
Because I, Archmagister Rynandor the Bold, Seer-mage of Crystal-Like-Law, have seen it, and what I see is always so...
This is the third of the "Tower" chapters and is brand new material. I wanted to flesh out Aelberon's mother a little and introduce a new character. Also, my apologies for the very long delay between chapters. I've been extremely busy with work, real life, and I've got a rather large battle coming up that the lead in for is especially difficult to visualize.
Note - the scum carp is a fish found in ESO, a rare fish to catch in Stonefalls. Since they are calling it a carp, I'm making the assumption that it's like a carp in both behavior and body type, which is a member of the cyprinid family.