This is the second installment in a series of short stories following the NPCs of our ongoing roleplaying campaign, The Dragon's Dozen. More to come soon!
The icy winds that tore through early morning Labyrinthian were a bitter cold, yet I found myself glistening with a fine layer of sweat. Fresh bruises discolored my exposed skin in hues of purple and green while arcane frost still clung to the hems of my robe. It seemed my hesitation to train with Sofie had been for nothing. She was a far better teacher than I was expecting, making my initial reservations more embarrassing than I was willing to admit out loud. As I expected, her ferocity rivaled that of any “true Nord” I had faced before, but she was just reserved enough to know when to step away and provide much needed instruction. Despite the general achiness in my muscles and my miscellany of bruises, I couldn’t help but smile. There was a simple pride in knowing she would walk away with just as many pains as she dealt.
Despite the hour, Lamp Camp was already bustling with activity. The snow storm that blew through the night prior had done nothing to slow the day-to-day activities that we had come to accept as normal. The crying advertisements of vendors mingled with the incomprehensible chatter of mercenaries and travelers. Droves of volunteers- men, mer, and beastfolk alike- meandered through the Merchant’s Run in search of anything to waste their gold on. The more versatile and daring individuals headed towards the workshops and stables. The scent of warm mead wafted from the direction of the Khajiiti tower, accompanied by the alluring scent of seared meat and stew. Every day, our little ruin looked more and more like a thriving city, leaving me to wonder if this was what Bromjunaar looked like in its prime.
Descending the steps of the Labyrinthian Training Grounds, I had full intentions on making my way to the tavern, finding a nice spot to rest my aching bones, and downing a couple bowls of Laurri’jo’s beef stew. I was halted, however, as I heard a loud, angry shout echo from the direction of Mjallar’s- and now Grendis’- forge. The exact words were lost on me between the groans of the wind and the chatter of those around me, but the body language of the participants spoke volumes. A rather ill-tempered Nord stood rigid in front of the Dunmer blacksmith and his young son, watching the elder scold the child. Grendis begrudgingly produced a small pouch from his apron, passing it to the Nord with muted words. Whether apologies or promises, it was met with the same reaction. The burly warrior shoved his stubby finger in the old mer’s face before directing it at the child.
“Don’t,” I heard the familiar, aged voice call from behind me. Teldryn had spotted my tensing form and the dancing of arcane fire on my fingertips long before I realized I was reacting. From his nook just beside the door of the Sanctuary, he had also been watching the scene unfold; I had failed to notice him in my distraction. “Grendis handled it. Besides, that man has every right to be mad. He caught Saras stealing from his tent.” I turned towards him with a heavy sigh. “Didn’t expect to see you up and moving this early, Zenoya” he drawled; his Dunmeri accent had only strengthened since he returned from his homeland. “You were awful deep in your cups last night.”
“I could say the same of you,” I responded, approaching him with a polite bow of my head. He scoffed in amusement as I continued, “I’ve never seen another mer drink half as much as I do. I didn’t think you had it in you, sir.”
“I’ve been told I’m a Dunmer of many talents. My carousing comes second only to my swordsmanship.” He paused, watching as I took a spot next to him on the wall with crossed arms. “Besides, it was a special occasion.”
Despite the attempted humor, there was definitely a melancholy to his words, something that was severely out of character for the mer. I knew more or less what had happened in Blacklight; the pressure and guilt was likely weighing on him more than he initially let on. Rather than press the issue, however, I chose to change the subject. It was far too early and we were far too sober. “You said Saras stole from that man’s tent?”
The chitin-clad Knight nodded his head slightly, keeping his eyes focused on the forge. I followed his gaze as the elder Dunmer ushered his son inside. “Letting Grendis handle it was better than the alternative. No reason to get the Hold Guards involved over the petty thievery of children.”
I furrowed my brow as I tried to process the pieces of information. “Why would Saras want to steal from someone? I would have thought with the services Grendis provides, Lamp would have offered to give them any necessities they would need.” He allowed his silence and my own knowledge of the Steward to provide the answer. “Of course he did…”
“Grendis is a good man with strong morals,” he told me, a mix of admiration and concern in his words. “I have a hard time believing he would have allowed his son to resort to theft back in Morrowind.”
“So, he’s acting out now in retaliation for all that’s happened,” I concluded, allowing myself to mull over the situation. “This is his- what?- eleventh or twelfth winter? He’s just lost his mother and been taken from everything he’s ever known. I can’t imagine that’s easy for him to process.”
“I wasn’t going to leave Grendis there after I caused him to lose everything,” Teldryn replied in a low grumble. “I know well the effects of idle hands paired with broken hearts.” He glanced towards me, allowing me to just catch my own reflection in his glass eyepieces before turning back to the workshop. “I suppose I didn’t think much about how this would affect the boy.”
Realizing my words were misinterpreted, I grimaced. “Oh, no, I didn’t mean to put the blame on you. I know you did what was best. You got them out of danger and you’re keeping your friend alive. Still,” I sighed, “I think something needs to be done to keep the kid busy, or at the very least entertained. He doesn’t even have anyone his own age to be his friend here.”
Teldryn chuckled deeply, reassuring me he wasn’t too wounded by the miscommunication. “We don’t exactly have the resources to spend babysitting him, and I’m not too apt to volunteer myself. I’ve had quite enough looking after children during our trip to Morrowind. I don’t think I’m as qualified as I used to be.”
“Well, a couple hundred years will do that to you, I hear,” I teased him with a smirk. Teldryn scoffed quietly, turning his head as I stepped from the wall and stretched my sore arms. “Maybe he just needs someone to help him get adjusted here- help him find something to do besides get into serious trouble-”
“It almost sounds like you’re talking about yourself,” he taunted, amusement and sarcasm returning to his diction. I grinned, tapping my nose in response to his obvious challenge. The old mer relaxed as another muffled laugh slipped from under his helm. “Fine,” he spoke simply, inclining his chin towards the forge once more. “I guess now is the time to prove it.” Saras carefully slunk towards the Adventurer’s Encampment, looking much too suspicious to have taken whatever warning his father had delivered to heart.
“He wastes no time, does he?” I muttered under my breath. “Let me see what I can do.” A small bow to the Lamp Knight was met by his own mock gesture. He found amusement in this simple task, but I couldn’t detect malice behind the motivation. He had long earned my respects as an individual and a warrior, and I like to think I had proven myself to him a time or two as well.
I hurried into the crowds to keep my eyes on the young, sneaky Dunmer, but it was clear he had the advantage. His small frame helped him avoid the detection of many who were lingering around their tents. The warrior men sharing tales and mead around their fires, the wizards and scholars excitedly discussing tomes and theories near their huts- both parties were too self-absorbed to notice the small, darting shadow in their midsts. Despite the mischievous circumstances, I found myself impressed with his talent. Unfortunately for him, he was not expecting to be trailed by someone equally as gifted.
Saras stopped in a particularly empty area of the encampment, finding a tent that no doubt looked promising to his rebellious mind. By the time I made my way over to him, he was already sifting through one of the knapsacks along the leather and hide wall. I took a deep breath as I knelt in the entrance, my voice barely above a whisper, “Haven’t you gotten into enough trouble for the day?” The boy squeaked in fear, tossing the bag away from him as he slid to the back side of the tent. His wide, red eyes were barely visible beneath his unkempt, raven hair, but I could see tears already beginning to stream down his cheeks. Rather than cause a scene or berate him, I simply extended my hand. “Come on, before whoever this belongs to comes back.”
Each shaky breath caused his chest to rise and fall. He clasped his hands together, holding them tightly over his pounding heart. “You… you aren’t going to hurt me?” he asked, voice even softer than my own. I almost laughed at the ridiculousness of the question- if I was going to hurt a child, even one as mischievous as him- before the reality of such an inquiry struck me. His eyes scanned my sun-kissed skin and dark robes before settling on my honey colored eyes once more. Just a few weeks prior, someone like me had slaughtered his mother, brutalized his father, and nearly killed him as well. He was rightfully terrified.
“Of course not,” I breathed, smiling kindly as I kept my hand extended. “I’m actually wanting to keep you safe; some of these people are really protective of their things.” While he didn’t appear entirely convinced, he slowly reached out for my hand. His trembling fingers wrapped around my own as I helped pull him from the tent and back to his feet. The boy moved a few paces away, understandably, but stayed close enough to look me over. “You seem too clever to get into trouble by stealing, Saras. Didn’t you learn the first time?”
He stammered a few syllables, trembling as he held his hands behind his back. Tears still dripped from his chin, but he was no longer terrified of my mere appearance. He was being asked a question that he didn’t even know the answer to. He had no reason to steal other than his own idle hands and thoughts. It was simply for rebellion, a release, and to make other people hurt the way he did. I drew a deep breath as I looked around, ensuring we had yet to be noticed by the relatively distant men, mer, and beastfolk. I silently motioned for him to follow me, walking a few paces and waiting for him to fall in beside me. I saw no reason to scold him- clearly his father’s words had no effect- and the reality of consequence appeared to be enough to enlighten him, even if just for a little while.
Nearly to the well-trodden path, I heard him mutter from beside me, “Are you a Lamp Knight? Like Uncle Teldryn?”
“Something like that,” I responded with a small laugh. I elected not to dive into my own personal reasons for failing to join the distinguished Order. Besides, my answer was enough to satisfy him. “I’m Zenoya,” I introduced myself, smiling down at him coolly. He was willing to talk to me, so I was going to use the opportunity. “How do you like Skyrim, Saras?”
“It’s… really cold.” He told me with a quiet laugh. “Uncle Teldryn says not everywhere is like this. Some places are more green- but nothing like home.” He wiped his cheeks on his dense, furry jacket as he looked up at the flurries drifting from the gray sky.
“You must really like Teldryn, huh?” His nod gave me an idea. The child was restless, so returning him to the forge without burning off some of his energy would be another recipe for disaster. “You know, I bet Teldryn had to train a long time to become ‘The Best Swordsman in all Morrowind’. But… You could probably be better than he is if you started training now.”
As expected, the boy’s curiosity got the better of him. “Be a mercenary and go on adventures?” he asked, beaming. “That would be so cool! How do I do that? When can I start? Do you have a sword I can use?”
“By the Eight,” I laughed, shaking my head. “I- uh-... I didn’t mean right now. You need to learn some things before you pick up a sword and charge into your first job.” His smile faltered until I added, “But, we can practice some other things and have a bit of fun doing it.”
“You mean it?” The promise of fun was enough to relieve the young mer of any remaining reservations he had about me. After all, I was probably the first one who offered to entertain him since he arrived just a few days prior. “I’m ready!” he laughed. “What are we doing?”
I pursed my lips at the question. In all honesty, I hadn’t thought that far ahead. We had to do something that resembled a mock training session- something that he could do that was both fun and ‘dangerous’. As I rubbed my neck, pondering potential exercises, another flake of icy fluff drifted by, lighting on the tip of my nose. Brushing it away, I grinned down at the expectant boy. “Have you ever made a snowball, Saras?”
“A snowball?” he repeated, taking a knee in front of me as I knelt by one of the snow dunes. The ice bit into my hands as I compacted the individual flakes into a more solid form. With weak effort, I tossed the ball at the unexpecting mer. He squeaked in surprise as it exploded upon impact, but the following quick laugh assured me he was more than okay with his new discovery. “Let me try!”
Helping him form his new weapon with just the right amount of pressure, I spoke softly, “I used to make these all the time. Good for a distraction, or a little fun. When I first started out on my own, I used to see how many city guards I could pelt in a day.” ‘I should not have told him that.’ “I uh-... I don’t recommend doing that though. These Nords don’t know how to have any fun.” As soon as he finished forming the shape, he glanced up at me with a knowing grin. I had just a moment to block the snowball with my arms. I chuckled softly as he began to roar with laughter. Finally, a harmless weapon that he could use to cause mischief. I knew Grendis would love that. “Alright, now, we have to put this into practice. It’s not enough to have a weapon. You have to know how to use it too.”
“What do you mean?” he asked, making another snowball in preparation. My eyes shifted to the crowd, settling on a short, familiar form. Cylena was making her rounds in the Adventurer’s Encampment, striking up conversations with the adventurers and mercenaries. She was an easy target- and the least likely of anyone to get aggressive should a snowball catch her off guard. I gathered up a bit of snow in my hands as well, motioning him to follow me.
We hid behind one of the large stone huts. I peeked around the corner to ensure the Bosmer was still heading our way before muttering, “You’re awfully good at sneaking about, but I want to see just how good you are. This will be a little chance to practice with your snowballs and stealth.” I motioned him over to locate his target. “Cylena is a Lamp Knight Initiate: the Bosmer with the blue scarf and Lamp pin. See her? I’m gonna show you how to do it, then I want you to try, okay?”
The boy grinned widely as he nodded his head, watching as I crept between the huts to get into a better position and draw attention away from him. The chipper Bosmer turned her back to me as she addressed another one of the adventurers. Given the moment of distraction, I let loose my grip on the ice, sending it hurtling towards her before ducking behind the tent. “Hey!” She cried out immediately following the poofing sound of exploding snow. Saras covered his mouth to hide his laughing and gain his composure. As she turned to face my direction, he tossed his as well, striking her near perfectly in the back. “Hey! What’s going on?” Cylena whined, looking around.
I quickly motioned the boy over as she started for his hut. He slipped past without so much as a notice from her, only audibly laughing when he was safely out of her range. “That was great! She didn’t even see us!” He started making another ball with the snow piled around our new hiding place. “Can we do it again?”
“Aye,” I told him with a grin. I peered over my shoulder to see Teldryn was still standing guard at the sanctuary. “In fact,” I mused, making a snowball of my own, “Let’s see if we can hit all the Lamp Knights.”
What began is a simple diversion for the homesick Dunmer child quickly turned into an all day affair, and I had not a single complaint. After successfully targeting Cylena, we went on a quest to find Dulmoth. Unsurprisingly, the Orc was distracted by his flagon as he “watched” the camp from the mountain overlook. He didn’t see us sneak up the rocky path nor did he detect the oversized snowball that was pelted at him from behind. Saras and I hid amongst the trees as he searched, cursing whoever “watered down his mead”.
Our next target was Sofie. Around noon, she made her way from the training grounds towards the tavern for some lunch. We simply hid ourselves behind the Labyrinth’s pillars and ruined stone; the distracted Nord wasn’t prepared for our combined attack and the force sent her stumbling. Fortunately, we both managed to slip away from her as well.
I expected old Teldryn to give us the most trouble, but the two of us managed to catch him off guard. Using the ever moving crowds as cover, we were able to blend in seamlessly with the adventurers and merchants. The snowballs splattered against his chitin-armor in unison, knocking his relaxed form against the wall. For a moment, I thought he might have made me out among the traversers, but as he inevitably returned to his rest, I knew we were in the clear. With four of the five Lamp Knights taken care of, all that was left was Blaise.
Carefully sneaking up the steps with the Order’s Enclave, Saras and I scoped out the scene, planning our attack with precision as if our lives depended on it. In the few hours we had been at it, he had displayed a guile and willingness to learn that I wished even half of our volunteers possessed. He clung to my every word like I was a prophet of the Divines and put them into practice. I hoped it would be enough; Lamp was the toughest target yet.
Blaise was fortunately out of his pavilion, reading over some notes and a map Sofie had set out near the middle of our campsite. As far as either of us could tell, he was alone. “Take the right,” I whispered softly. “I’ll take the left. This is our final challenge.” The boy grinned widely before throwing on his serious facade. Planning his approach just a few moments more, the Dunmer boy carefully crept around the tents pavilions right of us.
I mirrored his actions on the left side of the camp, inching just close enough to put the Steward in range. Saras peeked around the corner of one of the pavilions, waiting for me to make a move. I drew a deep breath as I rolled the snowball between my hands a few moments, waiting for the wind to die down. The moment I released the projectile, however, I knew I had made a mistake. Blaise’s hand lifted from the table, swirls of white and orange lingering on his fingertips as the snowball came to a sudden halt behind him. He took a deep breath as he turned to face me, lips pulled into the slightest hint of a smirk. I narrowly ducked behind cover to avoid the snowball sent back in my direction. I had been spotted; I had failed.
As I scrambled to put together another snowball, fighting against time and the Steward’s approaching footsteps, I heard the splattering of snow behind me. “What-” Blaise sounded as though he was caught by surprise. Peeking around the corner, I saw the Steward dusting the fine layer of power from his shoulder. Saras had landed his hit and was likely making his escape. I used the distraction to slip out of sight and down the staircase as well- not that it would be much help. Lamp knew it was me, but I was indebted to finish Saras’ and my little game until the end.
By the time I reached the boy, he was giggling in excitement. “Did you see that? I did it! I won! I got all of them!” He crushed the other snowball in his hand as he stared up at me, eyes full of excitement and wonder. He wanted- needed- my approval.
“I did,” I responded with a grin of my own. “You might be better than me now! I can’t believe how quickly you caught on, Saras!” He beamed in pride, a reminder just how simple the admiration of children was as opposed to everything else. He thought the world of me, just by the simplest of games. The nip in the air had returned as the strongest light and heat of Magnus disappeared behind the mountain, so I reasoned it was time to return him to his father. I ruffled his messy hair with my hand before motioning him to follow. “Come on, I’ll take you back to Grendis. I’m sure he’ll love to hear what you did today.”
“Awe…” he groaned, begrudgingly following behind me. “Alright… but… but can we do something like this tomorrow, Zenoya?” I stopped to let him catch up to me. “I want to play another game.”
I chuckled softly. “You’re not exhausted? I feel like I could sleep for days.” Despite my teasing, I found myself nodding. “Sure, we can find something to do tomorrow sometime- if you promise to stay out of trouble.”
“No more stealing peoples things, right?”
“Right!” The forge was within sight and the young mer rushed ahead of me, that bright smile still lingering on his face. He looked over his shoulder at me, offering a wave. “Goodnight, Zenoya! See you tomorrow!”
I stopped in my tracks as I watched him go. “Goodnight, Saras,” I sighed, the exhale lingering in the air. A strange mix of emotions- pride and regret- had suddenly flooded my mind. Kids were always easier to talk to; for the most part, they had no bias and were easily swayed by the simple kindness of attention. They were overlooked and not entirely taken seriously- something we both shared in common. Still, with every interaction with them- from the children I met in the cities on my travels to Saras himself- I left with this feeling of… emptiness.
Or perhaps it was envy. This was what it was like to be a child. There was so much innocence and wonder, the only concern in their minds to have fun. They didn’t have to worry about the realities of the world- the wars, the deaths, the prophecies and profane magics. They returned home to families that loved them dearly and kept them safe, warm, and fed. How idiotic was it to want that naivety and experience that bliss in absolute ignorance? I found myself longing for it often- much more often than I was willing to admit.
I chose not to linger in the cold and on my thoughts any longer, instead heading back to the Order’s Enclave. I needed a drink. With the darkening sky, the camp was winding down again. The snow had begun to fall heavily again, promising another fresh layer of snow to make snowballs with tomorrow. The market chatter was quieter, allowing the chirps and cries of the Hjaalmarch marshbugs to be carried on the breeze. The serenity was a welcome peace following the day of mischievous chaos I and my Dunmer apprentice had caused. I was ready to crawl between some furs and sleep until morning-
A freezing rush of ice collided with my face as I reached the top of the staircase, staggering me a few steps. I shook my head, quickly wiping the snow from my eyes as I tried to determine the cause. Dulmoth and Teldryn flanked either side of the formation, holding the icy weapons in their hands. Just beside them, Cylena and Sofie stood at the ready, the latter tossing her projectile up and down in anticipation. At the center, Lamp held the second snowball in suspension.
The thoughts that threatened to sour my mood vanished, and I found myself smirking. There was no use regretting the past- those things I didn’t have and what I wanted- when the future was right in front of me. I had the opportunity to do better, to be better, and still have a bit of fun.
“Alright fine,” I called out, kneeling down to form my own weapon from the fluff on the stairs. “I suppose I deserve this. Just… don’t think I’m going to make this easy for you.” Those my final words, I let loose my snowball and accepted my inevitable fate...