The Summer of My Ashlander Nomad
Daria first started practicing the arcane a week after her return from Caldera.
She did it because of the memories from the past year-and-a-half weighing down on her: Synda’s attack, the nix hound by the shrine, and Todis and Shalfar chasing her down the nighttime streets with knives drawn and murder on their minds.
Tamriel was a dangerous place. She did not know how to protect herself. Clumsily wielding dad’s sword, which she was barely strong enough to swing, simply wouldn’t be enough. But magic was an art of the mind, which had always been one of her stronger points.
So, one Loredas morning when Quinn was out shopping, she sequestered herself in her room to practice a simple restoration spell known as quicksilver. It’d make her faster, which at least gave her the option to run away from a fight. More importantly, she’d already learned it thanks to her old tutor, Vandries, back in Stirk.
If only Vandries hadn’t been too soft-hearted to teach her the spells of destruction.
For an entire morning she sat cross-legged on the floor, her back against her bed. She’d taken off her glasses and closed her eyes, visualizing the bright white light of Aetherius shining through the pierced black veil of Mundus, the light seeping onto Nirn and animating every living thing, from dragons to blades of grass. All was possible within its glow. She imagined the sensation of speed: feet pounding pavement; wind rushing past her; sweat on her brow and back. And then she imagined going faster.
Her fingertips tingled as she touched the fabric of reality. She was a part of the universe which meant the universe was her, so naturally she could bend its rules a little bit.
Her eyes opened to the sight of white light dancing around her hands. Her heart quickened and senses sharpened. She felt the speed she’d soon possess, the equations of reality being rewritten in her muscles and bones.
And then, with an obnoxious “fffffzzz!” sound, the lights sputtered and went out, leaving her sitting in the dark next to her bed and realizing she should’ve probably sat on a cushion instead of on the hard floor.
For the next month she practiced whenever she could. The Mages Guild did not approve of unlicensed wizards—getting caught meant a steep fine and a series of safety lectures from the local guild authorities. Given that one of those authorities might be her former supervisor, Hetheria, Daria wanted to avoid this. Which meant she had to close the windows and wait until her home emptied out—a rare enough occurrence in the Morgendorffer house.
She got better. But not by much. Halfway through the month of Midyear, with the hot sun hammering down on the dusty hills and bare rooftops, she cast one successful spell for every four failures. Which was an improvement. Just not enough of one. She practiced the three schools she knew, seeing tiny and incremental improvement in restoration and alteration, and next to nothing for mysticism.
A Morndas afternoon late in the month, with Quinn in an emergency Fashion Club meeting at Tiphannia’s house, gave her another chance. She hurried home right after school and went straight to her room. Mom was in the office downstairs but was too busy to bother her.
Levitation struck her as another spell worth knowing. A draining one to be sure, but again: useful for getting out of bad situations. Unless the person chasing her had wings, arrows, or rocks to throw. In which case she’d be an easy target.
But the only related spell Vandries had taught her had been telekinesis. Fair enough: probably safer to practice lifting random objects than risk bumping her head on the ceiling or floating in the air too long and having a nasty fall.
She sat on a cushion and closed her eyes. Alteration wasn’t that different from restoration; she just had to focus on the world around her instead of her own flesh and bone. She drew in the power as she had before. Her mind focused on the inkwell lying on her desk.
Like all objects, it tended to stay on the ground. But what if it didn’t have to? Think like a child, she told herself, and tried to believe that a tin inkwell could, in fact, float. Power surged through her nerves, buzzing again at her fingertips as it flowed out from her mind and body.
She opened her eyes to focus. Violet light gleamed bright in her hands. The inkwell seemed to shudder. She held her breath.
The inkwell stubbornly refused to lift.
“Dammit,” she uttered.
Frustrated, she got to her feet. Her back ached for some reason, and she was still restless from the long hours in Drenlyn. Quinn wouldn’t be home for a while so it wouldn’t hurt her to go outside and stretch for a few minutes.
She opened the door to the balcony and stepped out onto the sunbeaten surface, the warm and dusty air swirling around her. A bunch of outlander kids played in the street below, using a rod to roll an old barrel hoop back and forth.
Daria stretched her arms, the sleeves of her green wool coat a bit too short for her. As she did, she saw her shadow on the outer wall of her parents’ bedroom.
And noticed another shadow above her head.
The inkwell floated a few inches above her scalp.
Daria ran back into her room and out of sight. Great move, Morgendorffer, she thought. She’d walked right out onto the balcony with visible evidence of the arcane floating over her head.
Then the spell fizzled out and the inkwell—screwed shut, thank the Divines—bounced off her scalp and clattered on the floor.
“Well, you haven’t blown up your house or turned it into cookie dough. So I’d say you’re doing pretty good! Though now I want cookie dough.”
It was lunch. Daria and Jane idled in the library’s cool and musty interior. Lli had at least picked a good contractor for the new roof.
“The problem is that I can only practice when I’m home and Quinn isn’t,” Daria said.
Jane shrugged. “Isn’t Quinn always going out to enforce her ruthless fashion dictates on our poor city?”
“Except when she’s bringing her minions home to enforce those dictates on me. And some afternoons I’m working at my mom’s office, and I can’t practice with her around.”
“I guess you could try my apartment.”
Daria shook her head. “I’m technically not supposed to be doing this, and I don’t want to get you in trouble by association. Maintaining their arcane monopoly is the one thing the Mages Guild legitimately cares about.”
“I’d be surprised if they kept an eye on Labor Town.”
Daria knew for a fact that they did.
“Hey, here’s an idea! Why not go outside of the city? Far from prying eyes?” Jane said.
“Hmm, I know I few places off the road where I could practice spells. And bury some bodies—oops, you’ve heard too much, you’re going to have to join them.”
Jane laughed. “I’d welcome it. Anything to get me out of this commission I’m in! I need get better at negotiating contracts. Don’t suppose your mom would do some pro bono work for me?”
“Sorry, but that’d be violating her one and only principle. If it makes you feel better, I can buy you a round at the Lucky Lockup after school today.”
“Wish I could join you. I have to work on this,” Jane said. “In fact, I’m probably going to skip Sera Dimartani’s class and go home after lunch.”
“You have been making yourself pretty scarce on campus lately,” Daria said.
“I know. I gotta hustle for commissions these days. School doesn’t make much business sense for me right now.”
Daria nodded. Jane only attended Drenlyn because it provided a source of clients, and since doing free work for Sera Defoe let her halve her enrollment fees.
Drenlyn’s big bronze bell clanged mournfully in the courtyard, announcing an end to lunch. Daria and Jane collected their things.
“It’s back to the grind for me,” Jane said, sounding tired. “Sorry I can’t hang out.”
“It’s no big deal. The Lucky Lockup will still be there tomorrow.”
“Unless one of your spells goes really awry.”
“Really awesome, you mean.”
As she entered the blazing-bright courtyard, Daria decided that since Jane was busy, she might as well try practicing magic outside the city walls that afternoon.
Daria was not one to be captivated by nature’s wonders, but even if she had been, the rocky hills around Balmora wouldn’t have offered much inspiration. Probably never a verdant place, it had only grown bleaker with the city's rise. Egg mines riddled the slopes like a disfiguring pox, and kwama effluvium stained the soil around each shaft.
She scanned the boulders and stunted trees for any sign of a place that might let her practice in peace. A few scanty groves that looked like they might blow away in a strong wind offered the only real possibilities.
Hiking up to one, she surveyed her surroundings. A line of guar-pulled wagons inched their way to Balmora on the road below, while riverboats drifted down the muddy vein of the Odai to the west. She doubted anyone would be looking at her, but magic did have a way of getting attention.
Not satisfied, she spotted another copse in the shadow of a taller hill. It’d be cooler, if nothing else. As she walked, the sun beating down on her bug-shell hat (she’d bought a new one), she considered the dangers of getting too far from the road. The wilderness around Balmora was supposedly safe enough—but Morrowind was never really safe.
The next spot was at least a bit scenic, the wiry trees close enough together to give the illusion of verdancy. Waxy-blue stoneflowers grew on the ground, their smell faint but sweet. She was out of sight of the road and far enough from the Odai that she doubted even the most eagle-eyed boat captain would see her.
“Things seem to be going well,” she said. “Which means that a wild kagouti will charge out of the brush and eat me right… about… now!”
She only heard the wind rustling through the leaves.
“Don’t think I don’t know you’re there,” she said. She took her waterskin from her belt and quaffed a long and lukewarm draught. With that done, she sat down on the ground and began to practice.
Concentration was tough at first. Every time she focused on Aetherius, something pulled her attention away: the wind blowing her hair, the thump of a wild scrib searching for food among the rocks, or the subtle taste of ash in the air. The more she ignored the sensations, the more pronounced they became.
But she soon realized the key was to attune herself to them. Magic was life, after all. So she let the wind and the scents and the ash become part of her arcane schema.
Daria continued her practice of alteration. This time she tried out the shield spell since it could never hurt to have another layer between her and those who wished her harm.
She brought the energies around her and they fizzled out. Well, the first time was almost never the charm. Taking a deep breath, she prepared again. Once more, it died on her fingertips.
Three more tries without success left her connection to Aetherius weak and probably as frustrated as her. She rested a while to restore it, drinking more water and watching the descending sun, its light hammered into the burnished gold of late afternoon.
She’d regained enough for a few more attempts. Again, the first one failed. Breathing in, she brought the energies around herself, imagining arrows breaking against her shield. A surge ran through her arms and a sound like a whistle filled her ears.
A moment later and a sphere of soft violet light encased her. Daria smiled. She’d done it! And, as Vandries had said, each successful casting further attuned one’s connection.
Of course, failing five times still meant she wasn’t ready to protect herself.
“Excuse me! Are you the wise woman of Balmora?”
Daria yelped and jumped to her feet, her glasses almost sliding off her nose in the process. She grabbed the glasses in time to keep them from falling. A blurry figure stood across the grove to her left, and she readjusted her spectacles for a better look. What came into focus was a young red-haired Dunmer, slight of build and dressed in a patchwork of carapace fragments and netch leather. Daedric script tattoos ran along his bare arms, and vertical lines of raised flesh had been cut onto his cheeks. The chitin spear strapped to his back made him look like a bandit, and Daria was glad her shield spell had worked. But his eyes, wide and curious, didn’t seem to hold any malign intent.
“Uh, how long have you been there?” she asked.
His face turned solemn. “Forgive me, wise woman. I did not mean to intrude. I’m afraid I’m not very familiar with the rituals of Balmora’s peoples. It’s a gap in my education.”
His voice was almost squeaky, by Dunmer standards anyway.
“It’s okay. I guess. While I am a woman, and certainly have more wisdom than some of my peers, I’m not sure I qualify as a ‘wise woman’.”
He nodded and stroked his chin. “You do seem rather young. I figured you might be an apprentice, but I did not want to disrespect your magic by saying so.”
“Wise woman apprentice is probably an upgrade from unremarkable middle-class daughter. What’s your name?”
Then it all came together for her: his tattoos, the ‘wise woman’ references… this kid was an Ashlander, the Dunmer who still held to the old nomadic ways and were shunned by the temple and great houses. And, if the stories were true, potential robbers and killers.
The shield suddenly vanished, leaving nothing between him and Daria but a dozen feet of air.
“I’m Daria Morgendorffer." She’d never heard of Ashlanders living around Balmora. The egg mines and hardscrabble farms didn’t leave much room for pastoralists. “Are you an Ashlander?” she asked, eyeing the road in the distance. Maybe she could try that quicksilver spell for a boost—if she actually managed to cast it.
“My father was! He was of the Odaishannabab, whose lands once stretched from the Odai Plateau to the western shores of Lake Masobi. He’s a farmer now, and I suppose I’ll be one, too.”
Daria relaxed a bit. So the guy wasn’t exactly an Ashlander, just descended from those that had settled down.
“Forgive me if I’m being intrusive, but what are those strange discs over your eyes?” he asked. “I’ve never seen anything like them before.”
“These? These are glasses. My eyesight isn’t that good, but I can see okay as long as I wear them.”
Tedannupal walked up to her, his head askance and eyes curious. “How curious! May I take a closer look? Are these magic?”
Daria stepped back, not quite comfortable with how close he was. “No, just the implementation of glasswork based on our understanding of the human eye. There are spells you can use to get the same effect, but I don’t like the idea of having to constantly cast them on myself. Though I guess that would make for good practice.”
“May I try them on?”
Daria hesitated. “Sorry, but I’m not in the habit of lending these to people. Bifocals aren’t easy to get around here, and I already lost one pair.”
Tedannupal nodded. “I understand. I certainly would not lend my eyes to someone else—though mine aren’t very good either.” He gave a quick shrilly laugh, and then sighed. “My father says that someone with my eyesight could only ever be a spear hunter! Is your father a skilled hunter?”
“He’s great at hunting for things to be angry about. But if you’re relying on him to hunt for game you might as well turn vegetarian.”
He stared at her for a moment, uncomprehending. “He hunts for things to be angry about?”
“It’s a joke,” she said. And maybe, she thought, a bit harder on her dad than was warranted. “My dad’s a good guy, he just gets easily irritated when he thinks he’s getting a bad deal from the local shopkeepers. Which is often.”
“Oh! He doesn’t want bad deals… so he hunts for good deals?”
“That’s actually a pretty accurate assessment,” Daria said. “My mom hunts for clients and she wants me to hunt for networking opportunities.”
“Curious! So, for your people, ‘hunting’ can also refer to seeking things other than wild game?”
“I’m learning a lot today! Though since you’re a wise woman apprentice, you’d be hunting wisdom?”
“Uh, just so we’re clear, I’m not any kind of apprentice. Not formally, anyway,” Daria said. Somehow, the idea of lying to Tedannupal bothered her. The guy seemed completely open. And it wasn’t as if he’d report her to the Mages Guild. “I’m just practicing magic.”
“Interesting. But isn’t it dangerous to practice such things without guidance?”
“I did get some formal training years ago, so I’m not clueless. It’s just that I’m not on the best terms with the official practitioners of magic down in the city, so I have to cast spells out here.”
His eyes somehow got even bigger. “Wow! Not only am I meeting an Imperial, but one who rebels against her own system! The Empire sounds very decadent. Millions of people yoked to a single tribe, not knowing each other’s ways or customs, and all seeking to exploit one another. I’m amazed you’re able to hold together at all.”
“Never underestimate the power of bureaucratic inertia.”
Tedannupal nodded and stroked his chin. “You know, in an Ashlander tribe, you’d have the guidance of the wise woman when it came to practicing magic.”
“Sounds nice,” Daria said. “But what if I don’t get along with the wise woman?”
“She’d basically be family. Whatever the problem was, you’d work it out.”
“You clearly haven’t met my family.”
He laughed again. “This sounds so exciting! I don’t truly know how Ashlanders handle such things—but my father tells me of the old ways. The only life I’ve ever known is the farm.”
Daria searched the horizon for any signs of habitation. “You’re pretty far from the farm.”
“I’m actually on my way to Balmora. My uncle lives on the outskirts, so I’m going to check on him tonight. Tomorrow, I’ll go to the market to buy some tools that my father needs. He is worried about me going there on my own, because outsiders lie the way Ashlanders breathe.”
“Balmora can be pretty treacherous.”
“Perhaps, but you live there, and you’ve been quite friendly. You’re also the most interesting person I’ve ever met!”
“If I’m the most interesting person you’ve met, then you seriously need to meet more people—and that’s not something I usually recommend.”
“Ha ha! Well, this was a fortuitous encounter. I only stopped by this grove to get some comberries—I wasn’t expecting to meet anyone.”
“There are comberries here? I thought they only grew in the Ascadian Isles,” Daria said.
“A few of them grow here, as well. You just need to know where to look.”
Tedannupal knelt and reached into a patch of ferns with both hands. Moments later, he withdrew two fistfuls of pink comberries.
Daria thought about it for a moment. “Uh, sure.”
She extended her right hand, and Tedannupal poured a bunch of the berries into it. Daria popped a few into her mouth, savoring the sweet and sour flavor of the fruits.
“These are really good,” she said, and spat out the seeds.
“It’s puzzling to me that the House Dunmer let them ferment. It ruins the flavor.”
“Might ruin the flavor, but it brings other benefits,” Daria said. Saying that made her feel strangely corrupt.
They snacked in silence for a while as the sun continued its journey west. Daria finished her share and looked at the reddening sky.
“I should probably head back. I’m happy to guide you to the gate, though I doubt you need the help.”
“Certainly! I’m sure you can tell me all about the Empire.”
Tedannupal raised his juice-stained fingers to his lips and whistled. Leaves stirred in the undergrowth, their rustling joined by a faint clicking sound. A beetle emerged from the foliage. It looked like one of the rubbish beetles that clustered in Labor Town’s back alleys but this one was almost the size of a wheeled cart. Unlike the bruised and mottled colors of the city beetles, its shell was an iridescent green. A few packs had been strapped to the top of its abdomen.
“This is Zadurannabit! She’s served my family for years.”
Thus, with Tedannupal and Zadurannabit in tow, Daria began the hike back to Balmora.
Tedannupal peppered Daria with questions all through the walk back, which she answered as best as she could. She told him a bit about her life—her origins in Cyrodiil, her studies at Drenlyn Academy, and her friendship with Jane. He took it all in with his wide-eyed enthusiasm.
He finally split off at one of the scabrous villages just south of the city, where he said his uncle lived. Saying goodbye, Daria headed into the city on her own.
Her mind kept turning back to him for the rest of the night. Part of her wished she’d offered to help him navigate Balmora. The city wasn’t kind to the unready—and for all his outdoorsmanship, Tedannupal wasn’t even close to ready. She couldn’t shake the thought of some shyster tricking him into a bad deal. One that, given his family’s situation, he probably couldn’t afford.
Lying in bed and listening to Quinn snoozing on the other side of the room, she realized she was making too big a deal of it. All Tedannupal had really done was make weird conversation and give her some snacks. That didn’t make him a great guy. For all she knew, he was secretly a murderer.
But somehow, she didn’t think so. And she hated the thought of someone as guileless as him being hurt by Balmora’s callousness.
She awoke early from restless dreams the next morning and stumped down to the kitchen to get ready with a cold breakfast and a pot of strong trama root tea. Her mood glum, she set off for Drenlyn as soon as she’d finished, feeling vaguely cheated.
She’d no sooner gone through the gates when Jonus and Julien jogged up to her, their expressions hopeful. Jeval, apparently possessing a modicum of sense, no longer hung out with them.
“Hey, uh, Quinn’s sister!” Jonus said.
“Hello, Julien’s friend,” she replied.
“So, uh, we were wondering something,” Julien said, eyes darting from side to side.
“Yeah. Could you like make us look better? So we can impress Quinn?”
Daria crossed her arms and glared. “Why are you coming to me for fashion advice.”
Julien shook his head. “No, not fashion advice. What we want is, well, you know…” He waggled his fingers.
“Magic,” Jonus said.
“Everyone’s saying you’re a mage or something! Like you were levitating over your house the other day!”
This was bad. Someone had seen her accidentally float that inkwell.
“Let me put it to you this way, Jonus or Julien,” she said. “If I could levitate and go anywhere I pleased, why the hell would I stay here?”
Daria stalked off to Benniet’s class as fast as she could, ignoring their cries of protest. Somehow, she doubted that this was all some wacky rumor started by a misunderstanding. Someone had seen her, and with Drenlyn’s student body being what it was, everyone wanted a favor.
No wonder the mages had formed a guild.
She turned the corner of Benniet's classroom, only to find herself staring into Satheri’s sad and winsome eyes.
“Uh, hi! Do you have a moment, Sera Morgendorffer?”
“This better not be about me casting a spell on you. Because I’m not a mage.”
“But I heard that you could shoot lightning out of your hands!”
This was getting to be a bit much. “Then you heard wrong. Did Quinn tell you this?”
But Daria already doubted that. Quinn was many things, but stupid was not one of them.
Satheri shook her head. “No, sera. I actually haven’t talked to Muthsera Morgendorffer yet. I heard this from Sera Masanri. And she heard it from Agrippina.”
“Who heard it from her best friend’s cousin’s uncle’s boss,” Daria finished.
Satheri gulped. “Forgive me, Sera Morgendorffer. I wanted to know if there was a spell that could make me braver?”
“I’d tell you that bravery was inside you all along,” Daria said, “but that’d be a lie.”
“That’s why I need the magic!" Satheri cried.
Daria jerked open the door and fled inside, slamming it behind her. Befitting her lack of bravery, Satheri didn’t follow her.
“Oh, Daria!” said Sera Benniet, busy opening the shutters to let in the dusty morning sunlight. “You’re here early.”
“I just couldn’t wait for the lecture on the importance of finding a good patron for your business and/or nonprofit. That question is the sort of thing that keeps me up at night.”
Benniet giggled. “It is pretty exciting.”
Then she looked around the room, her eyes suspicious, and hurried over to Daria. “I’ve been hearing that you were summoning daedra in your basement. Is this true?”
Daria rolled her eyes. “No! I don’t even have a basement, and I certainly don’t know how to summon daedra!”
“Conjuration is supposedly one of the most dangerous schools of magic,” Benniet warned.
“Exactly. And I don’t practice conjuration.” Which wasn’t a lie.
“Good! I disapprove of unlicensed conjuration!” Then Benniet leaned in closer. “But if someone did know how to conjure things, hypothetically, would they know how to conjure gold from Oblivion? I ask because Lli really isn’t paying me enough.”
Daria sighed. This was going to be a long day.
Daria spent most of the class session dispelling rumors and was in a considerably worse mood by the time Benniet let them out for lunch. It would have been nice to vent to Jane, but she no longer had any sessions on Middas.
Jolda waited for her instead, a worried look on her face.
“Daria, these rumors about you practicing magic aren’t true, are they?” she asked.
Daria couldn’t remember if Jolda’s internship at the Mages Guild had ended or not. “No, and I’d appreciate if it people stopped asking. How the hell did these rumors start, anyway?”
“Agrippina,” Jolda said. “She said she saw you on the balcony of your house with something floating over your head.”
So someone had seen her. And from there, the story had just gotten wilder.
Jolda continued. “This isn’t a rumor you want going around. The Mages Guild takes this kind of thing really seriously.”
“Right, a fine and some lectures,” Daria said.
Jolda shook her head. “Not just that. The guild in Morrowind started clamping down extra hard on unlicensed magic because they’re worried about Great House Telvanni agents. Now, it’s a four-thousand septim fine, six mandatory magic usage lectures, wearing a magic detection and nullification anklet for five years, and being marked for future observation.”
Daria’s stomach sank. “I see,” she said. “When did they start doing this?”
“Just last month. Look, the people in the guild are reasonable. I’m sure if you pay a visit to their office and let them ask you a few questions, you can clear it all up. But you should do it now before the rumors spread any further.”
“Hey, it’s that chick with the glasses! Can you cast a spell to make me stronger?” a nearby student asked.
In seconds, more requests started to pour in.
“I think we’re at peak rumor,” Daria said, backing away from the crowd.
Then Tedannupal, of all people, strode through the gate. He stood on his own, a bewildered expression on his face.
“Daria?” he called out. “Are you here? Is this Drenlyn Academy?”
Her heart soared with relief. She didn’t know why, but just seeing Tedannupal—honest, strong, and so utterly himself—felt like an escape from Drenlyn’s den of intrigue. She jogged over to him. The other students held back, perhaps not sure what to make of the strangely dressed Dunmer in the courtyard, the spear strapped to his back in plain view.
“Yeah, it’s me,” she said, grabbing him by the arm and marching to the gate. Just the feel of that leanly muscled limb made her feel safe. More importantly, it gave her a chance to get out of Drenlyn and figure out her next step.
“I don’t know why you’re at Drenlyn,” she said, “but your timing was perfect.”
They passed under the gate and into the street outside, the crush of shoppers and porters giving Daria some protection from her idiotic peers.
“Daria, I think there’s been a terrible mistake. The guards just past the city gate thought Zadurannabit was a pest!”
He nodded. “I explained to them that we rely on Zadurannabit as a beast of burden, but they just took her! My father entrusted me with Zadurannabit, Daria. We’re poor farmers and have very little in the way of livestock. I have to get her back!”
“Okay,” Daria said, tabulating this new information. The day just kept getting weirder—but at least she could help Tedannupal. “I’ll do what I can. But promise me one thing.”
“Don’t ask me to cast any spells.”
Daria realized that she didn’t quite know what she was doing. But that was par for the course in Morrowind.
After talking with Tedannupal a bit, she imagined the following scenario: the guards had picked Tedannupal out as an Ashlander by virtue of his tattoos, which didn’t resemble the Dunmer standards. And, like guards sometimes did with outsiders, they’d taken advantage of Tedannupal and claimed his livestock was a pest. She’d never heard about guards prohibiting animals—though Zadurannabit being an oversized rubbish beetle probably hadn’t helped matters.
They first went to the striderport gate to see if Zadurannabit was still there. But no luck.
“Zadurannabit’s shell is marked with my family’s symbol,” Tedannupal said. “It’s a Daedric monogram.”
“People here don’t usually brand rubbish beetles, so that should help,” Daria said, going on tiptoes to peer over a line of crates by the stairways. Still no sign.
“I’m afraid Zadurannabit won’t leave any prints on the stone streets. How will we track her?”
“You don’t follow footprints in Balmora. Instead, you follow the business.”
Tedannupal tilted his head to the side, the sun gleaming on his curled red hair, the strands fine and coppery like a Nord boy’s. “How do you mean?”
Distracted by the sun’s reflection on his hair, it took Daria a moment to respond. “Uh, well, you need to think like one of us corrupt and venal city-dwellers. An animal requires a lot of food, so unless our guards were really desperate for a pet, they’d try to sell Zadurannabit off as soon as possible.”
“I’m sure the farmers on the outskirts would want such a beast.”
Daria shook her head. “No. They probably wouldn’t want to take her all the way to an outlying village. In Balmora, there’s only two uses for a big bug like that: shells and meat.”
Tedannupal gasped. “You mean they’ll eat her?”
“It’s a distinct possibility,” Daria said, keeping her voice level.
“I’m sorry, Daria, but I cannot countenance the wastefulness of your people!”
“Hey, they aren’t my people,” Daria said. “I’m an Imperial.”
“With respect, I’m not sure I see much of a difference between Imperials and House Dunmer.”
Daria pondered that for a moment. “Fair enough.”
Tedannupal wrung his hands. “Zadurannabit still has at least three more years of work in her, and another egg clutch, before it’s time to eat her.”
The pragmatic reality of farm life ended Daria’s brief surge of indignation. “Right! Well, maybe we can do something to make sure you and your family eat Zadurannabit instead of someone else.”
“Well, we did raise her!”
“My guess would be that the guards sold her to the butchers in Shellbreakers Court, across the river.”
“Is there an ashkhan or wise woman we can go to? Surely they would not tolerate this kind of behavior!”
“You’d be amazed what they tolerate. Come on, let’s go. I don’t know how much time Zadurannabit has left.”
They hurried across the Foreigner’s Span to the crowded warren of Labor Town. She’d been past Shellbreakers Court a few times, and remembered it as a bloody square on raised land wedged up against the eastern wall. If the bug still lived, she was probably there.
For all the chaos, Daria had to admit she was glad to have something else occupying her mind. Finding a stolen rubbish beetle gave her a clear problem to solve. Defusing an already out-of-control rumor would be much harder. Any denial would just be taken as confirmation.
And sooner or later the Mages Guild would stick their noses in to investigate. She knew they had all kinds of devices to detect magic usage.
Best to focus on the problem at hand. Maybe Kavon could help. But she didn’t know where to find him. Even if she did, there was no guarantee he’d go against the word of another guard.
Soon, she and Tedannupal squeezed through the packed crowds of the Labor Town streets, the musky reek of sweat and grime like a noxious fog in the summer heat. But it didn’t bother Tedannupal, his expression awestruck. “There are so many people here! Are they all from Balmora?”
“Most of us are from somewhere else,” she said.
“Wait! Is that an Altmer? From old Summerset?” he asked, pointing at a willowy high elf making his way through the throng with a look of distinct displeasure.
“He’s an Altmer, alright, but he could be from anywhere. The Empire covers an entire continent, and people move around a lot.”
“Oh, I wish I could see all of it. There must be so much to learn.”
“There is. But we have to focus on your beetle.”
“Of course! Heh, you’re certainly wise enough to be a wise woman.”
Daria tried not to smile, but she couldn’t help it, her lips turning up as warmth flooded her cheeks.
“So this is called wool?” he asked, staring in rapt awe at the stand of a Breton wool dealer who loudly advertised his wares.
“Yup. It’s harvested from sheep. I'm wearing wool right now.”
“What’s a sheep?”
“A type of four-legged mammal, common in human lands.”
“The wool is their shell?”
“Kind of. It’s more like dense and fluffy white hair, actually.”
He laughed. “That’s incredible! You turn hair into clothes! Oh, I have to tell that to my father. Even he would find that fascinating.”
She grabbed his forearm. “I’m sure, but let’s find Zadurannabit so you can still go back to your dad.”
She had to admit: it was kind of cool to see his reaction to things. His eyes turned the goods and commodities that Daria took for granted into things of wonder, hints of a vast and mysterious world that he hungered to learn more about.
She’d always loved to learn. As a child she read each book her family possessed at least a dozen times, her mind lighting up with new facts and ways of knowing that she wanted to share again and again, and see her awe reflected in the faces of others. Except she never did. Instead, she got the bored expressions of people who wanted nothing to do with her. So she learned to keep her thoughts to herself.
Maybe now, she wouldn’t have to.
The noontime sun blazed fierce above their heads when Daria first scented the rank stink of spilled blood. A line of workmen with bloodstained aprons revealed the way to Shellbreakers Court. The massive and oblong shell of a gutted and de-limbed silt strider lay in the center of the square, streams of blood and ichor flowing from the alcoves where the butchers had set up shop. Most of the meat was kwama, and broken shells of the same littered the slippery flagstones.
Tedannupal studied the nearest butcher and shook his head. “This is not how you properly cut meat.”
“Just keep an eye out for Zadurannabit,” Daria said, looking around the gory scene.
“I’ll take her back once I find her!”
“Wait!” Daria cautioned. “Do that, and they’ll mark you as a thief. We’ll have to negotiate. You’re too pure to be a good negotiator, so let me do the talking.”
Nearby, some rubbish beetles fed on the body of one of their own, but nothing the size of Zadurannabit. Finally, she decided to ask one of the butchers, a scarred Redguard resting from his labors in the shade of the shell.
“Excuse me, but did you see an exceptionally big green rubbish beetle here? It belonged to my friend, and we think someone may have mistakenly taken it to the court to be chopped up.”
“Oh, yeah! I did, actually. That was a big one!” Then he shook his head. “A couple of guys were trying to sell it, but we already all got our own suppliers. Seemed kind of fishy, you know?”
“Doesn’t get much fishier. Was this man a guard?”
“One of them had some bonemold armor like they wear, but I don’t think so. Guards always go around with the full suit, he just had a chestplate. The other guy didn’t have any armor, but he did have an ax.”
“Interesting,” Daria said, a clearer picture forming in her mind. Maybe they hadn’t been guards at all but just scammers lurking beyond the gates. Tedannupal wouldn’t have known the difference. “Do you know where they took it?”
The butcher pointed down a nearby alley. “Down that way.”
Daria frowned. The dark, winding little street did not look promising. “Uh, thanks.”
“He might’ve sold it to some of the bottom-feeders out there, though I don’t know if they’d have the money for that.”
Daria turned to Tedannupal, who was transfixed by his surroundings. “Balmora consumes all of this meat?” He said. “Surely not even the Dwemer had this kind of luxury!”
“Actually, the Dwemer probably had a lot more of it,” Daria said. “I explored one of their ruins once.”
Tedannupal gasped. “You’re incredible! Did they truly have herds of metal beetles? Did they capture sunlight in glass?”
“As much as I’d like to tell you, we have more important things to worry about. The butcher said the guys took Zadurannabit that way,” she said, pointing to the alley. “They might not have been guards, either.”
“But they said they were!”
“By the way, I’m a dragon,” Daria said.
“My point is, people can say anything. You have to be careful taking someone at their word, especially here.”
Tedannupal blinked and re-focused. “This den of lies both fascinates and repels me, Daria! But if the robbers are there and we catch up with them, I can kill them and take her back!”
Daria tried to hide her shock. “Sure, if you want to get arrested. You can’t just kill people.”
But Tedannupal was already running toward the alley.
“Wait, you idiot!” she cried out, running after him.
Quinn loved the Fashion Club, she truly did. But sometimes they disappointed her. Like today, when she’d only just found that there were these crazy rumors about her sister being a wizard. Keeping up on gossip was an essential part of being fashionable!
“We thought you like… already… knew,” Tiphannia said. “She’s like… your… sister…”
“I’m so sorry I didn’t say anything, Muthsera Morgendorffer,” Satheri stammered.
“In our defense,” Treads-on-Ferns added, “you weren’t on campus when Agrippina started the rumor.”
Quinn raised her hands. “Okay, that’s fine! But from now on, whenever a rumor starts about a family member or boyfriend of a Fashion Club member, we have to inform that member like, right away!”
“Agreed,” the rest of them said.
“We have to do something about this because if everyone’s asking Daria for favors, that means they won’t be paying attention to us!” Quinn exclaimed.
“Can your sister really cast spells?” Satheri asked.
Quinn rolled her eyes. “Barely. She had this tutor in Stirk, but she never got good at it.”
“But if she got good maybe she could make us prettier. I mean, not that you need to be prettier, muthsera, but you know, for me!”
“Satheri, you’re already gorgeous! Also, I call your attention to Fashion Club Bylaw #11: while there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the use of alteration and illusion magic for cosmetic purposes, doing so is discouraged since the use of magic surrenders fashion autonomy to the Mages Guild. And those guys are big-time geeks!”
“You are your mother’s daughter,” Treads-on-Ferns said.
“But way more fashionable!” Satheri added.
“So, what do we do… to like… stop these… rumors?” Tiphannia asked.
Quinin thought about it for a moment. “I have an idea!”
The odor of rotting trash mixed with the smell of blood as Daria ran into the alley after Tedannupal. Its narrow space was drowned in the shadows cast by crumbling two-story adobe tenements on either side, and the air thrummed with the clicking and chittering of insect swarms.
Daria caught up to him. “Have you lost your mind?” she demanded. “Initiating violence is sure to get you arrested. If you seriously hurt someone, which, with that spear, is a distinct possibility, they’ll throw you in a labor camp.”
Tedannupal raised his hand in a gesture to be quiet. A moment later, Daria heard voices past the bend in the alley.
Together they crept forward, bodies tensed for any sign of danger. Daria couldn’t quite believe she was doing this but she’d already gone this far. All they’d do, she reminded herself, was talk. She’d keep Tedannupal out of trouble.
She spotted Zadurannabit first, her metallic green shell a shock of color in the dusty alley. A leash had been tied around her thorax, held by a Dunmer in a grimy bonemold cuirass talking to a trio of humans who looked like beggars. Another, bigger Dunmer stood by the armored one. The second Dunmer didn’t wear armor, but had an ax tied to his belt.
“Look, I’m trying to get rid of this thing!” the scammer said.
“Yeah, well if you want to get rid of it, just dump it!” one of the humans said.
“You don’t give anything away for free around here, outlander. A lot of meat on this bug. Mm-mm.” He rubbed his belly for emphasis.
“That beetle belongs to my family!” Tedannupal shouted, his voice squeaky but undimmed by fear.
“Huh?” The scammer turned to look at the pair.
“That beetle is my family’s livestock!”
The lead vagrant, an old Nord, gave a disgusted look to the scammer. “You stole this off some kid?”
“He’s an Ashlander!” the scammer explained. “They don’t have property anyway.”
“Legally,” Daria said, “it does belong to his family. There should be a mark on the shell.”
“There sure is,” one of the humans said.
“Oh, like that’ll hold up,” the scammer sneered.
“It will," Daria said. "Tedannupal, does your family have any other livestock with that mark?”
“Daria!” he exclaimed. “My father would never forgive me for negotiating with cattle thieves! When it comes to that, they either give it back, or they—”
Daria clamped her hand over Tedannupal’s mouth and gave him a warning look. “Us city-dwellers are a decadent bunch, so follow my lead.”
Tedannupal narrowed his eyes, and then nodded. Daria lowered her hand.
“Yes, we do,” he said.
“That’s some strong evidence right there,” Daria said.
“Doesn’t matter, outlander,” the scammer said. “It’s your word against ours. And we’re guards.”
The other Dunmer with him wasn’t even armored.
She decided to make her play. “Hmm, well if you’re guards, you ought to know that I’m a good friend of Guard Captain Kavon Thanlen.”
The two Dunmer looked at each other, and then started laughing. “Oh yeah? Well, we’re his best buds from guard school.”
“And if that were true,” Daria continued, “you’d know that Kavon isn’t a captain and doesn’t have a chance in hell of ever getting that rank.”
“Dammit!” the scammer cursed.
“Why don’t you just hand over the beetle, and we’ll all move on—” Daria started.
The scammer with the ax unslung his weapon and charged. Tedannupal had darted in front of her, quick as mercury. He struck the axman’s belly with the butt of his spear, and the axman fell to his knees.
“I know you said not to kill them, but I’m allowed to hurt them, right?” he asked.
“Uh, now that they started it, yeah,” she said, her voice shaking.
Tether in hand, the armored scammer ran deeper into the alley. The vagrants had already disappeared into the trash and refuse.
“You will not steal my father’s cattle!” Tedannupal shouted and ran after his beetle.
Daria hurried to him and jumped over the groaning axman. Tedannupal had already gotten to the armored scammer, who drew a chitin sword in a paltry last-minute defense. The young Ashlander struck the weapon out of his hands and seized Zadurannabit’s tether. The scammer turned tail and ran.
“I got her!” Tedannupal said. Tying the tether around his wrist, he did something that puzzled Daria: he clambered on top of the beetle, his legs straddling the creature just behind its head.
“Uh, Tedannupal?” she asked, confused.
An enraged shout drew her attention to the axman, who’d recovered enough for a second attack.
“Here, get on!” Tedannupal shouted. “Hold on tight!”
He pulled her onto the beetle. “There’s a guy attacking us!” she yelled, even as she grabbed Tedannupal’s shoulders and pressed against him.
Tedannupal whispered something to Zadurannabit and pulled back on the tether.
Suddenly the enormous shell parted and lifted from the rubbish beetle’s back. Daria gasped when she saw the two sets of membranous wings underneath, now free to fly. The entire beetle quivered as its loud drone filled the air and its six squat legs left the ground.
“This thing can fly?”
But Tedannupal said nothing, his eyes bright and grin fierce as he gently pulled the leash to the left and the hovering beetled rotated to face the axman, who’d halted in his tracks with a dumbfounded look on his face.
“Charge, girl!” Tedannupal shouted.
The beetle shot right toward the astonished thug. He ducked, but not before Tedannupal, in a feat worthy of the most skilled Breton jouster, struck the axman square in the chest with the flat end of his spear from atop a flying insect.
And with that, they soared into the air.
Daria couldn’t believe it.
Of all her moments in Morrowind—the good, the bad, the awkward—this one stood over any other. Her clutching Tedannupal’s shoulders for dear life as Zadurannabit wheeled through the air like an emerald-green bolt, Balmora’s sprawling grid spinning below and the wispy cirrus clouds turning above, the two of them, Ashlander and outlander, free of the world.
“This is amazing!” Daria shouted.
And it was. For once she had no snark or criticism—just unbridled joy.
“All beetles can fly!” Tedannupal said, raising his voice to be heard over Zadurannabit’s drone. “Sometimes they just need a little urging. It’s something my father taught me.”
Still turning his steed, Tedannupal guided Zadurannabit to the east. The last rooftops of Balmora sped by as they shot out over the wall and to the desolate countryside beyond.
Daria didn’t want to stop. She wanted Tedannupal to fly on, past the Bitter Coast and over the Inner Sea, to scale the Velothi Mountains and zoom low through Skyrim’s endless forests, and to keep going. There was so much he wanted to see, and she could explain it as they went. No school or networking—just them.
She wasn’t sure her heart had ever beat so fast before in her life.
But Zadurannabit was already slowing down, the buzz in her wings no longer as vigorous. Slowly, they made a descent onto a hillside where a few scraggly trees clung to life in the dusty soil. An almost wrenching disappointment came over Daria when the beetle at last landed.
“Unfortunately, when they get to Zadurannabit’s size they can no longer fly particularly well. But as any Ashlander would know, they make an ideal vessel for quick escapes.”
“Uh, right,” Daria said.
“I don’t mean to complain, but you are grabbing my shoulders awfully tightly,” he said.
She let go and slid off Zaudrannabit’s side. The beetle stayed in place, her six bulbous eyes unknowable.
“Is it okay if we rest for a bit? That was kind of a lot to take in," Daria said.
“That should be fine. I actually bought the tools I needed before I found you. It was fortunate Drenlyn was so close to the right market.”
Daria nodded. She found a flat gray stone to sit on, its surface shaded by a tree. What had just happened felt unreal—something from one of the cheesy storybooks that she usually mocked. But it didn’t feel so ridiculous when it actually happened to her. Tedannupal took a seat next to her. Their position offered a good view of the city.
“So, what now?” Daria asked. They sat just an inch apart.
Daria wanted Tedannupal to take her by the hand.
“Hmm, well I should probably return to my father. He won’t be happy that I let those cattle thieves live. They could steal again, Daria.”
“Just tell him you killed them. I’ll back you up.”
She opened her eyes and looked at Tedannupal, whose mouth was open in shock.
“Excuse me?” she asked.
He shook his head. “I can’t lie to my father! You would never do such a thing, would you?”
Oh gods, she’d screwed this one up.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I still don’t understand your ways. It’s one thing to lie to other tribes. But you can’t lie to your own people!”
“Right,” she said. “Sorry, I let you down. I guess my city girl ways are just too decadent.”
He laughed, the sound giving her a bit of relief. “Perhaps you are, but I must admit the decadence is fascinating. Food and fabrics from all over the world in one place! And you still came out of all that!”
She smiled. “Don’t get too enthusiastic about a liar like me.”
“Hmm, well I can see how in your context lying might be useful. When there are so many of your people, it might not be as important to be truthful to all of them.” He laughed again. “But that’s much too complicated for me.”
“Me too, actually. To tell you the truth, I don’t always understand my people. So I read books and try to pretend the people aren’t there.”
She’d never admitted it so plainly before.
“I think I can understand. My father hates most outsiders and wants me to stay on the farm forever. My mother was actually a House Dunmer—she died many years ago. But she left her books behind, and what’s between those covers is my whole world! There are so many things I want to see. You wouldn’t believe how hard I had to work to convince my father to let me go here.”
“What did you say?” she asked.
“I told him that Balmora would test my purity and make me stronger! Just like how St. Veloth tested the Chimer when he led them away from Summerset. Little does he know that I actually like some of the decadence! And some of the people.”
He looked right into her eyes, and her heart skipped a beat. Daria gulped, and had no idea what to say.
“I am not accustomed to the way humans look,” he said. “But I think you are very pretty.”
Feeling like her cheeks were aflame she looked away, barely able to think coherently. “Uh, thanks. Even with these?” she said, pointing to her glasses.
“They make you look more distinct.”
“Yeah. I guess they do.”
She wanted to curl up and hide. Why was this so hard?
“But I should return to my father’s home,” he said. “He will be worried about me.”
Daria nodded and raised her head, trying to regain her composure. “Right. I probably should, too. Uh, do you ever want to come back to the cesspool of iniquity called Balmora?”
He laughed. “Absolutely! But probably not for a while. My father will need all the help he can get. He’s my kin, so I must help him.” His voice grew softer. “There are so few of us Odaishannabab left. Most have forgotten the Ashlander ways. Which, I know from my mother’s books, were not always as righteous as my father likes to think. But he doesn’t have anything or anyone else.”
“He, uh, must be a brave man,” Daria said.
“He is. I want to be as strong as him someday—though also more open-minded. Maybe I can make him more open-minded by telling him about you! You did help me, which makes you a clanfriend of the Odaishannabab. If you ever need shelter, my father’s house will be open.”
For a moment, Daria wished she were more like Jane: able to absolutely believe in something beautiful and commit herself to it. That maybe she could be happy on the slopes of a nameless West Gash hill for the rest of her life with Tedannupal.
But that wasn’t how the real world worked. She didn’t know the first thing about farm life, nor did she really have the stamina to make herself useful in such an environment. She was a creature of books and cities. Sooner or later, the resentment would build—probably starting with her.
It was a nice dream though.
Tears filled her eyes and she stood up. She took off her glasses and made as if she were simply massaging her eyes, wiping away the tears even as she wanted to let them flow.
“Well, Tedannupal, you’re certainly one of the more interesting people I’ve met in Morrowind,” she said, managing to keep her voice steady.
“You’re the most interesting person I’ve ever met, Daria! And probably the most interesting I ever will meet.”
She smiled. “Don’t give up on the rest of the outsiders just yet. Some of them are pretty interesting in their own right.”
Daria reached home wanting only to eat a quick dinner and then curl up in bed. It hurt to think of Tedannupal—but it was safer for Daria to keep her distance. Safety brought with it a certain bleak comfort.
Not that she didn’t have other problems. She had no idea how to solve the rumors about her being a mage. For that matter, she still didn’t know magic well enough to defend herself.
But she was too tired to worry much about it.
She walked up to her room to find Quinn writing something at her desk. Ignoring her sister, Daria stretched out on her bed and stared up at the ceiling, still thinking of that moment where she and Ted flew over the city.
“Oh, Daria? About those rumors.”
She lifted her head from the pillow. “Huh?”
“So you know about them, right?”
Daria hesitated before answering. “The ones about me being a mage? I wish I didn’t. I have no idea how they started.”
Quinn gave her a suspicious look. “I wondered if maybe you started them.”
“Why would I do that?”
“I don’t know, to make your life less boring or something! Anyway, if you didn’t start them, then I have good news: I ended them.”
“You did? How?”
“Easy! Do you remember that old guy back in Stirk who used to pull coins out of kids' ears and stuff?”
“Exactly. And, as you might remember, he taught me a few.”
That was a surprise. “You still remember that? I thought you’d repressed all memories not directly related to fashion.”
“Well sleight-of-hand is totally for geeks. But sometimes it’s useful! Anyway, I did that trick to make it seem like a parchment was floating over my hand, even though it really wasn’t, and convinced everyone you were practicing that. They all think you’re really lame now, by the way.”
“And thus, my dramatic rise and fall ends with me returning to comfortable obscurity.” She fell back on her bed and exhaled. “Thanks, sis.”
“Don’t mention it,” Quinn said.
But Daria was already dreaming of flight.