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