The day was grim, the sky choked thick with clouds that rolled slowly overhead, their distant growling threatening constant downpour. A heavy mist lay in the forest, veiling the moss-covered logs and tight-packed evergreens and the mountain flowers that grew in tight clusters beside a shallow pond where a single elk dipped its head to drink. Thunder rippled through the trees, and the elk straightened its neck, its dark eyes wide as it scanned the silent trees for danger. A small sound glimmered out from behind a stone, and the elk was gone, dancing lightly through the trees until it vanished into the dark ferns, their leaves shuddering in its wake.
Wedged between two stones only a pace away from the where the elk had fled, a wicker box tied with a worn leather belt muffled the faint cries from within. Ravens flocked to the branches of the trees around it, their beady eyes staring down in morbid curiosity at the woven box. A brown fox ventured from its den, but turned and hid at the sight of the birds crowding around the box, fluttering down to peck at it with shiny black beaks.
The ferns fluttered and a great grey wolf emerged, her fur darkened with mud and her eyes ablaze, a hare dangling from her snout. A single snarl sent the ravens shooting into the sky in a flurry of ebon feathers, their raucous voices mingling with the thunder that split the sky.
The wolf dropped the hare beside the stone and began to pace, her growls turning to whines as she circled the box, frustrated by the cries she heard within. She tried, as she had done many times before, to pull the belt from the box with her teeth, but the hold was taut and she could not free the trapped thing inside. Angry, the wolf lay beside the wicker box, her watchful eyes on it as the rain began to fall, cutting through the mist that coated the forest floor and soaking the spongy ground.
There was quiet in the forest for a time, broken only by the rain that pattered down and the faint cries within the box. The wolf rested her head on her front paws, her large dark eyes watching, full of sadness. When another sound broke through the trees, a footstep, the wolf started, her ears pricking at the snap of a branch. She watched as the evergreen boughs parted and a boy appeared there, small in size, a fine wood bow in his hands. The boy froze at the sight of her, and for a moment they watched one another, each analyzing the threat before them.
He was small, she could tell beneath the leathers he wore, and his large brown eyes stared up at her through a spray of untidy, nut-colored hair. She could see his thin chest rising and falling rapidly beneath his cloak, his hand quivering and his knuckles white on his bow. The wolf studied him a moment more, then slowly stepped back, her bristled fur smoothing and her jowls relaxing. Without a sound, she turned and was gone into the trees, vanishing into the dark forest.
The boy let out a stuttering breath of relief, then a smile, as if his own willpower had scared away the beast. He climbed boldly into the clearing, then paused at the sound of the muffled cries within the box. Curiosity on his round, young face, the boy leaned his bow against a tree and peered behind the stone, carefully wedging the box from its hiding-place, surprised at its weight. He sat upon the mossy ground, pulling the belt away as thunder rippled through the sky, his eyes widening as he lifted the woven lid.
A small girl lay inside the wicker bin, swaddled tightly in a damp, mottled cloth, staring up at him, red-faced and round-eyed.
"Nalimir?" The boy turned at the sound of his name, the basket tumbling from his lap at the sudden motion. The baby tumbled out, her small fist grasping for someone to catch her as a grown man shouldered through the ferns. He moved forward swiftly, past the boy, and scooped the child into his arms, whispering to calm her strangled cries.
"Who is she?" the boy asked, peering over his father's arm at the baby, her freckled arms flailing. The man didn't answer, but ran a work-worn hand through his sandy hair, his dark eyes troubled.
"Come on, then," he murmured, tucking the girl beneath his cloak, and he shouldered the boy's bow and led him from the clearing by the hand.
They traveled through the dripping forest, moving swiftly over the tree-lined hills. The air was chill and sharp as the year's end approached, and the rain soaked into cold, muddy ground, chilling the boy to the bone. He followed his father deftly through the trees, his small boots carefully finding the solid footholds among wet, spongy ground. They climbed a hill in the rain, falling thickly now, and a small cabin peered out from between the branches of the evergreens, its wood weathered and greyed from many years exposed. The boy's father bade him go first, and Nalimir climbed limberly up a wooden ladder to the cabin's covered porch that overlooked the misty forest.
His father carefully followed him up, one hand curled protectively around the girl that was quiet now, her round blue eyes fixed on the sandy-haired man as if she'd never seen anything quite like him. Nalimir watched as his father unlocked the cabin's door and they went in, into the relief of the dry, dark cabin.
Nalimir had grown up in the cabin's four sturdy walls, and calm settled on his boyish shoulders as he closed the door behind them, the familiarity of the place seeping in through the cold of the outdoors. He hung his bow on a peg beside the door as he had been taught, then watched as his father carefully laid the girl down on a bedroll before the hearth, then went to fetch a flint from the cupboard. Nalimir sat down cross-legged on the bedroll, locking eyes with the girl as surely as he had with the wolf in the woods.
He could see her more clearly now, in the light from the fire that flicked up from his father's flint. The baby's skin was milky pale, dusted all across her face with freckles that spilled down her neck and across her arms. Her hair spun from her head in wild red curls, grown damp from the rain and fine as the fur on a peach, and she stared defiantly back at him.
"Where did it come from?" he asked his father, who was rummaging in a chest for a blanket that wasn't mottled and wet with mold.
"The woods," he said simply, wrapping the girl in the clean blanket. "And that may be all we'll ever know."
They called her Merill, after a ranger from a Bosmer children's tale Nalimir's father used to tell him on stormy nights. She was a fierce crier when she wanted for anything, and had a habit of grasping the cloth of Nalimir's tunic when he went by the crate they'd lined with blankets to serve as her crib. Despite her wailing and noise, Nalimir liked the little baby. There was something strong about her, passion in her tiny voice and a certain willfulness in her fiery blue gaze.
Years of rain and mist passed, and little changed in the cabin except the children inside it. The boy grew tall and lanky, his hair a constant shaggy mess about his shoulders, while the girl stood two heads shorter, her arms plump with the promise of muscle and her hair a wild mat of curls around a firm, square jaw. Nalimir's father, who was called Brelin, was fond of the spirited girl, and he watched her grow alongside his own son, saw her learn to climb the great evergreens around the cabin and speak the words from the few weathered books on the cabin's shelf. When she was old enough, he took her into the forest as he had once done with Nalimir and helped her choose a branch from the trees, showed her how to carve off the bark and bend it into a bow. The girl watched in fascination as Brelin showed her how to slice the wood just so and strung it with a strong bowstring, mounted it between two risers and left it to set on the porch. She would sit outside before the bow, which was barely a foot tall, her small freckled hands balled into fists.
She bounded down the hills into the forests ahead of Brelin on the day he declared it was ready, and she nearly snatched the thing from his hands with excitement. Nalimir watched them sullenly from the cabin's porch, his skinny legs dangling over the edge as Merill's bright hair danced away into the trees. The three always went into the woods together, but this time Brelin had made him stay, telling him a girl's first shot is a private thing.
Merill went first through the forest, clambering confidently over moss-swallowed logs and pushing through evergreen boughs heavy with dew. The colder months were drawing near, and soon the rain would turn to halfhearted snow that would dust the treetops beneath the perpetually cloud-choked sky. The hood around the girl's vibrant curls had slid down around her neck, and the drizzle slowly soaked through her hair and ran down her freckled face, though she showed little mind as she swung and leapt and crashed through the trees, Brelin following dutifully behind.
When they reached a quiet spot he called the girl back and knelt beside her, carefully sliding an arrow that stood no taller than his knee from a quiver on his back.
"Now this is dangerous," he told her firmly, and she gave a solemn nod, watching him with those wide bright eyes. "You must always remember that you could seriously hurt someone with this."
"Isn't that what it's supposed to do?" she asked, puzzled.
"Only when it has to," Brelin replied sagely, and he handed her the bow. She took hold of the grip around its middle, surprised at how light it was, and held it out like she had seen Brelin and Nalimir do, seizing the bowstring with her fist and moving to yank it back.
"Careful," Brelin said hastily, reaching around her and gently prying her hand off the bowstring. "Just two fingers, like this. Don't grip too tight with your left hand….that's this one. Point your feet that way, don't put your elbow up so high…good." She stood frozen that way, her small arm quivering with the effort of holding the bowstring back, her face screwed up in concentration. Brelin bade her relax, then lifted the arrow, pointed to the fletching and the point and the nock, showing her how it hooked onto the bowstring and how not to squeeze it with her fingers. Distant thunder rolled overhead, but Merill paid it no mind, focused instead on drawing the arrow back, angling its point toward the tree Brelin pointed to. She heaved a great breath, then let the arrow fly, watching it cut through the mist and miss the tree, thwacking into the brush a ways to the right.
The girl's narrow shoulders slumped as she lowered the bow, frustration coloring her face.
"Why didn't it hit?" she complained, looking down at the bow as if it were a great personal offense to her.
"Well, Merry," Brelin replied patiently, "you've never shot before. And nobody gets it the first time they try, do they?" She glared at him a moment, fire burning in her stare.
Merill gazed at him a split second more before she reached out, snatching another arrow from his quiver and jamming it onto the bowstring, awkwardly mustering herself into position. The second arrow missed the tree as well, as did the third, and the fourth, and every arrow after it. She made Brelin take her into the forest every day afterward, made him watch and correct her as she fired at the tree, growing frustrated, but never tiring. When she failed to his the tree after a week, she began rising long before the sun, sneaking a handful of arrows from Brelin's quiver and standing on a stack of furs to reach her bow on its peg by the door and slipping out of the cabin on her own, cutting through the dark morning mists and shooting until her freckled knuckles bled.
Merill hit the tree in the third week of trying, and she was so stunned that for a time she could only stare. From that instant, her world seemed to bloom with possibility, the dark, rainy forest springing to sudden life that she had never noticed. Brelin taught her to watch for the flicker of a leaf and listen for the snap of a twig, how to draw the arrow back in silence, how to pull the nock back to her chin and breathe in, letting time slow around her as her fingers unfolded, the arrow spinning and soaring away from her. Her shot was crooked at first, but in time grew stronger, straighter.
Where Brelin's days had once been spent in quiet, unbroken by his solemn son, Merill's presence breathed fresh life into the cabin. Her vibrant laugh, deep and heaving, filled its corners, and as a child she hung flowers she'd collected from the forest around the walls. She had little patience for books and maps like Nalimir, though she would sit in rapt attention when Brelin told them stories from Valenwood, folklore of the ancient Bosmer. Her favorites were the stories of the tree-cities that walked on their roots and never stayed in one place for long, their residents packing up and walking alongside them or riding in their branches until the trees decided to settle for a time.
They hunted near every day, sometimes together, but often splintering off into the forest, Nalimir sometimes wandering along behind Merill, watching her. Though he was several years her senior, he was amazed at her quick skill with the bow, how deftly she handled it and the easy way she could land an arrow into the eye of a stag on the other end of a valley. On days when the rain was too heavy or snow dusted the boughs of the evergreens and chilled all the game into their dens, Brelin would light a fire in the cabin and the children would crowd onto the worn rug before it, tossing pinecones into the flames to watch them splinter and pop.
When they had a good hunt, Brelin would send Nalimir and Merill into the village a few hours' walk away, though the two would make it longer as Merill dared Nalimir to climb the tallest tree they could find and he prodded her to try and shoot a raven's nest off of a distant branch. The village where they sold their game was quiet and grim, as hazy and damp as the forest but filled with weary-eyed people and surrounded by cracked and weathered gravestones. The villagers didn't like Merill and Nalimir, and they made it no secret – farmers would pause their work and lean on their hoes when the pair passed, eyes dark and untrusting. Guards in the watchtowers would lean imposingly against the pillars, their faces hidden beneath their helms, and children their age would trail behind them, casting stones at their heels.
This always made Merill's temper flare, and on one occasion she threw down her game bag and beat the closest boy into the road, slamming her fist so hard against his face that his nose broke, spraying blood onto the cobblestones.
"Traitor!" the other children screamed at her as Nalimir dragged her off the sobbing boy, her face red and her bright blue eye alive with anger. "The forest rat fucks elves!"
Still, the villagers were poor hunters, and they bought Brelin's game with much chagrin, though they wouldn't look Merill or Nalimir in the eye when the coin passed hands. The whole town seemed to breathe a collective sigh of relief with the odd freckled girl and her tall, quiet companion retreated back into the woods.
Despite her tempestuous heart and her heated blood, Merill never felt a desire to stray from the cabin in the forest. She felt safe in the rainy branches of the woods, cloaked in the mist that blanketed the trees. The little one-roomed cabin was home to her, and she never once wondered at the world beyond it.
One chill summer day, many years after Nalimir had found the wolf guarding the tiny basket in the woods, the sun pushed its way out from behind the clouds, peering down through the trees and dappling light upon the mossy ground. Merill watched it splinter through the branches of the evergreen she was perched in, staining the ground far below with a light that was almost resplendent to her rain-accustomed eyes. She kept her gaze trained on the ground, her fingers curled around the nock of an arrow, and watched a hare slowly nose its way into the sunlight, its ears twitching. Merill, straddling the branch from high above, slowly raised her bow, drawing the nock back to her chin and angling the arrow for the hare's head. She took in a breath, narrowing her gaze and pointing the arrow just a bit to the left. She felt something stir in her, a familiar sense of excitement that always seemed to bubble up when she felt the fletching of her arrow brush her cheek, a deep-rooted need to hunt that coursed through her as her left elbow locked, the arms of the bow creaking as they were pulled back.
The breath she'd been holding in left her lungs in a sigh as her fingers sprang loose, the arrow cutting silently through the branches of the evergreen and into the rabbit's head with a dull sound, pinning it to the spongy ground. Merill slung her bow over her shoulder and swung down from the branch, sliding skillfully down the dew-laden boughs until she landed in the mud with a squelch, pine needles showering down around her.
"That's another point for me," she called out as she yanked the arrow out, snatching up the hare by its hind feet and waving it cajolingly at the brush. Nalimir shouldered his way out of the bushes, his own bow in hand and annoyance on his narrow face.
"Doesn't count, look how little it is," he insisted as Merill tied the rabbit up and hung it to her belt alongside two others and a crow.
"Then the salmon you shot that's barely longer than my hand doesn't count either," she shot back jokingly as he joined her on the other side of the clearing, blinking in the light that shafted down through the trees.
"It was the biggest one in the water –"
"Bullshit, I saw ones five times that size leaping this morning."
"Did you have your eyes closed?" Nalimir asked lightly, and Merill punched his shoulder.
"Nearly six years younger and I'm still a better shot than you," she teased, sliding the arrow back into her quiver and heading for the narrow deer trail that wound through the trees toward their cabin. "AndI'm a Nord, even."
"Not a good one, since you're not in a tavern getting too drunk to swing a blade every night."
"We're going to go to a tavern someday and get you drunk," Merill told him brightly, slinging her arm around his shoulders despite his height. "Probably only takes a sip, skinny as you are."
"How would you know?" Nalimir asked her scathingly, and she flashed him a grin.
"I might not have been to one, but I'm still a Nord. Mead's in our blood." Nalimir smiled at her, one corner of his mouth pulling up higher than the other.
"You know they wouldn't even let us in the tavern in Falkreath," he told her, and Merill dropped her arm.
"You've really got to quit with ruining the mood, you know?" she told him, jogging ahead of him to vault over a mossy log in the trail. "Here, let's see if the honey's in," she called back, pushing through the bushes along the trail and ducking under a low-hanging branch. Nalimir followed her to a beehive rooted into an old aspen tree, humming with sound.
"You have to smoke them out first, you know," he called to her, hanging back while she drew her skinning knife from her belt.
"Let them sting me," she said boldly, stepping up to the nest and wedging the knife in. "Brelin says that scars are a sign that you've done something brave."
"Or stupid," Nalimir replied, and Merill ignored him. The bees hummed angrily as she pared out a block of honeycomb, swarming out from the hive and circling her bright hair. She laughed as she jerked away from the tree, a sticky chunk of honeycomb clutched in her hand, waving bees away with it. "Here," she said, breaking it in half and handing one to Nalimir. He held it up, scanning its pockets for larvae. "Gods, quit worrying," she scolded him, biting into hers as she wandered back to the path.
"Do you think the Dunmer really eat bugs?" he asked inquisitively, still checking his honeycomb as he followed her down the trail.
"Dunno," she answered, wiping the honey from her mouth with her leather bracer. She'd long grown used to Nalimir's curious questions that seemed to crop up from nowhere. "Why?"
"That book we got in town yesterday, about Morrowind. It said that before the Red Year they grew giant bugs in mines and ate their eggs."
"That might explain why they're all so bitter," she replied lightly.
"Might have something to do with the collective stick up all their asses –"
"Wait," Merill said suddenly, freezing in the path and throwing out an arm to stop him. She stood stock still, staring into the brush to their left. Nalimir turned sharply, his hand going to his bow – and, sure enough, the snap of a twig followed, and they both had arrows nocked in an instant – they'd been hunting long enough to know that elk didn't move so loudly, and no other game was large enough to make a sound. The bushes trembled and noise made the birds overhead shoot into the sky, their cries filling the chill air, and Nalimir slackened his bow, grabbing Merill's arm and pulling her back into the brush as a dozen men in quilted blue armour emerged, dirt smeared on their faces and blood in their beards. Merill felt Nalimir draw a tight breath beside her.
"Agents kept going south, he said," one of the soldiers was saying gruffly. "Couldn't have caught them even if he was right."
"Tell Ulfric when we get back to Windhelm," another remarked doggedly as they pushed through the bushes on the other side of the trail. "He'll sort it out." The sound of their footfalls began to fade, though Merill and Nalimir stayed frozen in the branches.
"I could have taken them," Merill snarled, jerking her arm out of Nalimir's grip and shoving out of the bushes, picking leaves out of her hair.
"And what would you have done?" he asked her loftily. "Killed them?"
"I could do it," Merill insisted, sliding the unused arrow back into her quiver. "I've killed bears."
"Bears and Stormcloaks are different," Nalimir murmured as they started back down the path. The sun was lessening now, retreating behind the clouds again. Thunder roiled in the distance.
"I don't like them being in the woods," she complained as they started up the hill where the cabin was perched. "It's not right. They shouldn't bring their stupid war all the way out here."
"They must have forgotten to ask your opinion," he commented wryly, and she was about to reply when a strained shout cut through the trees like ice, sending birds shooting up from the branches in a panic.
"That was Brelin," Merill said at once, and in an instant they were both running, sprinting down the muddy deer trail toward the cabin, boots slipping as the sky overhead darkened, bows in hand. A cruel, acrid smell reached her nose and she saw smoke rising through the trees, panic beating in her throat.
"Dad!" Nalimir was shouting, a few paces ahead – she was smaller and a better shot, but Nalimir had always been faster. He loped around the corner, pushing through the branches there, and they whipped back, striking Merill square in the face and sending her sprawling back into the mud, winded. "Dad!" she heard Nalimir calling, and she struggled to regain her breath, grasping for her fallen bow. She could hear fire now – hissing and spitting. Fear seized her and she scrambled to her feet, ducking under a branch and around the corner.
The sight that met her eyes made her stomach turn.
Their cabin – their beautiful, weathered cabin – was engulfed in flame, searing orange tongues leaping up from the windows and into the sky, choking it with heavy black smoke. Tall men in dark, gold-trimmed robes stood before it, their faces silhouetted by the intensity from the fire, and Merill's heart clenched in dread when she saw Nalimir there, being struck to the ground by one of them.
Go, she willed herself, but her legs felt frozen in fear. Go, help him. But she could only watch, horrified, from the brush as one of the men drew his blade, a spell sparking into his hand. She saw Nalimir turn, and their eyes met. His were wide, full of fear, pleading. Then Merill was gone, sprinting through the trees, fear pumping through her heart as she ran blindly, the pine needles and scratching her face and arms. Something caught her around the leg and she stumbled, turned, and faced one of the men, a golden-eyed man with a long white braid that raised a dagger to her face. She felt searing pain, a line of fire drawn down the left side of her face, then she had kneed him between the legs and taken off again, dashing through the pines as the cabin burned behind her and blood streamed down her face, her vision swimming.
She lost track of how long she ran, ran from the man with golden eyes and the fire and smoke that clouded the air, but at some point she collapsed, stumbling to the mossy ground in a daze. When she stirred, the night was dark, the forest quiet, and she rolled slowly onto her back, wincing at the searing pain that pounded through the left side of her face. She had fallen beside a small pond, and a fox stood on the other end, watching her stiffly. When she looked at it, it turned swiftly, vanishing into the brush.
Merill gingerly raised a hand to her cheek and immediately flinched away – her fingers came away smeared with blood. Her vision on that side was entirely covered in blood, her eye throbbing, and she hastily dipped her hands in the pond, trying to scrub the blood away. The water made the wound burn more, but she bit her lip and forced herself to clean it and pack it with moss the way Brelin had shown her. The thought of Brelin made her heart twist with guilt and she felt tears building in her right eye.
"Gods," she whispered, clutching the moss against her face and rocking back, her other hand clenching up fistfuls of grass. "Gods, gods, what have I done?" She had crouched there, motionless, as Nalimir ran forward, watched him be thrown to the ground and saw the Altmer raise his sword. He had turned to her, staring at her, his eyes screaming out for help. And then she had fled, like a coward. Merill curled her head down onto the moss, the cries raking her body, and remained there, her tears soaking into the earth, until the sky began to brighten.
The following day, everything on her left side was blurred, hazy lines melting together and colors dulling. By the evening, it had darkened even more, and the next morning the sight in her left eye was gone. She stared at her reflection in the broken glass on an abandoned trading post, the long, cruel-looking gash that stretched from her forehead to the tip of her nose and crossed through her eye, now spotted with clouds. In the year that followed, the clouds in her eye would grow to cover it all, and there would be brief, blissful times when she would forget that half her sight was gone until she crossed a mirror or a window and the realization would strike her like a stone.
Merill wandered westward alone, unsure of where she was going, but dragged on by a need to keep moving. She was still very young and had never been out of the drizzly southern forests, and when someone made to stop her she would run, relying on her slight size to climb a rocky hill or tree and get away. Days passed and the weather cooled, and at some point Merill found her way to a cobbled road that led up into a city built straight into the mountain, its face of rough grey stone capped with ancient brass rooftops, surrounded by craggy mountains where gnarled trees leaned their bare branches down. The guards paid her no mind as she ducked past them through the gates, and the fervent energy of the city shook her.
Stone buildings loomed overhead, paths and bridges climbing up too many stories to count, and narrow waterfalls splashed down into rocky brooks that wound their way through the ancient cobbled streets. There were people everywhere she looked, people like she had never seen – tall, dark-skinned women in scarves with great curved blades on their belts, clusters of robed monks shuffling through the square with their heads down, an Orc that must have been at least seven feet tall with an even taller warhammer strapped to his bare, scar-crossed back. In this strange city, no-one paid the nervous one-eyed girl any mind.