Disclaimer: Morrowind and Oblivion belong to Bethesda. Not me.
As of February 2013, the story has been revised. As a result, comments and reviews may reflect content that has since been cut, altered, or been reshuffled into different chapters. Since this revision is resulting in an overall lower chapter count, I'm not certain what's going to happen to reviews for chapters that no longer exist. In case they disappear into the ether, let me say again: I appreciate every review and every reader. You're all fantastic.
"I can't believe Cienne had another baby," Uncle Irlav said, for the sixth or seventh time that evening. He'd been pacing across the lower level inn for some time now, talking almost constantly. I had the feeling he enjoyed the sound of his voice and that my brother and I were just the most convenient audience available.
No doubt if we left he'd be upstairs, bothering the barmaid.
If Brennan was irritated, he gave no sign of it, but I'd been waiting for my uncle to leave so that I could read uninterrupted and he showed no signs of going away. If anything, a steady supply of flin had only made him louder and sharper.
The noise and constant motion of being back in a Redoran city set me off balance and put my teeth on edge. Home was quiet, all peaceful gardens and books and silver bowls of water that reflected the first pale stars of twilight. Nothing like the cramped downstairs of a little inn, squeezed into the corner of a bustling town.
When I'd left Ald'ruhn I was a child, and now I was a grown woman, a priestess of Azura. Being back here I felt like both at once, an uncomfortable combination that was neither here nor there. I should have been better able to deal with in-between things and in-between feelings, and the sense of my own failing only made my mood worse.
"You could go visit him again in the morning," suggested Brennan with a mild smile. "It might be a little unlikely, but he's here, in the flesh." Ah, my baby brother. I knew where this conversation was going, and knew that he was trying to head it off.
But Uncle would have none of it. "It's just strange. Having a baby, at their age, with two grown children already." He scoffed. "Though you two are strange enough yourselves, aren't you?" He refilled his cup from the little bottle on the table, frowning sourly.
Here it comes, I thought, swallowing anger. The old argument, dragged out every now and then and dusted off. I will be patient, I will be calm, I thought. I will be gone in two days and will not have to see him again for years…
"It's damned irregular for two children who aren't dog-ugly or dirt poor to run off for the temples and leave your poor mother and Fa alone. Letting the family line end, just like that. It's not right." He took a long draw from his cup.
Never mind that the man had no children of his own and hadn't done a damned thing about keeping the family line going himself.
Brennan tried to pacify him. "But now the family line has not ended, has it? The odds that Cedric will grow up to be a priest seem quite low." He smiled again. He'd always been a kind and dreamy boy, but years as a priest of Stendarr had turned him into the mildest, most gentle man I'd ever known, and it's hard to argue with someone so genial. He continued, "So this birth should be even more of a celebration than normal, don't you think? It's not only a new life that's come into the family; it's a revitalization of the family line. Certainly it's a cause for joy."
"Huzzah," I murmured, managing to keep a bland expression even as Brennan kicked my ankle under the table.
Uncle didn't appear pacified at all. "No parent's luck is bad enough to have three children in the priesthood. It's just..."
"Irregular," I said.
"Exactly." Uncle Irlav hadn't heard the sarcasm, but I noticed the corners of Brennan's mouth twitch.
"And we couldn't have the religious community become dependent on our family to supply them with fresh crops of novices all the time," Brennan said, pushing his cup around the table top. "That just wouldn't do at all." His eyes twinkled.
Uncle Irlav grimaced and headed back upstairs, probably for another drink.
I cracked open my book again but couldn't concentrate on the words. I wanted to go home. I'd seen the baby and it looked like every other baby I'd ever seen, and Mother was well and Fa was pleased and that was wonderful but my uncles and cousins and great-aunts were driving me mad. Fa's brothers weren't so bad, really, just great hairy Nords who might accidentally knock you down with a pat on the back. But Mother's brothers were Bretons, and from Cyrodiil, and they were a different story.
Brennan kicked my ankle again and whispered, "He's just going to come back. Let's get out."
I nodded agreement and we headed upstairs. Maybe Uncle hadn't gone for a drink after all; I couldn't see him anywhere. We were out the door and in the streets of Ald'ruhn in moments, and after the boxed-in feeling of the inn, the fresh, sharp wind was bracing.
We walked in silence for a few minutes, lost in our own thoughts. I looked up at the stars, tracing in my mind the familiar constellations, feeling the pull of the coming dawn. It was later than I'd thought in the inn. Without the markers of sun and moons and stars, I'd gotten disoriented, but here, now, everything felt better under the open sky.
"Are you all right?" Brennan asked. The wind was already dying down into nothing, wrapping us in stillness. "You've been quiet."
"I guess so," I answered, crossing my arms tight. "I mean. There isn't anything wrong." Nothing that I could put into words, anyway, and nothing that would make any sense if I tried. He looked weary, I noticed suddenly. More drawn than I'd seen before. "Are you all right?"
His answering smile was thin. "I've no reason not to be. I will be," he amended, and didn't look like he wanted to discuss the subject further.
I knew the feeling. "We'll be all right," I told him, and put an arm around him briefly for an awkward sideways hug. "We will," I insisted when he only looked amused, and for a moment, I even believed it. Behind us, Skar loomed up from the dust, timeless and unassailable. Above us, the stars shone as they always had. The blight was gone, the Empire flourished, and there was peace. There was a new baby that looked like an old man resting in my mother's arms, a quiet temple waiting for my return, a brother who loved and understood me, and all of steadfast Ald'ruhn for my sanctuary, and it was enough. There, in the hours before dawn on the twenty-seventh of Last Seed, I was at peace.
It was the last peaceful day I would have for a long time.
I couldn't for the life of me find the temple's copy of Palla. It wasn't filed where it was supposed to be and I'd already searched all the bookshelves I could reach. On my spot on the ladder I held four other volumes I'd found stuffed out of place in my search. The tops of the shelves hadn't been dusted in ages, and the last gasp of summer's heat made the room stiflingly hot. A bead of sweat trickled down the back of my neck, and the dust and fuzz clung to my sticky skin.
I was edgy. The whole temple was edgy, really. I'd been home for almost a month, but the temple wasn't as quiet or reflective as I'd expected. By the time I arrived the seers had already started collapsing in fits of agony that struck without warning and at any time of the day or night. The heat meant we'd all been sleeping with the windows open, trying to make the most of the breeze, so we were all disturbed at the sound of women waking up sobbing at the horrors that haunted their dreams. A few cried over the plight of innocents, wailing over visions of burning cities and orphaned children. One seer had become convinced the world was ending—a catastrophe that might be five minutes or a thousand years away—and she sat on the stairs that led down to the beach, staring out to sea and waiting for the end. As far as I knew, she hadn't eaten or spoken in days. No one had had more than a few hours of sleep a night in weeks, so those of us not cursed with visions of doom snapped at each other in impatience and uncharacteristic anger.
I'd thought to snag a book and sneak off to read by the beach for the afternoon, but looking for a book had turned into a fixation on finding Palla, and I'd ended up on my ladder. My dress plastered itself to my back uncomfortably, and I decided to give it up.
I climbed down and stepped into the aisle just in time to bump into my friend Fena, who'd been running towards the opposite hall. "Oh!" she managed. "I'm sorry! I was just coming to find you and I didn't—oh!" She was grinning even as she apologized, bouncing from foot to foot and glancing at the hall.
She had to be the first person to smile in weeks. "What's got you so excited?" I asked, putting the books down and swiping at a long smear of dust on my arm.
"He's here," she whispered, grin growing wider.
I frowned. "Who?"
Her expression went conspiratorial. "The Nerevarine."
Despite the heat, I went cold. He was supposed to be in Akavir for ages yet! How could he be here? Fena elbowed me sharply, and I startled out of my little reverie to realize here didn't just mean around here somewhere, here meant standing right there in the hallway with the High Priestess, looking at me strangely. When the High Priestess continued down the hall he hesitated, and gave me a last look I couldn't decipher before he turned to follow.
Once he was out of sight, I sank to the nearest chair, my mind a blur. Why? Why was he here? Why had he stopped? And why, I'd like to know, I thought sharply at any deities who might be listening, did it have to be right at the moment I most resembled a dirty mop?
"I knew you'd want to know," Fena told me, and then took in the sight of me and her grin faded. "You… might want to get cleaned up, though." She dusted off my shoulder and walked off, and I buried my head in my hands.
It was night when a novice cracked my door and whispered, "High Priestess wants to see you."
I glanced out the window at the sky. "What, now?" It was getting close to midnight. The High Priestess never even stayed up past ten, much less had meetings at this hour.
The novice nodded. "Right now. She sent me to fetch you." She bit her lip nervously.
If I was being summoned, there was nothing for it. I bent over the little table and blew out my lantern, then followed the novice out into the dim hallway. As soon as I'd been led far enough, apparently, the novice started scurrying away, leaving me in front of the door alone. It couldn't bode well, I thought, and tried to suppress a squirm of nervousness, and I rapped on the door twice.
"Come in, child," came the voice from the other side. I stepped inside, and she called again from around the corner, "We're in here."
I walked past her desk into the little sitting area to find the High Priestess sitting in her old chair like it was a throne, though I thought she looked even more closed-off than normal. Beside her, looking tired and angry, was the Nerevarine. Normally, I'd have been invited to sit. Instead, the High Priestess took a slow breath and announced, "A situation has come to my attention which requires your aid. The Nerevarine has brought news, and believes action must be taken. I will leave it to him to explain the details."
At this, he grimaced at the floor. Not good news, then.
"You are released from your duties at present," she went on, her expression going more reserved by the word. "You are to aid the Nerevarine to the fullest in his current endeavor, whatever it might require. When the situation is resolved, return to the temple. Given the nature of the situation and the lateness of the hour, the two of you may discuss the necessary course of action elsewhere."
With that, she got to her feet. We'd clearly been dismissed.