'Say, will the D.I.D - you know, damsel in distress - that Soren and Baldr just saved... Will she.. Well... Give them a kiss?'
'Eww... What'd she wanna do that for?'
'Oh, I don't know... They all do that in books'.
'Them must be milk drinker books, then!'
Our argument was interrupted by a loud, imperious knock on the door. Baldr and I froze as we were, him squatting in front of his cage bars and me sitting cross-legged on the floor opposite him, and exchanged a look of mute terror. We kept quiet, not daring as much as to breathe, hoping that whoever was knocking would just get tired and walk away. But the sound went on, persistent, impatient, hammering in our very heads, and when it finally ceased, a voice called out, 'Ondolemar? Ondolemar, what is the meaning of this? Open up this instant!'
My feet grew cold as I recognized the voice as my father's. Bulging my eyes as much as I could to emphasize the stickiness of the situation to Baldr, I moved my lips noiselessly to shape four words, 'We are done for'.
'Answer him,' Baldr whispered, 'I reckon he'll break the door down if you don't'.
It took me several tries to force a barely audible squeak, 'Ondolemar isn't here. He... He is off on a raid or something... And he left me in charge'.
'Aurelion?' my father sounded both angry and incredulous - and even a little amused, 'Your brother actually...? Ah, never mind, I will give him a piece of my mind when he gets back. Now, be a good boy and open the door'.
'I can't,' I whimpered feebly, 'He's taken the key with him. He always does'.
'Always?' Father thundered, 'You mean, this has been going on for some time? Now I understand why Naelynn has been praising Ondolemar so much to me! He has been going out on patrols with her! That boy has some cheek, shirking his assigned duties, lying to his superiors and entrusting his task to a child!'
'This brother of yours sure will go far as a Thalmor,' Baldr remarked in a lowered voice, making me giggle in spite of myself.
In the meanwhile there had been a considerable amount of sizzling and crackling going on behind the door; then my father said warningly, 'Stand back, Aurelion. I am going to deal with the door'.
I got to my feet and withdrew a few steps, pressing my back against the farther wall of the room, while Baldr crawled into the most shadowy corner of his cage; with a flash of dazzling blue and a soft, sigh-like sound, the door crumbled away into ashes, and my father stepped inside.
'A bit of a waste, that,' he noted, jerking his head in the direction of the gaping doorway, 'But I am sure that someone with more capacity for menial tasks will see to the door being restored. Now, I assume Ondolemar hasn't left you the cage key either?'
'N-no,' I gulped, my eyes still on the smoking ash pile.
'I was right to insist that they make a master key. But who listens to groundbreaking ideas?' Intimidating as he might be, I never could quite get rid of the impression that at times my father spoke with the sole purpose of hearing the sound of his own voice, 'I will try to cast a spell on the lock, we'll see if it works...'
'Uh, Father...' I piped in meekly, 'Does this mean... That you are setting Baldr free?'
He turned away from the lock, his expression displeased, 'Rule number one, Aurelion: never refer to a prisoner by his name. Beings such as those that we are dealing with do not deserve to have names. And, yes, we are setting him free... in a sense'.
'Will you let him become my real playmate? Pretty please?' I asked eagerly, hopping up and down behind my father's back as he was performing his magical machinations with the lock.
His lips twitched in a smirk that could have been a warning if I hadn't been so foolishly absorbed in a vision of myself and Baldr running hand in hand in the great snowy expanse of Skyrim. 'You don't understand,' he said quietly, swinging the cage door open and squinting at the shadows where Baldr sat, his little crouching figure tense with fearful expectation, 'This is not how such things are done. You see, this little wretch's father has been insolent enough to take his own life in order not to answer our questions'.
Baldr made an odd, choking sound and bit hard into his fingernails, perhaps thinking it dishonourable to openly burst into tears; my father went on, paying no attention to him, 'And with the parent gone, the child is of no further use...'
'Well then, let him go!' I cried out, my heart contracting with amazement at my own boldness, 'You got what you wanted from him, now let him go!'
'You still do not understand,' my father sighed, giving me a look of mild pity, as if to show that he, being such a very good parent, was ready to tolerate my insufferable stupidity, 'If he were allowed to return back to his people, he would... tell them of things that should not be mentioned - mindless little creature that he is'.
He let me digest his words so that I could come to the horrible conclusion myself, and turned back to Baldr again, 'Come out, you filthy little human! Come out now - don't make me crawl in there and get myself dirty by dragging you out!'
I don't know how I ever brought myself to do it; it was a new, altogether different me that lurched at my father and grabbed desperately at his robes, trying to pull him away from the cage.
'You can't do this, you can't do this, you can't do this!' I bellowed hysterically, giving in to the wild storm that had swelled up inside my heart, 'It's... It's murder!'
Speechless with shock, my father attempted to shake me off, but I clung on to him like a mudcrab, pounding his arm with my fist.
'Knock it off, pal,' Baldr said unexpectedly, coming up to my father from his shadowy sanctuary in the corner, 'You'll only make it worse. I always knew they'd kill me, sooner or later. And I am ready to die, because my Da brought me up right'.
'But I don't want you to die!' I wailed, swallowing hot tears, 'You are my friend! I want you to grow up to be a warrior, big and strong and true to his honour - like Soren! I want you to get out of here and see sunshine again! I want you to laugh...'
My father's gloved hand pressed hard against my lips, smothering my cry; I bit at his fingers, but he did not let go - and then my whole body suddenly grew cold and numb, and green circles swam before my eyes... He had used magic to paralyze me.
'You little squirt, how could you rat me out?'
I groaned and opened my eyes. I was in my room, flung carelessly across the bed, and my brother was sitting in a chair by my side; his tone when he spoke to me was, quite surprisingly, not angry - in fact, there was hardly any emotion in it at all.
'They punished me, you know,' he added in a hollow voice, 'Father and the others. Because I had lied to some people to get patrol duty... and because I had allowed you to forge a bond of friendship with that little prisoner. See?' he rolled up his sleeve to expose dark, ugly, swollen burn marks, 'Shock magic. Same as they used to dispose of your little human pal'.
I gasped for breath, my heart pierced by an arrow of bitter cold. 'Were... Were you there... when?'
My whisper was weak, quiet, barely more than a movement of the lips, but he understood.
'Father made me watch,' came the dull, monotonous reply, 'One of the interrogators bared the boy's chest, and pressed his palms against his skin, and before I knew it, there he was. On the floor. Motionless,' Ondolemar swallowed, with great effort, and turned away, his shoulders twitching.
'I was sick,' he breathed chokingly, and I stared at him in silence, for he had never before talked like that in my presence, 'It made me nauseous to look at him. I had never seen a child die before... Even if it was only a human child... Father was so angry... He said I had showed my weakness... And I guess he was right...'
I shifted a little, feeling rushing back to my limbs, stretched out my hand and touched his hunched back with my fingertips. Ondolemar swivelled his head round with a start. The brief moment of brotherly proximity was gone; he was once again the conceited young Altmer in service of the Dominion, with the only difference that he had now had his first lesson in cruelty.
'Go to sleep, Aurelion,' he said sharply, 'I will stay here in case you plan any funny business. Seems to be my lot in life, watching over stupid children...'
I closed my eyes obediently, but soon got bored and opened them again; to my utmost surprise, my bed was standing in the middle of a sunlit birch grove somewhere in what I believed, from Baldr's descriptions, to be the Rift. And he was there, my Nord friend, my best friend forever, standing facing me, rocking backwards and forwards on his heels, eager, impatient. With a loud laugh, I threw aside the bedclothes and sprang up to him. He winked at me and clapped me lightly on the shoulder. 'Tag, you are it!'
I had never had so much fun since the days when Ondolemar and I played together in the garden back at home in Alinor. The day seemed to be endless, the rays sunlight flowing down through the gaps in the tree trunks like honey, and the leaves were falling like little circles of gold and brass, and we were chasing each other in the long, fragrant grass, and catching butterflies, and I felt so happy, so wonderfully happy, that I almost screamed with joy.
'Wanna hear a funny thing?' I asked, as we finally threw ourselves, exhausted, onto the warm, gently breathing ground, and took to picking up small, round pebbles and making them bounce off the surface of a sleepy creek, 'They told me you were dead! Imagine that!'
'Them milk drinkers don't know what they're talking about! I am as alive as can be, and I will stay here and play with you for ever and ever and ever!'
Baldr grinned at me broadly, but as he grinned, his face turned deathly pale, and a large dark mark appeared on the front of his clothes, right over his heart, as if they were a sheet of paper touched by a lit candle. The mark steadily grew larger and larger, and suddenly Baldr burst into flames, bright-blue, lifeless flames, and with a soft, sigh-like sound, just like the cell door at my father's touch, crumbled away into ashes. I crawled up to the pile of embers that had seconds before been my friend and picked up a handful of cold, soft, weightless embers, and let the ash trickle through my fingers in small cascades of bluish-grey, and before I knew it, the greater part of the forest around me faded away into thick white mist, and what was left in my line of sight gradually lost its vibrant colours - and a metallically hard, echoing voice said, 'You see now, he is dead, you silly boy! Just like me!'
My mother had risen from the creek, her face a frozen white mask, her hair billowing in the air. She stretched out her arms towards me, and called out, softly, temptingly, 'Come now, boy, we can all three of us be together, and play, for ever and ever and ever...'
I got hastily to my feet and backed away from her, but she glided up to me, fast noiseless, unstoppable, like the shadow of a storm cloud. Her fingers closed in round my hand, and with a wild, animal-like shriek, I woke up.
'Really, Aurelion, there is absolutely no need to work yourself into a state because of a human! You didn't even see him die, like this weakling here'.
My father must have dropped by to check on me; when I heard his voice, the uncontrollable storm awoke yet again; I bounced upwards and raced, the bed beneath my feet springy like the ground in a marsh, towards the edge next to which he and Ondolemar were seated, and now that my face was more or less level with Father's, I flung my arm back, gathering all my strength, and then brought it forward with a loud 'Slap!'.
'I hate you!' I cried, feeling strangely elated, as if my anger were strong, heady wine, 'I hate you! I hate you! I wish you were dead! I wish all the Thalmor in the world were dead!'
My father's eyes burned bright yellow in the semi-darkness of my room; he rose from his seat and grabbed me tightly by the wrist with one hand, while allowing a small, blindingly blue lightning, curled up like a sleeping snake, swell up in the palm of the other.
'Don't!' Ondolemar screamed, his outburst startling all three of us. While he and Father were struggling, I managed to break free and burst out of the room.
I had never run so fast, or for such a long time, in my entire life. I whizzed along the corridors like a whirlwind set loose, I dashed across the courtyard towards the gates, almost knocking the bewildered guards off their feet. I was lucky - just as I sped towards the ornate bars that blocked my way into the wilderness, the gates opened to let through a party of soldiers escorting a bound prisoner. I rushed past them, giving the poor man a half-crazed smile and bellowing something silly, like 'Long live Talos!', and before anyone could understand what had gotten into me, I was already well on my way to the place I had already tried to reach once, but failed dismally - Solitude.
I ran on and on, till I could no longer feel my legs and my lungs became a raging furnace. I ran almost without stopping, swept by the winter wind - no, I was the wind, raising white, wispy clouds as I passed along snowy slopes - and the northern lights blazed overhead once again.