They detested him from the very start. First, he took away their parents. He shattered the visions the two hatchlings had had throughout the whole war, when most of the grown-ups were away in Morrowind. Familiar voices, long-forgotten and now remembered, calling their children's names. Loving faces drawing closer and closer out of the evening murk into the light of rekindled hearths. Scaly arms intertwined in long, long embraces. All around them, these childish dreams, these precious fantasies they had once conjured up and kept in their hearts all through the dreary months of waiting were coming true - for other Argonian children, but not for them. And not because their parents had been killed, like the parents of some of their peers - oh no, they returned safe and sound, but they also brought him. A disgusting, squirming little creature with smooth grey skin and enormous red eyes that they had picked up somewhere in the lands of the Dunmer. For some bizarre reason, they found him adorable, and there was no end to their cooing and snuggling and fussing. And that was why their two hatchlings, Yeema and Ajun-Ei, who had waited longingly for their return, received a preposterously small share of come-back embraces. With what Mother and Father insisted on calling 'the new addition to the family', there was simply no time for displays of affection as far as Yeema and Ajun-Ei were concerned, so the two would hang about listlessly along the swampy river bank behind their small, rather lopsided reed-roofed hut until Mother, busy waiting on every smallest whim of the precious little foundling, deigned to remember that they had to be fed.
When he grew a bit older, he took away their fun. The world around them was ripe to bursting point with potential for games - there were thick green lianas to be swung on, and beds of seemingly bottomless rivers to be reached, and root worms to be ridden in, and ancient labyrinthian ruins to be explored, and half-sunk skeletons of gigantic creatures to be climbed... But their way to reach all these wonderful treasures was constantly barred by one obstacle, seemingly tiny, but in reality more enormous than the entirety of Nirn.
'Oh, you are going out to play, are you?' Mother would say to them. 'Why don't you take Brand-Shei with you? It's high time he learned to swim'.
And what else was there to do but to obey? The little grey thing shackled them like the heaviest chain; he was a terrible slowpoke, could not hold his breath under water, had a habit of telling Mother - quite innocently - all about the heroic feats of Yeema and Ajun-Ei, thus letting her know that they had been doing what they were not supposed to do (and this included swinging on lianas, and diving into deep rivers, and riding inside root worms, and exploring ruins, and climbing skeletons) - but most horribly of all, he constantly got lost, for which, naturally, Yeema and Ajun-Ei were blamed, Mother branding them 'selfish' and 'irresponsible' and Father giving them a good thrashing. Granted, the 'smooth-skinned little nuisance' (so they called him, even though by that time his skin was far from smooth, what with all the fleshfly bites) did try to get on their good side, for once reprimanded by their parents, they vented out their anger on him and in due time, he came to be mortally afraid of them; he would run small errands for Yeema and Ajun-Ei, eventually stopped stunning Mother with cheerful reports of their activities, even eeled his way into their games a couple of times - but no matter how hard he tried to get their attention, let alone their praise, he always managed to mess things up. As for games, which mostly revolved around jumping into the water from elevated points, he failed at them so miserably, being not too good at swimming and somewhat afraid of heights, that Yeema and Ajun-Ei started addressing him in no other way than 'Brand-Shy' - a nickname which made the grey of his little cheeks, rather too hollow for his age and pock-marked from the many insect bites, turn into deep purple with a blush of shame.
And finally, as if all of this wasn't enough, he took away their friends. There was a certain fixed circle that Ajun-Ei hanged out with - Gellu, Tsaxiil, and Log-Tail; they were the toughest of the tough, and tolerated no weaklings or girls amongst themselves - Yeema was the only exception, but she had the credentials of being Ajun-Ei's elder sister (she had hatched some five minutes earlier) and had done her utmost to get accepted, passing several rather tricky challenges, which included even tickling the nose of a fierce Naga thug that was lying in the mud in a drunken doze. Naturally, a pathetic little smoothskin constantly tagging along with them was a serious blemish on both siblings' reputation; he embarrassed them in front of the rest of the gang with his insufferable clumsiness, started whining when they tried to shake him off, heading somewhere all together, and nagged at them with questions - like 'What are you doing?' when they were about to try their very first batch of Moon Sugar. It all came to a dramatic climax one day when Log-Tail, big and fat and short-tempered, grabbed Brand-Shei by the leg when the unfortunate little tag-along started pestering him a bit too much, and whirled him into the reeds with all his might. When Mother and Father got wind of what happened, they forbade Yeema and Ajun-Ei to ever, ever talk to 'those horrid little brutes' again. For a while, the two pined away in solitude - but then Sheel-Ja moved into the village. He was a 'big boy', rumoured to have seen as many as seventeen springs, lean and dark-scaled, with sharp, bright yellow eyes and long spikes on his tail; he was strong, and fast, stronger and faster, in fact, than any member of Ajun-Ei's former gang - and apart from that, he also knew a whole load of absolutely amazing things, which he had learned from books or while travelling with his father, who was a mercenary, now retired. In short, Sheel-Ja was the epitome of awesomeness, and as far as the village kids were concerned, there really were only two options: all the boys (including Ajun-Ei, only too naturally) hero-worshipped him, while all the girls (including Yeema, not too naturally, for she usually tried to have as little in common with the other girls as possible) had a crush on him. At first, he tolerated Ajun-Ei and his sister, just as he did his other fans, and even allowed them to go fishing with him from time to time - but when he and his father settled in and started learning more about their new neighbours, Sheel-Ja stunned the adoring duo with the following soliloquy, his voice harsh and cold and his eyes lit up with a fierce, metallic light they had never seen before,
'I understand your family has adopted a Dunmer child? A Dunmer child? Do you even realize what this means - what your so-called little brother really is? Do you know what his people have been doing to our people, for centuries? Do you know that he is the offspring of your natural enemy? No true Argonian will ever accept one of his kind into their family; your parents are traitors to our race, and I will have nothing to do with traitors' children'.
Sheel-Ja was a good as his word; ever since then, he began to purposely ignore Yeema and Ajun-Ei, in a very, very nasty way, they thought - he could have just avoided them, but instead, he took to crossing paths with them far more often than before, and when he did, he behaved as if they weren't there at all, brushing past them without turning his head or changing his expression, talking to someone loudly with them standing in between, whistling to himself and going about his business with an air lf someone who is all alone, while his two former sidekicks were right there, a stone's throw away from him. And since Sheel-Ja was the idol of all the youngsters in the village, his enormous fan club soon followed suit, even though nobody had ever before cared a hiss about Brand-Shei's race (the fact that he was a little good-for-nothing had always been sufficient enough for them to despise him, just as they would have despised any of their own kind for being timid and clumsy) or about the history of the Dunmer-Argonian relationship throughout the centuries. Thus, Yeema and Ajun-Ei became real pariahs among their fellow hatchlings - and this treatment of them was so dramatically exaggerated that even the grown-ups, who usually let the young waddle in the muddy water of the back streets doing whatever they pleased without poking their noses into their affairs, finally realized that something was amiss.
'Have you noticed how the other young ones treat our Ajun and Yeema?' Mother asked one evening as she and Father allowed themselves a little rest from work in the fields, sitting on the porch of their hut and treating themselves to a bucketful of those delectable little fish, quite common in Black Marsh, which have to be eaten alive for if cooked they become deadly poisonous.
Father shrugged his scaly shoulders, 'They are hatchlings. Let them play their games while they still have time'.
Mother shook her head slowly, 'It's gone beyond a common game. We'd better have a good long talk with Ajun and Yeema, find out what's wrong'.
But that talk was soon postponed for an indefinite period of time - for Father had to join a hunting party that intended to track down a swamp Leviathan, old and dying and with enough flesh on it to last the entire village through the coming hot months when the marsh would turn into a shallow, rank, goo-like mass and food would be scarce, and Mother, who had proved herself quite a decent healer during the war, was called away by a frantic, fleshfly-gnawed messenger who came on a small raft from the nearby camp of landstriders, all of whom had been stricken by one of the many diseases that stalk their prey in the dark depths of the marsh. And it was then, when both their parents left the village, that Yeema proposed her brilliant scheme.
'Supposing,' she said dreamily, nodding meaningfully in the direction of Brand-Shei, who was busy constructing a tower-like structure out of mud - for some unknown reason, whenever he felt like building or drawing something, it always ended up being the same tower, tall and mushroom-like, as if its image had been branded across his mind - while his elder siblings watched him from the top of a large pile of drying fishing tackle, 'Supposing we gave him an errand on which he would go... and never come back?'
Ajun-Ei frowned, suspicion beginning to stir within him. Yeema went on, her voice more and more eager with every word, 'Think how many problems it would solve! Without Brand-Shy, we'd get all our friends back; we'd have all our time to ourselves - and Mother and Father would love us again!'
Ajun-Ei gave the small spikes that were beginning to grow out of the back of his head a thoughtful rub. Yeema's idea certainly sounded tempting, but something about it felt wrong. 'You don't mean something like... send him to look for something in the inner marsh, where there are Nagas, and Leviathans, and hackwings, and Hist knows what else?' he said slowly. 'He will die out there in two minutes!'
Yeema gave a silent but vigorous nod.
Ajun-Ei shuddered. Argonia is a dangerous place, and while growing up, he had seen death quite often - but despite this, he had never come to regard it as something run-of-the-mill, and he was certain that he would not feel comfortable knowing that he was responsible for the death of someone else. Just at that moment, as though deliberately, Brand-Shei looked up at them from his labours in the mud, and with a sudden pang of emotion, Ajun-Ei became aware of what lay in the depths of those large, round, ruby-red eyes. There was awe in them, reverence for his elder brother and sister, who were so much better than him, the awkward little smoothskin that couldn't even dive properly, and who knew so much of the world and had shown so much of it - albeit reluctantly - to Brand-Shei; and there was fear, fear that he might get yelled at by these higher beings whose patience he was constantly trying... but most importantly, there was trust. And Ajun-Ei suddenly found himself unable to betray this trust, no matter how beneficial the result might be for him.
'Well?' Yeema asked impatiently. 'Are you in?'
Ajun-Ei shook his head.
She stared at him for a while in mute surprise - this was the first time her brother ever disagreed with her about anything - and then shrugged her shoulders. 'I will give it a try anyway... Brand-Shei, oh Brand-Shei! I want to have a word with you!'
The manner in which she called out his name was so uncustomarily silky, and the way in which she pronounced it was so unbelievably correct that the little Dunmer foundling started in surprise. He scrambled to his feet hastily, wiped his grimy hands on his loincloth and climbed up the fishing tackle to face Yeema, breathless and almost ecstatic with the thought that he was needed.
'Say, Brand-Shei,' Yeema went on in the same treacherously gentle way, making Ajun-Ei think of a soft green lawn with a dark bog underneath it, 'You won't mind fetching something for me from over there, now will you?' she pointed her clawed finger at the fine line of the horizon, beyond which the more or less safe, familiar lands of the Argonian peasants ended and the treacherous inner marsh began. 'Remember that old ruined tower, just outside the village? We climbed it once, and saw an island from the top, with a lot of dark trees?'
Brand-Shei nodded, not sure what to expect next. Ajun-Ei cast a fearful look at his sister, but she noticed nothing, her face lighting up with a wild glow as she unravelled her fantasy further, 'Well, on that island there is this plant called the fiery fern. It has enormous blood-red leaves, and it blooms only one night a year. And this night is tonight. I want you, Brand-Shei, to go there, to that island, and find a flower of the fiery fern, and bring it back to me. Now, be off - if you are quick enough, you will reach the place by dark'.
Brand-Shei gulped piteously - at night-time, all the pleasant features of the Black Marsh landscape multiply about by ten, making them hard to cope with even for tough, adventuring adults, let alone humble nine-year-olds. But for him, the nameless horrors lurking in the pitch-black, gurgling, smelly swamp were nothing compared to facing the wrath of Yeema in case of his failure - so, after a small, strained silence, he took a deep breath, rolled off the tackle heap back to his construction site in the mud and was off, towards the forbidden beyond.
'Breathe a word of this to Mother or Father when they come back, and I will kill you,' Yeema said, watching Brand-Shei disappear into the billowing mist; her tone was calm, almost merry, but when he looked into her face, Ajun-Ei knew she was not joking. 'And don't you dare go after him,' she added, as her brother stirred in his makeshift seat. 'Just lay back and relax. You will thank me soon enough. The scheme is perfect. Well, except that it should have occurred to me earlier. Like, nine years earlier.'
'What if he finds it?' Ajun-Ei asked quietly.
'What, the fern flower?' Yeema laughed. 'There's no such thing. I just made it up'.