The green flame swelled and heaved like the waves of some terrifying new sea, which had flooded suddenly into existence from the shores of the old, familiar one. The blinding light engulfed the tiny buildings, huddled together as if they were a flock of frightened sheep, and then shot, plant-like, high into the velvety sky, where it blossomed into a monstrous flower, venomously green and with petals that entwined the stars and suffocated them, putting out their light, till there were no other colours in the terrifiedly quitened harbour but black and green. After a while, the flower dissolved into a wisp of half- transparent vapour, and with the painfully vivid green glow gradually growing fainter, the stars came out again, and the two moons slid softly from behind a thin veil of clouds. And when their cool, shimmering light revealed what that other, intruding, piercing, unnatural green light had done, the stillness of the night was shattered by a single, throbbing cry of grief and despair and bitter, helpless anger.
She was almost surprised to discover that this strained, mournful sound was produced by her own lungs, wondering vaguely what was the highest pitch she could possibly reach, as she, along with a small crowd of other onlookers that had been gaping at the green light in silent horror from the piers and from aboard the docked ships, rushed through the streets of what but several short hours before had been Sentinel's refugee quarter. It was as if the scream was some separate entity, an invisible being completely detached from her body, that, time after time, clawed its way out of her throat and then raced ahead of her through the night. It took her some time to realize that her scream was actually a word - one short word that cut, blade-like, deep into the still air over the refugee quarter. The name of her daughter, who, an Aldmeri dissident like her parents, had been separated from them during their flight to Hammerfell, and had arrived in Sentinel several days earlier. They were supposed to meet in the harbour, but the green light had swept over her poor little girl and consumed her in its venomous brightness before the family could be reunited. The evil, unnatural flame had cleansed the entire quarter of any slightest breath of life, and now there was nothing there but the charred carcasses of the refugees' modest, dilapidated dwellings, and the scream raced on unhindered, unanswered, turning endlessly round the corners of desolate streets like a lost dog searching in vain for its master.
'Hope! Hope! Hope!' An unusual name for someone whose father is an Altmer and mother a Bosmer, but she had been born in the first decade of the Fourth Era, when times were dark and hearts were gripped with fear and uncertainty about the future, and her parents, one of the few couples bold enough to give start to a new life in the shadow of the stormclouds, had put all their feelings into that name, for that tiny, helpless being with their joined blood in its veins had given them a new reason to go on living and fighting the darkness that was slowly consuming their world, when all the other reasons, like the greater good of Tamriel, no longer stirred their weary hearts. She had always been their hope, their little ray of sunshine - but now this ray was extinguished, and she was no longer there to heed her mother's call.
The grey-haired Bosmer woman woke up with a shudder and lay on her back for a while, gripping at the meagre rags that served her as bedclothes and gazing absently at the faint light of the dawn streaming in through the carelessly patched hole in the ceiling and shimmering dimly through the film of tears that obscured her vision. Her husband stirred by her side; she was unsure whether she had roused him or not, for out of the corner of her eye she could see only the left side of his face, which was warped by a broad, pale scar that encircled his eye, milky-white with a tiny grey dot instead of a pupil, always open, unseeing. Because of this mark of an old wound, received in a battle long ago, during the brief but glorious period of restoration of the Order of the Nine, and because he had once served in a chapel in Cyrodiil and still gave the occasional healing and counsel where it was needed, her faithful, loving companion was known under the nickname The One-Eyed Priest, his real name lost in the mists of time - or maybe purposely abandoned during a flight from the Thalmor - and remembered only by his wife, just as her name was now only remembered by him.
It turned out that she had roused him. He turned over to let her see his other eye, which glistened with sincere concern, and passed his fingers gently through her hair - once redder than a new-born blade, it had turned grey by the time when the breaking dawn gave its first caress to the sky above the refugee quarter. 'Nimrodel,' he breathed softly into her ear as she shifted her head so that it would rest on his chest, 'You had that dream again, didn't you? About that night in Sentinel?'
She nodded faintly. 'Reldie, oh Reldie,' the sound of his name, lovingly shortened by her to two melodious syllables, escaped her parched lips like a stifled sob, 'I miss her so much. After a century and a half, I still miss her... Our precious little girl... So young... So determined to survive, no matter what... She had a lover too... Do you remember?' Her voice was louder now, her speech fast and feverish, as if she was talking just for talking's sake, to find at least some sort of distraction from the pain that was eating, acid-like, through her chest. 'That earnest young mer who joined the Legion... what was his name again? Fasendil... Yes, I think that' s it. He had taken leave to seek her out in the streets of Sentinel, and ran into us in the harbour. I recall him standing by my side when... when...' She broke off, her words dissolving into a huge, loud, rasping sigh.
The One-Eyed Priest put his arms around his quivering, sobbing wife, and pressed his lips against the crown of her head, his sighted eye half-closed, his fingers, worn down almost to bare bones after many years of living in the shadows, in the constant companionship of poverty, hunger and fear, caressing her neck and shoulders. After an eternity of silence she finally tore herself away from the comforting warmth of his chest and forced a deliberately cheerful smile, 'Well, it was all so terribly long ago, and in any case, we still have each other, right? And we have Vollie... Gods, we haven't heard from him in years. His son, little Malborn, must have already reached manhood...'
Vollie - short for Volanaro, a name given to him in honour of a long-dead family friend - was the couple's second and last child. Born a few years after his sister's death, he had been raised in an atmosphere of intense hatred towards the Thalmor, fuelled by the pain of his parents' loss, and upon coming of age, had chosen the darkened, treacherous forests of Valenwood over the relative safety of Hammerfell and founded a secret society fighting against the Aldmeri Dominion, together with a grim, silently passionate Bosmer whose daughter would later become his wife.
The Priest did not respond to his son being mentioned - except for a small twitch in the corner of his mouth and an involuntary movement of his hand in the direction of his folded robe, which served him as a pillow. Beneath it he had hidden, before going to sleep, a small, crumpled piece of paper that had been slipped to him the previous morning by a grimy-faced, unshaven, rather tipsy Redguard sailor who had accosted him in a narrow street by the harbour side and declared, almost aggressively, that he had been approached by a stranger in a coastal town in Elsweyr and instructed to, once his ship reached Hammerfell, locate a one-eyed Altmer living in the slums of some port or other together with his Bosmeri wife. The message, written hastily and in an extremely complicated code used by Volanaro's little group and signed by the first initial of one of his associates, was brief and reservedly official. It informed Volanaro's parents that he, as well as his wife and her numerous kinsfolk, and his young son, had perished in a fire that was naturally not as accidental as it was made out to be. The Priest had shed his share of silent tears over this grave missive, but had not yet mustered enough courage to show it to his beloved Nimrodel - and as he listened to her talk on and on about Vollie and his family and his great cause, stroking her hair mechanically and nodding to her shrill, desperately cheerful words, he gradually grew more and more resolute in his determination never to do so at all. It seemed that the gods had destined him to carry a burden of secret buried deep within his heart, his lips sealed by his own fear. Once, what now seemed like a whole eternity ago, when a youthful, smiling Bosmeri pilgrim first entered his chapel and scorched his heart with the green fire of her eyes, it had been the fear of taking another man's curse unto himself - now it was the fear of inflicting pain upon the woman he loved...
At length, he stopped the current of his wife's speech by taking her face into his cupped hands, turning it towards his and kissing her on the lips.
'Now, Nimrodel,' he said, smiling gently, 'Let us not linger. Another day has begun in the Beehive'.
The Beehive was a common name for the great stone ruin, once probably a palace or a temple, that loomed on the horizon of the town slums and was home for all those who had no home. Beggars, cripples, orphaned children, dock labourers, sailors in between voyages, bankrupt merchants, prostitutes - they had been coming to this enormous lifeless husk for years, warming its stone walls with their breath and their smelly fires, fed by dung, for wood was hard to come by, hanging their frayed and greasy clothing out to dry from the balconies where the ancient kings could once have stood, dragging various junk in from the streets, and building new, thin walls in the spacious halls, splitting them into countless tiny inhabited corners, like cells in beehive, and thus shaping their world into what it was now. They were a community in relation to which the word 'diverse' was clearly an understatement, with every possible mixture of racial blood and every possible type of character represented - so, naturally, there were more than enough reasons for disagreements. Each morning began with a deafening eruption of quarrels and brawls, which were taken for granted as an everyday occurrence, just as broken or missing limbs and beast-like behaviour in a state of intoxication were something so mundane that it was not worth talking about. The One-Eyed Priest and his wife, ever since their long and confusing wanderings, during which they would either openly fight against the Aldmeri Dominion or flee from its wrath, had finally brought them to the Beehive, had been trying tirelessly to change that. For a long while, their attempts at healing and heart-to-heart talks, as well as material aid, whenever they scraped together enough gold to be able to offer it, were persistently declined, with distrust, irritation, and a larger or smaller amount of shrill cries and curses, but gradually, reluctantly, the Beehive's inhabitants grew to accept and trust the two mer, and some even went so far as to start feeling gratitude for what they did and, in case of extreme urgency, actually ask them for help - and now the day of the One- Eyed Priest and his Nimrodel, before they went out into the streets to find a - preferably honourable - way to win their bread, began with a long inspection of the great ruin, all the way down from their little cell-like room, which was among the topmost ones, in search of anyone who might require their help.
This time, their quest for the needy proved far more fruitful than usual - for hardly had they exited their cell when they found their way blocked by a hunch-backed, shrivelled old Argonian with a dirty rag folded tightly over his eyes. His name was Makes Mistakes, and he used to be a master jewelry maker, quite renowned for his craft, until an unfortunate miscalculation on his part made the forge in his small workshop explode, killing his apprentice, also an Argonian, and blasting off both his eyes and three fingers on his right hand. Blind, maimed, with no means of earning a living and the death of 'the stupid hatchling' weighing on his conscience, Makes Mistakes turned to drink and eventually found himself barely managing a meagre existence in a stuffy, mouldy corner on one of the lower levels of the Beehive. Of all the ruin dwellers, he had been the hardest to win over, his injuries too old and grave for healing and his heart too calloused and embittered for words of comfort. Only when the Priest saved his life, when he, drunk as usual, had almost been squashed beneath a toppling stack of crates at the docks, did the old Argonian warm up to him and his wife, at least enough to respond to their greetings when he stumbled upon them in the winding maze of the Beehive's passageways. But he had never before tried to seek them out on purpose, so the two mer were more than a bit taken aback when Makes Mistakes' greenish-grey, scarred snout emerged suddenly in front of them out of the semi-darkness, widened nostrils sniffing wheezily at the air, and his croaking voice scraped out an unexpectedly eager question, 'That you, Half-Brother? I've been looking for you. There is something I found that you might like'.
When they first met, the Priest had addressed Makes Mistakes as 'brother', as was his custom - but the old Argonian had replied, rather venomously, 'I heard them say you lost one eye, Priest. You will be my brother only when you lose your second one. Until then, you are but my half-brother'. Ever since that bitter little oration of a weary old drunk who refused to be accepted as kin by those better off than him, the Priest and Makes Mistakes did not greet each other in any other way but as 'Half-Brother'. Thus, the Priest answered the Argonian with a polite, 'Greetings, Half-Brother. What is it you found for me?'
In a way of reply, Makes Mistakes shifted noiselessly to one side, revealing a little Redguard girl, barely old enough to walk, with a round, dirty face, enormous orb-like eyes the colour of a cloudless summer sky and a completely mangled mane of curly black hair, unusually thick for her age, which made her head seem so large that it was a wonder how her frail neck, no thicker than that of a newly-hatched bird, supported it. She was gazing in front of her intently, her tiny, barely visible eyebrows arched in some mute question, one chubby fist gripping tightly at the back of Makes Mistakes' rags, another stuffed deep into her wet, slightly drooling mouth. Her clothing consisted of a single tattered shirt, which could once have been white, trailing across the floor behind her and fastened round the waist with several coils of rope. Attached to this rope, which was so frayed that it appeared to be made out of fluff, there was a small sheet of oily paper, covered with large spots of grey and black. Nimrodel, who was the first to notice this curious detail of the girl's appearance, bent over and gently separated the paper form the rope, her every movement followed by the unblinking stare of two orbs of celestial blue. Upon closer inspection, the slip of paper turned out to be a note, addressed to someone named Rathmir of the Beehive, the nub of which was more or less as follows - at least to the extent that Nimrodel and the Priest had been able to decipher it, what with an enormous number of random curses, misspelled words and stains of what smelled like grease, mildew and cheap spirits,
This here child is yours and it's you what must feed her now, like a father should to, because I can't do it no longer. I called her Kiara, after my grandmommy, and don't you dare call her nothing else.
No signature. The Priest and his wife looked up from the note, slightly breathless with the effort of wading through the barely coherent stream of writing, and gave each other a long, flabbergasted look. 'Well, what do you make of this creature?' Makes Mistakes asked peevishly. 'I tripped over it, you know. Lay on the threshold of my room, it did. Asleep, if you believe it. Yes, asleep. Right on my doorstep, like a stray animal or something. And when I woke it up, it started groping me and tugging at me, as if I was a plaything. My tail still aches. I thought you two might know where to put it. The creature, I mean, not my tail...'
His voice trailed off into an incoherent, half-senile mumble. Even though she knew perfectly well that he could not see her, Nimrodel still smiled at him.
'I guess we'll have to go and find this father of hers,' she said brightly, giving the girl a faltering pat on the head, as if she were a little wild beast that might and might not snap off the fingers of those who try to pet it. The girl did not back away or burst into tears, as Nimrodel had half-expected her to do - instead, she allowed the corners of her lips to slide upwards to an almost impossible extent, two deep round dimples showing on her cheeks.
The search for the mysterious Rathmir took them most of the day, but not a single cell of the Beehive, inhabited or otherwise, yielded as much as a single vaguest clue regarding his whereabouts - or, for that matter, any proof that he existed at all. One herpetic, bleary-eyed Khajiit seemed to recall seeing a Redguard sailor who answered to the name of Rathmir come and go about two cells away from his, but the same Khajiit had once claimed to have beheld Sheogorath rolling down the street on a gigantic cheese wheel, which did not make him an overly reliable source of knowledge,, at least as far as the Priest was concerned (Nimrodel had had the honour of speaking to the Madgod in person several times when she was younger, and would often say that she wouldn't put riding cheese wheels in public past him). But in any case, they never reached the room that was supposedly Rathmir's - for hardly had they finished pacifying the Khajiit, who had, for some reason, gotten it into his head that he would be paid for the information he provided in skooma, when little Kiara started wriggling restlessly in the Priest's arms and let out a small, piteous sob. Nimrodel gasped in agitation and swept the girl hurriedly out of her husband's grasp, 'By the Nine, we have been so careless! The child needs to be fed - and what did we do? We dragged her halfway down the Beehive and back as if she were a sack of flour! We must get back to our corner - I think I had half a loaf of stale bread left over from yesterday; I could soften it with rainwater and give it to the poor little thing to eat while we come up with something, well, tastier...'
She was saying all of this while crossing one winding passage after another, her pace and her speech equally fast; the Priest was trotting in her wake, his face strained with carefully suppressed anxiety - he had just realized that, following Nimrodel on their way out into the maze-like, murky bowels of the Beehive, he had left the letter with the news of Volanaro's death lying on top of their humble substitute for a bed, a small patch of faded yellow standing out so vividly against a dark, grimy grey background. If Nimrodel were to enter their cell first, she would be sure to notice it, grow curious, pick it up for a closer look, recognize the code, read the message... He had to prevent this at all costs; he had to spare her... The distraction plans he had hastily, frantically begun to conjure up in his mind (most of them childishly ridiculous and not straying far from the traditional 'Look, a chequered butterfly!' scheme) all dissolved into oblivion when a certain green, bony, claw-fingered hand stretched - seemingly - out of nowhere, with the startling abruptness of a spectre and, gripping him firmly by the robe, dragged him inside one of the cells he and Nimrodel were passing by. The hand belonged to a scar-ploughed Orc woman of an indeterminable age who shared a tiny, stuffy corner, which was yet to see the light of day, with her sister, most likely - but without absolute certainty - younger than her and, though remarkable for a clean-shaved head and a pair of most impressive curved tusks, very popular as a female companion among the sailors at the harbour, where she would lurk in the evenings on an eternal quest for septims - so popular, in fact, that more often than not she returned home bearing souvenirs of a fight with some jealous lover or other. This time, as the Priest was given to understand as he was ushered towards the heaving bundle of rags in the middle of the Orc sisters' cell (if it could be called a middle, what with the utterly minuscule amount of space at its sides) it was a dagger wound, deep and ugly, with bloated ragged edges, oozing blood and pale pus, which was so sticky that the frayed, greasy bandage was glued to it with stone-like fastness. Neither of the two women uttered a word, but the combined stare of two pairs of yellow eyes, one narrowed and blazing with a cold, intense flame, and another dim, clouded by a thick film of silent tears of pain, was more than enough for the Priest to sense that he had to stay behind.
When the Orc belle's wound finally closed, succumbing to the caress of the healing spell, the Priest rushed to his cell without as much as a backwards glance. He knew it was too late before he crossed the threshold. Nimrodel was kneeling at the side of their makeshift bed, staring blankly in front of her, her hands lowered, limp, helpless, barely holding on to the fateful slip of parchment. He opened his mouth to speak, to apologize, to explain, to comfort – but the words he was struggling to find never came. Instead, he went on standing in the doorless doorway, transfixed, frustratingly mute, barely seeing his wife through the stinging mist gathering in his only eye. It was the tiny Redguard that broke the heavy, suffocating silence; she abandoned the bred slice the had been sucking on in a shadowed corner and waddled over to Nimrodel; the, she raised both her grimy little hands, sticky with drool and bread crumbs, and attempted, clumsily but determinedly, to wipe the tears streaming down the Bosmer's face. Her frail little body proved to be not quite up to the task; she swayed and almost fell – but Nimrodel caught her in her arms just in time. Then, and only then, did she look up at her husband – and when she did, he knew. He knew that they had just found their third child.