Frost in Morrowind

Edward Frost's time in Morrowind has come to an end; but his struggles are recorded here for any to read. A year in the making, and spanning one hundred and fifty chapters… Violence, suspicion, loss, betrayal, revenge, power with a price, a fight for survival, ages-old mysteries... all thrust in the way of Edward Frost, a man simply trying to rebuild his life.

Chapter 1 can be found here.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Chapter 86: Agitator

"You! I heard you were the one to... you know - speak to..." The Legionnaire licked his lips, none too subtly.

He had stopped me just inside the building that housed the Frostmoth Fort's Imperial Cult shrine. I was there to question the fort's priest, Antonius Nuncius. Captain Carius had stopped just short of accusing Nuncius outright for starting the 'dry fort' story. It seemed he did not want to approach the priest himself. Petty politics; as I said.

The Legionnaire was eyeing my pack, and the various pouches at my waist. It was obvious what he wanted. I produced the second bottle of Cyrodiilic Brandy I had brought, and dropped it into his palm.

"Ahh - many thanks." The soldier wasted no time in taking a swig. "Listen: I heard you were asking about this being a dry fort. Trying to put things aright, eh?" He indicated the brandy I had given him. "Well, we'll all be wanting to help with that, I'm sure. So if there's anything I can do..."

"Where did you first hear about the alcohol ban?" I asked. I had no time for idle conversation. "Who told you about it?"

The soldier took a moment to reflect, thoughtfully swishing a measure of the drink about in his mouth.

"Well," he swallowed, "a few of us heard it from Nuncius - Priest Nuncius - in the mess hall one night. He seemed none too happy about it, either. Was just passing on the message, I suppose."

Now that was interesting. The priest had campaigned for an alcohol ban - which the Captain had denied - and then proceeded to tell the men of the fort that the Captain had dreamt up a ban, and made it seem as if he was opposed to it! What about the stoppage of the shipments, though? Was that just good luck on Nuncius' part? In any case, I was almost certain that the priest was the 'agitator' Captain Carius was looking for. It was time to pay Nuncius a visit.

"Oh, yes... this dry fort business." I found Antonius Nuncius near the Imperial Cult shrine, tightly wrapped in an abundance of warm clothing; even in the relative warmth of the fort interior. "Odd that the Captain would ban liquor for his troops;" the priest said; "there's no understanding the actions of some people."

I knew he was lying, so I gazed into his eyes for a time before I spoke, hoping to unnerve him. It seemed to work. He shifted his weight uneasily and seemed unable to meet my gaze.

"The Captain tells me the ban was your idea, Nuncius: and that he actually denied the request. So what seems odd to me is that you would then make the rounds and tell the men that Carius banned alcohol here." I raised an eyebrow theatrically. "Why would you do such a thing?"

The Cult priest was now well and truly anxious. I could hear it in his voice:

"L-Look: this is all academic anyway. I'm sure you heard that the shipments of alcohol stopped arriving. The ships have been coming without it even on their manifests."

"You seem to know a lot about this, Nuncius..." I said.

At that point the priest excused himself with a noticeable quaver in his voice, saying he was quite busy. For a moment I considered using a Charm spell, but several soldiers were looking on with interest from across the room, so I thought better of it. In any case, I had heard that Antonius kept an office above the armoury: a comfortable distance from the Cult shrine, and worth investigating given the priest's suspicious behaviour.

Magically neutralising the locks on the cabinet and desk in the priest's office (the nearby Legionnaires studiously looking the other way - I was convinced they now knew exactly what was happening - and supported me), I reminded myself that even by whatever twisted logic, I was doing it all to get to those stranded souls on the airship crew. Otherwise, given the debt I felt I still owed to the Imperial Cult for taking me in as a baby, the guilt I would have felt at breaking into and rifling through a priest's belongings might have been too strong.

Though as it turned out, I would not describe most of what I found as belonging to Nuncius at all. In his desk, in his cabinet; in every piece of furniture that could be locked, I found stockpiles of alcohol. Flin, Shein, Sujamma, Cyrodiilic Brandy: even a couple of vials of the very illegal drug Skooma!

"What are you doing?" Antonius Nuncius was at the door, looking incensed. He must have followed after me out of (well-founded) suspicion. "A common thief, are you? Breaking into a priest's office! I'm taking this to the Captain!"

I held up the Skooma I had found, plus a couple of bottles of Shein.

"That's quite convenient, actually;" I said; "I'll go with you. I was heading there myself, directly. He'll be interested to hear about what I've found here, I'm certain."

Nuncius was visibly deflated. The colour drained from his features.

In Captain Carius' office, the whole story came out. The priest had hidden the incoming shipments of alcohol and spread the story of the ban in an attempt to lower morale in the fort to a critical level and engineer a revolt. And all because he wanted to go home, apparently.

"I thought that if things got bad enough here," Nuncius said softly, "I could appeal to my superiors to send me back home. It's the cold. I... can't take the cold here." A haunted look entered his eyes as he spoke, and I again noticed his abundance of warm clothes.

Carius shook his head slowly.

"Did it not occur to you, Nuncius, to simply ask to be reassigned? By Oblivion, I could have had you sent to the Ascadian Isles - or even back to Cyrodiil, had you just asked! But no -" the Captain sat back in his chair - "I think you can stay right here. With this new abundance of liquor at the fort, we'll need someone to save the souls of these men: after all it was you, Nuncius, that told me they needed to be 'saved' from alcohol."

The priest looked stricken, and shuffled out of the room without a word upon being dismissed. Once he had left, Carius turned to me.

"That was very well handled, Mister Frost - and from what I hear, my men regard you as their 'saviour' now. I imagine Faustus at the armoury might actually help you. But yes - well handled indeed. I actually have another ... job here for you, if you're interested."

I opened my mouth to object, but Carius pressed on:

"No, no - hear my proposal first. You are here on Solstheim to rescue a group of people up north, correct?" Sighing, I nodded and motioned for him to continue. "Now I imagine that if these people are stranded up there somewhere, they are stranded for a reason: they are hurt, or trapped in snow, or some other calamity. How do you propose to move them all yourself?"

I frowned. He actually had a valid point.

"My plan was to assess the situation and -" I began.

"Look -" The Captain interrupted - "you help me with this job, and I will send some men with you to help on your rescue mission. They will have a better grasp of the area than you, I'd wager."

I rubbed my temples. There it was: a powerful headache. I had felt it coming... Such delays!

"What is the job?" I asked wearily. "If it is too involved, then I really will not have time."

"Not to worry." Carius smiled. "This job also involves my fine men - and more to the point here, my not-so-fine men - and as I mentioned we are but a small outpost. Finding the culprits should not take overly long."

"Culprits?" I asked.

"I also mentioned earlier that some of my men were sent here as punishment. I can tell you that some - were they not here - would be in the Ebonheart dungeons. I'm afraid to say a criminal element has developed among some of the soldiers here. Stores of weapons and armour in the armoury have been decreasing recently - and I know that there is no official reason for this. In other words... smugglers. I believe some of the men are smuggling Imperial arms and armour to Vvardenfell and selling them there for their own gain."

"And you want me to find out who they are."

"Yes, Mister Frost: and should you do so, I will leave you to deal with them as you see fit. Defend yourself to your full ability should the need arise. There are some... rough - men here."

When I made no move and no comment, Carius carried on:

"Take some time to think about it... If you can spare such time, of course." He added wryly. "If you decide to take me up on my offer, I'll have someone help you identify the smugglers. Just go and see..."

The Captain mentioned a couple of names: Saenus Lusius and Gaea Artoria. He wanted me to choose one out of the pair to accompany me in the search (apparently he could only afford to have one of them off-duty at a time). Gaea Artoria, he said, was the most powerful and skilled fighter at the fort - and this despite being a woman. In contrast, I gathered that Saenus Lusius was a bit of a rogue, but knew everyone at the fort, and could prove instrumental in "ferreting out the smugglers", as Carius put it.

For my part, I had not yet decided if I should help the Captain or not. Before I did anything else, I was going to check the armoury for warm armour or clothes. On my way to the armoury I noticed that every soldier I met had a drink in his hand. The liquor in Nuncius' office had somehow made its way into the possession of the soldiers, and a party of sorts was obviously underway.

Zeno Faustus, the quartermaster, looked through the stores of armour for me, but returned empty-handed. There was not one piece of fur armour or other warm clothing to be found. It did not take a genius to work it out: any available cold-weather armour was most likely in the hands of the smugglers. The ache in my temples and behind my eyes intensified. I would probably be forced to take Captain Carius' job after all: if only to lay my hands on some appropriate armour for the frozen island.

Luck was just not with me that morning. Little did I know just how much worse that day would become.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Chapter 85: Morale

I had hoped that the morning would bring with it the warming light of the sun, but unfortunately that was not to be the case; at least not on Solstheim. Grey skies prevailed the entire day; and while the weather was warmer than the night before, the magical wards against the elements I wore on my fingers were still not enough to keep me from shivering.

Having Recalled back to my Marked location beside the stone dock in the grey morning light, I got my first real glimpse of Solstheim. Fort Frostmoth dominated the view from the shore, but behind it I could see ranges of deep-green pine trees, stretching off to the horizon. The farther trees were powdered white with snow.

Soldiers of the Imperial Legion were now on duty around the fort; some marching around the perimeter, others huddled on the battlements, staring morosely into the grey distance. It seemed a cheerless posting, and I soon found that this assessment was quite accurate. I attempted to ask one of the soldiers for directions to their armoury (Legion forts sell surplus equipment to anyone with the septims to pay), but the man merely sneered and turned away, ignoring me.

I received similar treatment from every Legionnaire I approached: they were all apparently too lost in their own private miseries to even raise a hand and point me in the right direction. Eventually, one hook-nosed soldier condescended to snarl at me to "take any business to the Captain". This man did point out a building to me - the largest in the fort - the general quarters.

The only business I wished to conduct with the Legion was the purchase of some warmer clothes or armour, so I decided to search for the armoury on my own. In any case, as far as I could tell, none of the soldiers much cared where I wandered in the fort. My frustration began to mount when I found the armoury: the Legionnaire in charge there was no better mannered than the other soldiers I had met that day. He sat among the stacks of armour and weapons with his back to me, pretending not to hear me over the fitful sharpening of a sword.

So it was in a rotten mood of my own that I arrived in the (blessedly warm) chambers of the fort's Captain. The Captain, who I learned to be named Falx Carius, was bent low over his desk when I entered, his brow furrowed over the writing of a letter. He sighed at my interruption.

"So, Mister Frost - you say you wanted to buy some cold-weather armour from the armoury, but young Zeno Faustus refused to sell to you."

"He refused to even acknowledge my presence."

The Captain sighed again and stood, stepping away from his desk to stretch.

"This... is a difficult post;" he said; "as I'm sure you can imagine. My men are separated from their families, and set to guard a frozen hunk of rock in this remote corner of the Empire." Carius rubbed his eyes. "To be fair, though, most were sent here as punishment for some offence or other. I must say, though, that things have been worse recently. The men have been more... belligerent than usual - and lax in their duties. I'm sure there must be someone behind this: someone agitating the soldiers."

I frowned lightly at the gold-armoured Imperial.

"I'm afraid I don't..." I shook my head. "Why are you telling me this?"

Carius sat back down behind his desk.

"What I'm getting at is that if you want anything from my men, you will probably have to help me discover the reason for these morale problems." I narrowed my eyes at him, but the Captain continued before I could object: "I'm guessing that you would not be here asking after warm clothes if you did not have some dire need to trek up to the north. Very sensible, by the way - looking for warmer clothes, I mean. You won't get far on this island in an outfit like that."

Closing my eyes for a moment and taking a deep breath to calm myself, I forced a polite answer:

"So I can see why I need your help - but why do you need mine? I don't have much time - and they are your men, after all."

"But that is precisely it, you see!" Carius replied. "As their commanding officer I must keep a certain distance and formality between myself and my men. They would not talk to me of morale problems - or of who might be causing them. Sometimes people will confess to a stranger, though..."

Considering the treatment I had received from Carius' men, I highly doubted that any of them would feel like confessing anything to me; and I told the Captain as much. I also reinforced how I did not really have the time to coax a collection of surly soldiers into a friendship.

"I can appreciate that you must be in a hurry, Mister Frost, so let me assure you that this is a small outpost here. It would not take long to speak to the entire rank and file of the fort - and I suspect that though they may be loath to admit it, the men here are so few in number that they would be glad of a new face to talk to."

Seeing only a choice between helping Captain Carius and trawling the many shops of the warm island of Vvardenfell for fur armour (that is, if I did not want to simply abandon the airship crew to their fates), I again approached one of the Legion soldiers on duty. I was careful to pick one who had not been a witness to my earlier attempts to speak with the fort's staff: a Legionnaire huddled into his armour atop the battlements.

But it seemed the rancour affecting the soldiers was endemic: the man growled at me:

"Leave us be! Don't you know better than to disturb a soldier on duty?" As I walked away, I distinctly heard him mutter to himself: "By the Divines, I need a drink..."

This gave me an idea. If Captain Carius was right about his men generally not being 'cut from the finest cloth' - so to speak - then they should be susceptible to a well thought-out bribe... It was a matter of mere minutes for me to teleport home, collect a couple of bottles of Cyrodiilic Brandy from the kitchen, and Recall back to Frostmoth Fort. I approached the same soldier on the battlements, and sat one of the small bottles between us, on the rampart wall. The man's eyes grew large at the sight of the alcohol, and he turned to me, looking mildly confused.

"For me?" He managed to say after a moment.

I merely nodded, giving a nonchalant shrug. The soldier caught the bottle up and pulled the stopper with his teeth (to save having to take his gloves off, I imagine). Never mind that the sun had risen only a few short hours earlier, the man downed a third of the brandy in one gulp. With a heartfelt sigh of pleasure, he said:

"Thankyou - and apologies for before." Giving a sheepish grin, he added: "I suppose you heard me, then? About needing a drink? Well look, normally I wouldn't be chasing a drink at this hour, but since this became a dry fort..." he gestured vaguely, "things have been... unpleasant."

"A dry fort?" I prompted.

The soldier took another sip.

"Yes: no liquor allowed at Fort Frostmoth - at all. Orders of the Captain - I guess. Seemed kind of strange coming from him, though;" he said thoughtfully; "I mean Carius seemed like an alright sort before this. I guess we weren't up to his standards, and he cut us off. Everyone's been in a foul mood since then."

An alcohol ban! If that was all there was to it, perhaps I could be on my way sooner than I had hoped. I could ply the man in charge of the armoury with a drink and get what equipment I needed from him (provided of course that the ban was the cause of his rudeness, and not something else). After that I could tell Carius what I had learned (just out of good manners), and depart in search of the airship crew.

As with everything in my life though, things turned out to be not as simple as that.

"A dry fort?" Carius raised his eyebrows. "They think that I banned alcohol? It's only a dry fort because the alcohol shipments stopped coming in a while back. Actually, I recall that Nuncius - Antonius Nuncius, our priest here - wanted a ban. He was worried about the effect of alcohol on the men. We argued about it a couple of times, I think - and then of course it ceased to matter soon after that because there was no alcohol to be had here anyway."

The Captain stopped to think. I screwed my eyes shut, again fighting back my frustration.

"This story that I banned alcohol must have come from someone. See if you can find out who. If we can expose this person, I think we'll both get what we want from my men."

And now Falx Carius was ordering me about as if I was one of his men. My frustration only grew. Would the petty politics and tantrum-throwing of a backwater Imperial Legion outpost be the death of the men I had set out to save?

I could feel a headache coming on.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Chapter 84: Delays

With my warmest robe bundled into my pack, along with a supply of food suitable for travel, I set out in the early morning for Solstheim. Even reaching the shore of the frigid island would take most of the day. It was truly a remote place. Khuul, on the north-western coast of Vvardenfell, was the closest settlement to the Imperial Legion's Frostmoth Fort on the south coast of Solstheim; and I had heard that one could take a boat from Khuul - so that was my destination.

My plan was to ask Folms to teleport me to the Berandas Velothi stronghold, just south of Gnisis. From Gnisis I could take a silt strider to the fishing village of Khuul. As was becoming usual, I scouted the stronghold for Folms first, before carrying on my way.

Berandas was in a severe state of disrepair - compared to the other Velothi strongholds I had seen. Many of its twisting underground passages had collapsed, long ago giving in to the pressure of the soil and stone above. The place was also home to some... less than benevolent creatures. This was made plain by the pair of skeletal corpses (of man or mer) propped up unceremoniously on wooden stakes, just inside the stronghold entrance.

I soon discovered the culprits: goblins! Squat, muscular, green-skinned and warlike creatures. Fortunately for me, the band I met was a ragged bunch of individuals that had taken shelter in the ruined structure, and did not pose much of a threat. Every one of them flew at me, and every one fell to a couple of solid strokes of my heavy longsword.

As I mentioned, much of Berandas was closed off by collapsed passageways and chambers - and I soon found the probable reason for this: the stronghold was built on a place of heavy volcanic activity. In one of the lower rooms, part of the wall and floor had fallen away to reveal a tunnel burnt out of the solid ground by flows of molten rock. Mindful of my pressing engagement on Solstheim, and having no idea how deep the lava-tunnels went, I jogged down the tunnel to quickly assess the situation. If the tunnels carried on too far, I would leave them for another time.

The tunnels actually came to an end quite soon; terminating in a massive organic chamber, lit red by pools of fitfully-bubbling lava. At the far side of the cavern I could make out a pair of large Winged Twilights, who appeared to be bent low over a dead body; as if smelling it. With each deep inhalation, their wings shivered slightly.

Rapping my shield against the cave wall to gain their attention and draw them away from the body, I proceeded to smother the Daedric creatures with magical ice and poison, using my area-effect spells. One of the creatures fell before it could reach me, and the other was seriously wounded; one of its wings seared right off by the acidic poison. It dealt me a nasty kick to the stomach, half-winding me, but I was in no real danger as I dispatched it.

The only thing I could really tell about the corpse that had so distracted the Winged Twilights was that it had once belonged to a Redguard. He appeared to have been dead for several days, but carried nothing that provided any indication as to who he might have been. He was wearing an interesting pair of leather boots, though, that fairly pulsed with powerful levitation magic. Boots that were enchanted to allow the wearer to fly about at will.

It was powerful magic, but I left the boots where they were. I had my own levitation magic, and I was not in the mood to disrespect the dead.

Across the River Samsi, in Gnisis, I sat on the silt strider platform for nearly an hour before one of the giant insects showed up. Needless to say, perhaps, I was becoming quite peeved. I had almost set out on foot on numerous occasions, only to decide to wait "just a few more minutes".

It was mid-afternoon when I stepped off the strider at Khuul, feeling anxious at the delays. If Louis Beauchamp's crew were really stranded somewhere in Solstheim's uninhabited, blizzard-plagued north, time was at a premium.

For a small handful of drakes, I persuaded a Khajiiti fisherman to ferry me across the rough stretch of sea to Solstheim in his boat. The trip took hours: much longer than I would have thought. I don't know much about sea travel, but I think it was because we were 'tacking' against the icy wind for much of the voyage.

The last two hours on the boat were in darkness, the sun having set behind a veil of grey mist during the trip. In the dark, we were assaulted by a numbing cold the likes of which I had never felt before. The Khajiiti fisherman had his thick fur, plus some very warm-looking clothes - but all I had was my armour and the 'warm' robe I had brought. Usually, wearing a full suit of armour is an exercise in sweating and overheating: I had thought I would be warm enough - but even with the robe I was shivering violently. I put both Denstagmer's Ring and my Elementward ring on (both protect against extreme elements), and felt a little better - but the temperature continued to drop.

"Gods, it's cold!" I exclaimed to no-one in particular as I disembarked from the boat. The Argonian securing the fishing vessel to the stone dock gave me a withering look. I suspect he felt the cold much more than I, being cold-blooded. Solstheim would be a truly miserable place for one of the lizard-folk.

I watched the (bare-footed!) Argonian exchange a few words with the Khajiiti fisherman. He slowly hopped from one scaly foot to the other as he spoke, pressing the raised foot against his leg in a (probably vain) attempt to keep it warm. I could see why he did it, too: the dock was slick with ice from the drifting sea-mist.

My breath emerged in great plumes of steam, and I was shivering again. The Denstagmer and Elementward rings took the bite out of the cold, but I could still feel a creeping numbness in my extremities. And this was the 'warmest' place on the island! I knew from talking to the Khajiiti fisherman that Solstheim only got colder the further north one went. I needed warmer clothes - ideally something that would provide some physical protection at the same time. Fur armour: that was what I needed. Such armour was difficult to come by in a warm place like Vvardenfell - or at least I had not seen much of it in the armouries I had visited.

The Imperial Legion's outpost on Solstheim, Fort Frostmoth, was just up a short slope from the dock. The forbidding stone structure was only illuminated by the dim moonlight that filtered through the thin cover of clouds: it was closed and shuttered against the cold of the night. I would return in the morning and seek out their armoury: surely an outpost in a place like that would have supplies of warm armour?

I breathed in deep as I looked about for an out-of-the-way place to cast my magical Mark. The air there on Solstheim made me realise just how stale and suffocating the atmosphere is on most of Vvardenfell, with its lack of trees and hot, dusty winds. I could not see them in the blackness, but I caught the invigorating scent of pine trees on the breeze. The air was fresh - and quite bracing, of course.

Having found a spot down beside the dock, a few strides up from the shore, I cast Mark, and then used the Wolfen ring to return home for the night. The search for the airship crew would have to wait until the morning - and until I was better equipped.