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 24, 2006

Chapter 92: Cold

Tharsten Heart-Fang seemed to take my return of the remains of one of his people (a skull, at least) as a sign that I had been sent by the Imperial Legion to atone for all the damage they had apparently caused to Solstheim.

"The Imperials sit in their fort, and scar the land with their holes, and their felled trees." Tharsten said, scorn in his voice. "They are wasteful, lazy, and careless. They slaughter the prey on this island, and leave barely enough to ensure a new generation. Where do they think next season's food will come from? They take too much, and leave what they must think are scraps for the bears and the wolves. They feed the bears and wolves with their waste. Have you seen them? Wolves and bears for leagues! A man cannot cross a clearing without a wild beast taking him for walking food."

I knew exactly what the Skaal chieftain meant. As I mentioned, the number of predators I had fought off on my hike across Solstheim was extraordinary.

"The 'Oneness' we share with the land is what gives the Skaal its power." Tharsten continued. "The Imperials disrupt and destroy this Oneness with every action they take - they have never understood it... although by sending you with this skull, perhaps they are finally acknowledging their mistakes. You could be the instrument of their atonement - I wish for you to be the one to make things right, Edward Frost - the one to restore natural order and balance. And the one to restore the Skaal to the power we once had."

I couldn't believe what I was hearing. I was a complete stranger to Tharsten Heart-Fang (and he to me), and he was talking as if I was somehow beholden to him to restore his people to... power - to some former glory. Perhaps my feelings were plain on my face, because the chieftain added:

"It is right that you do this, as it is your people who have caused the damage."

It is true that his manner - and his assumption that I could be ordered about as his lackey - irked me; but quite apart from that, I had far too much to do to let myself be caught up in the affairs of this remote community. I told him as much:

"I am not a Legion soldier," I said; "nor am I an Imperial. I have been here for two days - no more. I am not responsible for the state of this island: not even in part. There is a debt to be paid, obviously: I can understand your position - so I hope you can understand mine. I have made a number of commitments elsewhere: not the least of which is to find those missing men and women. I am sorry, Tharsten, but I do not have the time to help you right now. If you seriously need my help - and no-one else's - then perhaps later I will return, when I have seen to my current obligations."

As I said these things, a now familiar dull, cold ache settled in my heart: the time was rapidly approaching when promises of "soon" and "later" would be empty when coming from my lips. I would likely not live long enough to see such promises through. It was not a pleasant thought.

Tharsten did not speak for a moment, a dark expression fouling his face.

"I would have expected no better from a Westerner like you." He said finally. "You would spit in the face of a chance to redeem your people and heal a wounded land?"

"I explained that it was not I or my people who did this to Solstheim;" I replied, keeping my tone as level as I could; "and I explained my position. Thankyou for having me in your village: I will be leaving now."

"I think that would be best." Tharsten said shortly.

The mood between us was quite frigid as I left the Skaal's Great Hall.

Visiting the Skaal Village would have been a total waste of time, had it not been for Tharsten adding to the area of Solstheim in which the airship crew was probably not located. All that was left was to head west to the Moesring Mountains and Hrothmund's Bane. It was well past dusk by that time however, and I had no intention of going further that night. The temperature was dropping by the minute, and I walked briskly out to the western outskirts of the village to keep warm. I was looking for an out-of-the-way place to leave a magical Mark, but instead I found an old man perched precariously atop a well, staring down into its depths.

"Ho - wait!" I shouted, running up to him. "What are you doing?"

The man, who I soon learned to be named Lassnr, clambered down, slowly and awkwardly.

"It's my son." He said with a quaver in his voice. "He fell in the well."

"What?!" I exclaimed, leaping up to stand on the well's edge, like Lassnr had been doing. "I'll get him! Where is he? Is there water down there?"

The old man appeared confused for a moment, and then said:

"Oh - no, you misunderstand. He fell in several days past..." He went on to explain that no-one else in the village thought that his son, Tymvaul, had survived the fall, since no cries for help had followed the accident. Lassnr, of course, had not given up hope: but had not been able to persuade anyone to enter the well and look for the lost young man. "The well leads to some ice caves, called 'Rimhull'. Tymvaul may still be alive and whole down there!"

My Night-Eye spell let me see the water down deep in the well quite clearly. My magic left me with nothing to fear about dropping into a well.

"Stay here," I told the old man; "I'll look for him." I jumped.

My enchanted 'Infallible' belt carried me safely down to the surface of the icy water, and a water-walking spell kept me from being submerged. I knew something was wrong the instant I got my bearings: I could see a dim light up ahead - perhaps bounced off the cracked, pearlescent ice walls many times. It was difficult to tell. Someone or something had to be down there, though. I drew my sword.

I followed the light down a slippery tunnel of ice and stone. Luckily for me, whoever made the bearskin boots I wore had seen fit to fix a series of metal spikes to the sole - and these helped me to remain upright. I soon found the source of the light: a small campfire in a larger chamber. Sitting in front of the fire, facing me, was a young Nordic man in a dark purple robe, muttering to himself. He looked... awful. At first, I almost took him for one of the undead, such was the pallor of his skin: but I could see him breathing.

"Tymvaul?" I asked tentatively, taking several steps towards him. "Are you Tym-"

But at that, the young Nord leapt to his feet, bellowing:

"No - you shall not have it!" He threw his arms up, hands pointing at the cavern ceiling and white sparks crackling between his fingers. I knew a summoning spell when I saw one.

With a deafening series of cracks and crashes, the floor around the edge of the cavern exploded, sending splinters of ice and stone flying. Animated skeletons erupted from the resulting holes in the floor. The Nordic people were not usually known for having much of an innate grasp of the use of magic. How could a Nord so young have such a powerful command of magicka? I was stunned - and, more pressingly, I was surrounded.

Before the young Nord could weave another spell, I lunged at him, leaping over the campfire to catch him in the side of the head with my elbow. He crashed to the ground, unconscious. That just left the crowd of skeletons about to descend on me. They were armed, but carried no better than sharpened stones fastened to the end of lengths of wood, and battered shields of wood or bone. With great, sweeping arcs of my Daedric longsword, I broke every one of the revenants to pieces in fairly short order.

I directed my attention back to the young Nord. When I knocked him down, the robe he wore had brushed against me, and I had felt something: powerful magic... but - dark somehow. The robe was obviously enchanted; and far more potently so than anything I had encountered before. It had to be the source of the man's uncanny magical ability: I needed to take it from him before he woke up.

I set about stripping the young Nord of the robe, and the instant I grasped the material I felt it again: my awareness of the flows of magicka in and around me expanded - soared, even. It was like looking up from a finely-printed book to take in a massive landscape - a view to the distant horizon. The robe was also cold to the touch - I could feel it right through my gloves. There was something wrong with it, too: touching it made me feel vaguely sick.

In a moment I had removed the robe from him completely, and as I stood there with the dark purple folds in my hands, my vision blurred and shifted, and I could feel my breathing become laboured.

I could see bones in the ground, shimmering like the sun on a frozen pond. I could see them for such a great distance, buried far and wide, that if I looked too far, my sight was overwhelmed with their cold shimmering light. The robe was powerful - very, very powerful - and it stirred a wonder in me.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Chapter 91: Harrowed

After leaving the Valbrandr Barrow, I spent a few miserable hours trudging through the flying snow, fending off wolves, bears, Bare-Sarks, unusually large boars called 'Tusked Bristlebacks', and even 'Ricklings' (little blue-skinned 'men' with long, drooping moustaches) riding Tusked Bristlebacks. The Ricklings were by far the most dangerous beings I had yet faced on Solstheim, as they were incredibly strong for their size - and very fast.

The snowstorm eventually lifted, and the sun shone down on the glittering, brilliant-white snow, all but blinding me. Not having to struggle against the driving wind and sleet made the going much easier, but the increased visibility only doubled the frequency of the attacks I suffered. Packs of wolves, boars or Ricklings could now see me from across the varied fields and clearings I traversed. By the time I reached a small settlement marked on my map as 'Thirsk', my fur armour was in tatters - and so were my nerves.

Thirsk was not much of a settlement, to tell the truth; it was a mead-hall - an Inn - more than anything else. The few people I spoke with there were pleasant enough; the chieftain of Thirsk, Skjoldr Wolf-Runner, even invited me to share a late lunch with him - for the price of news from the south. He seemed troubled at my tale of the (apparent) pack of werewolves that had attacked Fort Frostmoth, saying that werewolves were normally thought to be quite rare. He too could think of no better people to speak to regarding the attack than the Skaal. The chieftain told me that the people of Thirsk were actually descended from the Skaal: they had split from the main community hundreds of years ago, over a schism of some kind.

Talking and eating with Skjoldr Wolf-Runner made for a welcome respite from the harrowing day I had endured thus far. It was a worthwhile stop in my journey, too: the chieftain told me of a few landmarks that would help me on my way to the Skaal Village, and ruled out the area near the mead-hall as a possible place where I might find a stranded airship crew. He told me that people of Thirsk regularly hunted the lands around Lake Fjalding, the Isinfier Plains, and the Felsaad Coast. Along with Hirstaang Forest, this accounted for almost the entire southern two-thirds of the island. I knew that Legionnaires from Fort Frostmoth patrolled the forest, so if neither the Legion or the people of Thirsk had seen Louis' crew, I had only the northernmost part of Solstheim to search.

Upon seeing the sorry state of my armour, Skjoldr also directed me to the small community's armourer - though it might be more accurate to describe him as a furrier. The barrel-chested man specialised in the fabrication of armour from fur pelts, and luckily for me, had sufficient examples of his work on hand for me to walk away fully-clothed in a combination of bear-skin and wolf-skin 'armour'. I had thought my rent, torn and blood-soaked fur armour beyond repair; fit for no better use than to line a dog's bed - but the furrier assured me that he could make something of them. I left them with him in exchange for a moderate discount on my new armour.

So, feeling all the better for my full stomach and my new warm furs, I set out to the north - walking along the ridge above the frozen surface of Lake Fjalding. The day was getting on, but with Skjoldr Wolf-Runner's directions fresh in my mind, I made good time and came upon the outskirts of the Skaal Village at dusk. The collection of wooden buildings, with their sharply-sloping roofs, was gathered at the top of a steep hill that afforded spectacular views in all directions: especially to the west. In the day's last remaining light I could see across the valley in the west - across the Isild River where it split into the Harstrad River, across the fields of fresh snow, the scattered copses of pine trees - all the way to the white peaks of the Moesring Mountains.

I was stopped by a Nordic man in a heavy-looking set of fur-lined scale-mail before I made it very far into the village. It became obvious that he was a guardsman, as he asked me what my business was so far from home. He of course did not need to know exactly where my home was to know that I was very far from it: the same would have been true of anyone not native to the village, so very remote it was.

Hoping that I was doing the right thing (that I would not cause offence), I retrieved the human skull Gaea Artoria had given me from my pack, carefully unwrapped my cloak from around it, and showed it to the guardsman.

"I brought a gift for the Skaal people, as I have questions only they can answer." I said. "Can you tell me who I should present this to?"

The guardsman stared at the skull for a moment. I followed his gaze, and for the first time noticed a series of faint - and very intricate - carvings on the skull's crown. The man eventually grunted, and told me to follow him.

I was soon in the Great Hall of the Skaal, standing before another chieftain: Tharsten Heart-Fang. He was a broad-faced man with greying hair and beard, who when taking the skull from me, adopted the attitude one might when addressing someone who had just offered to atone for damages long since caused.

"Imperials! Pfah! They should learn to leave things as they are. I thank you for returning the bones of our ancestors - but they should not have been moved to begin with!" Tharsten shook his head, and added darkly: "The Imperials shall come to a bad end if they do not realise the error in their ways."

"This 'bad end' may be nearer than you think;" I replied; "this past night they were attacked in force..."

I recounted what had happened at Fort Frostmoth, studying the Skaal chieftain's face all the while. He seemed genuinely surprised at the news:

"Werewolves! Abominations! You suspect us because we believe wolves deserve our respect and worship: I can see it plain on your face, Breton... but if it truly was werewolves that attacked the Imperials, then you can be sure we had naught to do with it. Man is not meant to live a dual live as both rational being and wild beast. A person touched by a werewolf's taint - even if it was the result of noble battle against the things - must leave the Skaal forever. We have nothing to do with them. It was not us."

Nothing. Tharsten knew nothing that could help me. A decisive end to my investigation for Gaea, it seemed - since the grey-bearded Nord went on to tell me that if Captain Carius had indeed been taken by the werewolves, there was no hope for him any longer: by that time he was certainly dead... or worse - he had been 'turned'. If that was true, would he try to return to the fort regardless, I wondered? Or would he join the pack? What would such men and women do with their days - in the times when they were men? Too many questions, and no way to answer them.

Instead I asked Tharsten if he knew anything of the missing airship crew. After a laborious explanation of what an 'airship' was, the chieftain admitted he knew nothing of any people lost in the northern part of Solstheim: but the Skaal knew little of what went on over the Moesring mountains. So, Tharsten was little help, in the end.

I would have to continue the search on my own. So much time had passed since I had embarked on that rescue mission. Would I find them? Would I be in time?

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Chapter 90: A harsh place

My trek through the forest wore on. According to the map Gaea gave me, the entire lower half of Solstheim was covered in trees. As I have mentioned, the thick forest of pine trees made a welcome change from the mostly barren lands of Vvardenfell; but they also presented a hazard, in that they limited visibility. This was a particular problem, since the landscape was just as overrun with predators as I had been led to believe.

It felt like I spent the whole morning fending off massive bears and packs of wolves. Actually, 'fending off' might be a somewhat misleading phrase in this case. I think that at that time - for whatever reason - there were far too many predators on Solstheim, and not nearly enough prey to go around. None of the wild animals were to be deterred, even when grievously wounded: they kept up the attack until they were dead. I think they were all starving.

I made my way north-east through Hirstaang Forest until the terrain began to slope downwards and the trees began to grow more sparsely. I had reached the banks of the Iggnir River - which separated the easternmost third of the island from the rest of Solstheim. With fewer trees around I could see far and well enough to avoid most of the ranging wild animals before they saw me - but the weather was noticeably worse outside the shelter of the forest. Within moments a snowstorm had blown up, and my view of the lands around me was once again obscured.

I had never seen its like before: snow from both the sky and the ground was whipped up into great, drifting sheets that hurtled across the landscape at amazing speed; not unlike the ash-storms on Vvardenfell.

I used the Tinur's Hoptoad spell to leap over the icy river, the gusting winds blowing and buffeting me about as I soared across, and causing me to land awkwardly on the other side. The wind was definitely getting worse, and the temperature was dropping by the minute. I still trudged on, though fairly soon I could not even see as far as I could throw a stone. My cobbled-together fur armour kept me warm enough, though. Actually... the further I went on, leaning into the wind, the less cold I felt - before very long I was actually sweating!

At first I thought it was merely the exertion of walking against the howling wind - but then; I was wearing my enchanted 'Tireless' pants: I should not become out-of-breath or fatigued at all while wearing those. I began to feel weak - to the point of clumsiness, even; and it was then that I realised what must have happened: I had caught some disease from one of the wild animals that attacked me that morning. It was something the soldiers in Fort Frostmoth had told me to look out for - in fact, they called the bears and wolves there 'plague-bears' and 'plague-wolves'.

A couple of the bears had torn through my armour, in places, and gouged out strips of flesh with their filthy claws - and many of the wolves had sunk their teeth into my shins in an attempt to bring me to the ground. Fortunately for me (very fortunately, considering I had no idea what malady - or maladies - I had caught), my spell to cure common diseases worked perfectly. Within half an hour I was once again shivering from the icy wind, rather than sweating from a fever.

Meanwhile, the snowstorm grew so wild that I began to look for somewhere to take shelter until it died down. The search took quite some time, and of course was not helped by the poor visibility the storm afforded me. I was about to give up and teleport home (leaving a magical Mark behind so I could return later) when I spotted a man-made structure of stone. I wasn't quite sure what to call it: it jutted from the side of a low hill, and put me in mind of the stone archways that marked the entrance to the Dunmeri ancestral tombs in the wilds of Vvardenfell - only much more rude and angular in construction.

I soon discovered that the structure was quite similar indeed to an ancestral tomb entrance - actually, save for a difference in vernacular, an underground ancestral tomb is exactly what it was. It was called a 'barrow', in the Nordic tongue. In any case I could not have asked for a better place in which to take shelter from a snowstorm. I was about to push the heavy stone door open when a voice sounded from behind me, just about making me yelp in fright.

"Hold there, traveller!" I span about to see a young Nordic man seated against a large boulder, a little way up from the barrow entrance. He was wrapped in bearskin armour like mine. "What business have you in the Valbrandr Barrow?"

I had had no idea that he was there, so blinded I was by the blowing snow. Once I found my voice, I replied:

"I wanted to take shelter from the storm." It seemed obvious to me.

The Nord gave me a strange look.

"You would take shelter in a barrow like this one?" I noticed him eyeing my Daedric sword and Netch-Adamantium shield - both items that were obviously rare and powerfully good at what they did. "Then you must be a good warrior... or you don't know what's in there." He paused. "Listen, I hate to ask for help from a stranger, so..."

He held out his hand.

"I am Ingmar." I clasped his hand briefly, and gave him my name. Ingmar continued: "I can tell you are not from here, so let me explain: I am of the Skaal, and in that barrow is a draugr that I must kill - if I wish to be seen as a man. It is a rite of passage for all Skaal boys."

The Nord certainly looked young, too: in fact he looked as if he had not finished growing yet. He was almost swallowed up by the bulky bearskin armour he wore. And one of the Skaal too! Perhaps it would turn out to be a fortunate encounter for me.

"The problem is," Ingmar went on, "I can't kill it! I tried, and it almost slit my throat! I can't go back without killing it... I would never outlive the shame... If - if you could help me?"

I glanced at the barrow entrance.

"First," I said, "I feel I should ask: what is a draugr?"

"Oh, yes: draugr are dead, but not." He paused, thinking hard. "How do you say it... undead! They are undead! They used to be Nords, but were cursed to forever hunger for human flesh, because they ate their brother Nords in life."

"You said 'they'. Are there many of them? Is there a lot of... cannibalism on Solstheim?"

"Solstheim is a harsh place, Edward Frost."

The 'draugr' sounded unpleasant; like a zombie, from Ingmar's description. I had never heard of them before, though; and facing something one knew near to nothing about in battle was a foolish move. Should I go in?

The storm grew still worse, and made my mind up for me. I wanted to be inside that barrow, out of the storm; I would probably have to kill the draugr anyway, to do that. And besides - if I helped Ingmar, perhaps he would say a few favourable words about me to the other Skaal - a useful thing if I wanted information from them.

"Alright," I said, drawing my sword, "I'll help. Let's go."

"No - wait!" Ingmar exclaimed. "I must be the one to kill it. That is, if this rite of passage is to mean anything. Please - if you could only... distract it..."

I raised my eyebrows.

"Alright," I repeated, hoisting my shield, "let's go."

Inside was nearly black as pitch, and, unfortunately, so was the draugr. It seemed shorter than me - but that might have been because of its curled, hunched posture. Overall it looked like a long-dead corpse that had been recovered from a bog, or perhaps found buried in ice and snow. It's eyes shone brightly with an infernal red glow.

The thing seemed to recognise Ingmar somehow, and tore straight at him. The young Nord shrunk back instinctively, and I stepped in front of him, buffeting the revenant back with several quick blows from my shield. Hissing, it turned its attention - and its talon-like fingertips - to me. Ingmar aimed a clumsy blow at the thing's back. I had a hard time keeping the draugr's attention on me without actually hurting it. I shouted, I clanged my shield against the stone walls of the barrow; I even whacked the creature's legs with the flat of my blade when it seemed bent on attacking Ingmar. Doing all this - and being conservative in my defence so as to not harm the draugr myself - was of course quite dangerous.

The thing was fast, and managed to leave quite a number of deep scratches and gouges in my skin. Ingmar was taking his time dispatching the beast: either out of enjoyment of a fight that did not entail so much danger to himself, or simply because he was a poor fighter.

"Just kill the damned thing, Ingmar! Kill it!" I shouted, deflecting another of the draugr's vicious swipes with my shield. "If you do not finish it now, I will do it for you! Listen: aim for its shins!"

The thought that I might steal his 'victory' from him seemed to properly inspire the young Nord, and he swept the draugr off its feet with his sword. I leapt back, and yelled:

"Yes! Now - its neck! Cut its head off!"

In a moment it was done, and the draugr was dead - truly dead. Ingmar was overjoyed, and for a while, as if I had not actually been there, he recounted the best moments of the fight (as he saw them). I said nothing, tending to my wounds and looking over the damage to my fur armour. Shortly, Ingmar disappeared into the snowstorm, eager to tell his friends and family of his victory. He left promising, as I had hoped, that he would speak well to his people on my behalf; should I visit the Skaal Village.

I remained for a time, adjusting my equipment. The fur armour was rent and torn in many places, and I had to creatively rearrange the straps that fastened my equipment to my back and waist to keep the armour from falling off completely. Ingmar had departed before I realised what he was doing; otherwise I would have asked to accompany him back to the Skaal Village. I had my map, of course - but a guide would have been most welcome.

As it was, I waited until the blowing gale outside had died off a little, before settling my pack on my back once more and again setting off into the snowstorm. I still had a way to go.