Drinking Greef at the End of the World (fanfiction; Elder Scrolls)

Originally published on Archive of Our Own on January 17, 2014. Reposted here with slight corrections.

Though there was no daylight in the Corprusarium, Yagrum Bagarn, the last living dwarf, knew it was Morndas. Because it was Morndas, it was not Uupse Fyr who brought his breakfast tray and morning medicaments, but one of the nameless servants of Tel Fyr. While Bagarn missed her sweet voice reading to him, the absence was expected, and he resigned himself to reading to himself until she finished her martial arts lesson with Vistha-Kai.

What was not expected was the tremor that shook the Corprusarium at the tenth hour of the morning. Dishes clattered in cupboards, rock ground against rock, and Bagarn found his centurion spider legs skittering beneath him.

He knew what earthquakes were, of course, though he hadn’t lived through one in years — not since Red Mountain had gone quiescent. Even then, such things were rarely felt as far as Azura’s Coast.

The tremor passed, and Bagarn righted himself, panting. Everything was eerily silent in the wake of the shock; even his corprus-demented neighbors had been silenced. After a few heartbeats, the drip of water on stone breached the quiet, and everything seemed to return to normal again.

Bagarn was returning to his reading — considering if this play had any merit, and if he would like it better had he seen it performed — when Lord Fyr bustled into the room, carrying a silver tray with a bottle and two glasses set upon it. The Dunmer wizard was not wearing his usual Daedric armor, but was dressed in loose robes for sleeping.

A social call? Bagarn surmised. An odd time for it, but well, Divayth Fyr was an odd mer. “Good Morndas to you, Lord Fyr,” he greeted his old friend. “I see it takes an earth-tremor to bring you down here, these days.”

Fyr gave a crooked smile. “Rather a nasty one, wasn’t that? Shook all the paintings off the wall in the Onyx Hall.” He set the tray down on the table beside Bagarn. The Dwemer thought he saw a tremor in Fyr’s hands as he did; but in his next movement, he smoothly unstoppered the bottle and poured a liquid into the two glasses with a little flourish, making Bagarn doubt he had ever seen the thing.

“Is Red Mountain erupting, then?” He lifted the little cup to his nose, smelling the bitter, fruity smell of comberry brandy. Greef, the Dunmer called it. He set the cup down again, content just to smell. It was early to be drinking.

“Doubt it.” There was a firm set to Fyr’s jaw, a glint in his red eyes that Bagarn read as mischievousness. Then he switched topics: “Have you ever seen Vivec?”

“The Chimer? Your warrior-poet?”

“The city that bears his name.”

“Ah. No.” Bagarn smiled. “Though I’ve heard it’s an unobliging place to get lost.”

Fyr chuckled. “It is, as that.” He seated himself on a stool that Uupse favored for reading. “I’ve had news from some colleagues there.” He paused, steepling his fingers above his cup of greef. “If I tell you Baar Dau has fallen, that means nothing to you?”

Bagarn shook his head.

“Hmm.” Fyr’s eyes searched the room. “It is a large rock, floating above the city, on which we have our Ministry of Truth.”

“Floating above the city? That sounds infinitely interesting. How is such a thing accomplished?”

“By Lord Vivec’s will, of course. Said he stopped it when Sheogorath tossed it out of Oblivion in a fit of pique. You know something of such things, I imagine, since Vivec’s power derives — derived — from –”

“Ah yes.” Bagarn cut him off, shifting uncomfortably in the seat of his centurion chair. He thought of the Heart of Lorkhan, Kagrenac, the Numidium project–things he hadn’t thought about in years. Not since that Argonian with corprus came to Tel Fyr.

It occurred to him then. “But Lord Vivec has been– I hear he has been in seclusion for many years now.”

Fyr made a snorting noise, and rose to his feet, crossing to the cupboard. “In seclusion, my grey arse. He disappeared. Lost his powers, and then disappeared.”

“Lost his powers?”

The Dunmer was rummaging in the cupboard now, and Bagarn could hear the clinking of metal and glass. “When that slave destroyed the Heart,” he said, over his shoulder. “You remember her. The Argonian.”

“I was just thinking of her, actually. You mean to say… she destroyed the Heart of Lorkhan? How is that possible? Lord Kagrenac himself couldn’t…” He trailed off, not sure what this all meant.

Fyr emerged from the cupboard, holding a Dwemer coin in one hand. His other hand waved dismissively. “It’s all very complex. Damned if I can quite follow it myself.” He stared off into the distance, a look of nostalgia written on his face. “Clever gal, wasn’t she? Didn’t give her a single key, but she opened all the boxes in my labyrinth.” He hefted the coin in his hand. “Sure she figured something out. They decided she was the Nerevarine, did you know? ‘They’ being I don’t know who. Vivec. House Telvanni. Whatever. Fulfilled the prophecies, and all that.”

Bagarn drew in a breath, trying to keep up with Fyr’s stream of consciousness. Luckily, he was well practiced at it — ¬†plus he knew some small amount about Dunmer legend. “An Argonian Nerevarine? Isn’t that… odd?”

“Yes, well. Azura does rather have a sense of humor, doesn’t she? Anyway! Our intrepid slave girl destroyed the enchantments around the Heart, severing our dear Tribunal from it, and causing them to lose their powers.”

Bagarn was well aware his friend was speaking what the Tribunal cult would call heresy. Perhaps he felt safe doing so because he was a four-thousand year-old wizard who could travel to Oblivion. Perhaps, here at the center of the Corprusarium, he simply knew he could not be overheard by anyone who cared about such things. “Do go on.”

Fyr tossed the coin from hand to hand. “Vivec disappeared. But as the legend goes, while the people loved him, Baar Dau would stay afloat.” He paused. “Today, it has fallen.”

He dropped the Dwemer coin, then, into a puddle of water at his feet. It splashed and dispersed the puddle, rolling unharmed to the side. “That coin is Baar Dau. The puddle is Vivec.” He bit his lip. “Was Vivec.” He sat down abruptly and picked up his cup of greef, sipping at it. “One of my colleagues was on the road to Pelagiad when it happened. Contacted me at once. Told me he saw the cantons knocked over like toys under an ogrim’s heel.” Again Bagarn saw that hesitation in his caretaker’s movements. “That was,” Fyr licked his lips, “the last I heard. Lost the transmission. He must have Recalled out of there.” He didn’t sound sure.

Bagarn was silent, shocked. He had never been there, but he knew Vivec was the greatest city on Vvardenfell.

And now it was gone.

“I’m sorry,” Bagarn said, because he did not know what else to say.

Fyr drank deeply of the greef, before continuing. “Well. You know. It’s not just that.” There was a hint of menace in his voice. “Do you remember,” he began, and then cleared his throat, because his voice was gritty. “Do you remember how Red Mountain would erupt and cause an earthquake? And if there was an earthquake, it would conversely cause Red Mountain to erupt? And sometimes, over in Mournhold, the waves would rise high off the coast, smash fishing boats and houses, and…” He trailed off, shaking his head. “Of course you don’t know about that last part. Point is. Nirn and the roots of the mountain and the tides, they are all connected. What affects one, affects the others.”

Bagarn thought he understood. “Ah. You believe there will be… after-effects?”

Fyr shook his head. “Already begun. In another quarter of an hour, we’ll know the full extent.” He rolled the cup in his hands.

Bagarn’s mind moved infinitely slow, as if refusing to accept the gravity of the situation. Was it his imagination, or could he hear a low rumbling beneath the Corprusarium? Was a river of lava already snaking its way right to their door? He felt a thrill of fear. It was an odd sensation, entirely foreign to a mer whom corprus had inoculated from simple mortality.

The first inane thing he said was, “What of your daughters?”

Fyr opened his mouth to reply, but it was a long time before the words came out. “Safe. Recalled to Mournhold. With family.”

“You could Recall, too,”

Fyr laughed. “Bitter irony. Mine is set to Vivec.”

“Or seek intervention.”

“To Molag Mar, which is hardly safer than here.”

“You have that daedric amulet –”

“No. I gave that to the Argonian.”

Bagarn thought. Water dripped. “Look, old friend. If nothing else, you can travel to Oblivion, can’t you? Hardly comfortable, but if you choose the right realm, you’ll be safe for a time.”

Fyr shook his head. “The ritual takes time, and supplies I don’t have. I can’t just pop off to Moonshadow in an instant.”

A sudden, clever thought occurred to Bagarn. “Aren’t your people known for their resistance to fire and heat?”

“Resistance is not immunity. If nothing else,” Fyr said, grimacing, “it will just kill me more slowly.”

That was a frightful picture, but Bagarn was becoming exasperated. Everywhere he offered suggestions, Fyr threw them aside. “You are the single most brilliant sorcerer in Vvardenfell!” Bagarn cried. “At the very least, you can levitate yourself somewhere neither lava nor earthquakes nor giant waves can reach you.”

A thin, sad smile stole over Fyr’s lips then. “And leave the Corprusarium behind? Leave you behind?” He gestured to the Dwemer’s bloated body. “Where I would go, you cannot follow, friend.”

And that was the entire truth behind the excuses, Bagarn saw at last. His shoulders fell.

“Please, drink up,” Fyr whispered. “Hate to drink alone.”

Bagarn looked into his cup, and considered his own death. All things considered, it would be a relief. His body was a twisted, traitorous ruin; even his senses were beginning to fail him.

But it was a funny thing, to have survived so much, only to die now.

To have survived the failed experiments that turned his people to ash.

To have survived Akaviri invasions.

To have survived corprus, which made him this ruin, but also allowed him to live to this far-attenuated age.

To have seen the Nerevarine.

To die, in the path of a natural disaster. A natural disaster caused, however indirectly, by the very thing Kagrenac had tried to do to improve the Dwemer, thousands of years ago.

He wondered if it would hurt much.

He sipped his greef, and felt its numb his tongue.

“I’m sorry there’s not much left,” Fyr said, smoothing his topknot of white hair with hands that visibly shook. “You know how Alfe likes her drink. This is good stuff. Second Era vintage. They were drinking this stuff when Vivec flooded the Akaviri out of Vvardenfell.”

The numbness did not leave Bagarn’s tongue. He licked his lips, and knew suddenly that the Fyr daughters had not gone to Mournhold. They were duplicates of Fyr; what family could they claim?

“This will make it easier,” Fyr said. “I don’t know if the seas or Nirn will take us… but sera alchemy is always obliging.” He set his head down on the table, his breathing heavy. “That is the hackle-lo leaf you taste. To numb the pain. Luminous russula and violet coprinus does the rest.”

A cold stone settled in Bagarn’s chest, and with surprising eagerness, he embraced it. He reached for the bottle of poisoned greef and poured out the dregs of it, speckled with precipitates. “Will this… be enough?

Fyr tried to nod, but didn’t quite manage it. “Yes,” he rasped instead. “Excuse me if I don’t pour for you. My spine — seems to have stopped working.” He laughed. His skin was pale, the color of a Falmer’s. “Terrible old man. Lived far too long. But. Know how to be a gracious host.”

You have always been good to me, Bagarn wanted to say, but the words froze in his throat. He saw the same glint in Fyr’s eyes he had seen earlier, and knew it wasn’t mischievousness, after all, but fear.

Fyr was too proud to ask for his company–he was as haughty as any Dunmer. But he was slipping away, his intelligent eyes dimming, even as the Dwemer delayed. The least he owed Divayth Fyr, Bagarn determined, was follow him into the dark.

He threw back the cup of greef and drank greedily.

The Battle on Christ’s-Mass (flash fiction)

Originally published December 21, 2012, on Livejournal, for Terrible Minds’ weekly flash fiction challenge, where the prompt was “The War on Christmas.”¬†Here I am imagining an alternate history where the German states never became Christian. Small corrections made in reposting it here.

In the Year of Our Lord 1844, as every schoolchild knows, Prince Albert wrought peace between England and the German states.

This is how it was accomplished.

It was an accident of his campaign in Hesse that Prince Albert found himself camped outside the city of Geismar on the eve of Christ’s-Mass, which the heathens called Yule. It was snowing, and this did not escape the notice of the two middle-aged men gathered inside the Prince’s command tent.

“It is inadvisable,” said the Duke of Normandy, Laurence Martel, “to march up the hill in snow towards…” He raised and lowered his hand, demonstrating, with wordless frustration, their goal. Then he brightened and added, “Perhaps a flanking action –”

“There’s no time,” Prince Ernest of Thuringia snapped. “Nor can we split our forces like that.”

Despair returned to the Duke’s face. “Then… perhaps if we can hope for superior firepower. They haven’t got rifles, have they?”

Ernest barked a laugh. “We aren’t savages, you know.”

Prince Albert listened to his companions for some time longer, but eventually he rose and walked out of the tent. Later he would note the silence of this moment — so still he believed he could hear the breath of the sky. If he noted how uncanny that was, it is not mentioned in his memoirs; nor, it seems, did he reflect on his odd place in this war, as the husband of a Christian ruler and the child of a pagan land.

Prince Ernest and the Duke soon followed him out. They found him staring to the south, at the hill city of Geismar, alight with lamp-light, rising out of the plain like an island rising out of the sea. Less than a mile distant, it might as well have been impenetrable.

Prince Albert looked to the west instead. Against the setting sun, he could see outlined a tree. It took him some time, he records, to realize it must have been truly of epic proportions to block out part of the horizon like it did. “Brother,” he said, in German, “What is that tree?”

“Donar’s Oak,” the Prince of Thuringia replied. “The local people equate it with Yggdrasil, the World Tree.” He gave a disdainful shrug. This was an unorthodox belief, even for a heathen.

“Will it be defended?”

“I can’t imagine it’s a strategic target.” After a moment’s reflection, he added, “Though I expect there are some few priests of Donar there, and they’ll defend it with their lives.”

Prince Albert considered for a long time — so long that the sun sank in the west, leaving them in full darkness. The breeze continued to whisper possibilities. Eventually, he cleared his throat, and spoke. “Normandy, be prepared to march at dawn.” Turning to Ernest, he said, “I would like an axe.”

#

The battle at Donar’s Oak was accomplished without fanfare. There were some dozen priests tending the tree, and they resisted with passion and abandon, but they were overwhelmed by the strength of the infantry. Preferring death to indignity, few of the priests had allowed themselves to be captured.

The surviving priests stood guarded by a circle of infantry in the shadow of the leafless giant. When the sun was high, Prince Albert emerged from the milling soldiers and stepped up to the mounded dirt around the base of the tree, where heathen idols had been scattered. He was wearing a dress uniform and he carried an axe. He looked to either side of him as if awaiting a cue.

The gathered people — heathens and soldiers both — seemed to be holding their breaths. The impact of the axe hitting wood was a great exhalation.

Prince Albert was a fit man, but the tree was fitter, and His Highness was soon sweating and panting. He removed first the uniform jacket, then his shirt. By the time he began making the lower notch, his hair was wild and he looked like nothing so much as a common laborer.

Lightning then broke from the clear sky, its only warning a ripple of electricity through the air. It struck the crown of the tree, and the force of the impact drove a wedge between the main limbs of the tree. With a tremendous creak-crack, the vast trunk of the tree was split.

When it landed, the tree was in three smoldering sections. Sap sizzled beneath its bark.

Prince Albert seemed a little uncertain at this moment, and summoned forth his brother to converse in whispers. The Prince of Thuringia only made a gesture of confusion.

The symbols must have seemed clear enough for His Highness to continue. “The Most High provides,” he said, taking on the air of the orator. “See how he has split this oak into three parts, representing the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit?” He made the sign of the cross as he said this.

The priests of Donar were murmuring in their little circle. Prince Albert looked at their captors and said, “Deliver them to the gates of Geismar, and then free them.” While the soldiers frowned at their orders, His Highness addessed himself to the captives in German. “Clearly the hammer of Donar has sundered his monument tree into three parts. I leave to your wisdom the interpretation.” As he said this, he approached one of the smoldering limbs and broke off a branch, still decorated with dry, rattling leaves. With its woody end, he scratched in the dirt three interlocking triangles.

Prince Albert had taken Geismar within the week, and the rest of Hesse within the next year. But perhaps what is most remembered from that day is how Prince Albert bore with him the branch of the sundered tree, and carried it with him back to England.

And this is why today we celebrate Christ’s-Mass with garlands of oak leaves.