“The entire town is on the verge of madness, Erandur,” the young woman complained, her desperate arms flailing with dramatic flair. On the verge was an understatement. The people of Dawnstar were starkraving mad and it was only a matter of time before the town started to collapse in upon itself. “Aren’t you supposed to be helping us? You are Mara’s servant. You have to do something!”
It was the same thing every evening in the Windpeak Inn. No matter how cold it was outside, the fire of everyone’s temper made it feel as hot as an Elswyr summer. And the theatrics were more comical than a mummer’s show.
Everyone in Dawnstar had become dramatic of late; exhaustion weighing them all down, tempers flaring well past boiling point over even the smallest of matters. On her way to the inn, Onóra had watched two of the townspeople draw daggers over a chicken. The guards intervened before there was bloodshed, but next time the guards might not be there. Not that she really cared either way. The people of Dawnstar weren’t her people. Onóra didn’t have people anymore, but she’d been living in the town for a couple of months and loathe as she was to admit it, she was starting to feel comfortable there. She took a sense of twisted pleasure just sitting quietly quietly in the corner of the inn with a cup of wine watching them nearly tear each other apart, but it was time for her to move on.
She could feel the urge to wander tugging on her soul.
“I am doing everything I can, Karita, but even with Mara’s blessing, without a powerful mage to accompany me into Nightcaller Temple, I cannot face Vaermina’s wrath alone. I’m sorry.” The middle-aged Dunmer priest was on the verge of losing his own mind.
Soon everyone in Dawnstar would be mad, or dead…
“I’m so tired,” someone moaned. “I’d cut out my own eyes if only I could sleep.”
It wouldn’t be long before they did start cutting out their own eyes, taking their own lives for the simple promise of a moments’ peace from the curse that gripped them all. Onóra swept a glance across the Inn, the face of Death masked everyone her gaze passed over. Flesh rotting from bone, empty eye sockets, dry, gaping mouths filled with black and broken teeth. They were already dead anyway, most of them just didn’t know it yet.
So what if Vaermina added misery and madness to their suffering? Somewhere the Dread Lord laughed at them all, she could almost hear his subtle amusement rustling like dry old leaves in the back of her mind.
“One more, barkeep,” she said, pushing her empty cup across the bar. “For the road.”
“You said that yesterday.” Thoring sneered at her, distrusting eyes holding her gaze in challenge. “Are you finally going to leave this Gods-forsaken village?”
“If it please you so much that I leave, perhaps I’ll stay another day to spite you.”
“I don’t like you, Elf.” Despite his harsh words, Thoring filled her cup with Alto wine and Onóra dropped eight Septims on the counter when he shoved it back to her. “You have a queer air about you and there’s been talk amongst the locals ‘twas you who brought this curse upon us.”
“I’m no witch, and you were cursed long before I came to Dawnstar.” She tipped the cup back elegantly and drained it in four heavy gulps before lowering it once more. “All of you touched by darkness and death well beyond my capabilities, but if you ask nicely, maybe I’ll come to see you tonight while you sleep and bring an end to all your suffering.”
“You make the same promise every day,” he sighed, lowering the bottle below the counter again. “And every night I wait for you.”
“Death never comes when you expect it, Thoring.” Pushing her stool away from the bar, she stood. Leaving an extra Septim on the bar, she headed toward the door and called without looking back over her shoulder, “Goodnight.”
“Sweet dreams,” the Nord leered at her, the madness clearly gleaming in his eyes. “I’ll see you on the morrow, I’m sure.”
Just for that, Onóra wanted to actually leave. She didn’t like being predictable.
Thoring had spoken true. She’d been threatening to leave Dawnstar every day since she had come, but every time she looked east she couldn’t bring herself to leave. It was as though a part of her took pleasure in the pain of all those nightmares; not just the townspeople’s, but her own. She’d dreamed the same nightmares for centuries, but in Dawnstar they seemed so fresh, so real—as though she might actually reach out and touch her mother’s face, feel her sister’s arms squeezing so tight she couldn’t breathe, smell the blood of the dead, the smoke and ash choking in their throats and rising from the ruins as they’d climbed out of the rubble with shards of crystal sticking in their skin.
A shiver rolled through her as she reached for the handle on the door, chilling her more deeply than the frigid, biting, snow-laced wind that swirled up the stairs to meet her on the inn’s wooden porch. She watched the torchlight patrol along the waterfront, lighting up the face of the guard as he passed by. He slowed his pace when he saw her, suspicious, bloodshot eyes locking with hers to let her know that he was watching her, always watching her.
The Stormcloaks that had taken over the city after Ulfric won his war against the Empire had left her alone, for the most part, but his soldiers liked to remind her from time to time that Skyrim belonged to the Nords and her kind weren’t welcome in their land. It wouldn’t be long before those heightened tempers pushed them into doing something they’d all regret, but for the meanwhile she kept to the shadows.
She didn’t like reminding them that she’d been in Skyrim longer than most of them had been alive any more than they liked hearing it.
“Please.” A desperate hand slipped out of the shadows and grasped onto her robes before she could lower onto the first step. “Can you help me? I overheard you tell Thoring you were leaving Dawnstar.”
“You know I cannot help you, priest.” She towered over him, her commanding presence causing him to shy back a little. “I may be Altmer, but I’m no mage.”
“No, no, I know you are not a mage,” he nodded mournfully, the guard’s torchlight glinting off his red eyes for a moment, making them glow like cinders in a dying hearth. “But you are a traveler. Are you truly leaving this accursed place?”
“I say I’m leaving every night,” she pointed out. “And yet every morning I wake and I’m still here.”
“I need your help,” he told her. “I can’t pay you much, in fact, what I do have to offer is probably less than it will cost for you to make the journey, but if you carry this missive to Riften and present it to the priest in Mara’s Temple, Maramal will reward you for your efforts.”
“Why not pay a Courier?”
“When was the last time you saw a Courier here in Dawnstar? Since the war’s end and with no need for constant communication now that High King’s men are firmly in place, no Courier dares set foot here on account of the nightmares. It could be weeks before we see another one, maybe even months. I’m afraid Dawnstar cannot wait that long.”
“Then you should send word to your High King in Windhelm, ask for soldiers to clear the temple.”
“Soldiers cannot help me anymore than you could. I need a mage, a powerful mage to stand against Vaermina.”
“They say the Archmage of the College at Winterhold is now High Queen of Skyrim, and she’s Dragonborn too. Again, I say you should send word to your king.”
“Ulfric Stormcloak cares not for the troubles of Dawnstar, or any other hold under his thumb, so long as they remain under his thumb. Please, will you carry this letter to Riften for me?”
“Why should I help you, priest?” she glanced out over the water again, watched the guard shift at the water’s edge and turn back toward the town again. “Give me one good reason.”
“Because though you may not think much of me, a humble priest of Mara, there was once a time when I was not so different than you are now,” he confessed. “I have watched you, have seen the darkness in your heart, but through the blessing of Mara’s loving gaze I have also seen your light.”
Onóra actually laughed, the echo drawing attention from the patrol guard again. He paused near the docks and held his torch up to reveal squinting eyes filled with distrust. No one laughed in Dawnstar anymore; those who did were surely mad.
“Your eyes fail you, priest,” she said. “Not even through Mara’s eyes would you see light in me.” On the other hand, she had been looking for an excuse to get out of that wretched town. “How much gold will you pay me?”
“Two-hundred and fifty Septims,” he offered, patting the side of his robes until the coin purse sang and jingled against his touch. “And if that is not enough to sway you, I offer you this enchanted ring.” He held up his finger to show her the ring, dull silver, the emerald in it catching her eye. “It isn’t much, as I said, but it will fetch a pretty price if you do not wish to use it.”
“And the enchantment?”
“It will improve your ability to cast illusion spells.” He watched her study the ring, she could feel his eyes narrowing over hers as if he were trying to work his way inside her mind to guess what she was thinking. “It is a long journey to Riften, but as I said, Maramal will compensate you more fairly than I.”
“All right,” she held her hand out for the ring. It would fetch a fair price if she needed to sell it. “I’ll carry your message to Riften.”
She took the bag of gold he offered and opened the drawstrings to drop the ring inside as well. The rolled parchment he handed her had been sealed with a hardened blob of red wax pressed with the sigil of Mara before it cooled.
“The letter must still be sealed upon delivery,” Erandur said, noticing the way her fingertip smoothed over that seal before she lowered it into the pouch she carried over her shoulder. “Mara bless you, child.”
“Mara does not hear my prayers.” Her cynical reply carved deep frown lines into his jaw as he leaned back to study her face. “Save her blessing for someone who cares.”
“Mara does hear your prayers, Onóra,” he called after her as she was walking away. “Perhaps it is you who is not listening.”