August 2021 Prompt: Write a scene/story including fireflies (in this instance, torchbugs – a bug like fireflies in the Elder Scrolls universe). (https://www.bryndonovan.com/2016/05/20/50-writing-prompts-inspired-by-summer/)
The air was heavy, thick with the threat of rain. Her skin felt clammy, her dark hair sticking to the dampness of her skin. Beads of sweat would gather on her forehead, along her hairline, before slowly sliding down her face. Having grown up in the deserts of Hammerfell and used to the heat, Astana found this a revolting revelation.
Above her, the stars twinkled upon the inky backdrop of the night sky. She counted the constellations that Finn would point out to her every night as the lay beneath the stars, tracing over them with his fingers in the sky above. An ache shuddered her heart in her chest.
There was not a cloud in the sky, nor a breeze to be had to rustle Astana’s long, dark hair. The air was oppressive here, suffocating. She wondered if the humidity in the air really was the thing that made all the difference. The heat of her childhood had been a dry, withering heat that would give thing to blissfully cool nights. However, here in the southern reaches of Black Marsh, in the region of Murkmire, humidity reigned supreme. Even when the sun set and the Twin Moons came out to play, the air still hung thick and smothering.
The light spilling from the Twin Moons washed the cobbles of the old Imperial Road before her in a brilliant silver. The cloth bundle strapped to her chest stirred at the sound of the buzzing insects of Black Marsh that created a chorus around them. Astana reached up and scratched the throat scales of the infant Argonian absent-mindedly.
“Do you recognize the smells of this place, little one?” she asked gently.
A thrumming sound vibrated the Argonian’s throat against Astana’s fingers.
“What a silly thing to say,” she scolded herself, “you only just hatched.”
The tiny reptilian nose poking out from the wrappings nuzzled at Astana’s hand, asking for more scratches. Her horse whined uncomfortably and began shying to the opposite side of the road. Astana hastily tucked the tiny snout out of sight and refocused her attentions on the road ahead and the surrounding wilderness of the Murkmire region.
Her skin tingled with the charge of electricity. To her left, a grove of smaller trees and ferns began to glow with an electric purple light. She heard the guttural sounds of the still obscured wamasu and Astana swallowed nervously. The beasts had notoriously bad eyesight, perhaps it had not spotted them just yet.
The infant Argonian chose that unfortunate moment to shrill their displeasure at being tucked back into their wrappings, as well as their impending hunger. Finn’s voice rang in her ears: “They eat baby Argonians, you know,” he had said, referring to wamasus.
The tingling along the back of her neck disappeared, along with the purple glow in the nearby trees. Astana released her held breath; perhaps it had not heard. She would thank her lucky stars if that were the case. She ran her fingers along the ridge of the hatchling’s neck, soothing it, as she breathed easier.
A warbling, guttural roar vibrated along Astana’s bones. The ferns trembled and the wamasu flung itself forward, onto the road. The beast was nearly as tall as her horse’s back. Her horse shrieked in terror and bucked before bolting away from the approaching wamasu. Astana gripped the reigns in her hand and clutched at the infant Argonian to her, praying to Morwha to keep the little one safe. The hooves of her horse thundered down the cobbles before he veered off into the trees. Cursing under her breath, Astana gave the stallion more freedom with the reigns, trusting him to navigate the perilous swampy terrain.
Her horse finally came to a halt after crashing through some underbrush and landing in a small encampment on the other side.
“Oh… hello there,” Astana said awkwardly as her horse stamped his hoof as the eyes of every occupant of the camp turned to look at Astana and her horse in bewilderment. There was a woman – Imperial by the looks of her – and a male Argonian, and a female Khajiit.
“That one should get a smaller horse if this one is too difficult for her to control,” the Kahjiit growled, her amber eyes flashing menacingly in the firelight.
“I… I do apologize for my intrusion,” Astana stammered, “but there was a wamasu on the road.”
“So, kill it,” growled the Khajiit once more, “and leave your fellow travelers alone.”
“Oh…” Astana glanced at the Imperial woman and the male Argonian in the camp, hoping for assistance with their… friend.
The hatchling chose – once again, poorly – to make their presence known.
“I’ll, um, just be on my way then,” Astana said quickly, the male Argonian’s gaze having shot towards her.
The hatchling cried again and the male Argonian stepped forward, grasping the reins of Astana’s horse. She eyed her horse’s head warily; he had not been friendly towards other newcomers in their time together.
“That does not belong to you, girl,” croaked the Argonian after he murmured something gentle to her horse in his native tongue.
“Let this one dispatch her, Jee-Lar,” growled the Khajiit, the woman clearly not having noticed the presence of the hatchling that had caught her companion’s attention.
The Argonian waved a clawed hand in dismissive annoyance at the woman. “You shall do no such thing,” he hissed. “Can you not see she carries a hatchling?” The plume of silver-blue crest feathers atop his head quivered as he – Jee-Lar, as the Khajiit had called him – turned back to Astana. “Explain,” he hissed up at her.
Stepping forward between her two companions, the Imperial woman said: “Jee-Lar! Zadaza! Both of you leave this poor girl alone.” The woman brushed Jee-Lar’s hand from the reins of Astana’s horse. “Zadaza,” she continued to the Khajiiti woman, “go make certain that wamasu is not still about. I do not feel like being electrocuted in my sleep tonight.”
The Khajiit – Zadaza – growled at the Imperial woman before stalking off the way Astana had come as she unsheathed two daggers at her hips.
The Imperial woman smiled warmly up at Astana, wrinkles forming around her dark eyes and softening her otherwise sharp face.
“My name is Famia,” said the Imperial woman as she guided Astana’s horse to a tie-off where three other horses stood munching on greens. “Famia Mercius,” she continued, “founder of the Cyrodilic Collections Society.” She waited for Astana to make an indication she had heard of her society. Astana did not, because she had not. The Imperial woman, Famia, made a soft harumph sound and continued: “You’ve met my associates; Jee-Lar,” she motioned to the male Argonian behind them, “and Zadaza,” she gestured into the trees where the Khajiit woman had disappeared.
Astana dismounted, clutching the hatchling to her chest. When she stumbled, Jee-Lar unexpectedly steadied her, his hands surprisingly gentle.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you all,” Astana said slowly.
Famia motioned for Astana to join her by the fire; she did, even though her skin was already boiling, the smell of food enticing her. She could not remember the last time she had had more than just a bit of cured meat, or dried fruit; she had run out of rations three days ago, just beyond Gideon. She perched on a log and accepted the steaming plate of Dragonstar Radish Kebabs and Savory Thorn Cornbread. Her stomach rumbled hungrily; a scaled snout emerged from the swaddling wrapped around her upper body and snuffled at her meal.
“Do you have any sap for the hatchling?” Jee-Lar asked, moving towards her, his neck craning to catch a glimpse of the infant.
Astana stared at him, blankly. “Sap?” she asked.
“Hist Tree sap?” Jee-Lar said.
Astana dug into the small leather pouch at her hip, producing a small, clear vile with a deep, forest green liquid within.
“The man gave me this,” she said, holding out the vile for Jee-Lar’s inspection.
He took the vile, uncorking it carefully and giving the contents a sniff. He nodded, satisfied. “Yes,” he said, “good, this is it.” He handed the vile back to Astana. “But you will need more, that will only last you a week.” Scratching his chin idly, he continued: “Where are you headed? What are you plans with the hatchling? What happened to their parents? When-”
“Jee-Lar,” Famia interrupted, “give the poor girl a chance to eat!”
Astana smiled gratefully at the woman, whom she had nearly entirely forgotten was present under the scrutiny of the male Argonian. The hatchling became more intrigued by Astana’s unattended plate and began squirming their way free of their swaddling. She saw Jee-Lar watching the child with longing in his eyes.
“Would you like to take them while I eat?” she asked.
Jee-Lar gaped at her, looking startled, like she had proposed he keep the child. “No, no,” he stammered hastily, “I couldn’t.”
But Astana was already lifting the tiny thing from their swaddling and holding the infant out to Jee-Lar. The hatchling let out a throaty warble at their displeasure of being removed from Astana’s body heat and being left dangling in the air. Their long tail with glistening black scales and tiny spikes emerging along the ridge down their back, whipped back and forth in irritation. Astana was reminded of her childhood cat and their Agitation Meter, as she had called it. Their little arms were reaching out for Jee-Lar, expectantly.
Finally, Jee-Lar extended his arms hesitantly and took the hatchling, tucking them into his lap as he sat on the stump nearest Astana.
“So, we are keeping it then?” Zadaza huffed in irritation as she emerged into the clearing again. “Keep it quiet, this one has already killed two wamasus in the area, do not make it more,” she growled.
Famia hushed her pair of companions – though Jee-Lar had fallen silent, entranced with the hatchling in his lap. She turned back to Astana, passing her a mug of mint chai tea.
“Won’t you tell us what’s happened, dear?” Famia said kindly.
Astana nodded; her gaze glancing towards the hatchling, slightly regretting not having them in her grasp as she told their story. What if they tried to take them from her? Though, perhaps they would be better off with a member of their own kind.
She took a drink of her tea and began.
“About a week or so ago, I was in Elsweyr, with my boyfriend,” she began. “Finn and I had… left home, to travel together.” She was skirting around large portions here, but they didn’t need her backstory. “We had been spending a few days in the Stitches when word started circulating that dragons had been spotted in Elsweyr. Panic was on the rise when one night, an Argonian couple arrived at the inn we were staying in. We, Finn and I, got to talking with them, everyone else avoided them like they carried the plague. The pair of them were traveling from High Rock with their newly laid clutch of eggs, in hopes of having their babies hatch beneath the Hist Tree of their ancestors in Black Marsh.”
Astana glanced up to see Jee-Lar’s eyes boring into her.
She cleared her throat uncomfortably and continued: “The barkeep of the inn snapped at the Argonians not to be mentioning any eggs where others could hear, or the locals would jump to the conclusion of dragon eggs. We tried to laugh off the comment, but they were clearly offended.”
“What were their names?” Jee-Lar interjected quietly.
“She was called Walks-In-The-Sun, though he called her Sunny,” said Astana, “and he was called Ahkurna.”
“Was?” Jee-Lar said simply.
“Yes. That night, the Stitches fell under dragon attack. Everything in the village was burned, except the inn. Sunny and Ahkurna’s room the only place that took zero damage from the attack. The village started in on them as everyone gathered in the streets in the aftermath. The barkeep himself led the charge, stating that they had brought the dragons there, summoned them to the Stitches.”
“This one does not like where this is going,” said Zadaza uneasily.
“Nor I,” Famia agreed.
Jee-Lar just looked helplessly from Astana to the hatchling cooing in his lap.
“Within minutes,” Astana went on, “everything was happening so fast, but Sunny lay dead in the street, having been struck by a thrown rock from a villager. When she fell, she landed on the basket that was carrying their eggs. All but one was crushed beneath her.” Astana’s – and everyone else’s – eyes drifted to the hatchling. “They started in for Ahkurna, trampling Sunny’s body and the remains of their eggs. It was utter madness. I managed to get to the remaining egg before anyone else, and Finn had gone the opposite direction to stand between the mob and Ahkurna. He flung me his satchel up and over the crowd and shouted ‘Gideon!’ And then I ran.
“I ran for the cliffs; somehow managing not to fall to my death as I climbed down into the Scar and back up the other side. From the far side, I could see the smoke still of the smoldering village. And, again, I ran.”
“And yet,” said Jee-Lar slowly, “you are here, far from Gideon. And you are alone.”
Astana nodded. “I stole a horse from a small village and rode hard for the border of Cyrodiil. We skirted north of Leyawiin and then rode straight for Gideon. When we arrived, I didn’t dare enter the city, everyone in the Stitches had heard our intended destination. So instead, I made a camp on the road Finn and Ahkurna would approach from. If they came at all.
“I paid a boy from the Thieves Guild to be inquiring within the city of any arriving Argonians and Nord men traveling together. Or of any angry mobs from the Stitches. On the third day, he told me there had been no sign, but that now the guards were speaking of them. And of a Redguard girl traveling with a dragon egg. I knew then that it was time to go. I left a note safely with the boy in the Thieves Guild that simply said Lilmoth and we were on our way.
“Half a day’s ride outside of Gideon, this little guy hatched,” she gestured to the infant. “At first, I panicked, because we were not at a Hist Tree, but we were at least inside the borders of Black Marsh,” she continued. “A local fisherman came across us that night; he helped me find the vile, showed me how to make a juice out of bugs, taught me how to feed and care for them.”
Astana sighed wearily, “So that’s it. We’re all caught up.”
“A suicide mission,” scoffed Zadaza.
“A noble cause,” Jee-Lar hissed in correction.
“We are returning to Lilmoth from an expedition,” said Famia loudly over her companions. “Why don’t you join us?”
“Lilmoth will be a waste of her time and a disservice to the child,” Jee-Lar interjected briskly, waving away Famia’s offer.
Astana’s heart fell; surely this was not the end to her plan? She could not fail Walks-In-The-Sun and Ahkurna; their child was all that remained of them.
“What do you mean?” she asked hesitantly.
“In Lilmoth, the child will likely end up in an orphanage,” explained Jee-Lar. “If – as I suspect – their parents were born outside of Black Marsh, the child will be shunned, an outsider, if blood family is not found in Lilmoth.”
“But… the child was hatched here, it can hear the Hist, I fed it the sap!” Astana cried. “I did all the things I was told to do!”
“It does not matter,” Jee-Lar cut across her; his voice firm, a mild harshness to it. “You are a dry-back, no one will believe you.”
“But…” stammered Astana.
“With no one as witness, the Argonians will not believe a human learned their traditions and beliefs and attempted to honor them on their own,” Famia said sadly.
“But… Jee-Lar…” she motioned listlessly towards the Argonian before her.
Zadaza scoffed, “That one is an Imperialized Argonian, he is not accepted by the others in Lilmoth.” She snorted with disdain. “How do you think he knows the child will be ostracized, forever on the outside looking in?”
“It is true,” Jee-Lar nodded, “I was born in the Imperial City, like my father before me; we returned to Black Marsh when I was just a child, after my father died.” His eyes grew distant as he scratched the ridges on the crown of the hatchling’s head absent-mindedly. “It is how I know this little one would not have a life worth living if you were to leave it in Lilmoth, no family to be found.”
“The child would likely have a better up-bringing with you, elsewhere,” Famia said quietly, “if no family can be found.”
“But… this cannot have all been for nothing,” Astana said feebly. She had never considered what would come next, if she could not find any of Walks-In-The-Sun, nor Ahkurna’s families. Their families both could have been outside of Black Marsh for generations, like Jee-Lar. The vile of Hist sap suggested otherwise, but she had not had the time to find out. “But… what else can I do?” Astana asked softly, glancing between the other three.
“Should have kept your head down to begin with,” Zadaza spat.
Jee-Lar hissed at his Khajiiti companion, startling the hatching. “Without her, the child would be dead,” growled the Argonian. “An exotic omelet – though not as exotic as they would have thought – for your barbaric race.”
“Jee -Lar!” Famia shouted, “Zadaza! Both of you, enough!”
The Imperial woman rose from her seat, her dark eyes blazing with fury for her two companions. “This poor girl has uprooted her life to help this poor child. We should be trying to help her, not turning on one another!” Famia had taken on a scolding tone, reminiscent of Astana’s own mother back in Sentinel.
Zadaza had the humility to look sheepish, but Jee-Lar’s eyes still smoldered with rage as he stared in the direction of the Khajiit.
“Jee-Lar,” Famia said, her voice firm, but quiet.
The Argonian blinked slowly, his fingers stroking the ridge of the hatchling’s nose absent mindedly.
“It would better suit the child,” said Jee-Lar, slowly turning his gaze back toward Astana, “if you would be willing to travel around to the various tribes and see if any will claim them.”
Astana stared at Jee-Lar in disbelief, she must have misheard him. But he kept looking at her, expectation in his eyes; he was waiting for her to respond. So, she had heard him…
“Just… blindly?” she asked finally, incredulously.
“Unfortunately, yes,” said Jee-Lar. “At such a young age, all Argonians look practically identical, at least to an outsider. The clear appearance of their tribe – such as the brightly colored scales of the Waseek-haleel, nor the dark iridescent scales of the Naga-Kur, nor the distinctive shapes of the Naga’s faces – is not visible until they are at least a full year in age.” Jee-Lar gazed longingly, and lovingly down at the hatchling he cradled; Astana wondering if he had ever had a child, or wanted one.
Astana considered Jee-Lar’s words; she had dumbly assumed Lilmoth would be her journey’s end, regardless of what she found there. Though, she had previously thought the same of Gideon. Traveling across the swamps and fearsome jungles of Black Marsh with a helpless child that seemingly every wild creature in the region liked to eat had not been what Astana had had in mind. And yet… she had no idea of the location of Finn, or even if he were still alive for that matter. Her love could be lying dead on the side of the road somewhere, and she would have no idea. She had no intention of returning to the sands of her homeland and the overbearing presence of her family in Sentinel.
Turning her attention back to the others, she said: “Alright, I’ll take them. Surely there are not that many tribes.” She ignored the snort of laughter from Zadaza.
“There are not as many as there once were, no,” said Jee-Lar carefully. “Some disappear into the cities, merging with other tribes there. But if this little one descends from folk of that nature, you may never find them.”
“Right,” said Astana, “thanks for the encouragement. What if after all of this, I still do not find their people?”
“Hopefully that one has considered adoption,” purred Zadaza. Astana gazed at her curiously, she could never quite tell whom Zadaza was speaking to due to the odd speaking patterns of Khajiit.
“Jee-Lar,” began Famia.
“No,” he cut her off shortly, “it cannot come to the Society. It would have a better chance of being accepted one day by staying far away from me.”
“Even with a human?” Famia’s disappointment was evident.
“Yes,” he hissed. “If it were to become known that I was involved with the raising of this child, it would be apparent that I held a complete disregard for our own culture.” He gestured to Astana. “Whereas you it will be assumed you were ignorant of our ways and just attempting to care for a child.” He sighed, “Though it would still be viewed as an ignorant and wrong move, the heart in my people would see that you were just trying to see to the survival of one of their race. That often speaks louder than any insult to our culture, as so many disregard us as being sentient beings.”
“The same reason I cannot simply take them to an orphanage also prevents you – a member of their own species – from raising it,” stated Astana, her voice flat.
“We are a complex people,” said Jee-Lar sadly.
“They are a stupid people,” Zadaza said pointedly. The hair on the back of Astana’s neck stood on end, it was clear whatever hostility had been brewing between Zadaza and Jee-Lar was about to boil over.
“Says the woman whose people believe in reincarnation,” spat Jee-Lar.
Zadaza shot up from her seat on the far side of the fire. “How dare you speak of the Mane in such a manner,” she roared.
“Would you both calm down?!” Famia cried, moving herself to stand between her two companions.
“That one is lucky he holds an innocent,” Zadaza growled, jabbing a finger in Jee-Lar’s direction, “or he would be a dead lizard.”
The tension abated for the moment, and Famia returned to her seat as she rubbed her temples. “The pair of you are reminding me why the Society was founded to begin with,” she said irritably, “to keep you both away from each other.
“At least this one does not believe a plant bestows her personality,” Zadaza growled to herself as she stalked off to a tent.
“You should start with the Waseek-haleel,” Jee-Lar said suddenly. He had abruptly appeared before Astana and was holding out the child to her.
Startled, Astana took the hatchling back, who was sound asleep, and tucked them back into the swaddling that was strapped to her chest.
“I do not know if this child is a Waseek-haleel hatchling or not, but they shall be the kindest to you just showing up on their doorstep,” Jee-Lar explained. “And if they are not one of their own, they should be able to guide you where to go. Or at least narrow it down.”
“But you said it was impossible to tell this young…”
“For an outsider, yes. A tribe will always recognize their young, however, and that of tribes they are incredibly familiar with. Say, a neighboring tribe they trade with frequently.”
He pulled out a map from one of his tunic’s pockets. Pointing to an area where the roads converged towards the southern coast of Murkmire, Jee-Lar said: “We are here, just northeast of Alten Meerhleel.” He pointed to the southern most point of land, encompassed in marshes, “Lilmoth is here.” Moving his finger back to their location, tracing the Imperial Road, he then dragged his claw along to the northeast towards the bay, again along the Imperial Road. “The Bright Throat Village lies here,” he said, tapping his claw at the base of the lake that led to the river that filled Oliis Bay. “You should make it by midday if you depart at dawn.”
Astana eyed the map; this was beginning to feel like a never-ending journey. But she had made the commitment long before knowing what all this adventure would entail. She would not – no, could not – turn back now.
“You will have my tent tonight,” Jee-Lar was saying. “I shall keep watch; make sure no wamasus, or worse, wander in.”
She nodded; her eyelids having grown heavy in the last few minutes. A full night’s sleep had been a luxury she had not been able to afford in the week or so since she had left the Stitches. Gathering the basket she had been using as a cradle for the hatchling at night, Astana followed Jee-Lar in the direction of his tent.
Laying on top of the bedroll, the night air being far too heavy for covers, Astana was surprised by how breathable the Argonian’s tent was. Having grown up in the deserts of Hammerfell, Astana had never been a stranger to heat. It was the humidity she had been struggling with. It made the air oppressive; one’s lungs felt like they were constantly on the verge of erupting, her skin was sticky, and the braids of her hair clung to it. She had partially dreaded coming into the confinement of Jee-Lar’s tent, as even the thin walls of the fabric threatened to constrict her further by blocking off the slight rustle of a breeze that had been developing as the sun had gone down. However, the fabric proved to be oddly breathable, even creating a pocket of significantly cooler air than outside. The longer she lay there, the more she could feel her body cooling, the humidity dissipating.
As she began to sink into the comfort of sleep, Astana draped her wrist over the rim of the basket. She ran the back of her finger along the smooth, cool scales of the hatchling’s chest. She could feel the little one’s chest vibrating as they thrummed happily in their sleep. One of their little clawed hands slowly gripped itself around one of Astana’s fingers and she drifted off to sleep.
The next morning, Astana awoke to the hatchling hanging over the edge of their basket, grabbing at her nose.
“Good morning, little one,” she said sleepily, blinking her eyes against the bright morning sunlight filtering through the tent. She caught a whiff of eggs and bread frying and pulled herself up, scooping up the basket with the hatchling, and headed outside into the morning air.
Zadaza was kneeling over the campfire, shuffling eggs around in an iron skillet; she nodded to Astana in greeting.
“Good morning,” Astana said to her, noticing the hostility in the Khajiit from the night before had melted away in the night.
“How is the little one?” Zadaza asked her.
“They seem to have slept very well,” said Astana, leaning down to scoop the hatchling from their basket, the little one having been attempting to pull themselves free. “They are not usually this active in the morning.”
“Perhaps they sense they are home and feel at ease.”
Rising from her position at the fireside, Zadaza brought Astana a plate heaped with eggs and fried bread.
“May this one feed the cub?” Zadaza motioned to the hatchling. She jiggled a small jar. “Jee-Lar made more juice from bugs for them,” she purred. “He was up all night catching all of his old favorites.” A hint of a smile lit Zadaza’s face as she spoke. So, she and Jee-Lar did like one another after all.
“Of course!” said Astana with a nod. She watched as the Khajiit woman bent down and scooped the infant from their basket.
The experienced manner in which she tucked the child into the crook of her arm and unstoppered the jar one-handed gave Astana pause. Zadaza appeared extremely comfortable scooping globs of bug juice into the child’s mouth with one of her longer claws acting as a spoon. The hatchling was just as at ease with Zadaza, cooing and gurgling back at her as she interacted with the child. A soft murmuring was coming from Zadaza as she spoke softly to the infant.
“This one had a cub of her own,” Zadaza said quietly, glancing over at Astana. “There was famine in Rimmen in his first year, I did not make enough milk, and he did not survive.”
“I’m… I’m so sorry,” Astana stammered, setting down her fork that had frozen midair as Zadaza had spoken.
The Khajiit gave a little shrug. “It was a long time ago,” she said softly, her voice far away. “And this little one has been warm sun on this one’s fur.” Her teeth glinted in the morning sunlight as she smiled, rubbing her nose to the child’s snout, who in turn giggled wildly. “You will tell it about this one, as it grows, yes?” Zadaza asked.
Astana found she did not have the heart to tell the other woman that she did not plan to be raising the child herself. “Of course, I will,” she promised. At the very least, she would tell the tribe it belonged with about their journey home, so they could pass it on to the child.
When it was finally time for the party to separate, they all found themselves reluctant. Jee-Lar produced more vials of bug juice. Famia gave her more provisions – enough to last Astana into her later journey to locate Finn, if it came to it – as well as requested that they visit them in Lilmoth. Zadaza gave the child a moon amulet, a traditional piece of Khajiiti heritage.
“It was my boy’s,” she said quietly to Astana, “may it bring this little one more protection than it did to him.”
She kissed the forehead of the hatchling, causing them to squeal in delight at the tickle of her whiskers. The Khajiit’s eyes glistened with unshed tears as she backed away.
“Goodbye, little one,” purred Zadaza.
The sun was beginning to emerge from beyond the distant mountains by the time Astana finally sat astride her stallion, setting off with the hatchling swaddled to her chest once more. She turned in the saddle multiple times to wave back to Famia, Jee-Lar, and Zadaza. The last time, she was disappointed to see that they had passed around a bend in the road and they were no longer visible to her.
The air was still thick, heavy, oppressive as it had been the day prior. Astana prayed to Tava for rain to come, to lighten the heaviness of the air in her lungs. Clouds hung on the horizon, bulky thunderheads, Tava had listened to her plea. The next time she prayed for rain, Astana vowed to be more specific; she feared they were going to get caught in the approaching storm before reaching the Bright Throat Village.
The road to Bright Throat Village was all but deserted, the pair of them not even seeing traveling merchants along their way. Astana suspected most felt the difference in the air pressure and could feel the coming storm and were hunkering down. She wondered if that were not the smarter approach than trying to outrun it to a village she did not know the location of.
As the first crackle of lightning flashed across the sky, followed by a bone rattling clap of thunder, the outlines of a village were just beginning to appear through the swampy forest. The hatchling stirred against Astana, their snout pushing out of the wrappings. They snuffled at the air, snorting mildly as their little nostril slits flared. They let out a shrill bellow, showing their distaste for the incoming weather.
Another flash and crack of lightning and the clouds above split opened, a heavy blanket of rain pouring forth. Astana’s horse shrieked and reared back, kicking his hooves towards the darkening sky. The hatchling made jerking movements, much like a small lizard, as though they were making a move to escape their swaddling. She tried speaking gently to her both her mount and the child, hoping to calm them both. However, her horse could not hear her above the din of the storm, and the infant was proving willful in their discomfort over the horse’s upset.
The rising wind and continuous crashing of thunder was raising the anxiety in Astana’s horse, who was threatening to buck again. His continuous hopping rattled the child, who let out a fearful wail and began attempting to claw their way free of their swaddling. The hatchling’s claws ripped through the skin of Astana’s collar bone as they tried to flee. Her horse began to buck once more.
“Gods damn the pair of you!” Astana shrieked in frustration, “I cannot control the both of you right now!”
On the road before her, there was suddenly an Argonian blocking her path. She had not even seen him approach, he was just suddenly there. The dark feathers of his crest were whipping in the wind, the rains fighting to flatten them against his skull. His scales were the color of dried blood with white banding, his eyes glistening beads of dark jade. His copper-colored leathers he wore were slick from the rain. As his clawed hand closed around the reins of Astana’s horse, his eyes met hers.
“Come,” he croaked, “follow me.” As he led her horse into the village, Astana thought to herself that he really wasn’t leaving her much choice. Not that she was about to refuse help…
At a ramp that led up into the treehouses of the village, the red Argonian motioned for Astana to dismount. She slid from the saddle, grabbing her satchel and the hatchling’s basket as effortlessly as though she were a part of the downpour. The Argonian she was following tossed the reins to a bright green and blueish-grey female Argonian that was rushing towards them.
“Loxa,” he shouted above the storm, “get this horse tethered below with the others! I’m taking her to the Tree-Minder!”
Below, wondered Astana, below what? The other woman nodded, her feather crests bobbing.
Astana followed her guide, clutching tightly to the hatchling as he hurried up the wooden ramp to an elevated wooden walkway. They crossed a wide wooden plaza and entered a round building with a heavily thatched roof. Inside, a slew of Argonians had sought shelter from the raging storm.
“Greetings, stranger,” said an approaching Argonian woman.
She was positively stunning. Her scales were a vibrant, iridescent turquoise, with a pale, white gold along her under arms, jaw line, and dipping just below the bodice of her tribal gown. She wore a collared neck piece with a pair of long beaked skulls on either shoulder, the edges lined with copper discs that tinkled as she moved. Where the purple fabric was not covered with fine wooden and ivory-colored beads, the purple fabric was woven into interlocking triangles. Copper armbands ringed her upper arms, her wrists and forearms cuffed in thick purple bracers. The tribal gown she wore was strapless, a bold purple fabric that wrapped around her slight body. Every inch of the bodice was trimmed in fine, seed-sized beads, medallions pinned at the neckline and along the belt, and strands of metal garlands accented with beads were draped criss-crossing across the woman’s torso. She was a melodic wonder as she moved across the room.
Unlike the other members of the Bright Throat Tribe that Astana had seen thus far, this woman did not sport any crest feathers along her head. Instead, there was a single, curved horn, dark as mahogany, and polished to perfection, with a simple gold band around the base. A few gold rings pierced the ridges above her eyes. As the firelight caught on her, the woman shimmered.
“Thank you for retrieving our guests, Aliskeeh,” the woman purred to the red Argonian beside Astana.
The man that had rescued her from the storm bowed to the glittering woman before them. “Anything, Tree-Minder,” he said humbly, admiringly.
The woman turned her dark, glittering eyes back to Astana. “Come, ojel, sit with me by the fire, have some tea while you dry your bones and tell me of your journey.”
Astana followed the woman – the Tree-Minder – to a somewhat private, smaller chamber with an inviting fire. She sat down in the indicated wicker chair, the hatchling sticking their snout out once more.
The child croaked in the Tree-Minder’s direction.
“Well, hello, little one,” the woman said soothingly, a low thrumming sound coming from her throat, much like what the child did as they slept. A smile spread across the woman’s face, her eyes warming at the sight of the child.
The Tree-Minder half rose, looking to Astana as she did. “May I?” she asked, indicating the child.
Astana nodded, “Of course,” she said, pulling the child from their swaddling and passing them to the Tree-Minder.
As she watched the Tree-Minder cooing over, tickling, and soothing the hatchling, Astana found herself telling the other woman her story. All of it; including the portion that included the fact that she was a Princess of Hammerfell, niece of King Fahara’jad, and Finn being an illegitimate child of a Jarl in Skyrim, raised in the Thieves Guild. And that when their paths had crossed, they had fallen in love. Naturally, Astana’s mother, the king’s younger sister, had gravely disapproved of her daughter’s desired union with such an undesirable match. The pair had then fled from Sentinel, stopping first in Wayrest, paying a visit to Astana’s eldest cousin, Maraya, the Queen of High Rock. When Astana finally fell silent, she cupped her hands nervously in her lap, waiting for the Tree-Minder to tell her what a stupid thing she had done.
The Tree-Minder regarded Astana for a careful moment. “It is nice to finally meet you, Astana,” the woman said kindly. “The Hist told me of your impending arrival – and this little one – some time ago. Thought it had not mentioned when this might occur.” Astana sat up a little straighter; the Hist had told this woman about the hatchling, likely before they had even existed. This gave her hope. The woman gestured to herself, “I am Pavu,” she said, “Tree-Minder of the Wasseek-haleel Tribe. Or as you may have heard us called, the Bright Throats.” She smiled warmly at Astana. “It takes a noble heart indeed to attempt to reunite a helpless child with their people. For that, we shall forever be in your debt.” She smiled again, “You have entered our village an ojel, a stranger, but you shall leave a beeko, a friend.” Pavu looked down at the hatchling who had fallen asleep on her lap. “It pains me to say this, especially after the tragedy that has befallen our nursery, but this little one is not a Wasseek-haleel.”
Astana’s heart sunk in her chest as she watched Pavu tracing her finger along the lines of the sleeping child’s face.
“Do you… do you know which tribe they may belong to?” Astana asked slowly, her voice faltering in fear that Pavu would say no.
Pavu nodded sagely. “Oh yes,” she said, “this is without a doubt a child of the Naga-Kur.” Pavu held Astana’s gaze. “Returning them to their tribe will not be easy for you.”
Astana’s heart fell further. “What do you mean?”
“The Naga-Kur are not welcoming to outsiders,” said Pavu. “They will likely try to kill you as soon as they discover you have them.” She motioned to the hatchling.
“But…” Astana’s mind was racing, “I would be returning them. Would they not be glad of it?”
“They would likely assume you had managed to steal one of their eggs somehow and were attempting to ransom it back to them.” Pavu rubbed her chin. “You would be surprised how often that occurs. It would also likely result in your death, and the execution of their Egg-Minders.”
“How do I prove to them that I mean no harm? That I did not take their hatchling, that I simply am trying to return it?”
Pavu thought for a few moments longer before slapping her thighs and rising. “Come,” she said, “let us go and rejoin the others.”
Astana followed Pavu back into the main chamber that was full of Argonians. The group fell silent as their leader spoke, telling them all of Astana’s predicament; they gasped when the Naga-Kur hatchling was shown prominently.
“We must help this girl complete her noble-hearted task,” Pavu was saying. “The Hist has commanded it. We must help her find a way to be seen as an approaching friend by the Naga-Kur, not an outsider.”
“Surely the Naga’s Hist will inform them of the child’s approach and they will welcome her,” said a woman that looked very similar to Pavu, but with amethyst scales among her turquoise.
A woman with copper scales scoffed loudly. “They will just think she stole it, Haxara.”
The first woman – Haxara – waved her hands dismissively at the second. “You always assume the worst in people, Jasaii,” snipped Haxara.
The copper scaled woman, who was called Jasaii, bristled. “I am a healer, Haxa,” she snapped, “I see the worst in people.”
“She could offer to walk the Path of the Lily,” offered a man with dark green-blue and amethyst scales, his deep turquoise crest feathers quivering as he spoke.
Another man, this one with copper and burgundy scales, barked with laughter. “Do not be absurd, Isken! She will surely die a gruesome death on the Path of the Lily.”
Pavu handed the hatchling back to Astana, crossing her arms in disappointment as she regarded her tribe. Clearly, whatever she had been expecting, it was not this. Finally, she clapped her hands together three times, waking the hatching. The child wailed in alarm, their little warbling voice screeching hoarsely.
A pale, yellowish-white scaled hand extended slowly over Astana’s shoulder from behind and towards the hatchling. Another, matching hand slowly curled around Astana’s other shoulder. Her eyes widened in alarm at the sight of the long, sickly colored claws against her dark skin. The creature’s white face extended forward over Astana’s shoulder to see the hatchling, as it ran it’s knuckles along the child’s ridges above their eyes. Astana’s skin crawled as the creature behind her croaked: “Bay-bee,” the syllables drawn out. The only comfort Astara took from the moment was that none of the other Argonians took alarm at the ghostly creature’s sudden appearance.
Haxara stepped forward, “Gentle, Sisei,” she purred. To Astana she said: “Forgive my daughter, she is still learning her boundaries with others.” Astana’s blood began to thaw as Haxara led the sickly white Argonian girl away from her. What had happened to her, she wondered.
The dark red Argonian Astana had followed upon her arrival was raising his hand among the mild roar of the other Argonians arguing amongst themselves.
“Tree-Minder Pavu,” he said loudly above the others, “I shall take the ojel to the Dead Waters, and the Naga.”
A few young women in the crowd were visibly disgruntled and sharing their disappointment with their neighbors.
Pavu clapped again and the agitated murmuring ceased.
“You believe you have the persuasive means to still the aggression of the Naga-Kur?” asked Pavu.
Aliskeeh nodded, “Yes, Tree-Minder,” he said boldly, “I have gone to the lands of the Dead Waters on many a trade run, they know me there.”
“Very well,” Pavu bobbed her head. “Aliskeeh shall take you,” she added to Astana.
The Tree-Minder turned back to her tribe; her arms outstretched. “Brothers and sisters of the Hist,” she cried, “tonight we feast, for we have travelers to prepare!” She turned back to Astana once more, “You shall leave tomorrow at dawn, there is a monsoon coming.”
Astana could not help but wonder if the Tree-Minder had meant passing, given the weather outside. She could not imagine a storm worse than this…
The feast that night was unlike anything Astana had ever attended, including every Royal Gala she had been strong-armed in to attending by her uncle and mother. The plaza had been quickly converted to a dining hall; tables everywhere, a roasting spit in the center, and a canopy flapping overhead to keep them somewhat dry. The rain still poured down in sheets, the wind still howled, whistling through the holes in the wooden lattice that made up the trellis surround of the plaza, lightning flashed, and thunder crashed, but still the Argonian music could be hear wailing above the din of the storm. Skewers of fish and fruits and vegetables were rotating on the roasting spit above a roaring fire, each receiving a delightfully crisp finish.
The hatchling was passed around to various members of the tribe, any who desired to wish the little one well. At first, Astana was concerned about losing track of the child, but soon she realized there were no other infants, nor even toddlers present. The closest thing to resemble a child, was nearly shoulder height with the adults, an adolescent at least. When she asked Hexara, who had materialized at her side at some point, where the other children were, the woman’s expression grew troubled as she wrapped her arm around her own daughter’s shoulder.
“There was… a tragedy that befell our eggs, for a time, that we only recently discovered,” said the Egg-Minder carefully.
Haxara glanced around, rather nervously Astana noted, in the direction of the other high-ranking tribal elders, her grip tightening protectively around Sisei.
“A few years ago,” Haxara began in a hushed, hurried voice, “a member of the Veeskhleel – the Ghost People, as they are known in the common tongue – tribe wormed her way into my life. She played me for a fool; manipulated my loneliness, turning it into an exploit for her gains. Her name was Ree-Nakal, and she convinced me that she could help cure the blight that had befallen our clutches of eggs over the last few years – a blight which she had been responsible for, I might add.”
She waited for the tribe’s healer, Jasaii, to drift further away, smoothing her skirts idly. Finally, she continued.
“One day,” Haxara went on, “Ree absconded with all of our eggs. She was… experimenting… on them. She made… abominations.” She hissed this word far from Xal-Sisei’s ears. “By the time she made her final move, we had not had a healthy hatchling live in over seven years.” Haxara smiled, though her face was still touched with sadness. “My daughter is the only one to survive Ree-Nakal’s experiments; so I suppose I must thank my old friend, as if it had not been for her, Sisei would have never ended up in my custody.”
Astana worked to make sense of what Haxara had just said. Was she implying her daughter, who could look Astana square in the eyes, was less than seven years of age?
“Are… are you meaning to say that Sisei was one of Ree’s… creations?” Astana asked carefully.
Haxara nodded; noting Astana’s careful choice in words, her eyes softened further. “I know she doesn’t look as young as she is,” she said in a whisper. “Ree accelerated their growth, she wanted to grow an army, you see, to protect her people from outside dangers. But the Veeskhleel do not fight their own battles, they steal warriors from other tribes. And in our case… as eggs.”
Astana could not help but look at the sickly white Argonian girl with more sympathetic eyes. “That is truly awful,” she said to Haxara. “Especially for your daughter. What a horrid experience that must have been for her to endure.”
“It is why she struggles so; she has been given the body of an adult, but not the mind to control it. I hope with guidance and nurturing that it will catch up in time.” Suddenly she was smiling radiantly. “But! Those were sad times; we are preparing for happier ones these days! The first bonding ritual since we learned the truth is coming up, there is much for the Egg-Minders to prepare for!”
Following the woman’s change in subject but noting that she had not included herself among those Egg-Minders, Astana lightened her voice as well.
“Are you not afraid that Ree-Nakal will act again and steal more eggs?”
Haxara shook her head. “No,” she said, “a kind stranger, much like yourself, came along a few months back. He took care of our Ree-Nakal problem.”
Astana nodded, understanding the implication. She could not help but feel as though this woman had just unburdened herself on a stranger. “You know,” she said quietly, “you needn’t have told me all of that. I had not meant to pry into tribal business.”
“Nonsense,” said Haxara, “it is time I take responsibility for my part in all of it. Perhaps if I had been stronger…” Her eyes grew distant before she suddenly shook her head, clearing them. “It does not matter now, anyway,” she continued, “I have lost the confidence of my Egg-Tenders. It is time I begin to make some amends if I do not wish to be ousted from my post.”
The rest of the evening continued in an array of festivities, stories, songs, and dances. All of which Astana found herself attempting to remain on the outskirts of, she did not wish to be a part of any further unburdenings. She found herself smiling, however, more often than not as she watched the hatchling flourishing among their people, their culture. She had to get them to the Naga-Kur, there was no other option. If she died trying, so be it. As long as the child remained unharmed.
The next morning, Tree-Minder Pavu loaded the travel companions with provisions – “For the Dead Waters and beyond,” Pavu had said – before they set off. The weather was still poor, rain soaking everything. Haxara had given Astana a water repellent cloak, however, so she was at least capable of keeping the hatchling dry. When they had left the Bright Throat Village, each member of the tribe had kissed hatchling’s snout, whispering a blessing in Jel to them. They bestowed a paring blessing upon both the child as well as Astana, and they were both given amulets made of the prized brightly colored, iridescent scales of the Wasseek-haleel.
The journey to the northeastern corner of the Murkmire region was lack-luster, due to the impending monsoon. Astana and Aliskeeh could not even pass the time conversing as they could not hear one another over the growing roar of the wind. The Imperial Road was experiencing excessive amounts of flooding, causing the pair to travel largely cross-country versus along the roads. Which at first, Astana thought to be incredibly stupid, given the dangerous nature of nearly all the wildlife in Murkmire. Aliskeeh had explained – in a rare moment of forced, shouting communication – that due to the incoming monsoon, most creatures, even the vicious beasties, would be hunkering down to weather the storm and would be of no trouble to them.
The only member of their party that was not miserable, was the hatchling.
At the end of the first day – or what Astana assumed was the first day, as she could not see the bloody sun – they stopped at Alten Meehleel, the small trading port Jee-lar had pointed out to her on the map of the region. It was the tiniest settlement Astana had ever seen; only a scattering of buildings, not even worthy of being called a village. But it would do; Aliskeeh point out they would at least be dry for a few hours.
As it turned out, they were not dry. The roof of the hut they were given leaked and the windows had no coverings. In the hours before dawn, Aliskeeh shook Astana awake from her fitful sleep she had just fallen into.
“We must go,” he said nervously, “the storm is right on our tail.”
They rose and hastily gathered their few things and scribbling a note of explanation to Ahkur, the Harbormaster and their host. The hatchling squealed in protest at being woken and move from their basket. They were asleep again within moments of being tucked into the swaddling at Astana’s breast, recovering quickly. Astana envied the little one; she was exhausted and with no end in sight. She wished Aliskeeh would just carry her around the rest of the way, but something told her he would not agree to that.
The wind howled and the rain was coming down in sheets, stinging Astana’s eyes. She did not know how Aliskeeh knew where they were still going; he had had to redirect their mounts numerous times as they had gotten turned around apparently. Astana could never tell. Every inch of Astana was soaked, despite Haxara’s cloak. Even the hatchling had become soaked through, and the poor little one was trembling against her, continuously attempting to burrow themselves further into Astana for warmth. She attempted to keep her reins in one hand, holding her other arm tightly around the child and clutching them to her.
Part of her wondered if they had wandered into the sea without realizing.
Aliskeeh was gesturing wildly at her; struggling to refocus herself, Astana followed his line of frantic pointing. Walls: there were walls ahead. Had they finally reached the Naga-Kur?
To Astana’s surprise, Aliskeeh was motioning her away from what appeared to be the village’s main gates. Have I come all this way to be murdered in an ambush just outside the gates of my destination, she wondered, following Aliskeeh doubtfully. Along the northeastern wall was a large crevice leading into the village. Aliskeeh tugged on a portion of rope and waited. Nothing happened.
A screeching bird call made Astana’s skin crawl. Shielding her eyes from the rain, Astana craned her neck around, looking for a swooping bird of prey. She saw nothing. But Aliskeeh was cupping a hand around his mouth and returned the shrieking call. She felt incredibly stupid. Motioning for her to follow, Aliskeeh entered the village via the hole in the wall.
Skirting along the interior of the walls – conveniently following a bit of rope that looked coincidentally like the one Aliskeeh had pulled and was strung up along various points on building roofs – they eventually stopped at a small stone house. Aliskeeh dismounted, helped Astana down and motioned to a dark doorway behind him as he took the reins of their mounts and headed to a small barn nearby. At any other time in her life, Astana would have hesitated, but she was desperate to be dry and to get the little one warm. So, she barreled through the door.
Inside the small stone house, the air was warm and dry; she sighed in relief, grateful it was not damp like Alten Meehleel. After her eyes adjusted to the darkened room and firelight, she noticed two male Argonians were watching her. Their obsidian scales glistened in the low firelight.
“You are not Aliskeeh,” said the younger of the two men, his eye crests crinkling in worry.
“Oh, he’s-” as she motioned to the door behind her, it swung open once more, the burgundy Argonian framed against the darkness of the storm outside.
“Ali!” exclaimed the man who had stated she was not Aliskeeh. He rushed past Astana, his arms wide for an embrace with the other Argonian.
Aliskeeh, looking embarrassed by the show of intimacy, accepted the embrace, avoiding Astana’s eyes. “Kishi,” he said, holding the younger Naga-Kur at arm’s length, studying him, “you are looking well.” His eyes travelled to the other man in the room, the older Naga-Kur. “You as well, Bhoki.”
“What are you doing back here already?” asked the younger Argonian, Kishi.
Aliskeeh motioned to Astana, moving some of the hatchling’s swaddling aside before she could stop him.
Kishi’s eyes grew wide at the sight of the child, then a knowing smirk crinkled his youthful face. “So, this is why you’re avoiding your tribe’s bonding ritual, eh?” Kishi waggled his eye crests knowingly, his eyes darting curiously to Astana. “I didn’t know humans and Argonians were compatible…”
“They’re not,” said Aliskeeh and the older man – Bhoki – in firm, annoyed unison.
Aliskeeh rubbed his temples in visible irritation at the boy – Kishi was clearly still a child. “The hatchling is not hers,” he snapped. “Nor is it mine,” he hissed as Kishi began to make another joke. He glared at the youth. “I should have let that damned haj mota eat you,” Aliskeeh growled. He ruffled Kishi’s fins on the back of his scalp; clearly there was some fondness between the two, despite Aliskeeh’s harsh words with him.
“I was in Elsweyr recently,” Astana spoke up, “I met a lovely Argonian couple while there. They were traveling home to Black Marsh for the hatching of their children at their family’s Hist Tree. The mother perished, along with the other eggs, I do not know the father’s fate. So, I have done my best to bring this little one home. I am hoping your Hist can tell us who they belong with.”
The older Naga who finally properly introduced himself as Bhoki, and Kishi’s father, nodded approvingly to Astana’s quest and immediately set himself to making up extra beds. He insisted she and the hatchling take his own bedchamber at the back of the house.
“We will consult the Hist and Tree-Minder Okan-Zish in the morning,” Bhoki said kindly, tickling the child’s chin fondly.
They chirruped happily, softly nuzzling their face into Astana’s chest sleepily.
She wanted to stay awake, to socialize with Bhoki and Aliskeeh, and possibly Kishi if he stopped making awkward jokes, but her eyes ached, her body and mind were sluggish with fatigue.
“Go,” said Aliskeeh gently, motioning to the bedchamber Bhoki offered, “you and the child require rest. You are of no use to the little one dead on your feet, and they have a big day tomorrow.”
Gratefully, Astana and the hatchling retired. The poor child was so exhausted, they kept falling asleep as Astana attempted to feed them, bug juice dribbling down their chin. After nearly an hour of attempting to persuade the little one to stay awake to eat, she finally gave in. She tucked the little one into their basket, setting it beside her pillow as she lay down. As was their bedtime custom, she draped her hand over the edge of the basket and the child slid their tiny, clawed hand around one of her fingers. Her heart twitched uncomfortably as she realized this would likely be the last time that they did this. She had not realized she had become so attached.
That night, her dreams were fraught with anxiety; the Hist ate the child, no one claimed them, Finn and Ahkurna were dead, and in the worst one, Astana awoke to find the child was simply gone.
Her sleep was fitful, but she awoke in the morning warm and dry.
Too warm, actually.
When her eyes cracked open, she was startled to see the hatchling lying on her chest, their snout inches from her own face. Panic rose in her, that something had happened in the night. But then she saw the steady rise and fall of their sides in rhythm with the light breath puffing into her face. She ran her fingertips along the little one’s wide-set eye crests, the length of their snout. Now that she had been amongst the Naga, or at least two of them,she thought she recognized some of their features in the hatchling. It had been a long journey with the hatchling, but she would treasure their time together in her memories until the Far Shores. The child’s blinked open slowly, one and then the other, their eyes twinkling after a moment with recognition at Astana’s face.
After a warm breakfast with Bhoki, Kishi, and Aliskeeh, the four of them ventured out into the village square. Bhoki explained as they approached that he had already spoken with the Naga-Kur’s Tree-Minder.
As they rounded a building, the square came into view; butting up to the base of the Hist, the open space was filled with Argonians. The child squirmed in delight as they neared the massive tree, Bhoki leading them to a pair of ceremoniously dressed men. One was a bent, annoyed looking old man; his wide eyes and mouth set in a grimace of extreme displeasure. The bones of his elaborate collar rattling with every movement; with a start, Astana realized it his necklace was a jawbone. The other man also wore bones, an elaborately carved Argonian skull sitting atop his head as a crown.
The man with the bone jaw around his neck beckoned Astana and the child forward. Mindful of all of the gathered Argonians watching her, Astana stepped towards the old man. Clicking his fingers together, the jawbone Argonian held out his hands for the child.
Reluctantly, Astana handed over her charge.
“Bhoki tells me you have been on an honorable quest,” said the other man, his voice booming over the crowd. “To reunite this little one with their people.” His voice was hard, thick with conflicting emotions. Sensing it wise not to waste this man’s time, Astana simply nodded, adding nothing.
She watched with dread as the older man, surely the Tree-Minder, set the hatchling in an outcropping of roots. The child wriggled, but they did not cry out. She prayed to Morwha that Pavu had not been wrong.
A cumulative silence gathered over the crowd and hung in the air as heavily as the region’s humidity. For a long while, nothing happened. As Astana began to accept her fate and dreading the punishment of having wasted the time of the most feared tribe of Argonians in southern Tamriel, she began to hear murmurings.
Not murmurings of judgement, but of wonder.
Looking up from her hands that she had to begun ringing, Astana saw a trail of the fabled Hist Tree’s lantern-like flower blossoms growing, budding, and blooming before their very eyes, down from the tree’s heart to the roots where the child lay, washing them in a blue light. Astana inhaled sharply; it was a stunning sight.
“What say you, Tree-Minder Okan-Zish?” boomed the voice of the man with the skull crown.
“The Hist has spoken,” croaked the old man, “this child is most certainly a member of the Naga-Kur, Chieftain Raj-Kaal!”
An eruption of cheers rose from behind Astana, even the Chieftain’s face broke into an expression of jovial elation.
“Come,” cried the Chieftain, “let us all call to the Hist to reveal this little one’s ancestors so we may know whom their guardian may be!” He raised his arms, as did the gathered Argonians. They all broke into song in Jel, their voices rising as one to the bows of the Hist.
“This is a strong reaction,” murmured Aliskeeh, who had suddenly appeared at Astana’s side. “It means that there are likely close relatives still within the tribe. The further into their life cycle the flowers get, the closer relation the individual has to the Hist and those within the tribe.”
Chills ran down Astana’s skin as torchbugs descended from the Hist Tree. They swirled through the air, the light emitting from them a glowing, shimmering, twinkling green. There were hundreds of them winding through the crowd. Murmurs rose among the crowd as those gathered began to wonder if they would be identified. They were all filled with excitement, hope, at the prospect, Astana could see it plainly on their faces as they all looked from the torchbugs to the hatchling. She had feared no one would want the burden of raising a dead relative’s child. But it was clearly not the case; she saw many faces staring longingly, lovingly at her hatchling. Their hatchling, she corrected herself.
Astana watched as the veil of twinkling torchbugs descended over the tribe. It was as though she was amongst the stars. The clouds still looming from the storm overhead leant themselves to the atmosphere, keeping it darkened and alighting everything in a green and blue glow.
The green lights of the torchbugs seemed to be spread evenly throughout the crowd. She did not know what to expect, but she could tell by the changing reactions of the Naga that they were expecting something more. The murmuring and chattering were beginning to die down once again as they all looked around expectantly.
Astana’s heart fell and she released the breath she had been holding. Something isn’t right, she thought.
“What’s going on?” she whispered to Aliskeeh.
“I do not know,” he said softly. “This is not good; something should have happened by now.”
Suddenly, a powerful burst of green light rounded the corner into the square. The crowd began to part at the back, cries of excitement erupting once more. Astana snatched Aliskeeh’s hand, her heart racing as she held her breath once more. He squeezed her hand in return as the crowd began to grow louder, jovial, once more.
The swell of the parting of the crowd neared the glow of the torchbugs becoming blinding. Was it a grandmother? A grandfather? An aunt or uncle? Her heart hammered in her chest in anticipation. Either way, this child would be loved here, surrounded with the people Sunny and Ahkurna had intended.
Finally, the crowd before Astana and Aliskeeh parted to reveal a male Argonian being supported by a female Argonian.
To the bewilderment of all those around her, Astana shrieked. She dropped Aliskeeh’s hand and darted forward towards the man. “AHKURNA!” she wailed, flinging her arms around him.
Ahkurna flinched, sucking in air, but returned Astana’s embrace warmly.
“Easy,” said the woman at his side.
“Well met, beeko,” said Ahkurna in a hoarse croak to Astana.
“Where… where is Finn?” she whispered into Ahkurna’s ear.
His head shook gently against her neck. “He did not make it out of Gideon,” he whispered sadly. “I am so sorry.” He hugged her tighter with his one good arm. “The guards heard of the ordeal in the Stitches and took the villagers’ side. Finn stood against them so I could make my escape, though as you can see, that nearly did not happen.”
It was then that she noticed he was supported by a crutch, one arm in a sling, and countless bandages with blood soaking through.
“You’re… you’re hurt,” she said feebly.
“Just a scratch,” Ahkurna insisted, waving the hand of his arm in the sling in dismissal. He immediately flinched his regret. “Where are they?” he said once he had recovered himself.
Astana turned to fetch the hatchling, only to discover the Chieftain was already approaching with them. He was glowering at the woman.
“What is this?” hissed the Chieftain through clenched teeth, a forced smile still plastered across his face.
“Raj, meet my cousin,” the woman said coolly. “Cousin, meet my headstrong husband, the Chieftain.”
But Ahkurna was paying no mind to whatever petty argument was brewing between his cousin and her husband, the Chieftain. He only had eyes for his child.
Given the Chieftain’s distraction with his wife, Astana plucked the child from his grasp and settled them into the arms of Ahkurna.
“Hello, little one,” he whispered, tears running down his cheeks. “I have waited a long time for this day.”